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Thinking Out Loud

Paradox of the Familiar

by Michael Jinkins | May 09, 2017

Paradox of the Familiar

Most of us believe we know his story because we learned the song long long ago as children.

"Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he."

Often, however, thinking we know a story well can prove to be the enemy of hearing it.

This might be called the paradox of familiarity. It afflicts all of us sometime.

Someone stands to read the scripture in church. We think we are listening to it. But, really, what we are hearing, along with the voice of the reader, is a pre-recorded message already in our heads, bearing memories of songs, hymns, sermons on the text, a whole interpretive matrix that mostly just drowns out the passage being read. Because we carry so much of this stuff with us into every hearing of a biblical text, it is very difficult for us to hear it this time, right now; it is very difficult for us to listen to it with our bare attention.

Every once in a while, however, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, we may listen, and perhaps be provoked, comforted, challenged, and surprised by words breaking through as the Word of God – strange words, words we don't remember seeing in this text before, as if we were hearing the text for the very first time. We may indeed be hearing it, the text itself, for the very first time, because we are hearing it relatively free of the assumptions and the accumulated interpretive detritus that has kept us from hearing it before.

So it was, recently, as someone read Luke 19:1-10, I heard the text. And I was stunned to discover what it meant for Zacchaeus to experience salvation.

My early upbringing was in a very southern Southern Baptist Church in deep East Texas. Salvation was about going to heaven when you die. If you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you'll be saved, you'll belong to Jesus; when you die, you'll go to heaven, not to hell. I don't recall hearing a sermon growing up that didn't include that formula or a variation of it or that wasn't followed by an altar call. I often wonder how there could still be anyone left to be saved in that small church. We had all walked the aisle at least once, some of us had been saved two or three times just to be sure.

Whether or not this theology of salvation is sufficient isn't my point today. My point is that this formula provided an interpretive structure, a set of assumptions, through which we heard the Bible. Therefore, growing up, when I heard the text about Zacchaeus meeting Jesus, ending with the passage, "Today salvation has come to this house ... ," I assumed I had heard a fancy way of saying that Zacchaeus now believed in Jesus, was saved and would go to heaven.

Again, this way of thinking about salvation formed an interpretive structure which caused us to hear the Bible through its assumptions. In some sense, we poured whatever biblical text we came across into that structure, not really encountering the text on its own terms. Jesus Christ was made to fit into our system of salvation. He was the key component in that system, it wouldn't work without him, but it was the system of salvation that ruled the day, and shaped our encounter with the biblical text. A particularly vivid example of this approach to the Bible was articulated by the great 19-century British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, who said that his homiletical method consisted in taking a text anywhere in the Bible and making a beeline straight to the cross. The problem, of course, is that this means violating the integrity of the biblical text itself. Most biblical texts are not about the cross of Jesus.

Apparently, even though I no longer shared and as a theologian have critiqued the doctrine of salvation on which this particular interpretive structure is based, unconsciously the vestiges of it still affected my hearing of this and other texts like it. But, sitting in worship in Caldwell Chapel, listening to the reading of Luke 19:1-10, the cobwebs that had been spun for more than half a century around this passage suddenly blew away, as though someone had opened a window and a gust of wind had sent them flying. In that moment I heard what the text said: "Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendent of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost."

This text actually says something far more interesting than that Zacchaeus became a Christian - which he didn't. And there's no hint here that Zacchaeus or Jesus was even remotely thinking about life after death. In other words, what is said in this passage was striking to me, first, because of what is not said. What is in fact said in the text is even more striking.

Whatever salvation happened that day, happened right there and then. The character of that salvation was indelibly linked to the identity of Zacchaeus and the nature of his estrangement from his community. If there's a parable that corresponds to the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, it is the parable of the prodigal son (found a few chapters earlier in Luke 15:11-32), because salvation for both the lost tax collector and the lost son consisted in coming to themselves and being welcomed home.

A prodigal child had gone into the far country and became a wastrel before coming to himself while standing up to his ankles in pig muck. His salvation was waiting for him in the arms of his father. A man who had gone into the far country of becoming a tool of the Roman occupation, a defrauder of his people, the blood-sucker-in-chief came to himself while up to his neck in ill-gotten gain. He came to himself when Jesus invited himself to dinner; he was found when he found he still belonged, that his self-imposed alienation could not break the bonds of God's love.

The usual crowd grumbled about Jesus eating with sinners, of course, but the fact that Jesus did not recognize the boundary between clean and unclean, insider and outsider, opened the door for Zacchaeus to come to himself, to experience the grace of belonging. Immediately he promised to give half of his possessions to the poor and to recompense anyone he had defrauded by giving them four times in return whatever he had extorted. This was a costly decision, no doubt, because tax collectors made their livings by extortion.

And Jesus said, "Today salvation has come to this house because this man also is a descendant of Abraham." What Zacchaeus did in response to what Jesus did was his salvation. When grace appeared he didn't say he didn't need it. Jesus awakened in him the consciousness of who he was in relation to God and in relation to his people. Jesus called him to be who he was created by God to be. And he responded with everything he had. This is the salvation of Zacchaeus.

As though to place an exclamation point on my new hearing of the story of Zaccaeus, I recently came across a passage in the new critical translation of Friedrich Schleiermacher's Christian Faith (published by our own Westminster John Knox Press). I have long been sentimentally attached to the previous English translation of Scheiermacher's classic because it was translated early in the twentieth century by H.R. MacIntosh and James S. Stewart, two legendary ministers and theologians who were the first two ministers of the Beechgrove Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, where I served while studying for my Ph.D. The new translation does what great translations ought to do and has earned pride of place; the new translation not only improves our reading of the original text, it also evokes from a familiar text new subtleties, new turns of meaning in the English.

As I was reading volume two of the new translation, it felt like Schleiermacher had been standing in the crowd taking notes on the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus, and I wondered why I had never noticed this before. In his development of "The Work of Christ,"  Schleiermacher writes: "The Redeemer takes up persons into the strength of his God-consciousness, and this is his redeeming activity." The "strength" into which we are taken up by Christ is, as the footnote explains, "when transmitted to others ... an active enablement." A few pages later, Schleiermacher elaborates: "Christ's activity of taking us up into community with him is thus a creative engendering of the desire-to-take-him-up-into-oneself."*

Why hadn't I made this connection before? Simple. Because I thought I already knew what Luke was saying. Clearly Schleiermacher was a more attentive listener than I.

Christ's redeeming activity is identical with his taking us up into his own consciousness, into his own awareness of God, into his own life as Son of God, sharing with us his own trust and dependence and confidence in God. This is the fullness of Christ's redemption of us. This is our salvation. This is eternal life now. And, in story form, this may simply be what Luke's gospel is telling us (although the story tells us even more than this).

Someone once said that every three years or so we ought to forget everything we knew about the Bible and start over again. That's not really possible, of course, and it might not be desirable. But it would be good if we could be attentive to the Bible so as to hear it afresh, read it anew. If we can do this, imagine the surprises that await us in the book we think we already know.
*Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith, translated by Terrence N. Tice, Catherine L. Kelsey, and Edwina Lawler, edited by Catherine L. Kelsey and Terrence N. Tice (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, a new translation and critical edition, 2016), Vol. 2, pp. 621 and 623.

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