Christianity 201

July 22, 2013

New Insights into Zacchaeus

Encounters With JesusThrough the Willow Creek “Midweek Experience” teaching videos, I’ve gotten to hear a number of messages by Wheaton College professor Gary M. Burge. So I was due to read one of his books, especially when I stumbled over a sale-priced copy of Encounters with Jesus: Uncover the Ancient Culture, Discover Hidden Meanings; published in 2010 by Zondervan. Clocking in at only 128 pages — and filled with pictures — finishing this book on Sunday afternoon was no major feat.

With Gary Burge’s voice audibly sounding in my head as I read the book — an advantage to having watched him teach on video — I thoroughly enjoyed his take on five specific encounters Jesus has with:

  1. The woman who was hemorrhaging
  2. Zacchaeus the tax collector
  3. The centurion with a slave who is ill
  4. The thirsty woman at the Samaritan well
  5. The Gentile woman with a sick daughter

In the case of Zacchaeus, I once again found myself in the position of having to potentially un-learn something I had been taught from infancy in Sunday School. Surely anyone who has an encounter is immediately changed, right? Maybe not so much in this case. If the interpretation here is to be considered, then Zacchaeus doesn’t have so much of a before-and-after transformation; rather, Jesus is affirming the person who Zacchaeus has always been, and the “salvation” that has come to “this house” refers more to the saving of Zacchaeus’ reputation in the wider community.

I always thought that Zacchaeus’ speech is a pledge or promise of something he is about to do to make things right, however…

…This is not what Zacchaeus says. His comment to Jesus is in the present tense. “Look! I give half of my possessions, Lord to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone, I repay them fourfold.” Greek has what we call the “future use” of the present tense and interpreters sometimes apply it here. But this is not demanded. Generally these uses imply some immediacy or certainty…

…But many scholars refuse to use it here in Luke 19. We have no suggestion that Zacchaeus needs to repent, nor does the story imply any conversion on his part. He even refers to Jesus as “Lord,” a mark of high honor and discipleship in Luke. As Joel Green remarks, “On this reading Zacchaeus does not resolve to undertake new practices but presents for Jesus’ evaluation his current behaviors regarding money.”

This would be a great revelation to the electrified audience standing on the street in Jericho. Zacchaeus is not what everyone has assumed. He has been honest; he is collecting what is demanded without corruption and abuse, and he is generously giving away large portions of his wealth. The law required that if there was financial fraud, the original amount had to be returned plus 20 percent. (Lev. 6:5)  Here Zacchaeus practices fourfold reimbursement…

When word of this emerges outside, the crowd that thought it had seen one shocking scene for the day now witnesses another. Their notorious tax farmer, who has colluded with Romans, is a man of principle. Rumors of his corruption are evaporating like a mist… (pp. 67-68)

This approach is entirely new to me. And the above excerpt is just a small portion of the insights into this story. He then goes on to discuss the implications of both “Salvation has come to this house;” and that Zacchaeus is a “son of Abraham.”

I’m not saying that this interpretation precludes anything else that you’ve been able to derive from the story. The scriptures are rich in depth. I simply offer this to you as a possibility that may be outside how you originally heard and processed this story.

Other books in this series include: The Bible and the Land, Finding the Lost Images of the Desert, Jesus and the Jewish Festivals, Jesus the Middle Eastern Storyteller, and Finding the Lost Images of God.

June 4, 2012

Scripture Under the Magnifying Glass

Blogger Brian Russell has been doing a series on how we read scripture.  This one appeared a couple of weeks ago under the title Suggestions for a Close Reading of Biblical Text.  I encourage you to click the link and then visit other articles in this series.

There are three core elements in learning to study a text closely:
  • observation,
  • asking questions, and
  • seeking answers
First, observe the details in the text and record observations. The wise interpreter continually captures insights and observations through careful note-taking. Read slowly. Take your time. This is particularly true for familiar passages. Don’t assume that you know the meaning of any text. Ponder the words and phrases found in the text. Savor the images and language used to convey the text’s message. Notice how the individual words are connected together into a tapestry. You may find it helpful to read a couple of different translations and record the differences as a means of reflecting on the text. Stay put within the confines of the passage you are studying. Resist the temptation to flip to another part of the Bible until after you have carefully engaged the text that you are studying. Describe it. Dissect it. Paraphrase it. Analyze it. Observe recurring words, phrases, ideas, and themes. Establish an outline or create a chart to organize its content. Above all, don’t give up. Persist in the process of collecting your own observations and insights. This process will prove generative in terms of the insights and new questions that will emerge.
Second, while making observations, be sure to write out questions that your observations lead you to ask. Engaged reading requires this. The best interpreters of the Scripture are those who ask the most penetrating questions. This process of reading the text carefully and recording a series of observations and questions is the secret to engaging the Bible at a deep level. Observations lead to questions, and questions guide the interpreter to new insights. Ask questions that engage the text at two levels: defining questions and questions about function. Defining questions attempt to gain a full description of the content of the text (“What’s here?” “What is the precise and specific meaning of each element that is present?”). Functional questions focus on the “So what?” and attempt to probe beneath the surface to look for the deep meaning and implications.
Let me offer an example. If we are studying Exodus 19:4-6, we will encounter a phrase that is unique in the Old Testament. In verse 6, we find, “You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation.” The twin noun phrases “kingdom of priests” and “a holy nation” are critical for the interpretation of this text. Regarding the phrases, we may ask the following defining questions: What is the precise and specific meaning of the phrases “kingdom of priests” and “a holy nation”? What is the relationship between these two phrases? Definitional questions are followed by functional ones: Why are these particular phrases being used here? What is their significance?
Third, answer key questions. In many ways, biblical interpretation is nothing more and nothing less than the answering of interpretive questions that the reader asks about the text. Review your observations and questions. Select the handful of questions whose answers are essential for making sense of the text. Begin answering your questions by looking at the observations that you have already made. What evidence have you already found through your close reading to begin to develop possible answers? If you need additional help in answering your questions, you may find it helpful to read other commentaries, look up subjects in a bible dictionary, or use a concordance to study key words as they are used elsewhere in Scripture. 
Summarize your answers along with the key evidence that supports them. When summarizing, attempt to answer a question such as this: If this were the only part of Scripture that I had, what would I know?

by Brian Russell