Jesus is shockingly hard on the rich. In the four “Woes” that parallel the four Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:24-26), Jesus categorically condemns the rich. Filled, laughing, and well thought of now, the rich will be hungry, grieving, and weeping. Zacchaeus, the protagonist of today’s Gospel, would seem a prime candidate for those woes. Not only is he rich; he is rich in the worst way. He has become wealthy by exploiting his people by collecting taxes for the hated Romans. And he is a chief tax collector, meaning that he has profited from the exploitation done by others, the collectors who work under him. Yet the narrative shows he to be one of the New Testament’s clearest examples of Christian conversion.
Luke is careful to hint at what it was that opened this man to Jesus’ call to a change of heart. Luke says that Zacchaeus was “seeking to see who Jesus was,” and that because he was short he climbed up a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus. In describing the man in this way, Luke surely presumes that we have not forgotten what we have read in the passages immediately preceding this account in his Gospel.
Luke 18 is full of talk about the kingdom of God and who gets to enter it. “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it” (Lk 18:17). This is immediately illustrated by the counterexample of the rich official who refuses Jesus’ invitation because of his attachment to his wealth. This is followed by the famous sayings about the near impossibility of the wealthy entering the kingdom, followed by the hopeful hint that “what is impossible for human beings is possible for God.” There follows the third prediction of the passion to the Twelve, who fail to comprehend. Then comes the curing of a blind man who knows exactly what ails him: “Lord, please let me see.” To which Jesus replies, “Have sight; your faith has saved you.”
Because that statement is in the present tense in the Greek (reflected accurately in several contemporary translations), some commentators interpret Zacchaeus’s statement as a defense of habitual activity and see Jesus’ action as standing up for a maligned but decent tax collector. But that interpretation flies in the face of Luke’s theme of Jesus’ eating with tax collectors and sinners for the purpose of conversion (see Lk 5:32) and the fact that one cannot routinely give away half of one’s possessions. Moreover, the concluding verses describe what has happened here as an example of the Son of Man seeking and saving “what was lost.” The tense of the original text is an example of the use of the present to express resolve (as in, “I’m going tomorrow”). So the translators of our current Lectionary have it right; Zacchaeus is expressing a resolve issuing from a deep change of heart resulting from his reception of Jesus.
Nothing is impossible with God; even a heart toughened by ill-gotten wealth can be changed if there is a residue of childlike seeking and openness.