He was the best chief tax collector in all the worst ways. Strong-arming the bustling intersections of commerce in Jericho, Zacchaeus squeezed the camel drivers and pillaged the pomegranate peddlers, willing to muscle anyone in his district for maximum profit.
Back at the mansion, word arrived that the carpenter from Nazareth was coming through town. Zac hung up the phone on his stockbroker and shamelessly sprinted to the crowds already lined up seven rows deep. Jockeying for a front-row seat, he scampered up a Sycamore tree to perch above the parade route.
When Jesus arrived, he called Zac back down to earth, shocking the spectators, and invited himself over for dinner with the most despised man of all. At table, surrendering to a force far greater than greed, Zacchaeus vowed to share half his possessions and spend the rest of his life making amends.
With such an irresistible story and an even more dramatic conversion, the focus is understandably on the “sawed-off social disaster” 1 of a man rather than the Messiah he decided to follow. But turning our attention back to Jesus, what’s surprisingly revealed about him?
Luke 19:1-10 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Jesus didn’t judge Zacchaeus but rather extended fellowship.
Jesus refused to read Zacchaeus’ list of offenses and instead treated him as a beloved child of God.
Jesus blessed Zacchaeus’ public display of humility.
In July 1945, allied leaders from the United States, the United Kingdom, and China gathered outside Berlin to draft the Postdam Declaration. It was an ultimatum imploring Japan to unconditionally surrender from WWII or face “prompt and utter destruction.” 2 Upon receipt, the Empire held fierce internal debates for and against until the Premier, the Foreign Minister, and a top general leaned towards accepting the terms and ending the conflict. Days later, as deliberations continued, reporters in Tokyo questioned Prime Minister Suzuki. His response was “mokusatsu.” 3 The word, commonly used in political spin, holds at least two meanings: “I am maintaining my silence” and “I’m treating it with contempt.” To the international journalists, they heard, “no comment.” But not President Truman. Within ten days, allegedly angered by Suzuki’s tone, B29s were deployed over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leveling the cities and killing roughly 200,000 civilians. In the decades since, with documents declassified and the intentions examined, linguists have called dropping the atomic bomb, the “World’s Most Tragic Translation.” 4
If WWII had one mistranslation, the Bible has over 400,000 variants and counting. In Genesis, God created a non-binary human first, yet “man” was selected in the English version creating a gender hierarchy. The book of Job ends with no resolution to his suffering, yet a redactor penned a silver screen ending of 14,000 sheep, seven sons, and one golden ring. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul outlines orderly worship, but a non-Pauline author added, in parenthesis, a command for women to be silent and subordinate at church with their heads covered.
Because language has consequences, Textual Criticism takes seriously the investigation of ancient texts to uncover their original meaning by eliminating errors and footnoting debates of interpretation. In verse 3b of today’s scripture, Luke says, “he was short in stature.” Technically, according to the oldest Greek manuscript, it’s unclear who the pronoun is modifying. Is Zacchaeus or Jesus diminutive? Isaiah had an opinion 700 years prior, saying, “The servant [was] a scrawny seedling… [there was] nothing attractive about him… He was looked down on and passed over (53:2-4)” 5 Yet, despite the contrary prophecy, Jesus is made over into the Savior of superlatives: bleached teeth and whitened skin, manscaped beard and blond highlights, muscled physique and a six-foot frame, more beautiful than he is holy.
What’s surprisingly revealed about Jesus is that someone else decided who he is for the rest of us.
In response to white supremacy culture- where power has defined the terms, made the interpretive decisions, and stifled inquiry- we begin with a hermeneutic of suspicion assuming the truth doesn’t always get printed in black and white. But we can know, when we bring our inquisitive minds and restless hearts to the Gospel, that the Holy Spirit meets us in our striving.
Perhaps Jesus’ height is trivial. Unless you’ve never been addressed eye-to-eye, pinned to the mat against your will, forced to watch the world pass you by from below. Unless you remember that Jesus adored small things- pinches of yeast, mustard seeds, narrow gates, lost coins, little children, and anyone dismissed for not measuring up- enough to be in solidarity with them. The next time life has you feeling small, believe in the One who came up short on your behalf.
1 Fred Craddock, citation unknown.
2 Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender Issued at Potsdam (United States 1945)
3 “Daily Report, Foreign Radio Broadcasts, Monday, July 30, 1945” (Washington, Federal Communications Commission, Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service, mimeographed, 1945), BC 1-2.
4 The World’s Most Tragic Translation, unsigned article in Quinto Lingo, January 1968, 64.
5 Eugene H. Peterson, “The Message Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language” (trans. E. Peterson: Navpress, Colorado Springs, 2003), 1313.