No really! An honest and moral tax-collector?

Pentecost 24 – 2016

Luke 19:1-10

Marian Free

 In the name of God who, through the Holy Spirit makes intelligible the unintelligible and continually opens our eyes to new ways of seeing. Amen.


The art of translation is a complex one. A translator cannot simply and mechanically change one word for another, but must make a number of crucial decisions, some of which can completely alter the intention of the speaker or of the writer. It is not just a matter of exchanging one word for another, but about determining the mood or the meaning behind the words and about creating a text that flows. This means that all kinds of decisions need to be made along the way. This is as true of Bible translations as it is of any other translation.

Taking the New Testament as our example, the translator is confronted with a number of issues that include:

  • deciding on which of the surviving texts is likely to be the most original[1]
  • determining where the punctuation should go[2]
  • and, where a word has multiple meanings making a decision as to which meaning best fits the context.

A good example of the latter is the word “πάσχω” (pascho from which our word Paschal comes) that can mean either “to suffer” or “to experience”. The meaning of a particular passage would change dramatically depending on which of the two possibilities the translator decided would work best in that situation. Given that there is an emphasis on suffering in the gospels, it is not surprising that “pascho” is more often translated as suffering in other New Testament writings.

By and large, translators endeavour to be objective but that can be difficult when it comes to Holy Scripture. Centuries of prior interpretations and theological understandings intrude on the process as do centuries of picturing Jesus in one way or another. It can happen that a translator is unable to give an exact translation because to do so would conflict with the way in which he or she have become accustomed to think of the meaning of a story or parable, or because they are unable to shed the ways in which they have become used to thinking of the person and nature of Jesus.

None of the above explains the usual translation of the story of Zacchaeus. Most of us know the story of Zacchaeus well. Zacchaeus is a tax-collector (one of the most reviled people in Israel because not only does he work for the Romans, but he almost certainly has enriched himself at the expense of his own people). He is also short. When Jesus comes into the town, Zacchaeus finds that he is unable to see because of the crowds – crowds who definitely will not move to provide a space for him to move towards the front. So he forsakes his dignity and climbs a tree in order to be able to see Jesus. This has the added benefit that Jesus can see him. To the shock and surprise of the crowd Jesus invites himself to dinner. In their eyes, Jesus is not only insulting them, but worse he is validating someone whose lifestyle clearly declares him to be a sinner.

According to this version of the story, Zacchaeus has a conversion experience as a consequence of Jesus’ acceptance of him. He declares: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” It is an extraordinary and extravagant response to Jesus in the vein of the woman (a sinner) who anointed Jesus. It makes perfect sense, but is this the best translation, is this the meaning intended by the author?

In this instance Greek verbs – “give” and “repay” are unambiguously in the present (not the future) tense. In fact, translated accurately the text has Zacchaeus say: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything I pay back four times as much”. This throws an entirely different light on the story. Read this way it appears that Zacchaeus is already more generous than every other pious Jew who only gave away 10% of his income. Further, it may well be that Zacchaeus is very careful not to defraud anyone so that he can avoid repaying four times the amount.

Zacchaeus seems to be the exception to the rule. He is an honest and moral tax collector – one who has been unjustifiably excluded from society by his neighbours. This is a surprising and shocking revelation. We are much more comfortable with our first century prejudices that have allowed us to judge and exclude Zacchaeus on the basis of externals, his role as a tax collector? It is much easier to believe that Zacchaeus’ extravagance is a result of his encounter with Jesus than it is to accept that his largesse precedes his relationship with Jesus and is the reason why he is so keen to seek Jesus out and why Jesus finds him in the crowd.

If we accept this version of the story, then we have to accept that it is not Zacchaeus who needs conversion, but the crowd who grumble and who are resentful that Jesus has chosen Zacchaeus with whom to eat. They have not understood Jesus’ message of God’s inclusive love, they cannot bear to witness Jesus’ befriending/eating with the marginalised and outcast and they are quick to pass judgement even though they do not know the full story.

How often do we do the same – judge and exclude on the basis of externals? How often do we take the easy route and allow stereotypes to inform the way that we think about a person or group of people. How often do we take the view that we know as well as God who should be included and who excluded from our company, from our church?

The story of Zacchaeus is a stark reminder that there are always, always exceptions to the rule, and that while we are busy judging, we may simply be demonstrating our meanness and small-mindedness in comparison to the others generosity and openness.

What a tragedy it would be if we were to discover that those we whom exclude and revile are in fact closer to heaven than ourselves; that our attitudes to others, rather than demonstrating our righteousness expose our prejudices and readiness to judge. Would we rather be able to share Jesus’ wisdom, Jesus’ inclusive love and Jesus’ welcome or would we rather stand with the crowd and grumble that he doesn’t behave the way we expect him to? The choice is ours.

Only God can see the secrets of the heart so let us look to our own hearts and leave the judging to God.

[1] No original texts exist. Translators work from copies of copies that naturally include mistakes made by the copyists.

[2] Ancient Greek was written in capital letters, with no gaps between the words and no punctuation


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