Abusing Zacchaeus

Fr. James Martin’s approaches to interpreting Scripture have a long pedigree in Western Christianity; they’re largely rooted in the modernism of liberal Protestantism.

Detail from painting of Jesus and Zacchaeus. (Saint Andrew Bible Missal, 1962)

In the Gospel of Luke, Zacchaeus is a Jew, but also a tax collector. As such, his fellow Jews would have despised him and regarded him as a traitor. Conversely, Zacchaeus himself was probably not very devout. (Like modern members of major religious bodies, the ancient world saw a lot of nominal, low-observance members among pagans, Jews, and Christians.) Jesus’ powerful witness brought Zacchaeus to true repentance, and he was saved, reconciled to God and his fellow men. We may safely presume, then, that Zacchaeus is in heaven. If so, he must have had quite a saintly shock the other day upon finding out that he’s actually a gay man. For Fr. James Martin, S.J., in his address at the World Meeting of Families, used Jesus’ reconciling of Zacchaeus as a symbol of how gays and others marginalized by their sexual identities might today be included fully in the life of the Church.

Fr. Martin’s interpretive moves have a long pedigree in Western Christianity; they’re largely rooted in the modernism of liberal Protestantism. The Reformation surrendered the fourfold sense of Scripture, and the historical-critical positivism of later liberal Protestantism surrendered the truth of the literal sense of Scripture, and all that was left if Jesus and Christianity were to remain relevant to modern man was moralism. Jesus became a moral exemplar affirming the bourgeois morality of the day. But the genteel anti-Semitism of liberal Protestantism (which abides in substance if not form today even after the horrors of the Holocaust) refused to see Jesus as a Jew firmly rooted in his Jewish context. Unmoored, then, Jesus himself became a cipher, a symbol, a malleable figure, a mascot enlisted to serve whatever cause remade in theologians’ and activists’ own images. The extreme example of this is Nazi Christology, in which German theologians presented Jesus as an Aryan fathered by a Roman soldier, a forerunner of fascism. (See, for instance, Susannah Heschel’s The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany.)

Jesus the generic boundary breaker

The particulars of Jesus and the Gospels were thus lost, with the dramatis personae in a given Gospel story functioning as empty, ghostly, transparent symbols to be reshaped into modern figures serving modern mores. And so while the Gospels themselves present the Jew Jesus as a savior of the entire world who reconciles sinners like the Jew Zacchaeus to the trinitarian God of Israel, moderns today like Fr. Martin see Jesus as a generic boundary breaker. The Pharisees become emblems of anyone conservative, anyone rigid, anyone concerned for law, rules, and good order. Jesus then becomes the great breaker of boundaries who includes societal outcasts, an example for us who should go and do likewise.

And so Fr. Martin recently stated, in his talk at the Vatican’s World Meeting of Families in Dublin, Ireland, a week ago:

I would like you to invite you to think of Zacchaeus as a symbol for the L.G.B.T. Catholic. Not because the L.G.B.T. people are more sinful than the rest of us—because we’re all sinners. But because they feel so marginalized. Think of the L.G.B.T. person as Zacchaeus. […]

[Zacchaeus’ conversion and making of restitution] comes from an encounter with Jesus. Because Jesus’ approach was, more often than not, community first, conversion second. For John the Baptist the model was to convert first and then be welcomed into the community. For Jesus, it’s community first, conversion second. Welcome and respect come first.

This is how Jesus treats people who feel on the margins. He seeks them out before anyone else; he encounters them, and he treats them with respect, sensitivity and compassion.

So when it comes to L.G.B.T. people and their families in our parishes, it seems that there are two places to stand. You can stand with the crowd, who grumble and who oppose mercy for those on the margins. Or you can stand with Zacchaeus, and, more important, with Jesus.

Note the interpretive maneuver: the details of the story establish a set of relationships. Zacchaeus’ Judaism is largely irrelevant, as is his particular status as a tax collector; what matters is that he is an outcast exiled from the in-group. Jesus breaks the boundary and brings the outcast into the in-group.

This is spiritual interpretation of a sort, but it’s Gnostic spiritual interpretation. It’s not simply the moral sense of Scripture run amok, unmoored from the other senses, but a system in which a wholly different and heterodox understanding of god and reality become the invisible structure to which the signs of Scripture point. The ancient Gnostics did likewise, seeing the characters of the Gospels as empty symbols they could fit into their Gnostic system. What mattered was not the particulars of the Gospels, but the raw structural relationships of the characters to each other and their world. The particulars are lost, the structures kept, and the characters filled with new content, mascots for reality as the Gnostic sees it.

And today, since nothing in Scripture affirms homosex or other abnormal sexualities, contemporary revisionist activists must engage in this sort of Gnostic allegory, like the Gnostic allegorizers of old. The commitment to a heterodox god and reality comes first, and then Scripture is understood to refer to that god and that reality. It’s no accident, then, that today’s sexual revisionists would read an alternative reality into the text of Scripture, a reality divorced from creation.

The spirit of the age vs. the Church’s fourfold sense

And that reality may shift with the changing of eras, as Fr. Martin’s interpretive posture means being married to the spirit of the age, which in good Hegelian fashion is ever shifting. A major problem with his approach is that it admits no limiting principle. As the characters in Scripture’s stories become symbols and ciphers, there’s no limit to the boundaries that might be broken tomorrow, no limit to the types of outsiders that could be read back into the empty ciphers of the stories. The sexual revolution has run from the acceptance of divorce in the Protestant world through the acceptance of contraception and abortion to gay marriage and transgenderism today. Do we really think it will stop there? What might come next? Without a limiting principle, reading Scripture as Fr. Martin does means that nothing whatsoever can ultimately be ruled out of bounds.

In interpreting Scripture with the classical fourfold sense developed in the Church’s tradition, however, we come up against particular realities, and supremely the ultimate Truth of God and man, and Truth always functions as a limiting principle. In the Church’s classic understanding, the letter of Scripture itself was prior to any spiritual senses and presented the Church’s eternal, unchanging rule of faith. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas maintain the primacy of the literal sense as the sense rooting all others, and they forbid finding spiritual readings that cannot not be found plainly in the literal sense.

In the Church’s approach to the interpretation of sacred Scripture, the literal sense presents the truths of salvation history plainly. Allegory (strictly speaking, what we might call typology) enables the relation of the Testaments to each other as witnesses to the one Triune God acting in salvation history. Tropology is simply the moral use made of Scripture, and anagogy is that function operative whenever the Scriptures function to bring believers closer to the end of salvation history, which is eternal glory. Further, the four senses are not independent: a reading of the literal sense involves an allegorical (typological) relationship which also motivates moral behavior which in turn moves a believer further on the path to salvation towards glory. And as regards our present purposes, in the Catholic tradition the letter of Scripture affirms God as creator, and creation, conversely, as his handiwork, with “male and female” as the very image of God commanded to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:27–28). Any allegorical, spiritual readings of the Gospels, the very center of the canon of Scripture, must affirm that.

Another example from St. Luke’s pen (for the story of Zacchaeus is found in St. Luke’s Gospel) that illustrates what the sort of exegesis that Fr. Martin engages in involves: Peter’s conversion of the Gentiles in Acts 10. There Cornelius the Roman centurion, a believer in the God of Israel, is told in a vision to send for Simon Peter. Meanwhile, Peter is having his famous vision in which he sees unclean animals and is told to kill and eat them. When Peter visits Cornelius, he realizes that the vision was meant to indicate the time for Gentile inclusion in the people of God was at hand. “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34–35).

The Holy Spirit falls upon Cornelius and the other Gentiles with him, and Peter insists that they be baptized with water to be made Christians. Sexual revisionists seize on this passage, asserting that just like God led Peter to include Gentiles fully in the life of the Church, so too is God calling us today to include gays (and others) fully in the life of the Church. Just as Peter overcame his prejudices, so should we. The particulars are lost; what matters is the general structural level. Boundaries are to be broken, God is telling the Church to include fully all it has heretofore considered outsiders.

St. Luke’s consistent, coherent story of salvation history

What’s the point of the story, however, in St. Luke’s view, as best we can divine it as good interpreters of his story? The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are one work in two volumes, and from Luke 1 to Acts 28 St. Luke tells a consistent, coherent story of salvation history in which Jesus and his Church stand in radical continuity with Judaism. It begins with Jews (the priest Zechariah and the Blessed Virgin Mary) receiving messages about promised children whose coming will mean the realization of the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, and indeed the nations, the Gentiles. And Jews like Mary and Simeon sing very Jewish songs of praise about the God of Israel fulfilling the promises made to the Israelite fathers: “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever” (Mary’s Magnificat, Lk 1:54–55).

St. Luke will then foreshadow the inclusion of Gentiles in myriad passages, such as the genealogy in Luke 3, which (unlike St. Matthew’s genealogy) goes back all the way to Adam, father of the whole human race (St. Matthew’s goes back to Abraham, regarded as the first Jew). Soo too Jesus’ inaugural sermon at Nazareth in Luke 4. The service goes sideways when Jesus declares he’s the messianic fulfillment of Isaiah 61, and Jesus then reminds the congregation that Elisha and Elijah helped Gentiles back in their day, implying he will go and do likewise. And at the crucifixion, when Jesus expires the centurion responsible for Jesus’ execution praises God and declares, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:47).

In Acts, then, the risen Jesus promises the disciples gathered in Jerusalem, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8); Samaria is Gentile territory in Jewish eyes, and the ends of the earth means mission to Gentiles. The drama in Acts unfolds according to this pattern, with the death of St. Stephen precipitating mission work in Samaria, then Asia Minor, and then Europe. St. Paul eventually makes his way to Rome, where the action ends. St. Luke, then, frames his story around two great cities, Jerusalem, capital of the Jews, and Rome, capital of the Gentiles, to show the universality of the Gospel message.

That’s what the story of Cornelius’ conversion is about: St. Luke is showing how Gentiles came to be members of the Church. It’s not a generic story about including outsiders or breaking boundaries, but about the promises of universal salvation made by the God of Israel coming to fulfillment through Jesus in the Church.

But that seems so irrelevant; does not such a reading simply relegate the founding events of Christian salvation history to history? No. We read the Bible from our point in that same story, which is the time of the Church. We are Church (if I may) along with Peter and Cornelius, and those of us who are Gentiles (the vast majority of Christians today) have this story to show us how we got included in God’s promises. (I’m Dutch Frisian and German, and until St. Boniface got hold of us, my ancestors were engaging in all sorts of paganism not so long ago.) In its Quixotic quest for relevance, modern moralism seeks mascots for contemporary causes because it lost the plot of Scripture, and it can do nothing else rhetorically besides tell people how to act. Traditional interpretation, by contrast, regards Scripture as the story of salvation history and roots our identity in that grand story. It tells us first who we are. As such, it can do so much more rhetorically, like move us to thanksgiving and praise for how God has acted to save us pagans by making us Christians.

Encounter, repentance, reconciliation

What, then, of Zacchaeus the Jew? St. Luke is showing us that Jesus the Jew worked to bring sinners (such as impious tax collectors were) back into a saving relationship with the God of Israel. But that reconciliation is not cheap; Zacchaeus declares his repentance and effective penance when he declares at dinner that he’ll give half his wealth to the poor and repay fourfold any whom he has defrauded. Then, and only then, does Jesus state, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9–10). That’s the pattern: first an encounter with Jesus, then repentance, then reconciliation with God and man, which is the nature of salvation.

Fr. Martin wants us to identify with his symbol of Jesus in the story and include fully in the life and sacraments of the Church his most favored outsiders, LGTB Catholics. But maybe it would be better for us to see ourselves less in the person of this abstract Jesus and more like the concrete Zacchaeus of the story and ask how we might repent, do penance, and be reconciled with God and man. All too often do we identify with the Savior in Scripture when we should identify with the sinners he saves. For most of us in the late modern West, that means repenting of greed and engaging in generosity. A contemporary reading for many of Fr. Martin’s fans might also mean repenting of sins of the flesh and engaging in chastity. And perhaps Fr. Martin, a priest of many real gifts, might consider anew the Church’s hermeneutic.

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About Dr. Leroy Huizenga 48 Articles
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is Administrative Chair of Arts and Letters and Professor of Theology at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. Dr. Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. During his doctoral studies he received a Fulbright Grant to study and teach at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2012), co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually (Baylor, 2009), and is currently writing a major theological commentary on the Gospel of Mark for Bloomsbury T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary series. A shorter work on the Gospel of Mark keyed to the lectionary for Year B, Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark, was published by Emmaus Road (2017), as was a similar work on the Gospel of Matthew, Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Emmaus Road, 2019).


  1. Very fine essay on Catholic Scriptual interpretation. Our present US media culture presents us with threadbare Evangelical interpretations which tend to collapse when challenged by non-evangelicals into the spiritually vacant liberalisms Dr Huizinga criticizes above. US Catholics need to be taught that the Church has a far richer manner of interpreting Scripture than anything found in Protestantism, whether of the fundamentalist or liberal skeins.

    Reclaiming the fourfold sense of Scripture should be a priority for all parochial Catholic Scripture studies.

    Thanks Dr. Huizinga!

  2. Very interesting article. What blows me away is the stature Fr. James Martin has in the Church. One hundred years ago he would have been driven out of the Church.

  3. Thank you for this presentation.
    One particular Scripture scholar points out in a book introduction: that never before, has there been so much in the way of Bible study material available, and yet, so much Biblical illiteracy abounds. It’s perfectly true, that a person, with a relatively low level of formal education can, if they really desire to, gain a good understanding of how to approach Scripture study, and then go from there. Besides the importance, it is such a fascinating subject. Especially learning about Judaism at the time of Jesus. Their is so much non – Biblical Rabbinic writing for scholars to focus on, and then pass it on. So yes! It is inconceivable, how the more educated get it so wrong. Unless of course they have an agenda. The devil has an agenda, and he can quote Scripture. Let’s pray that people start to find their way.
    Stephen in Australia.

  4. That’s what many American Catholics want: To be liberal Protestants, but remain true to their Irish, Italian, Polish, Slovak, etc. heritage. This is why the Episcopal Church and other mainline Protestant churches don’t cut it: They are too WASPy for non-Anglo-Saxons.

  5. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

    ” Straining out a gnat ” would be analogous to Cardinal DiNardo ( et al ) spending the next 20-30 years rooting out the sexual predators in shepherd’s clothing and then closing all the loopholes in the procedures and processes previously designed to prevent such predation; while ” swallowing the camel ” of the ” ante-Pope’s ” ( Cardinal Martini ) disciples’ ( Pope Francis et al ) who are fundamentally transforming over 2,000 years of developed Doctrine and Dogma.

    Julia Meloni has done the hard work for us all so that we Catholics don’t have to “swallow the camel “; but we need to read her two essays linked below to understand the ” camel ” is the heresy of Modernism. This heresy needs to be understood, renounced, and condemned by the true shepherd’s of the Church.



    May Our Lady of Guadalupe intercede for us,
    Jim Gill

  6. Not only is James Martin heterodox but he is a very poor preacher and theologian. His fellow Jesuit the Late Father John Hardon would hold his head in shame and dismay.

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