A Sociolinguistic Reading of ptōchos in Luke’s Gospel, Part V: “Lukan usage of ptōchos from the ‘L Source’ (19:8)”

Posted: January 12, 2014 in General

Homeless children reach out from behind a fence as they wait to collect free clothes at a local charity in the northeastern Indian city of SiliguriSociolinguistics examines religion because it is another domain in human behavior where language is an important component [1]. In Luke 19:8, Zacchaeus’ act of distribution to the ‘poor’ is more religious in practice, but it has also sociological significance. The social reformer Jesus and a social sinner Zacchaeus can come to the same platform only in terms of a social issue like poverty (cf. Stegemann, 1999: 60). Here sociolinguistics is concerned with choices or decisions that speakers make: first, where the linguistic code permits; and second, where the choices have cultural significance (cf. Samaritan, 1976: 3). The motives for linguistic choices stem from factors such as place, time, topic of discourse, participants (i.e., role of speaker, nature and size of audience), and nature of the speech act [2]. Luke considers all these aspects while he narrates the story of Zacchaeus [3].

In the ancient Mediterranean world, the factors such as property, political power and influence, esteem, background, sex, occupational activity, education, and so forth were significant to consider people’s social position [4]. According to Joel B. Green, “Zacchaeus is like others on comparable quests who are faced with obstacles (cf. 18:3-4, 15, 39); Zacchaeus, like a widow, a toll collector, children, and a blind beggar, is a person of low social status” [5]. One can view how the secular literature and even the New Testament and the Rabbinic writings portray the aspects of the telōnai with negative connotations [6]. In the Roman and Hellenistic literature they were lumped together with beggars, thieves, and robbers. In the New Testament they are paired with sinners, ‘immoral people’ (pornoi, Matthew 21:31), and the Gentiles (Matthew 5:46; 18:17) [7]. Zacchaeus is characterized here in four different ways: first, a Jew; second, a ruler; third, a toll collector; and fourth, a wealthy (cf. Marshall, 1978: 694; Craddock, 1990: 218-20). In every sense he is sociologically stereotyped as a greedy and dishonest person and his credibility is zero [8]. The narrator of the story employs the available linguistic codes and choices to present the story in a rhetorical fashion (cf. Kennedy, 1984).

The rhetorical interest of the narrator is obvious through his linguistic choices. The main issue in v. 10 is the force of the verbs didōmi (to give) and apodidōmi (to give back). The usage of present tense can be taken as a descriptive of Zacchaeus’ current behavior [9]. In a society of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’, Zacchaeus was isolated from both the extremes (cf. Johnson, 1991: 287; cf. Craddock, 1990: 218-20). While his economic richness caused him to loose the support of the ptōchos, the factor of the dignity of job separated him from the elite group. The ‘identity crisis’ of Zacchaeus is quite obvious here. Even though rich it was impossible for him to identify with the elite group. Only through distribution of wealth and coming down to the level of the ptōchoi he can eliminate his identity crisis (cf. Stegemann, 1999: 60).

The primary reason for poverty during the first century Palestine and other Roman provinces was due to heavy taxation imposed upon the masses. The various religious taxes (i.e., temple tax, tithe, firstling taxes and so forth), tributes and direct taxes (i.e., land tax and head tax), indirect taxes (i.e., wreath tax, salt tax, sales tax and the like), duties (i.e., import and export duties, harbor duties, tolls), fees, and compulsory labour which were imposed on the Jewish population in Palestine are brought together under the term taxes (cf. Donahue, 1992: 6: 337) [10]. Here Zacchaeus, as the district manager of the tax collecting company, earned his wealth mostly from the commission of the taxes. But his present activity of distribution of wealth is developed primarily out of confession of sins (i.e., transformation of mind). This is a healing story: the restoration of the abnormal or broken community relationships has been effected by the power of Jesus (cf. Donahue, 1992: 6: 337). The story is therefore not about Zacchaeus’ repentance, but about the curing of his illness. Here ‘illness’ can be defined as abnormal or disputed social relations [11]. According to Green, “. . . in a paradoxical way, this narrative unit provides a notable illustration of ‘good news to the poor’” [12]. Toward the end of the story, Zacchaeus is addressed as ‘son of Abraham’ (cf. Luke 16:23, 25, 29, 30) and his status in the society is elevated (cf. Marshall, 1978: 694).

The good news continues to reach the poor and the outcaste: the Kingdom is made up of people like helpless children (Luke 18:15-17); the blind beggar’s reception of sight fulfills the Messianic announcement of 4:18 (cf. Luke 18:38-43); and those who are ‘lost’ are being ‘sought out and saved’ [13]. The final story of Zacchaeus in the long account of Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem is meant to be a climax in the ministry of Jesus (cf. Marshall, 1978: 694). It is the supreme example of the universality of the gospel offered to tax collectors and sinners, with Jesus takes the initiative and he accepts the invitation to the house of Zacchaeus [14]. Thus, ptōchos is the connecting link between Jesus and Zacchaeus, the rich and the Kingdom values. In this level, we can see the significance of the story both at the descriptive and at the gnomic levels.

In the story the religious duties like almsgiving, distribution of wealth, and the attitude of sympathy mark a life of reconciliation in the society. Luke here uses ptōchos as a practical and linguistic code with cultural significance. He introduces ptōchos as a negatively affected community due to heavy taxation during his period (cf. Craddock, 1990: 218-20; Green, 1997: 666-73). Zacchaeus’ distribution of wealth is an invitation for reciprocal relationship between communities and thereby upliftment of the ptōchoi (i.e., endeavour for a classless society). In sum, ptōchos interacts within the pericope as a linguistic choice with social impact. The Lukan special source (i.e., ‘L’ source) deals with the issue of poverty in sociological terms (cf. Samaritan, 1976: 3). For the narrator the issue is not merely economical but larger and inclusive. In the ‘L’ he presents the real life situation of the people of the land in an innovative and rhetorical way than elsewhere in the New Testament.

End Notes:

[1] William J. Samaritan, ed. Language in Religious Practice (Massachusetts: Newbury House Publishers, Inc., 1976), 3.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Luke sets this scene with an important geographical reference to Jericho, located proximate to Jerusalem (about 20 kilometers away). Jesus is on the move, bringing the chronologically lengthy journey to Jerusalem to a close. The name Zakchaios (Hebrew Zakky), is an abbreviation of ‘Zachariah’, meaning ‘the righteous one’ (2 Macc 10:19). Zykamorea (Sycamore tree) appears only here (cf. 19:4) in the NT, though a related term Sukaminos (i.e., Sycamine tree) is found in 17:6. The tree is not the Mulberry fig of Western Europe, but more like an oak tree, only with a short trunk and wide, lateral branches that make for easy climbing.

[4] Ekkehard W. Stegemann and Wolfgang Stegemann, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 60.

[5] Green, The Gospel of Luke, 666.

[6] Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector (architelōnēs) at what apparently was a Roman regional tax center. Whether “chief” (archi-) means first of rank or simply a “major” (i.e., rich) tax collector is not clear.

[7] John R. Donahue, “Tax Collector”, ABD, Vol. 6, 337.

[8] Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary, 302.

[9] Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50, BECNT, 1519.

[10] Stegemann, The Jesus Movement, 113.

[11] Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary, 304.

[12] Green, The Gospel of Luke, 667.

[13] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Series, Vol. 3, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 287.

[14] I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Michigan, Eerdmans, 1978), 694.

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

  1. rtrube54 says:

    These are some great insights into this passage–we often simply look at the salvific character of this story without exploring the broader social implications of Zacchaeus’s act.

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