What does your name mean? I don’t mean what is the significance of your name, I mean what does your name, in itself, mean? Do you know? Probably most of us do not, because the inherent meaning of a name is usually not why we use it. We often name our children for someone: a parent, a family member, a dear friend. Alternatively, people name their children simply because they like the way the name sounds, without any personal connection to it at all.
And some people name their children after someone to whom they have no relationship, but whose character or accomplishments are such that parents want their children to emulate them in some way. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, was not named that at birth; his birth name was Michael King. But his father, also named Michael, was a prominent Atlanta pastor and civil rights leader who traveled to Germany in the 1930s, where he was deeply affected by the legacy of Martin Luther. He was so impacted by Luther’s faithful courage and tenacity in the Protestant Reformation that he changed his own name to Martin Luther King and his five year-old son’s name to Martin Luther King, Jr. as a way of pointing them both toward a destiny of protest and reformation in the United States.
It’s that sense of what’s in a name, pointing a child toward a particular destiny, that is closest to the way in which people thought about names in first century Judea. Names were chosen because the meaning of the name in itself carried a power and significance that parents hoped would influence their child’s character or destiny.
That must have seemed particularly ironic to the people of Jericho, where Zacchaeus lived. As you heard in the reading, the first thing we know about this man is his name: “A man was there named Zacchaeus,” Luke tells us. Then Luke tells us two more important things about him: “he was a chief tax collector, and was rich.” Anybody in first-century Jericho hearing this story would probably have laughed out loud at that point. That’s because in Hebrew, the name Zacchaeus meant “one who is pure or innocent.” And if there’s anything you could say for certain about a chief tax collector who was rich in first-century Judea, it would be that he was not pure or innocent.
Tax collectors were renowned for cheating people by taxing them more than they actually owed and keeping the difference for themselves. And they were seen not just as cheats but traitors, collaborating with the Roman occupation against their own people. Even though they often had significant wealth and power, they were held in utter contempt by the rest of the Jewish people, who considered them beyond redemption. So, a chief tax collector named Zacchaeus, “pure and innocent,” must have seemed like a sick joke.
Zacchaeus is eager, even desperate, to see who Jesus was, but he can’t see much of anything because he was short in stature and the crowd was blocking his view. Maybe they even delighted in blocking him, recognizing who and what he was and pushing closer together to make sure this rich tax collector stayed on the margins of the crowd, seeing nothing but the backs of the people turned to him. Undeterred, Zacchaeus races ahead of the crowd and embarrasses himself by clambering up a sycamore tree to sit up in the branches where he could see over the crowd and wait for Jesus to walk by. Those nearby start elbowing each other and pointing him out. “Look at him up their roosting in the tree like the vulture that he is,” they say; “just wait, Jesus is going to call him out when he sees him.”
And when Jesus does see him, he does call him out; just not the way the crowd was counting on: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today,” Jesus calls. And Zacchaeus does so. The crowd cannot believe what they’ve just seen and heard; they start grumbling to one another about Jesus sullying himself by not only accepting the hospitality of such an irredeemable sinner, but actually asking for it. This is going too far, they say to one another.
Zacchaeus, hearing the complaints, turns to Jesus and says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I’ve defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Jesus then responds by saying that today salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house, and even the crowd can’t say anything against Jesus offering salvation in response to that kind of repentance and atonement, which goes far beyond what the Jewish law requires in such circumstances. That’s not too far for Jesus to go, then; those are the rules, and everybody followed them. That’s the way it’s all supposed to work, and through the grace of Jesus, Zacchaeus ends up as a pure and innocent one after all.
Or does he? It’s easy to miss, in part because of the extravagance of Zacchaeus’ restitution, and in part because if you’ve spent much time in churches, you’ve probably heard this story a lot as an example of how anybody, even a rich chief tax collector, can be transformed and saved through true repentance by an encounter with Jesus. But here’s the thing: nowhere in this story does Zacchaeus repent of anything. He never names himself as a sinner; Jesus never calls him one. The church has just assumed that’s what he meant when he promised to give away half of his possessions to the poor and to restore four times what he took if he had ever defrauded anyone of anything. That’s the story we expect, the story that makes sense; the rich tax collector repents, atones, and receives salvation as a result.
But it’s not actually the story in the text. What you heard in the reading just a few minutes ago is a significant mistranslation. Now, maybe grammatical subtleties are not your jam, but bear with me for a minute, because this is actually really important, and it’s not even very subtle. What you heard Zacchaeus say was, “half my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody, I will pay back four times the amount.” But that’s not what the Greek says.
What Zacchaeus actually says when the crowd starts grumbling about him being a sinner is, “I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I falsely charge anybody, I pay back four times the amount.” In other words, Zacchaeus is not describing actions that he will begin doing from now on; he’s describing actions that he already habitually does. They are in the present tense, not the future, and in Greek, verb tenses are not about time the way they are in English, but rather about the state of actions. The future, of course, is used for an anticipated action: “I will give away half my possessions.”
But the present tense is usually used for actions in progress, or that are continual or habitual: “I give away half my possessions.” That’s what Zacchaeus actually says; in other words, he’s been doing it all along. That why he first says, “Look, Lord,” to Jesus; he’s asking Jesus to see what the crowd could not see, could not even imagine; what even the translators of most English versions of the Bible could not see or imagine because their minds were already made up about who Zacchaeus was and what he needed to do for Jesus to accept him.
He really does live up to his name, as it turns out: he is innocent of what people assume of him, the labels they put on him, the motives they ascribe to him, the judgments they levy against him. Zacchaeus isn’t “lost” because he’s been swallowed up by sin; he’s lost because he’s been pushed so far away by those who can’t imagine a good tax collector any more than they can imagine a good Samaritan. But Zacchaeus is not too far to be saved and restored by Jesus to the community as a “son of Abraham.”
We’ve spent the last few Sundays on the themes of the mission priorities that we’ve established for this congregation for the next few years: welcoming and nurturing new people in Christian faith, ministry with children and youth, diverse and engaging worship opportunities. The remaining priority is ministries of service and justice in the larger community and world.
So this story of Zacchaeus is important for us to hear today, because there are a lot of stories and assumptions about people we are trying to help through ministries of service and justice, just like the ones the crowd believed about him. Because of those stories, it can sometimes be a shock when we begin serving people who are rejected and ignored in our own society, such as people who are poor or homeless. Our society says a lot of things about such people: they are lazy, they are manipulative, they would rather cut corners and exploit others than do honest work; they are criminals or drug addicts or both. We grumble, in other words, that they are sinners. And, people being people, some people who are poor or homeless are those things. But so are people who have multiple homes; we just don’t make the same assumptions about them.
And when we actually start talking to people who are poor or homeless, we are often surprised to discover that many are working multiple jobs to try and make ends meet, working harder for longer hours than the most successful white-collar professionals, but only receiving low wages and no benefits because of a lack of education or opportunity, or mistakes in their past that they have already paid back four times over or more. Part of why we engage in ministries of service and justice is to help people who are struggling and change those systems that contribute to their struggle; but at least as important is seeing them not for what we assume them to be but for who they really are: human beings who bear the very image of God, each of whom has their own story that we should hear and honor.
But even more so, it’s important for us to hear this story today to help us not simply to serve people like Zacchaeus, but to recognize that we are people like Zacchaeus. Our mission priorities are not new actions that we are promising to start doing in the future; we have been doing them habitually and continually all along. So on this Stewardship Dedication Sunday, our opportunity is to pause and stand like Zacchaeus and say, “Look, Lord,” to all that we have been doing, and to trust us to allow those actions to strengthen and grow like branches of a vine spreading in new directions, flowering and bearing fruit as they go, offering ourselves and our resources in generosity and love, and trusting that nothing is too far for us if we go there together in Christ.