Historical Cultural Context
Mr. Clean, Mr. Pure, Mr. Innocent
Zacchaeus! So frequently has he been unfairly compared to the twentieth-century Internal Revenue Service in the United States that his reputation has been sorely tarnished. Listen again to what Mediterranean cultural insights reveal about his true character.
Zacchaeus The “Rich” Man
The people who populate the pages of our Bible believed that all things of value in life already existed, were limited in quantity, and already distributed. This included honor, semen, wealth, blood, anything else one could think of.
If someone suddenly lost some good, it was suspected that someone else had gained it. The one who had suddenly gained something had to prove it was not stolen. There was no honorable way to increase one’s goods.
The word “poor” therefore described people who had temporarily fallen out of their status. It was their task to resume normal status as quickly as possible. In the Bible, the poor are frequently clustered with “widows and orphans.”
Widows could regain their status by remarrying. The status of orphan is characteristic of childhood. One could be adopted by others or eventually grow into adulthood and marry, leaving the status of orphanhood behind.
One ancient understanding of “rich” people is those who did not have to “work for a living.” Such were very powerful patrons served by clients, servants, and others who carried out their wishes. Zacchaeus the “rich” man belonged in this category.
Sometimes “rich” can mean “greedy” in the Bible, but as this story progresses it will become clear that Zacchaeus does not seem to be greedy.
As a toll collector, Zacchaeus bid to Rome for the right to collect tolls, not personally but through agents. When Rome accepted his bid, Zacchaeus paid them the toll for his region in full. Then it was up to him to recoup his bid by collecting the tolls and trying to make a profit if possible. He relied on agents to do that work.
Enviable as it may sound, few toll collectors managed to recoup their bid and fewer still managed to make a profit. Zacchaeus was rich in that others, hired agents, did his work for him. In his case, “rich” did not mean “greedy.
Zacchaeus The “Righteous” Man
When Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house, the Pharisees grumble that he is a “sinner.” Zacchaeus defends himself quite pointedly. Indeed, he literally stopped the procession to his house to publicly demonstrate that he is not a sinner as charged.
First, he admits to giving half of his possessions to the poor. Zacchaeus uses the present tense, which in the Greek language describes repeated, customary practice. Zacchaeus does this on a regular, ongoing basis. Most translations use the future tense (“I will give”), which is grammatically possible but less plausible. In Luke, giving alms is a sign of righteousness (Lk 6:30-31, 38; Lk 11:41; Lk 12:33; Lk 16:9; Lk 18:22, 29).
Second, he pronounces a conditional clause: “IF I have cheated someone,” whose form in Greek does not imply that he consciously committed extortion but only that if he discovers that he has cheated, then he has a plan whose details are truly amazing. He restores what he has inadvertently cheated fourfold (400 percent)!
The Torah (see Lev 6:5 and Num 5:6-7) demanded the restoration of the object plus one-fifth (20 percent) interest. Roman law required fourfold restitution only from a convicted criminal. Zacchaeus has surpassed the Torah’s requirements and met the most stringent of terms in Roman law.
The Name “Zacchaeus”
This name appears only here in the New Testament. In the Old Testament it occurs only at 2 Mc 10:19. The Hebrew word from which this name is formed means “clean, pure, innocent.” Luke has reported the story of “Mr. Clean, Mr. Pure, Mr. Innocent,” but poor Zacchaeus has unfortunately rarely been presented as such.
Scholars are divided about whether Zacchaeus “converted” on the occasion of meeting Jesus or had done so earlier in his career. I side with the scholars who claim Zacchaeus converted earlier and was misjudged by the grumbling Pharisees.
In this interpretation of the Zacchaeus story, contemporary Western believers can find in this much-maligned character an excellent model of self-esteem. Jesus recognized his worth by calling him “Son of Abraham” rather than “Son of tax collectors.”
Jesus knew and publicly proclaimed Zacchaeus’ true identity. With more than 75 percent of Americans suffering low self-esteem, Zacchaeus is a fine example of how to resist and survive the critical comments of others.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to find out more.
**From Saint Louis University