Narrative Lectionary Reflection
April 2, 2017
If you read or watch enough science fiction or comic books, you will run into the multiverse. It’s the belief or theory that there isn’t one universe, but hundreds or thousands of different universes all taking place at the same time. There is the famous thought experiment by Erwin Schrodinger where he talks about a cat being placed in a box with a small amount of a radioactive substance, a hammer and cyanide. Without going into the whole theory, as long as the box is closed, we don’t know if the cat is alive or was killed by the poison. In theory, the cat could be both alive and dead at the same time. This experiment has been used to explain multiverses because you can be a famous singer in one universe or a serial killer in another one all at the same time. There is that famous episode in Star Trek where Kirk is transported to mirror universe where the peaceful Federation is now the Terran Empire. Characters who were good in the main universe were sadistic in this new one. And of course, there is Spock who in the mirror universe is sort of evil and you can tell because he now has a goatee.
I’ve thought about multiverses in thinking about a tension in today’s text. There are two different understandings when it comes to the tax collector named Zacchaeus.
For years, Zacchaeus was the short guy who had dinner with Jesus and gave money to the poor. It’s a classic story of redemption, of a “bad guy” who became good. But in recent years, it has been revealed that there is some tension when it comes to the verb tense in verse 8. Verse 8 reads:“Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”
This passage in the original Greek is in a present tense. It could mean that Zacchaeus was already giving his money to the poor. But the present tense could also be indicating a future action meaning he will do this. This is how pastor Dan Clendenin explains it:
Even though the verbs are in the present tense, the typical way of reading of this story follows scholars like Robert Stein and translations like the NRSV and NIV. They render the present tense verbs as a “futuristic present.” That is, Zacchaeus the sinner repents and vows that henceforth he’ll make restitution.
The second option follows commentators like Joseph Fitzmyer and translations like the KJV and RSV. They render the verbs as a “progressive present tense.” In this reading, Zacchaeus is a hidden saint about whom people have made all sorts of false assumptions about his corruption. And so he defends himself: “Lord, I always give half of my wealth to the poor, and whenever I discover any fraud or discrepancy I always make a fourfold restitution.”
So which one is it? Is it the story of corrupt rich man that pledges to do right? Or is it a story of affirmation, of Jesus blessing Zacchaeus for the work that he is doing?
I’m beginning to wonder if it is both; that like Schrodinger’s cat, Zacchaeus is in a superpositions state: both sinner and saint.
Having gone to a Lutheran seminary, I remember learning how Martin Luther believed that Christians are both sinner and saint. In Luther’s mind a saint was a forgiven sinner, and we were always both forgiven and still imperfect on this side of heaven.
I don’t know if Zaccheus had already been making amends or would promise to do it. What I do know if that he was both sinner and saint, one that was part of a corrupt system and trying to atone. Jesus called this flawed man a “son of Abraham” one that belong in God’s kingdom.
The good news is that we aren’t that different from ol’ Zach. We are sinners and we can’t hide that fact. But in Christ we are forgiven, we are redeemed by Christ and sent to act with justice and grace toward others.
And you don’t need the multiverse to understand that.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.