One of my joys this spring has been helping out with the kids Sunday School class. Right now, they are doing a series on different people who met Jesus. One of those people was Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Most of us know him as the “wee little man” who climbed a tree to Jesus. We might also remember that he was a tax collector, and people were upset that Jesus was going to Zacchaeus’ house. You might also remember that upon meeting Jesus, he promised to give half his possessions to the poor. With younger kids, you tell the story, sing the song, and make sure they know that Jesus notices everyone, even those so little they have to climb a tree to get a good view of a parade.
But, as adults, there is something else to notice if you dig into Bible study. Most translations read that Zacchaeus will give half his possessions to the poor and pay back anyone who has been defrauded four times over. But, upon deeper language study, there is a very convincing argument to be made that Zacchaeus actually said that he already does those things. If this translation is right then Jesus is going to his house to celebrate that he is already a righteous man and has often suffered from false rumors about the kind of man he is. It is a minor change in the text, but it reveals a whole new twist to the story.
When we study the story of Noah as kids, we study about God’s message to Noah and Noah’s faithfulness in building the boat. We sing that cute song about animals boarding the ark by “twosies” and about the joy of finding dry land when it is all over. As adults, the story reads completely differently, as we struggle with the violence of the flood, the desperation of the journey and the hard lesson that sin cannot be wiped from the earth by killing all the people we think are bad.
Another Bible story we tell kids that reads differently as an adult is about Jonah and the whale. The big moment for our kids when reading this story is when the whale eats Jonah and then later spits him out. After that Jonah learns his lesson and does what God said. But as adults we learn that it never actually says whale, but just big fish. But, more importantly we learn that Jonah struggles with God through the entire story. He would rather die than do what he was called to do. He battles embarrassment, self-doubt, stubbornness in his relationship to God, and maybe depression. The story does not end on a high note, but with God reminding him who is boss. It just reads differently as an adult.
It is tempting to be satisfied that we know the Bible and its stories. Sometimes when we hear one of the familiar stories we can dismiss it, like a joke heard too many times. But, it is important to remember that it is by the Holy Spirit that we are taught. Passages we have read dozens of times can yield something new, if our hearts are open. The task ahead of us every time we open the Bible is to walk away with what God gives us or that which God reminds us today, with today’s challenges and today’s lessons. The Holy Spirit is alive and is ready to come to our aid, if we listen.
But, if we are satisfied that we have been taught all we can be taught, we will always look at the Bible through the eyes of our younger selves, which is a pity, because the Bible yields fruit for us at every age. So, this summer, while you are re-finding the joy of summer and travel and things the pandemic stole from us, don’t forget to pack your Bible and your devotion books. Just as God is always at work, we are invited into the limitless journey of discovering God along our life’s journey.
Grace and peace, Rob Jackson