A Most Pressing Theological Issue

Concurrently with Why I am a United Methodist, I was also reading Bishop Willimon’s book Who Will Be Saved? In one of the later chapters, Bishop Willimon addresses a theological problem that has (likely) plagued scholars for years:

“It is now time for us to tackle one of the most important questions of the Christian faith: How tall was Jesus? Only once does anybody comment on the height of Jesus. In Luke 19:3, Luke says Jesus was ‘short in stature.’ I know, you always took that ‘short in stature’ to refer to Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, so they told you in Sunday school, was the little man who was so short that he had to climb up a sycamore tree to get a good look at Jesus parading through Jericho (Luke 19:1-10).

But what they should have told you is that, in the Greek, ‘he was short in stature’ could apply as well to Jesus. Verse 3 can read, Zacchaeus ‘sought to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd could not, because he [Zacchaeus] was short in stature.’ But it could legitimately be read, Zacchaeus ‘sought to see who Jesus was, but could not on account of the crowd, because he [Jesus] was short in stature.’

Jesus was so short Zacchaeus couldn’t see the little rabbi for the crowd. In the earliest days of the church, critics mocked Christians’ claim that Jesus was the Messiah saying that no real Son of God would be this short.

I’ll make the call. Jesus was short, maybe as short as John Wesley. He was so short that the big man about town, rich Zacchaeus, had to climb up a tree just to get a peek at little Jesus.

Only Luke tells the story of Jesus entering Jericho, spotting sleazy chief tax collector Zacchaeus, and then inviting himself to the old reprobate’s house for a party, once again, intruding. Luke is generally rough on the rich so it’s odd to have Luke’s as the sole report that when Jesus went to Jericho, he went to the house of a rich man.

Zacchaeus wasn’t just a ‘tax collector’–lackey for the oppressive Romans, financier of state-sponsored terrorism against his fellow Jews–he was the chief tax collector. Therefore, he was not only a robber but also was rich. (Caustic Augustine said that a rich person is either a robber or the son of a robber.)

And he was the only person with whom Jesus feasted when diminutive Jesus came to Jericho. Just in case you didn’t get the joke back in Luke 15 after parties were thrown for the stupid lost sheep, the worthless lost dime, and the profligate lost boy, Luke rubs our collective nose in it one more time: a dinner party with Hitler’s henchman in Jericho. When we again grumbled, ‘He’s gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner!’ Jesus responds (again), ‘Like I told you in Luke 15, the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost. When are you going to admit to my strangeness?’

Back in Luke 15, the problem was ‘this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’ (Luke 15:2). Here it’s ‘He has gone to be the guest of… a sinner’ (19:7). And Jesus says to us grumblers (note that it wasn’t the ‘sinners,’ but the ‘righteous,’ who murmured against Jesus’ chosen companions), ‘Today salvation has come to this house’ (19:9).

Let’s attempt one more definition of salvation. Salvation is whenever Jesus intrudes into your space, whenever Jesus makes your sinful table the site of his salvation feast, like he did for Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus didn’t invite Jesus to dinner. Jesus invited himself. Hardly anyone in Scripture chooses Jesus or decides to be saved by him. The gospel is a story about Jesus’ choice and decision for the lost. That’s why we grumbled, still do. ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner!'”


~ by crossingthebosporus on September 10, 2012.

2 Responses to “A Most Pressing Theological Issue”

  1. This is pretty awesome. 🙂

  2. I love it. Yes, it is Jesus who loves us, who holds out his hand to us – we should never presume to know who is and is not saved.

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