It is sometimes argued by Muslims that the story of Zacchaeus in Luke chapter 19 is incompatible with the Christian claim that salvation is the result of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
In the story, Jesus meets a wealthy but widely despised tax collector, Zacchaeus. To everyone’s astonishment, Jesus invites himself (!) to Zacchaeus’ home, and (presumably) has a meal and a conversation with him. Zacchaeus, upon hearing Jesus’ teaching, pledges to give half of his wealth to the poor, and to repay anyone he has ever cheated. In response, Jesus says the following:
“Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Thus, in this passage, salvation ‘came’ to Zacchaeus as a result of his clear act of repentance. Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection are never mentioned. Muslims conclude that, for Luke the evangelist, salvation has nothing to do with Jesus’ death and resurrection, and everything to do with an individual’s sincere repentance.
Let us try to state the argument more rigorously:
(1) For Luke, salvation comes as a result of individual repentance.
(2) If for Luke, salvation comes as a result of individual repentance, then, for Luke, salvation does not come as a result of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
(3)Therefore, for Luke, salvation does not come as a result of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
This argument is deductively valid, i.e. its conclusion is entailed by its premises. But are its premises both true?
Premise (1) is clear enough from the gospel text. But what motivates premise (2)? The thought seems to be that, if salvation comes as a result of individual repentance, then Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are redundant with respect to salvation. If one can receive salvation simply by repenting, then why bother with this whole ‘life-death-resurrection’ drama?
I submit that this ‘redundancy’ charge is ill-conceived, because it rests on a fallacy of ambiguity. The expression, ‘X comes as a result of Y’ is ambiguous. It could mean:
‘In order to acquire X, one must Y’
‘Y makes it possible to acquire X.
Suppose X = bread. If we take the first interpretation of ‘X comes as a result of Y’, then ‘Y’ would have to stand for ‘going to the shop to buy bread’. If on the other hand we take the second interpretation, then Y could stand for ‘The baker’s baking of the bread’.
Now, suppose I heard you say, ‘Bread comes as a result of the baker’s baking of the bread‘. Imagine I objected to you by saying, ‘No, you’ve got it all wrong! Bread comes as a result of going to the shop to buy bread!’ You’d be baffled. If you were patient enough to deal with me, you would explain to me that I hadn’t noticed the ambiguity in ‘X comes as a result of Y’. Once we take that ambiguity into account, we see that both sentences can be true at the same time.
Likewise, I claim, regarding premise (2) of the above argument. The truth of the statement ‘Salvation comes as a result of individual repentance’ does not rule out the truth of ‘Salvation comes as a result of Jesus’ life death and resurrection’, if we take these statements to mean (respectively):
‘In order to acquire salvation, one must individually repent’
‘Jesus’ life, death and resurrection make it possible to acquire salvation’
I conclude that premise (2) of the argument is false, and hence that the argument is unsound. Jesus’ claim that ‘salvation has come’ to Zacchaeus’ house does not entail that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is unnecessary.
1. It can’t be that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection make it possible to acquire salvation, because Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred after Zacchaeus acquired salvation.
Why not? The fact that I can acquire some good X can be made possible by some future fact Y. For example, if a friend treats me to a meal at a restaurant, the fact that I can eat a delicious meal is made possible by the fact that my friend will pay the bill after the meal. So, I don’t see why Zacchaeus’ acquiring of salvation couldn’t be made possible by events that occurred after he acquired it.
2. But Luke the evangelist didn’t believe that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection had anything to do with salvation!
Really? Consider what Luke writes in the sequel to his Gospel account, the Book of Acts:
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28)
It is hard to see why Luke would would include this in his account if he didn’t believe that Jesus’ death had anything to do with salvation.
Moreover, Luke clearly thinks that there is a close link between the “lamb” of Isaiah 53 and Jesus, since his account of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8) has Philip claim that the passage is really about Jesus. As we know, the ‘lamb’ in this passage suffers for the “transgressions” and “iniquities” of others (Is. 53:5). Again, it would be very odd for Luke to mention this if he didn’t agree with Philip’s interpretation.
In addition, Luke’s Jesus explicitly says that the Messiah had to “suffer these things and then enter his glory” (Lk 24:26). The Messiah’s death was necessary, it wasn’t some unfortunate accident.
Finally, Luke’s account of the last supper explicitly mentions that it happened on “the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed” (22:7) before describing Jesus feeding his disciples, not with actual lamb but with bread, which he calls “his body”. It’s true that some early manuscripts omit the subsequent lines about the wine and the blood ‘poured out for you’. But frankly, even without the latter, it is clear enough that for Luke, Jesus is the “Passover lamb”, as indicated above.
Why, then, does Luke not include explicit claims like the one found in Mark 10:45, about the Son of man giving “his life as a random for many”? He would certainly have been aware of such claims. But given the above evidence, it would be rash to infer that he disagreed with them. Luke could have been motivated by stylistic considerations – perhaps he preferred to show the significance of Jesus’ death rather than stating it explicitly. All writers know that sometimes, less is more.