Most Christians consider the story of the tax collector Zacchaeus to be a powerful reminder of how God’s grace can move the greatest of sinners to seek Jesus in humble repentance. But for Fr. James Martin, the story of the diminutive tax collector is really about how the Church creates unnecessary obstacles that place LGBTQ+ people on the outs and how the Church must be more “welcoming” instead.
Let’s follow Fr. Martin’s exegesis and see if it adds up.
Martin invites the reader to “see Zacchaeus as an emblem of the LGBTQ person.” This isn’t because some LGBTQ persons should repent of sexual immorality in the same way Zacchaeus is traditionally seen to have repented from defrauding people. No, dear reader, Fr. Martin assures his most loyal fans that “I’m not saying LGBTQ people are any more sinful than anyone else—we’re all sinners in one way or another.”
Instead, Zacchaeus is short in stature, and LGBTQ people have “little stature” in the Church. Both are “on the outs” and are kept from Jesus by a grumbling crowd who is indignant that Jesus would offer them mercy. Martin asks how often the Church acts like “the crowd” that keeps LGBTQ people from Jesus.
When Jesus calls Zacchaeus down from the tree, Martin rapturously remarks, “How joyful it is to be welcomed into the community! Many LGBTQ people know the joy of finally feeling welcomed.”
You’d think at this point that Martin would say that just as Zacchaeus repented of the sin of defrauding others, LGBTQ people who engage in sexual immorality should repent of those sins as well. Instead, Martin says the Greek text of the narrative reveals something completely new about Zacchaeus that most people misunderstand. Instead of Zacchaeus promising he will give half his possessions to anyone he has defrauded, Zacchaeus is actually speaking in the present tense: he already is giving away his possessions to those who feel defrauded. According to Martin:
The English translation that we use at Mass, from the New American Bible, is this: “Half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor.” But the original Greek is in the present tense: “I give (or am giving) half of my possessions to the poor.” Zacchaeus seems to be already doing that. In other words, the conversion that is occurring may be not only Zacchaeus’s conversion, but the crowd’s conversion as well, as Jesus reveals to them that the one who was on the “outside” is more generous than they had ever imagined. How often is that the case with LGBTQ people, after people in the church come to know them!
There is an issue in how we are to understand Zacchaeus’s response in Luke 19:8.
Most formal translations that seek to follow the original wording preserve the Greek present tense. The Catholic RSV has Zacchaeus saying, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” But dynamic translations that seek to highlight the original meaning of the text that modern readers might miss usually render it in the future tense. That’s why the NAB has Zacchaeus saying, “I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over” based on the context of the passage.”
There is a fair amount of scholarly debate over the meaning of this encounter with Jesus. Was Zacchaeus a repentant sinner who will restore those he harmed now that he has had an encounter with Christ? That’s the traditional view of the passage. Or was Zacchaeus a misjudged innocent person who has vindicated himself by declaring to Jesus in the presence of the crowd that he already practices radical generosity? That’s the view proposed by some modern exegetes.
I’m not going to settle that debate in this article. Instead, I will just point out that Martin’s reflection misses the point of the story, regardless of which interpretation of Zacchaeus’s declaration is correct.
If the traditional view is correct, then Martin has failed to exhort his LGBTQ audience to repent of any sinful behavior that may be a part of their identity. Salvation came “today” to Zacchaeus’s house because he had repented of sinful behavior that is often associated with his identity. (It’s interesting that Martin doesn’t mention Jesus’ declaration about salvation coming “today” after Zacchaeus’s declaration.) This would be paralleled among the LGBTQ people who engage in sinful behavior associated with their identity who can find salvation by repenting of that behavior, just like Zacchaeus.
But even if the alternative view is correct, that also doesn’t help Martin’s argument.
According to that view, Zacchaeus is unfairly maligned as a cheat merely because he has the annoying job of being a tax collector. Jesus’ point to the crowd is that there is nothing inherently sinful about this occupation, even if others often misuse it. Jesus didn’t demand that Zacchaeus stop being a tax collector just as John the Baptist didn’t demand the same from tax collectors who sought baptism from him. John simply told them to “collect no more than is appointed you” (Luke 3:13).
The point of the narrative with Zacchaeus, then, is that the crowd has assumed that Zacchaeus must be a sinner because of his job. However, his encounter with Jesus shows that Zacchaeus is still a “Son of Abraham” in spite of his occupation. He can be a faithful Jew while being employed for Roman tax authorities, even if many of his colleagues were not as upstanding.
When it comes to LGBTQ persons in the Church, just as Zacchaeus was stereotyped as a sinner because of his occupation, many LGBTQ persons are stereotyped as sinners because of their orientations. They can still be faithful, chaste Catholics in spite of these disordered desires, and the “crowd” should not grumble at them seeking out Jesus even though many other people with these same orientations flagrantly reject Christ and his teachings.
And those people who still persist in grave sins like sodomy should be encouraged in the same way one would encourage a sinful Jewish tax collector in Jesus’ time: show him the example of Zacchaeus. He rejected the immoral license ancient society gave him in virtue of his identity (“he’s a tax collector; of course he makes extra money off the poor”) in favor of finding his identity in Jesus Christ. And LGBTQ Catholics should reject the immoral license modern society gives them in virtue of their identity (he’s LGBT; of course he sees nothing wrong with same-sex relationships) in favor of finding their true identity in Jesus Christ.
Martin is correct that Christians can sometimes fail in welcoming all people to salvation in Christ. But his message is anemic if it is concerned only about the feelings of those who feel excluded and not about celebrating those whose sanctity refutes common stereotypes and calling those entrenched in sin to repentance so that salvation can come to their house “today.”