When I was growing up in the church, one of the stories I remember learning in Sunday School was the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). There was even a song we would sing: "Zacchaeus was a wee, little man, and a wee little man was he..." (Anyone who knows the song, it's now stuck in your head, too. You're welcome.)
The gist of the story was that Zacchaeus was a wicked tax collector who wanted to see Jesus pass through town and so climbed a tree to see above the crowd (because he was a wee, little man). Then Jesus picks Zachy out of the crowd and invites himself to Zacchaeus' home. Little Z is then so touched by this honor that he changes his life and promises, "I will give half my money to the poor and if I have cheated anyone, I will repay them four times as much." A sinner has been saved. Jesus proclaims, "Salvation has come to this house." Roll credits. It's a perfect redemption story. Like Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol," but without the spirits and Tiny Tim.
Unless it isn't...
I recently had this story opened to me in an entirely new way by someone who pointed out one small piece of grammar: the present tense.
You see, when Zacchaeus says, "I will give half my money to the poor," which is the way many English translations write it, he's actually speaking in the present tense. If you look at the Greek text, what he literally says is, "Behold, Lord, half of my wealth I give to the poor and if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much." He's not promising to change his ways; he's describing how he's already a fair and generous person. He's not a penny-pincher like Scrooge; he's an ancient Bill Gates! Mind: blown.
When I went back to reread the rest of the story, I realized that nothing in the text says that he's a bad or wicked man. He's only described as a "tax collector" and "wealthy." And when Jesus declares, "Salvation has come to this house," the rest of his sentence is, "because this man, too, is a child of Abraham."
Suddenly everything I learned about this text is backwards. If Zacchaeus was being honest in what he said, then the point Luke is making is this: being a tax collector for the Romans would not have made him popular with his neighbors and they probably treat him as an outcast and a traitor. Still, Little Z does his job fairly and is generous with his money and when Jesus visits his house, he is honoring him before the community for being a righteous person and declares him in good standing with God. The "salvation" is that the community has a change of heart, not Zacchaeus.
This isn't a story about a sinner needing redemption, it's a warning about rushing to judgement, just like Harry Potter discovering in book seven that Professor Snape was actually a good guy all along. It is a reminder to me that knowing one thing about a person doesn't mean I know everything about a person. Those I may want to call immoral or bad may actually be kind and good people. And even if they aren't, they are still children of Abraham, beloved by the same God who puts up with me.
"When you are a stranger, hold your tongue and wager that love will set you free... until it sets you free." -Jars of Clay, "Inland"