have you ever thought that zaccheus…the despicable little tax-collector that met jesus…might have actually look like a first century danny devito? i have.
i’ve preached through the story of zaccheus for the past couple of weeks on sunday mornings. it’s been a good study. like i said this morning, i think last week’s sermon may be one of the most important that i have preached in my entire life. really.
anyway, in my preparation this week, i looked at little deeper into something that i had heard before, but had never looked at very close. here’s the text:
And he entered and was passing through Jericho. And behold, a man called by name Zacchaeus; and he was a chief publican, and he was rich. And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the crowd, because he was little of stature. And he ran on before, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way. Luke 19:1-4
most church folks know the story of zaccheus pretty well. great children’s church song. zaccheus was a wee little man…a wee little man was he. he climbed up in the sycamore tree, for the lord he wanted to see. i know you know it!
so here’s what i want you to notice. it’s verse three.
And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the crowd, because he was little of stature. NASB
here’s the closest, literal, word-for-word translation that most bible scholars agree on:
and he sought to see Jesus who he was and unable was he able because of the crowd because the stature was small.
no joke. that’s the word by word translation. and here are a few observations:
first, in spite of years and years of smiley-faced children singing about the wee little man, there is no way to be absolutely certain from the text, that zaccheus was the one who was small in stature. the text is just not conclusive.
the grammar of the text leaves it open to interpretation. jesus could have been the one who was small in stature and zaccheus climbed up in the tree to get a better look at jesus…unobstructed by the crowd that was pressing around jesus and blocking his presence.
tradition and history have interpreted that zaccheus was the short one and that the crowd was pressed around him (zaccheus) and blocking his vision. the majority of commentators and biblical interpreters fall along this line, yet they acknowledge that it is tradition they hold to…and not an absolute conviction from the text itself.
if a gun was held to my head, i would probably cast my vote for a short zaccheus. but not wholeheartedly.
second, the idea that jesus could have been a short man completely goes against our preconceptions of what a mighty leader and revolutionary would have looked like. it certainly flies in the face of all the literal pictures of jesus i have been exposed to over the course of my lifetime.
as a matter of fact, the idea that jesus might not be a combination of chuck norris, bruce willis, and “the hulk” is actually pretty consistent with a prophecy about him in the old testament:
…He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. Isaiah 53:2
in other words, there was nothing that stood out about him physically. could he have been short? would that change what you think about him? would he seem less powerful? would his strength and stature be undermined in your mind’s eye? would he seem less a king if he looked like ben stiller or adam sandler? both are short and jewish!
there is absolutely nothing in this possible change of textual perspective that takes away from the meaning and teaching of the story of zaccheus. nothing. the shortness of stature issue plays a tiny, tiny ( no pun intended ) role in the drama. the real message is that zaccheus wanted to see jesus…and did what was needed.
are you following his example?