Monthly Archives: October 2019

Luke Chapter 19:1-10

Jesus is traveling towards Jerusalem. To get to Jerusalem, the most direct route is to head almost due south from Galilee and follow the West Bank of the River Jordan; this route will take the traveler past Jericho. Looking at a map, it appears that the road to Jerusalem turns west at or around Jericho, because it appears there is a a pass, or valley between Jericho and Jerusalem. This bit of geography lesson all comes from a few minutes of looking at a map; people with more knowledge or actual experience can correct me if/where I’ve gone astray. At the end of the previous chapter, we have Jesus healing a blind man outside the walls of Jericho. That story is in the Triple Tradition, but in three rather different variants. Alone in Luke do Jesus and his posse enter the city and encounter a man named Zaccheus. At Catholic school, in grade 4 or 5 we sang a song about him that is with me to this day. Be that as it may, this story is only found in Luke. Why? One phenomenon that occurs as legends gain momentum is that stories about the main character or the main action are made up in different places. This is where Launcelot originates, as the tale of Arthur grew in popularity on the mainland, the French came up with their own hero, Launcelot, who played a major role in the central tale as the lover of Arthur’s queen. Another such character was Parzifal, created by Wolfram von Eschenbach in Bavaria. Or, if he didn’t create the character, e nihilo, then he greatly elaborated Parzifal’s role in the epic. And so we have the followers of Jesus in Jericho concocting a tale set on their home ground. We don’t know if Jesus went to Jericho, but he certainly could have, so we have an episode in Jesus’ life set in that town. If my scenario is correct, this may only be in Luke because the tale had not been created, or had not gained sufficiently wide currency until later in time, until Luke wrote. Or, for reasons we’ll never know, Luke may have invented it himself.


1 Καὶ εἰσελθὼν διήρχετο τὴν Ἰεριχώ.

2 καὶ ἰδοὺ ἀνὴρ ὀνόματι καλούμενος Ζακχαῖος, καὶ αὐτὸς ἦν ἀρχιτελώνης καὶ αὐτὸς πλούσιος.

And entering, he was passing through Jericho. (2) And behold a man called by name Zaccheus, and he was a chief tax collector and he was rich.

Don’t think I was aware that our man Zaccheus was a chief tax collector. I’m not entirely sure how that would work. I suppose he was like the head contractor, who then subcontracted out the actual collection of the taxes and taking a cut of what was collected. This sounds like a pretty good formula for getting rich. Recall that the Romans did not have government officials to collect taxes. There was no equivalent to the IRS or the Inland Revenue (which apparently merged into HM Revenue and Customs as of 2005); rather, individuals, or syndicates, contracted with the government representatives to collect the tax. Rome would set the amount to be paid to them, and anything above that figure was retained by the contractor as profit. Talk about creating incentives for extortion. This is why tax collectors were so thoroughly hated. And in the provinces, these contractors were often natives who spoke the language, etc. This offered Rome a layer of insulation against popular hatred of these figures. The anger at high taxes was directed to the locals, and not towards the actual oppressors. Perhaps you’ll recall that the idea of privatizing the collection of taxes in the US was bandied about for a bit. Fortunately, it did not go far. 

1 Et ingressus perambulabat Iericho. 

2 Et ecce vir nomine Zacchaeus, et hic erat princeps publicanorum et ipse dives. 

3 καὶ ἐζήτει ἰδεῖν τὸν Ἰησοῦν τίς ἐστιν, καὶ οὐκ ἠδύνατο ἀπὸ τοῦ ὄχλου ὅτι τῇ ἡλικίᾳ μικρὸς ἦν.

4 καὶ προδραμὼν εἰς τὸ ἔμπροσθεν ἀνέβη ἐπὶ συκομορέαν ἵνα ἴδῃ αὐτόν, ὅτι ἐκείνης ἤμελλεν διέρχεσθαι.

And he(Zaccheus) sought (a way) to see who Jesus was, and he was not able (to do so) from the crowd, for he was of small stature. (4) And running ahead towards the front and climbed up a sycamore in order to see him, that he (Jesus) intended to pass.

The Greek for the tree transliterates to “sikamorean’. It’s interesting that the type of tree is specified. Why? Because this is an actual specific bit of local detail? Or to let us know it wasn’t a palm tree, which are hard to climb? Or is it the sort of detail that gets attached to provide realism? Interesting question, IMO. Luke didn’t bother with the name of bar Timmaeus in the story of healing the blind man outside the gates at the end of the last chapter, but he throws in the name of the tree? I’m guessing it was to let us know it wasn’t a palm tree. Regardless, the set-up, or concept of the story is also fascinating. The dude was vertically challenged, so he found a way? Actually, that kind of makes sense. Z-man wanted to see Jesus, he ran into an obstacle, so he figured out a way of getting around it. Shows some determination. Or, as my mother used to say, some gumption. Rather than whine, do something. And it was worth doing something to see Jesus. This is sort of a subtle way of telling us how popular Jesus was. Mark used to describe the mobs of people following Jesus, that the crowd often made it difficult to enter towns. This is sort of on those lines: Zaccheus had to go out of his way, and he wanted to go out of his way because Jesus had created such a stir. Of course, this is all fiction, but it gets a point across. This is Luke being the novelist; he shows us how much interest there was in Jesus whereas Mark the Journalist told us. This is a very nice, very effective literary device, or technique, which makes me suspect that the story originated with Luke himself. Why Jericho? Perhaps because it was outside the realm of the ‘normal’ places that Christians were familiar with, and so few could either verify or contradict details about the location.

But beyond all that, there is one thing to notice about this story: that it’s a story. You have a short guy trying to see the latest phenomenon over the crowd of taller people, so what does he do? He climbs a tree. It’s practical and rather humorous all at the same time. That is to say, it’s a catchy little story. It’s a nice human touch. This is one great example of why I refer to, or think of, Luke as a novelist. 

3 Et quaerebat videre Iesum, quis esset, et non poterat prae turba, quia statura pusillus erat. 

4 Et praecurrens ascendit in arborem sycomorum, ut videret illum, quia inde erat transiturus. 

5 καὶ ὡς ἦλθεν ἐπὶ τὸν τόπον, ἀναβλέψας ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτόν, Ζακχαῖε, σπεύσας κατάβηθι, σήμερον γὰρ ἐν τῷ οἴκῳ σου δεῖ με μεῖναι.

And as he came to the spot, looking up Jesus said to him, “Zaccheus, hastily come down, for I must remain at your house.

Just a quick note on this. Again the novelist shines through. One dictum of good fiction is to show rather than tell. Luke sets this up so that Jesus does show us. ‘…Reaching the spot, he looked up…’ Why did Jesus look up? By pure chance? Or because Jesus knows he’s there? IOW, because, being divine, Jesus just knows stuff. Like Zaccheus’ name. It’s subtle, and I’d have passed it by if not for the kicker at the end. Jesus has to tarry a bit in Zaccheus’ house. And mind you, he has to. The Greek implies obligation, if not compulsion; the idea of fate can also be implied. The cognate root is “to bind/fetter”; hence, one can be bound to the obligation to do…whatever.  Saying that, here is where one has to step back and remember that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. That is, just because Luke uses a word that can mean ‘it is fated’, doesn’t mean he means to say that it’s been fated. People say things that have unintended implications. Of course, that goes back to Freud and his cigar, but even the master of the unconscious realized that not everything carried some deep hidden meaning. He smoked a lot of cigars not because of some deep, unconscious oral/phallic impulse, but because he was addicted to nicotine. This is the problem we run into when reading any text: how much did the author mean, and how much just sort of happened?

5 Et cum venisset ad locum, suspiciens Iesus dixit ad eum: “ Zacchaee, festinans descende, nam hodie in domo tua oportet me manere”. 

6 καὶ σπεύσας κατέβη, καὶ ὑπεδέξατο αὐτὸν χαίρων.

7 καὶ ἰδόντες πάντες διεγόγγυζον λέγοντες ὅτι Παρὰ ἁμαρτωλῷ ἀνδρὶ εἰσῆλθεν καταλῦσαι.

And he (Zaccheus) came down hastily, and rejoicing received him (Jesus).  (7) And knowing (lit = seeing) muttering saying that “With (lit = beside, next to) a sinning man he goes to be a guest in his house.    

A couple of things. First, the verb translated as ‘to be a guest in his house’ in about 95% of the times it gets used means, ‘to destroy’. Buried way down there, in definition seven, we get the ‘be a guest’ thing. I’m sure there is some sort of logical progression to get from one to the other, but I’ll leave that for you to figure it out. Second, note the muttering people in the crowd. We’ll come back to them because I don’t want to tarry longer than necessary at this point.  

6 Et festinans descendit et excepit illum gaudens. 

7 Et cum viderent, omnes murmurabant dicentes: “ Ad hominem peccatorem divertit! ”. 

8 σταθεὶς δὲ Ζακχαῖος εἶπεν πρὸς τὸν κύριον, Ἰδοὺ τὰ ἡμίσιά μου τῶν ὑπαρχόντων, κύριε, τοῖς πτωχοῖς δίδωμι, καὶ εἴ τινός τι ἐσυκοφάντησα ἀποδίδωμι τετραπλοῦν.

9 εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς αὐτὸν ὁ Ἰησοῦς ὅτι Σήμερον σωτηρία τῷ οἴκῳ τούτῳ ἐγένετο, καθότι καὶ αὐτὸς υἱὸς Ἀβραάμ ἐστιν: 

10 ἦλθεν γὰρ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ζητῆσαι καὶ σῶσαι τὸ ἀπολωλός.

Standing, Zaccheus said towards the lord, “Behold, half of my possessions, lord, I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone I will give back fourfold. (9) Jesus said to him that “This day salvation became in your house, due to that and you are a son of Abraham. (10) For the son of man came to seek and save those having been lost.”  

A few technical details about the Greek. The word here rendered as “defrauded” transliterates to sykophant. Switch the k for a c, and the English derivation is pretty obvious: sycophant. The problem is that the definitions in Greek & English seem to be more or less contradictory. And the Greek is odd. It seems to be a compound word “fig-speaker”. Of course, just because the initial few letters seem to be the word for ‘fig’ may be coincidental. Most likely this is a word that came out of Greek but was misunderstood and taken too literally early in its English usage. “Fig-talker” could be taken as “sweet-talker”, meaning one who tells people things they want or like to hear. The Latin is more or less ‘defrauded’, so I went with that.

Then Jesus closes with the bit about salvation, and saving the lost. This brings up the notion of salvation, and whether we are truly talking about salvation as Christians generally think of the word. I just learned that the word “Soter”, “Saviour” was not used of Jesus until the term occurs in Luke/Acts. Luke used it in Chapters 1 & 2, and then twice in Acts. It does not become commonly used until the later epistles, and even then we’re talking about a dozen or so usages. This strikes me as telling; after all, “saviour” is one of the key concept associated with Jesus. In the “ICTHUS” fish emblem, the final S stands for “Soter/Saviour”. And yet, he is never called that by Mark or Matthew, and it’s only found once in the entire corpus of the authentic letters of Paul. It’s in Phillipians, and it could very easily be an interpolation. Bear that in mind the next time you get annoyed because I’m parsing what is meant by “saved” when we encounter the word. Luke could easily be the first to so designate Jesus. In Chapter 1, it occurs in the Magnificat, and in Chapter 2 the shepherds are told that a saviour is born to you this day. This ties back with the discussion we had in Chapter 18:24-27(ish) where we get the first real nexus of the terms ‘saved’, ‘kingdom of God’ and ‘eternal life’, the first time they are essentially equated and treated as synonyms. 

Now let’s talk about the story of Zaccheus as a whole. What do we have? We have a rich man, a tax-collector who merits* salvation by promising to give half of what he owns to the poor, and to repay fourfold if he has cheated anyone. And it’s not just Zaccheus personally; it’s his household. So, as with Saviour, so the concern for the poor seems to be something that Luke felt especially strongly about, and so he created opportunities to bring this out. And the story as a whole seems to bear this out. Why else invent this story, unless to teach the lesson about the problem of wealth? Remember that the last chapter ended with the tale of the Rich Ruler who went away sad because Jesus told him to sell all his possessions; in contrast, Zaccheus here volunteers to give away half (perhaps not the whole, but still pretty good). Upon making the promise, he is saved. Cause >>> Effect. Luke here demonstrates that the wealthy can attain heaven, but only if they divest. I can think of a whole lot of “Christians” who would do well to take this lesson to heart.

The final element is the mumblers in the crowd. We are not told who they are. I had to go back and check that because I was pretty much certain that these mumblers had been Pharisees. Well, not in this case. But that is somewhat my point. By this stage of the narrative, after having read through Mark AND Matthew, perhaps Luke didn’t feel the need to beat a dead horse. Perhaps it didn’t seem necessary for him to repeat who the mumblers were because the other two gospels had made this point abundantly clear. So here, once again, we get a back-handed argument against Q. Luke, again, does not need to go into the details because those details were sufficiently covered by the other two gospels. IOW, he was fully aware of the existence AND the content of Matthew’s gospel. Now, assuming that to be true, this would help explain the “son of Abraham” quip there at the end. If the mumblers were Pharisees, and if they are condemned by their mumbling, Luke throws in the bit about the son of Abraham to remind us that anyone, whether Jew or pagan, can be saved. At this point in the development of the church, perhaps the pagan followers needed to be reminded of this: it’s not too late for even the Jews.

*As a bit of an aside, note that I said Zaccheus has merited salvation. This really flies in the face of the predestination argument, that we cannot hope to merit salvation, wretched and foredoomed sinners that we are. The predestination argument is ever so clever, but it also feels a bit forced, like Augustine and his later followers were reaching for it, and by a lot. Predestination, IMO, makes sense if one assumes the Double-O deity: one that is both omniscient, omnipotent. Such a deity can create any universe it desires because it is omnipotent, and said deity will know how it will all turn out in the end because it is omniscient. Therefore, it knows whether or not someone will be damned even if the prevenient grace is bestowed as the free gift of that deity. But that is the theological, or ontological, or simply logical case for Pre-D. It is not the case built on scripture; IMO, there are many, many more passages like this that imply–or state–that salvation is the result of our efforts, and not due to the gift of God. In fact, even Romans, which is the primary text Augustine used, is decidedly ambivalent about this. 

8 Stans autem Zacchaeus dixit ad Dominum: “Ecce dimidium bonorum meorum, Domine, do pauperibus et, si quid aliquem defraudavi, reddo quadruplum ”. 

9 Ait autem Iesus ad eum: “Hodie salus domui huic facta est, eo quod et ipse filius sit Abrahae; 

10 venit enim Filius hominis quaerere et salvum facere, quod perierat”.