The next Son of Man saying in the Gospel of Luke occurs in Lk 19:10 and is the subject of today’s Easter season note. It is found at the end of the story narrating Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10), an episode unique to Luke’s Gospel, and a favorite sure to be found in any collection of children’s Bible stories. It is possible that the saying in verse 10 has been appended (by the author and/or a tradition he inherited) to the narrative in vv. 1-9, and that it originally circulated as a separate saying. This is all the more likely since the very saying also appears at Lk 9:56a and Matt 18:11 in certain manuscripts, marking it as a “floating” tradition. Be that as it may, we must examine the saying here in the context of the Lukan narrative, where it serves as the climax to the Zacchaeus story. It reads as follows:
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the (thing which) has been ruined”
Any reader familiar with Luke’s Gospel will immediately think of the parables in Lk 15—the lost sheep (vv. 3-7, cf. Matt 18:12-13), the lost coin (vv. 8-10), and the lost son (vv. 11-32)—all of which use the verb a)po/llumi, as here in 19:10. This verb is actually quite difficult to render literally in English; above I have translated it in something like its fundamental sense—”ruin, destroy”. However, formally, it might be rendered better as “lose/suffer loss from (someone or something)”—and, indeed, it is often used, as in the parables of Lk 15, in the sense of something being lost. In suffering loss, the person (or the collective) is thereby ruined, the whole is destroyed. This is fundamental to the idea of salvation expressed in these sayings and parables of Jesus—of seeking and finding again that which has been lost or destroyed.
It is not entirely certain how the saying of verse 10 relates to the narrative of vv. 1-9. There are two possibilities:
- Zaccheus, a wealthy head toll-collector (v. 2), upon encountering Jesus (vv. 3-5) and welcoming him under his roof (vv. 6-7), repents of his previous behavior (implied) and offers to pay back fourfold, etc whatever he has obtained through fraud and unscrupulous action (typical of toll-collectors as “sinners”).
- Zaccheus, though a wealthy head toll-collector, tries to act honorably and in a right manner, always making sure to give to the poor and pay back fourfold anything that may have been obtained inappropriately.
The saying of verse 10 would, of course, seem to indicate the former; however, the context of the story itself actually may suggest the latter. Zaccheus himself does not appear to be “lost”—he intentionally seeks out Jesus, eager to see him, and immediately accepts Jesus’ request and welcomes him into his house. A key to the correct interpretation may be found in verse 7, where certain onlookers mutter disapprovingly “he goes along with a sinful man into (his house) to loose down [i.e. stay for the night]”. This reaction is similar to that of the Pharisees in Lk 5:30 (where Jesus has entered the house of another toll-collector), and of the elder brother in the lost son parable (Lk 15:28-30). There is in fact a reasonably precise parallel between the toll-collectors Levi and Zaccheus: they both respond immediately to the call/request of Jesus and take him into their house. That they are toll-collectors, typically regarded as unethical and “sinful” by the cultural-religious standards of Jewish society at the time, is irrelevant—except insofar as it points out, strikingly, the tendency of Jesus to seek the poor and outcast element of society, which is especially an important theme in the Gospel of Luke. In the case of the lost-son parable, the “prodigal” was part of a well-to-do and “righteous” family who fell into sinful ways; Levi and Zaccheus, by contrast, are deemed “sinners” simply because of the circumstances of their livelihood and position in society. Cf. the parable in Lk 18:9-14 for an example of a truly humble and upright toll-collector, in contrast to the hypocritical and self-righteous piety of the religious.
However one may interpret verse 8—is Zaccheus’ behavior exemplary or does he repent of unscrupulous behavior?—it seems clear from the narrative that salvation comes primarily not by way of his repentance, but by the presence of Jesus:
“And Jesus said toward him that ‘Today salvation has come to be in this house, according to (the fact) that he also is a son of Abraham!'”
I.e., Zacchaeus is a “son of Abraham”, like all other Israelites and Jews, and cannot be excluded simply because he is part an outcast element; and “salvation” has “come to be in this house” in the person of Jesus. This last point is implied within the subtext of the narrative:
This brings us to the Son of Man saying. In this instance, “son of man” seems to be a substitute for “I” as a self-reference—compare Lk 5:32, “I have not come to call just people, but sinners, into repentance”. It is also possible, that in the overall context of the narrative, the prior passion prediction (Lk 18:31-34) may still be in view; if so, then the “Son of Man” expression and self-identification may be intended to draw together two concepts: (1) Jesus’ call for people to follow/receive him, and (2) the suffering and death he will experience in Jerusalem. The encounter with Zaccheus is one of the last episodes set during Jesus’ long journey to Jerusalem—he and his followers are about to enter the city, where the events of the Passion will unfold.