The scriptures tell us today Our Lord is a lover of souls. In His mercy, our First Reading tells us, He overlooks our sins and ignorance, giving us space that we might repent and not perish. In Jesus, He has become the Saviour of His children, coming himself to transform the lost
Let’s look at the transformation in the story of Zacchaeus. At first glance, we have a perfect narrative of making a new beginning in Christ. The story of the man who is short in stature and climbs a tree so that he can see Jesus is appealing to vertically challenged people.
Zacchaeus is not only short in stature, but also in moral status among his neighbours. He is a tax collector, and not just any tax collector, but a chief tax collector and rich. Tax collectors were hated in the community because they collected taxes from their Jewish neighbours for the Romans who occupied their country. In addition, a tax collector could and often did, overcharge their neighbours and keep the extra for themselves. Not only did they serve the Romans, but they also took advantage of their position to steal from their neighbours. The assumption is that Zacchaeus had become rich by his greed and dishonesty, stealing from his community.
So even though Zacchaeus has difficulty seeing Jesus, he tries by doing an undignified, childish thing – climbing a tree – because of his desire to change and become worthy. He welcomes Jesus into his heart and his house, gladly offers to give half of his possessions to the poor, and make restitution if he has taken any money dishonestly. Zacchaeus makes the proper response to his encounter with Jesus.
Our translation says that Zacchaeus welcomed him joyfully. Joy is the appropriate response to God’s invitation. He becomes generous, a rich man who is willing to give away his money. Zacchaeus is transformed from sinner to faithful follower of Jesus. He is saved, and, in the words of Paul, Jesus is glorified in him and Zacchaeus in Jesus. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to meet his death, but in the transformation of Zacchaeus, his mission on earth is fulfilled.
Now, Christ’s mission was to save not just individual but humankind. Christianity is a corporate faith not an individualistic one. How did Zacchaeus’ transformation affect the community? Zacchaeus was disliked, unpopular, rejected by the community. The crowd grumbles when Jesus reaches out to him, saying, “He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house.” Let’s think about this.
There are two ways of reading verse 8. The original Greek verb might indicate an action that is present and ongoing or a future action. Our translation reads “But Zacchaeus stood his ground and said to the Lord, ‘Look, sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.’.”
Scholars dispute whether Zacchaeus is planning to give his money away in the future, or whether he is stating something that he has already done. Perhaps this is the reason that Jesus recognizes Zacchaeus up there in the tree, and calls him down, and invites himself to stay in this man’s house.
We know that Zacchaeus is despised by his community. He is an outsider, labelled as a chief tax collector, a rich man, a sinner. He is short in stature. He is not seen by his community until he climbs a tree and is seen by Jesus. Maybe Zacchaeus had been quietly giving to the poor all along! Who among us, that we have left on the margins, that we have not seen clearly because of our assumptions, might surprise us with their generosity and faith?
While we, and perhaps the crowd in Jericho, might be inclined to feel that Zacchaeus is saved because he willingly gives his riches to the poor, what does Jesus say? “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham.” Jesus says Zacchaeus and all his household are saved simply by being the people of God’s covenant with Abraham. Zacchaeus is saved because of his faith, not because of his works. This is the nature of salvation. It is based on faith. Zacchaeus’ good works are a result of his faith, of his following God’s commandments. Who is proud in this story? Zacchaeus or the crowd? Who is transformed? Zacchaeus or the crowd?
Both ways of reading the story of Zacchaeus are instructive. We might look at Zacchaeus as an individual sinner, who has repented and been granted salvation. Indeed, it is righteous and good to be transformed by an encounter with Jesus. It is righteous and good to respond with joy to the good news of Christ by giving generously to the poor.
And, as corporate Christians, members of the household of God, we need to consider the possibility that we must recognize ourselves in the crowd. Just as certainly, it is righteous and good to look around us and be open to surprise at who among us may be living with faith and generosity of spirit. “for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.’.” And the unseen, the overlooked, the misunderstood people on the edges of our community, the ones who need to climb a tree to be seen. In the second reading St Paul prays that God will help the Thessalonians and us to be “worthy of our call,” he asks God to “bring to fulfillment every desire for goodness.”
Today Christ is inviting us to renew both our purpose and our commitment to achieve it – that’s our part.
When we receive him again today in Holy Communion, let’s accept the invitation – so he can have all the room he needs to do his part.