Jonathan de Bernhardt Wood
This story can feel comfortably familiar. It’s a simple repentance leads to forgiveness story, no matter how bad the crime. But there is one word which doesn’t appear in some translations and the absence of that word completely changes the story. That word is “will”. If you read the same story in the RSV as opposed to the NRSV, Zacchaeus doesn’t say he will give to the poor, he says ‘I give to the poor’. He doesn’t say he will pay back four times if he has defrauded anyone, he says ‘I restore it fourfold’.
He is not saying what he will do, he is saying what he does do. This isn’t a story about repentance, this is a story about giving. He works in a morally questionable role in a morally questionable economic system but tries despite that to be generous and compassionate. Now I’m no biblical scholar, so I can’t say with any authority which translation is more accurate. But it is interesting to see this story in a different way.
Taking out the ‘will’ does mean the story makes more sense in some ways. Zacchaeus is known to Jesus, not a surprise if he’s the only remotely ethical tax collector in Israel.. He’s reviled by his fellow Israelites, and the Romans no doubt think he’s insane for giving half his stuff away. He’s friendless, trying to do something vaguely ethical and being attacked from all sides. No wonder he wanted to see Jesus.
So Zacchaeus is a role model, however you read this story. If it is a repentance leads to forgiveness story then he clearly is – he turns his life around, he puts money in its place, and he is completely repentant. If he is already giving, then he clearly is a role model too – working within a system which is not right, and leads to suffering and hardship, but trying to make it better, fairer, more just. Not by changing what he does but changing how he does it. Not by what he earns, but by what he gives away.