The Scripture reading today is a rather long one that links 2 stories that seem very different, but the men in the 2 stories do have something in common. Both men want to see Jesus. Seeing Him means something different for both men, but they both want to see Jesus in their own way that will transform each man differently.
We start in Luke chapter 18 verse 35 and read through chapter 19 verse 10. First, a quick recap of our journey through Luke and the journey ahead. In December, we began reading Luke with the pronouncement of Jesus’ birth and the birth of our Lord and his cousin John the Baptist. In the weeks in January, known as the season of Epiphany, we read chapters 3 – 9 about the revelation of Jesus in which He revealed His identity as the Son of God and His power to perform miracles. There were ah-ha epiphany moments we read about Jesus witnessing His power to heal diseases, drive out demons and forgive sins.
In March, the first weeks of Lent, we read from the 3rd part of Luke which are stories about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the cross. This week, we finish the story of the journey to Jerusalem and next week we’ll pick up the next part of Jesus’ journey which is the journey to the cross. In this 3rd part of Luke, we’ve been reading during Lent Jesus shifts from performing miracles to teaching His disciples.
Today’s Scripture reading in Luke is Jesus’ final miracle before entering Jerusalem. He ends this part of the journey with a reminder of who He is before entering Jerusalem in His final days to the cross.
Chapter 18 verses 35 – 43 are the story of a blind man. Luke doesn’t give us the blind man’s name, but there is a very similar story in Mark chapter 10. Mark names the blind man as Bartimaeus. This story is in Jericho which is Jesus’ last stop before Jerusalem. As Jesus arrives in Jericho, there is a blind man name Bartimaeus sitting on the side of the road begging. When Bartimaeus heard the crowd growing waiting on Jesus to arrive, he asked what was happening. The crowd told Bartimaeus that Jesus of Nazareth is coming.
Bartimaeus shouted to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” The people in the crowd near Bartimaeus told him to be quiet. Instead, he shouted even louder. “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and asked the man to be brought to Him. When Bartimaeus came near Him, Jesus asked what Bartimaeus wanted from Him. Bartimaeus said, “Lord, let me see again.” Jesus said, “receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” Immediately, Bartimaeus regained His sight and followed Jesus. Bartimaeus glorfied God and all the people who saw this miracle praised God.
Bartimaeus wanted to see again. He wanted to see Jesus. There was a lot of seeing in the story and mercy came through seeing Jesus. Bartimaeus asked to see. Jesus gave Him his sight. The people saw the miracle. Mercy was given to Bartimaeus and the crowd gathered as they received and witnessed a miracle.
The second story is the story of Zacchaeus. This seems a familiar story, but I want to give us a fresh perspective of his story. The story of Bartimaeus was about Jesus’ approach of Jericho. The story of Zacchaeus was Jesus passing through Jericho.
Who hears the name Zacchaeus and thinks of the children’s song
Zacchaeus was a wee little man. A wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.
And when the Savior passed that way He looked up and said,
Zacchaeus, you come down for I’m going to your house today!
For I’m going to your house today!
Zacchaeus was a wee little man, but a happy man was he,
For he had seen the Lord that day and a happy man was he;
And a very happy man was he.
Zacchaeus’ story is one of seeing Jesus, like Bartimaeus’ story of receiving his sight. As I read Zacchaeus’ story I’m going to offer some new ways of interpreting this old story. The Bible scholars who translated this story from the Greek interpreted this story for us in their translation. More recent Biblical scholars have re-interpreted Zacchaeus’ story in their translation that doesn’t interpret the story for us. I’ll tell you what I mean as I go. But, basically, Translation from the Greek to English requires some interpretation because some words are similar to others. There is no punctuation in Greek and some things might make sense to us based on our tradition if we translate them differently than the Greek is written.
Zacchaeus is said to be a chief tax collector who was rich. When we hear that we think he was the slyest of the cheaters who were tax collectors. We know from other stories that tax collectors were bad guys who cheated people. We also know that Jesus is hard on the rich men in His stories. So, we think Zacchaeus is a bad dude if he is the head tax collector and rich.
However, my sources on the Greek writing of this story and those familiar with Roman / Jewish 1st century culture say that chief tax collector is a made up title for Luke’s gospel. It is the interpretation of the words ruler and tax collector. It may better be translated that Zacchaeus is a ruler and a tax collector. He isn’t necessarily the director of the tax collection department of the Roman empire in Judea.
Because Zacchaeus is said to be rich, we assume he needs to get his priorities straightened out like the other rich guys in Jesus’ stories. But, Matthew Skinner says that Jesus may have found the one honest tax collector in the bunch of bad dudes. Zacchaeus means innocent or blameless. We miss that in our English translation.
When we think of Zacchaeus has the head of the cheating tax collectors and a rich man who is greedy, we interpret the rest of the story differently. I’ll tell you more as we read more of his story.
Zacchaeus was said to be short and wanted to see Jesus, but because he was short he couldn’t see through the crowd. So, he ran ahead of Jesus and climbed a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus from that vantage point. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, like Bartimaeus wanted to see Jesus.
There’s another problem with the translation of the Greek in the detail about Zacchaeus’ height. It makes sense to us that he climbed the tree because he was short. Another possible interpretation has to do with how he was treated by the crowd. The word translated as short means short, but it also means diminished or despised. It may be that Zacchaeus wasn’t short so he needed to climb the tree. It may be that Zacchaeus was despised by the people in the crowd so they wouldn’t let him through to see Jesus. So, Zacchaeus would have climbed that tree because it was his only way to get around the crowd that was trying to crowd him out.
Jesus passes by and sees Zacchaeus up in the tree and says, “hurry down for I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus was happy to welcome Jesus to his home so he hurried down from the tree to take Jesus to his home. Everyone who saw Zacchaeus and Jesus go off were mad and grumbled that Jesus was going off to be hosted by a sinner.
Here comes another problem in the translation. Zacchaeus talks to Jesus. The traditional English translation interprets this conversation to be a repentance of Zacchaeus. The English interpretation says, “I will give half my possessions to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” The Greek is present tense, not future tense. The Greek says that Zacchaeus already does give half of his possessions to the poor and already pays back four times as much as he over charges those he collects taxes from. The traditional interpretation translates that this as Zacchaeus having a change in his practices, a repentance, and that he will begin to do things differently. But, the Greek says, he is already honest, he is already generous, he is already living “kingdom ethics”.
Jesus tells Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to your house, because you too are a son of Abraham. For I have come to seek out and save the lost.” Perhaps salvation for Zacchaeus is not that he has repented of bad behavior and changed his ways. Perhaps salvation is being recognized as an honorable Jewish man and the crowds of villagers will treat him differently because he has been a witness to Jesus’ mercy.
It could be that Zacchaeus was discriminated against, ostracized and outcast by his community, excluded from his community, kept back from seeing Jesus and salvation for Zacchaeus is Jesus recognizing that he is a virtuous man and so Zacchaeus will be accepted by his community, included, treated as an honorable man, seen as an honest and generous man, different than the other tax collectors.
I think many of us know what it’s like to feel like or be treated like an outsider. Ask anyone who wasn’t born and raised in Bethany and they’ll tell you that it takes a long time to break into the community and many years later are still treated differently.
Or, I’m sure some of us know what it’s like for our good intentions and eagerness to help interpreted as a sign that we want to take over or have ulterior motives.
Or, I’m sure some of us know what it’s like to be misjudged, discriminated against, or misunderstood. I think Beauty and the Beast is full of characters who have been misjudged. Take for example Belle who was seen as beautiful, but her pursuit of knowledge and an expanded worldview were thought to be odd, bad odd, not a celebrated uniqueness. Think about Gaston who was seen as a handsome man and a war hero who every man wanted to be like and every woman wanted to be with. But, he was an arrogant jerk. Think about Belle’s father who was thought to be a crazy cook because no one believed his tale about the Beast. Think about the Beast who had been transformed by his love for Belle. In the beginning, he was a bad guy. But, he changed. Still, when the villagers heard about the Beast, they assumed he was bad and ugly and would try to hurt them and needed to be killed. But, the Beast had changed, he still looked like a beast but he was caring and kind.
The reason stories like Beauty and the Beast are timeless is because we find ourselves in the characters. We’ve all be counted odd or different, excluded, misjudged, discriminated against, and hurt. We’ve all seen someone who was a bad guy treated as if he could do no wrong and given the glory of a town.
The good news in the story of Bartimaeus and Zacchaeus is that seeing Jesus changes all that. Because, we have seen Jesus, we can see others differently and see ourselves differently. We should be able to celebrate our uniqueness and the individuality of the people around us instead of thinking them odd or crazy. We should be able to look at people who have been outcast and excluded to see them as honorable, beloved children of God worthy of our care and compassion and inclusion in our fellowship. And, we know what it’s been like to be seen by Jesus as a son or daughter of God who is loved by God and saved by a wonderful, gracious Savior. We have seen Jesus and been seen by Jesus. That is salvation.
*Source of Greek translation and interpretation is Matt Skinner, Rolf Jacobson and Kathryn Schifferdecker on the I Love to Tell the Story podcast found at http://www.workingpreacher.com