St. Luke has been picking out for us incidents from Jesus' journey towards Jerusalem where He was to be crucified. He has told us of the ten lepers cleansed by Jesus; of the Pharisee and the Publican, praying side by side (!) in the Temple; of the Rich Young Man who wanted to be perfect; and now he tells us of Zacchaeus endeavouring to catch a glimpse of Jesus passing through Jericho.
Notice that there is something unexpected, from the Jewish point of view, in all of these accounts: first of all, of the ten lepers healed only one -- a Samaritan -- returned to Jesus giving thanks to God; the prayer of the despised publican in the Temple was more acceptable to God than that of the publicly esteemed and respected Pharisee. St. Luke obviously wants to insist that no one is so far fallen that Jesus cannot raise them: why, he even ends his gospel on the same note, being the only evangelist to tell us of the good thief who, having asked Jesus on the Cross to remember him in His Kingdom, received that unique promise:
Today you will be with Me in Paradise.
No one is too far gone, no one is excluded; and so no one should give up or despair. On the other hand, absolutely no one can presume anything. The nine Jewish lepers, the Pharisee praying in the Temple, the Rich Young Ruler whom Jesus loved, all of these compared badly with others who might have been considered non-starters: a hated Samaritan who was truly grateful and responsive to God in Jesus; a despised publican who could pray more humbly than a publicly respected Pharisee; and now Zacchaeus, gladly doing what the rich young man -- who thought he had been seeking eternal life from his youth -- sorrowfully could not do, namely, give up his money. Absolutely no one can ever be sure of salvation; none, not even one apparently last or least, is out of Jesus’ saving reach; all of us have to seek for ever greater proximity to Jesus throughout the whole of our life. With that in mind let us now take a closer look at our Gospel reading.
Jesus was not intending to stop, let alone stay, in Jericho; as He walked purposefully along He was being followed by a crowd of people hoping to see a miracle or something notable, not particularly wanting to hear Jesus' teaching.
Zaccheus, (however) who was small in stature, had climbed up into a sycamore tree to see (Jesus) (as He passed) that way.
This man, Zaccheus, was a prominent citizen: no ordinary tax collector, but rather a Tax Commissioner with much responsibility and authority in what was an important centre for the Romans, since Jericho was a frontier city through which passed vital roads much used by camel trains carrying exotic wares over desert expanses from Syria and further East on their way westwards towards Rome, and which also facilitated a large local trade in costly balsams. This very considerable civic official, however, exposed himself to both ridicule and contempt by his vain struggles to glimpse Jesus through the crowd, and subsequently, running ahead of the crowd in order to clamber up a tree so as to be able to see Him clearly.
Picture the hustling, struggling, figure of Zacchaeus: he wasn't hanging around in the crowd hoping vaguely for something to happen; he was deeply interested in the Person of Jesus and was making every effort to catch a glimpse of Him. This aspect of effort and haste is reflected by Jesus' words to Zachaeus:
‘Zaccheus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.’ So he made haste and came down and received Him joyfully.
Can't you see the picture of a true disciple, the model for a true Christian, being traced before our eyes? Zacchaeus, striving, hurrying to see Jesus; and then hastening again to receive Him ever so gladly into his house; and finally, in total spontaneity, giving up all that might hinder his companionship with Jesus:
Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor, and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.
Surely St. Paul words in our second reading today can be applied to Zachaeus:
May our God count you worthy of this calling, that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in Him.
However, to arrive at the full meaning of this Gospel passage for us today we must just look at the words Jesus chose when first addressing Zacchaeus:
Zaccheus, make haste, come down, for today I must stay at your house.
I want to draw your attention to those two words I must. Jesus "must" stay at Zacchaeus' house. What does that mean? Jesus does not say "I will" nor does He say "I would like"; instead He puts it in such a way as to imply that it was not simply His choice but something pre-ordained for Him by His Father.
Listen to the other two occasions in St. Luke's Gospel, and one in that of St. John (10:16), where Jesus uses the phrase, "I must":
At daybreak, Jesus left and went to a deserted place. The crowds went looking for him, and when they came to him, they tried to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, “To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent.” And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea.
At that time some Pharisees came to him and said, “Go away, leave this area because Herod wants to kill you.” He replied, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and I perform healings today and tomorrow, and on the third day I accomplish my purpose. Yet I must continue on my way today, tomorrow, and the following day, for it is impossible that a prophet should die outside of Jerusalem.’ (Luke 4:42-5:1) (Luke 13:31-33)
I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead.
It was pre-ordained that Jesus should preach first of all in the synagogues of Judea, because He had been sent to the lost sheep of Israel; after that had been done it was pre-ordained that He should bring other sheep in, not of the fold of Israel, because that was required for the fullness of redemption that He had been sent to achieve. Finally it was pre-ordained that His work had to be completed in Jerusalem where He would be nailed on the Cross bearing an inscription -- written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek – that would proclaim Him, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah to and for the whole world.
Now, how could Jesus' staying at the house of Zacchaeus be of such importance that it too could be said to be pre-ordained?
To find our answer let us now look at the word "house" used by Jesus when speaking to Zacchaeus. Obviously it was another way of saying: "Zacchaeus, I must stay with you", because Jesus when leaving said:
Today salvation has come to this house
Salvation had indeed come to Zacchaeus, not to the building which was his house. In that way "house" can -- in certain circumstances -- mean the person, his mind, heart and soul. We find this confirmed in a parable told by Jesus:
When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he says, "I will return to my house from which I came.' (Luke. 11:24)
In the OT God dwelt among His Chosen People and His presence was shown by the pillar of cloud which hovered first of all over the tent of meeting in the desert and then filled Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. In the New Testament times, however, God not only dwells, makes His home, among His People, He also dwells within His People, in their minds and hearts, in their souls, by His Spirit. Now Moses had said to the Lord, when Israel was experiencing difficulties in the desert:
If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. Is it not by Your going with us, that we … may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth? (Exodus 33:15-16)
God's presence with them was—Moses said -- the distinguishing feature of Israel: not the literal keeping of the Law, not circumcision, not Sabbath observance; for, necessary though these observances were, ultimately it was God's presence among them which distinguished Israel from the pagan nations around them.
Now, it is the same today in Mother Church, because it is God's presence -- by His Spirit -- which alone preserves, protects, guides and sanctifies Mother Church today; and that presence of God's Gift-through-Jesus-of-His-Spirit, must not only dwell among His People in the tabernacles of Mother Church, but also, and supremely, abide within her children.
This meeting of Jesus with Zacchaeus is so essential because Zacchaeus is being shown as the figure of the disciple of Jesus, and the "house of Zacchaeus" means much more than a building, it means his heart, his soul, his mind, as we find again in these words of Jesus:
When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. (Matthew 6:6)
There, the mind and heart of a man at prayer, the secret depths of his soul, are pictured as an inner room of his house.
So Jesus must stay at the house of Zacchaeus, because He must enter and abide in the soul, the mind and heart, of His true disciples. He must do this because it is essential for His work of salvation: salvation is not to be gained by law-keeping alone, even though those laws be religious laws. Salvation can only be gained by becoming, in Jesus and by the Spirit, a true child of God: worshipping the Father, knowing, loving and trusting Him, with one’s whole mind, heart, soul, and strength. Zacchaeus was personally chosen to show the power of Jesus and of God's grace, because Zacchaeus had practically everything against his becoming a disciple: he was a lapsed Jew, spiritually lost and absorbed in a world where he was powerful, influential, and very rich. Everyone would have said that he was completely chained by worldly desires and expectations. Jesus changed that by His call:
Zaccheus, make haste, come down, for today I must stay at your house.
But, People of God, notice why Zacchaeus is being portrayed as a model disciple. First of all, because Jesus' supreme power is to be seen: forming a spiritual failure, one addicted to worldly success, into a true disciple. Secondly, because Zacchaeus, for his part, co-operated with the grace and calling of Jesus. He first of all struggled in the crowd to see Jesus, and then left the crowd behind and made himself look ridiculous by running ahead in his fine official clothes and climbing a tree in order to glimpse Jesus passing by. He then, to the disgust of the Jews and no doubt the amazement of his influential friends, gladly welcomed Jesus into his house and whole-heartedly gave his riches away in order to respond to Jesus.
People of God, can you see yourself in Zacchaeus searching for Jesus, striving to see Him, responding wholeheartedly to Him? I hope that you truly can, because the great failing in Mother Church as we know her today, is that many Catholics, even some apparently devout ones, want to live in a way that Moses, even in OT times, knew to be impossible for us, and unacceptable before God. Salvation is not a reward for politically correct words and publicly approved deeds; merely statistical fulfilment of our obligations with regard to Mass attendance and reception of the Sacraments are equally fruitless; only the presence of the Spirit of Jesus guiding our minds, ruling our hearts, and consecrating our lives can save us. Jesus’ Spirit of love and of truth must be able to move and guide us constantly – even though well-nigh imperceptibly – along the way of Jesus throughout our lives: appreciating His truth more deeply, loving His Person -- yes, and His Church -- ever more warmly and sincerely; and, with unwearying patience and humility, listening to hear and waiting to obey His call though it come at an hour we might not expect. Even in Mother Church we cannot be content to remain in the crowd, doing what others seem to be doing and nothing more. Each of us is personally called to follow the example of Zacchaeus: searching to see Jesus more clearly, to welcome Him into our hearts more joyfully, and to be ever more willing and glad to get rid of all that would hinder us from responding to His plans for us. It is so easy and comfortable to remain in the crowd and to rely, as did the Jews, on the old formalities: doing what we have always done, thinking as we have always thought, whilst satisfyingly enjoying what is going on in the world around us. That I say is comfortable, but it is also very harmful. Therefore, today, Mother Church invites us to hear Jesus calling us as He did Zacchaeus:
Make haste and come down, (come out of the crowd), for today I must stay at your house.