Have you ever heard the story behind a song, story, poem or work of art and found yourself surprised at the author’s inspiration? Understanding the author’s context can often provide a window for deeper understanding. At times, we might be surprised when the author had something different in mind than we originally thought. That we are able to draw out meanings that may not have been on the author’s mind when they created their work doesn’t necessarily make our own analysis untrue. We may be able to make better sense of the story being told when we can connect the dots that otherwise would have been left untouched, even by the authors themselves. Illuminating undiscovered meaning is very different than making a story, song, poem, or a sacred text say something it doesn’t say.
How should we respond when the author’s work and our own interpretive grids are in conflict? With any compelling story, we often find our own expectations and assumptions being challenged. Being confronted with new ways to think about something rarely leaves us neutral. The biographies of Jesus are no different in this regard. Each author was addressing a particular audience. They each developed their own voice and drew on different themes in developing their gospel narratives. Much of this can get lost in our own evangelical cultural milieu. Like the person who reads the end of the book first to know the ending, we can allow our own familiarity with scripture to distance ourselves from the scandal that the early audience would have readily picked up on. Learning to have a more nuanced appreciation of all that comprises the text, (the song or the piece of art hanging on the wall) makes for a richer experience that moves us away from being consumers to becoming participants.
Luke’s gospel provides an example of what I’m suggesting. David Gooding remarks in his book According to Luke that the author’s use of speeches was a form of recording history that the early audience would have easily recognized. Luke’s creativity in highlighting Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom comes into full view by the way Luke juxtaposes particular speeches, parables and stories to convey the depth of God’s Kingdom. Our proximity to the text can often become a barrier to the many dimensions of a particular passage because our respective traditions have reinforced the roles each individual plays. We know who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are before the story is even finished, which can give scripture more of a vaudevillian feel than a King’s teaching on the Kingdom of Heaven in first century Palestine. The story of Zacchaeus is one such example.
This famous passage is found in Luke’s gospel, in the 19th chapter. We are told that as Jesus is entering Jericho passing through on his way to Jerusalem, there was a rich chief tax collector seeking to see Jesus. However, because of his small physical stature, and the large crowds pressing in on the famed teacher and miracle-worker, Zacchaeus is forced to get ahead of the crowd to climb a sycamore tree to get a glimpse of Jesus as he walked by. Imagine Zacchaeus’ surprise, when Jesus, coming to the place where Zacchaeus was positioned in the tree, says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” This experience is nothing short of life-changing for Zacchaeus. Luke tells us that he rushes down the tree and receives Jesus into his home with gladness. Transformed by his encounter with Israel’s Messiah, Zacchaeus gives half of his riches to the poor and makes a commitment to repay anyone he has defrauded fourfold. Jesus’ proclamation, no doubt, reverberated throughout the crowd: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”
Zacchaeus is often rightfully applauded in our retelling of this story. However, what can get lost in the underbrush are a few contextual realities that make this episode even more scandalous than we may realize at first glance.
First, a chief tax collector would have not been seen favorably within the Jewish community. To be seen as a part of or cooperating with the Roman establishment was viewed negatively by many of the social groups at the time (Pharisees, Zealots and the Essene community, for example). Zacchaeus was on the margins of the religious and social life in his own community. This is why, in Luke’s retelling of this story, it is important not to overlook that those who witnessed the exchange between Jesus and Zacchaeus were indignant. That Jesus would go into the house of a “sinner” was unthinkable. How much more the offense it caused when Jesus now proclaims Zacchaeus a child of Abraham. Had Jesus gotten this all-wrong? Isn’t being a child of Abraham a matter of right political and religious views? So it seemed to the religious leaders of the day.
Let’s go back a chapter, when Luke tells of Jesus giving the following parable to those who trusted their own righteousness and in doing so, felt it appropriate to treat others with contempt:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
In Preaching the Parables, Dr. Craig Blomberg remarks that Jesus is teaching that the one in this story who is “saved” is the tax collector, not the Pharisee. This turn of events would have not sat well with the audience, as they would have most likely identified with the self-congratulatory prayer given by the Pharisee. It is no coincidence that Luke situates this parable up against the story of Zacchaeus. We are confronted with the reality that our own religious ideas can often become a hindrance to anyone who may otherwise respond to God’s glad invitation.
It is humbling to realize that I often find myself identifying with the villains rather than the recipients of God’s grace found within the biblical narrative. My own assumptions have often informed how I’ve made sense of a particular passage. I realize that when I’ve gotten it wrong, or feel that my own self-righteousness gives me freedom to speak of others with contempt, I am on the wrong side of God-centered living. Why do I balk when salvation comes to those whom I think do not merit it, allowing competing social and political views to inform my own expectations? It can become easy to think that certain political, economic or social views can automatically disqualify one from membership in God’s Kingdom. This seems to be a point of contention at least every four years in the U.S. Placing Jesus within his cultural, political and religious climate helps me overcome the limits I can place on who I think should be reached.
I, like Zacchaeus, was once at a distance from the world’s rightful king. In my own way, I too, climbed a sycamore tree to get a glimpse of this man who captured my imagination and touched my deepest longings. Like Zacchaeus, it was with joy that my own interpretive grid was radically turned upside down when I realized that I too could be called a “child of Abraham.”
The plot line within the salvation narrative hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years of church history. When we situate Jesus in his context, the transcendent reality of who he is still speaks to us today. Wrestling with our own commitments anew can enable us to see things from a “God’s-eye” point-of-view. God grant us the courage to be willing to humble ourselves in order that we can come to see the world as Jesus did.
By reorienting ourselves to the cultural and historical details found within the narrative of the Gospels, we can become more devoted disciples and better storytellers. We will still find ourselves surprised from time to time. Sometimes we will respond with joy, other times in anger, but rarely will we find ourselves neutral, which means that the words are alive, inviting us to dig deeper, just as it should be. Dr. John Lennox once suggested that contrary to popular belief, it’s not the devil we find in the details, but rather, it’s a clearer picture of God that we discover. This seems to be the case when we understand the details surrounding Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus.