Recently I led a group through a close reading of Lk 19:1-10 (Jesus & Zacchaeus). I wanted to challenge familiar interpretations, so I started by asking, “Who is short? Jesus or Zacchaeus?” Some translations decide Zacchaeus is short, others are not so clear. The Greek isn’t clear at all. People found the question kind of funny and they were willing to entertain the idea that Jesus was so short that Zacchaeus had to climb a tree to see him in the crowd. But ultimately I could tell people were going to fall back on tradition that says Zacchaeus was short.
I told them that imaginative engagement w/ the text can be really fruitful. “So, let’s keep that in mind and see what comes out of our discussion.” Then I had a series of questions about Zacchaeus’ social location, status in the community, what being “lost/found” means for Zacchaeus, what “salvation” means for someone like Zacchaeus compared to, say, Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31), etc:
In the course of the conversation with a group that would call itself “liberal/progressive,” I was struck by something: there was almost a demand among some in the group that we hold on tight to certain perspectives on sin/salvation so that we can continuously reject them. I didn’t foreground doctrines of original sin or penal substitutionary atonement but they were very live in the room. My attitude is, “Ok, you rejected them. Let them go.” Let’s listen to the invitation to welcome new (to you) imaginative possibilities presented by the story.
Far from deconstructing, people build identities on top of old accumulated stories. The foundation of their new identity ends up being like the compressed strata of an ancient city. Then they find themselves years later still sifting through the detritus. Especially for dominant groups within their societies we must always be introducing ambiguity, multiple perspectives, and nuance into our interpretive frameworks.
People born into marginalized social locations understand competing perspectives basically on instinct because their experience of the world doesn’t match the dominant narrative about the way the world is. Navigating these competing frameworks ends up being necessary for survival, but it can also be a gift. Witnessing someone contend with these perspectives is certainly a gift to anyone stuck inside the brittle bones of a rigid worldview on its last legs.
For many, the instinct is to rest on received wisdom. Maybe Zacchaeus was a short king* so excited to receive Jesus that he climbed a tree just to catch sight of him. But isn’t it more fun to imagine it the other way around?
*Cringe: “Or maybe Jesus is THE Short King, ready to be received by all.”