Up in Smoke

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Let me ask you this opening question … Remember that Sunday School song about Zacchaeus? You know, the one about the “wee little man” who scrambles up a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus. It’s a well beloved story. But I also think there’s a well-beloved theology that goes along with it; so well beloved in fact, that translators will mess with the text (i.e. the verb tense) in order to shore-up a bias, like any bias, that dies hard.  And so I’m asking you to do something very carefully …

As some “homework” for this coming Saturday/Sunday worship, re-read the Gospel story of Zacchaeus, according to St. Luke 19:1-10.  After doing so, give special attention to v.8. Now, depending on which translation of the Bible you’ve just read, here are two very different interpretations:

#1. In the New Revised Standard Version or New International Version of the Bible, for example, you’ll read: “Zacchaeus said … ‘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.” (Luke 19:8).  Note the emboldened verbs in this first translation.  Makes things sound like a repentance story, right? With the emphasis on who? … Zacchaeus.

#2. In the King James or Revised Standard Version of the Bible, as another example, you’ll read: “Zacchaeus … said: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” (Luke 19:8). Note once more, the emboldened verbs in this second translation. Makes things sound like an affirmation story, right.  With the emphasis on who? … Jesus.

So, what’s the big deal, Pastor John? Sounds like Greek to me!!! Well, to a degree it is. It turns out that those who translate the verbs as “future oriented” (as in Translation #1) appeal to a grammatical category called a present-future tense. Trouble is, not only is this the only place in the whole New Testament where this verb tense occurs, but there’s no such thing in the Greek language (from which these New Testament translations derive)! So, rather than translate this verse in the present tense (as in Translation #2), translators have actually "created/invented" a new grammatical category in an attempt to justify their theological interpretation or bias.

So, we must ask: “What’s the bias?” Remember how at the beginning of this blog that I said there’s a much-beloved theology that tags along with this well-beloved story of Zacchaeus? Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I think for most of us, it goes like this: “It is only after we come to God with a contrite/repentant heart that we will then be able to receive God’s responsive gift of forgiveness and salvation.” However, if this is true, then we’re always off-in-the-future tense (of Translation #1) wondering if we’ve repented enough or are contrite enough or good enough; that is, always unsure of ourselves (and therein lies the problem). And so with all human inventions or creations – even translations of Scripture – it ends up in smoke! (See my photo of Jericho some years ago that serves as a metaphor.)

Now, with Translation #2, the response is not left-up to Zacchaeus … “I will do this,” or “I will do that” … But rather, it’s in the present tense – right then and there (short-cutting all of Zacchaeus’ attempts to make himself righteous and get the tax-collecting ledgers of his life to line-up) – of Jesus’ announcing God’s promising Word, as at his Holy Supper which we’ll celebrate this weekend: “Today, salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9) … breaking the “sentence” of v.8 … and all of its “periods” … into a real future of hope: in verses 9 and 10 and… I mean, it’s enough to have us jumping out of trees and even out of our skin with joy – as this word of salvation – of God’s radical grace that comes to us apart from our having to have it “all together” – that’s not only for Zacchaeus' hearing but yours, right now! See you this weekend, at worship (including Christ’s sacrament of Holy Communion)         

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor