“Zacchaeus said, ‘Starting now I will give half my possessions to the poor…'” – Luke 19:8
“Zacchaeus said, ‘I already give half my possessions to the poor…'” – Luke 19:8

A Bible scholar once told me you can translate Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus in two ways—future-present or customary-present. My eyes glazed over. Until I got the difference.

Future-present: “From now on, I’ll care for the poor.” A corrupt tax collector turns virtuous on the spot. Customary-present: “I’ve always cared for the poor…” He’s more complex than we thought. In his morally dubious life he’s gotten at least one thing right.

The customary–present Zaccaheus is more familiar to me. More credible too. I don’t know any corrupt people who became paragons of virtue overnight. I do know lots of compromised people leading ethically-ambiguous lives in an ethically-bewildering world, able to do good, but unable to be pure.

Like Oscar Schindler, a man not to be trusted with your money or your wife, who saved thousands of Jews from murder. Like Mother Teresa, a recipient of donations from groups opposed to population control in India, who returned human worth to the destitute and dying. Like a guy I know who designs missile guidance systems for a living and spends every other waking moment teaching men in maximum security to read.

Like me that time I visited a parishioner at her house, sixteen rooms on ten acres. “More house than any good Christian needs,” I sniffed judgmentally driving up the majestic driveway, only to meet seven adopted special needs kids living happily inside.

Like most of us who can’t be pure without being proud, who’d do well to go to Jesus as we are, compromised, ambiguous, requiring mercy. If Zacchaeus is any indication, we’ll find it.


Jesus, help me get at least something right. Cover me with mercy for the rest. 

About the Author
Mary Luti is a Pastor at Wellesley Village Church, Wellesley, Massachusetts.