Thirty-First Sunday (Year C)
(Wisdom 11:22 – 12:2; 2nd. Thessalonians 1:11 – 2:2; Gospel of St. Luke 19:1-10)
Dear People of God, some scholars (e.g. J.D.M. Derrett) tell us that according to the Law, Jews were not allowed to even handle money belonging -- if one can rightly use that word! -- to a publican, because it was considered to be money extorted by fraud or force, ultimately at the behest of the occupying power of Rome. Since Zacchaeus (= ‘the Righteous’) was a chief tax(toll?)-gatherer it was therefore presumed by his Jewish compatriots that he himself used force and threats to exact money from sub-collectors under his control; and that those sub-collectors, in their turn, applied pressure on the poor – a fact well-known from common experience – to get the money required first of all by the Roman occupying authorities, plus what they had to pay ‘in commission’ to Zacchaeus, and then, finally, make whatever profit they might want or could get for themselves. Wicked? Yes, most wicked; but that is the way things were done in Palestine at the time of Our Lord’s public ministry, and that is why the Jews in Israel hated all tax-, toll-, MONEY collectors, especially the bigger-fry such as Zacchaeus.
Not only the strict and zealous observers of the Law of Moses, however, but also the great majority of those not bothering themselves overmuch about what the Law prescribed or proscribed, shared that attitude of strong hostility towards publicans: avoiding contact with them -- ostracizing them -- as best they could. Hence Zacchaeus in today’s Gospel, being unable to get through the large and unaccommodating crowd standing along the roadside where Jesus would pass by, could not, because of them and his own short stature, see Him making his way through the town. A tree, however, offered him a way out of his difficulty, although it would not be without the dilemma of having to clamber up it and risk exposing himself to the mockery of those observing his attempt to do so.
Zacchaeus, though heartily despised as one of the publican ‘quislings’, was yet able, it would seem, to be in the vicinity of, even though not actually among, the crowd awaiting Jesus’ passing by; therefore, it would appear that despite the fact of his being despised he was not in any direct personal danger. Could that be because he was generally recognized as being at least better than others of his ‘ilk’? For he would soon say to Jesus, ‘Lord, if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over’; as a top official, that is, although he could not guarantee his subordinate’s behaviour, nevertheless, he had not himself practiced extortion as far as he could remember. He would therefore seem to have been a man of some personal dignity and one consequently allowed a certain measure of tolerance by the Jews of Jericho.
Now, how would Zacchaeus normally express that personal dignity before the townspeople who, for the most part, despised and hated all publicans? Obviously, since he was rich and used to dealing with the upper echelons of officialdom and business, he would give notice of his standing and dignity by his dress and personal bearing.
Zacchaeus -- a Jewish/Hebrew name -- was obviously at odds with the contemporary Jewish authorities since he had chosen to become a prominent publican. Nevertheless he was not dead to the traditional faith of his people, because the reputation of Jesus was such that news of His coming to Jericho, even if only passing through on His way to Jerusalem, was of great interest and even greater importance to him. Jesus proclaimed the faith of the fathers but was not part of the current Jewish religious ‘set up’, indeed, He was coming with a call to individual, social, and religious repentance and renewal, offering the possibility of becoming part of, entering into, what He called the ‘Kingdom of God’. Zacchaeus had (at the very least and at whatever cost) to see such a man!
To do that, however, he realized that he would have to throw away his dignity and dress -- his only title to some measure of public respect among the Jews of Jericho -- by scrambling up that dusty, dirty tree in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus walking along the road under his perch! Remember St. Paul’s words:
I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:8)
In Zacchaeus’ case those words could be, ‘I consider myself, my dignity and my bearing, as so much rubbish, that I may catch a glimpse of Jesus.’
Therefore, as Jesus was walking silently along the road He suddenly became aware His Father’s grace, obviously (to Jesus) at work in a man before Him; and looking up quite deliberately at the man, taking calm and loving notice of him, He changed His mind about passing straight through the town, and called out:
Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.
Zacchaeus, however, having thus eventually caught sight of Jesus and, most amazingly of all, having been publicly called to receive Him as a guest in his own house, was now deeply troubled: for this Jesus was a truly holy and mysteriously powerful man, and Zacchaeus knew that he himself was not holy. Oh how honoured he felt himself to be by Jesus’ wish to stay at his house!, but he did not want this wonderful man to be ill-spoken of because of himself, he did not want Jesus to be tarred with his own (Zacchaeus’) brush! Therefore, as a surprisingly humble and sensitive person as well as a truly intelligent man, Zacchaeus resolved to protect Jesus by speaking out -- making full and accurate use of his own intimate knowledge of both Jewish Law and Roman practices – in such a way that Jesus’ coming into the house of a publican might not cause any disrespect for His Person or bring about any diminution of His reputation in Israel.
And so there follows a wonderfully delicate display of mutual respect, awareness, and appreciation, serving to bring about a reconciliation of two opposing attitudes evident that day:
Zacchaeus received Him with joy; ‘He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.’
Jesus, welcoming one sent to Him by His Father, drew close and patiently followed the publican whose heart was already open to Him though his house was as yet still closed; and Zacchaeus, for his part, even before Jesus could enter his house:
Stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.’
Those words were loudly spoken not because Zacchaeus was boasting before the Lord or whoever of the crowd might have followed them, but because he wanted everyone to clearly understand that Jesus would be incurring no legal fault whatsoever by entering his house. Jesus, likewise, wanted to use this His-Father-sent-opportunity to help all around, and indeed the whole people of Israel, understand the true nature of His salvific coming by addressing words of divine wisdom, goodness, and clarity to them:
Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.
Love and respect (cf. St. Paul: Jesus and the Church, husband and wife) had met! Divine Love and deep human respect (comprising sincere humility and reverential awe) had overcome any and all opposition. Jesus could – even according to the Law – accept Zacchaeus' joyful hospitality and give His own gifts in return.
And how did this most beautiful scenario of divine compassion and deep human joy, of most sensitively accommodating holiness and humbly sacrificial fellow-feeling arise? Because Jesus, passing through Jericho, had suddenly become aware of His Father drawing His attention to one being sent to Him: one making something of a fool of himself at that very moment, being well dressed and yet perched most uncomfortably up a tree and suffering the mockery and coarse jibes of the unfriendly crowd beneath.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ there is much said about Zacchaeus among scholars who are not sure who he was!! For us, however, he is undoubtedly a source of inspiration in our relations with Jesus and perhaps he now actually rejoices in himself being someone largely unknown and yet one who has been so greatly privileged as to bring to our notice something of the hidden beauty of Jesus our Lord and Saviour. Let us now, therefore, allow Zacchaeus – for love of Jesus – to help us in our service of and love for the Lord, for the lessons he can teach us are of supreme importance.
Having shown total disregard for his own personal standing and become a ‘nutter up a tree’ in order to catch just a glimpse of Jesus, does Zacchaeus not shame many Catholics who cling so tenaciously to their own self-love and obsessive solicitude for their own reputation in the eyes of others, fears perhaps greatly harming their own peace before God or even leading them to hide behind silence when the words of Jesus and the teaching of Mother Church are subject to opposition or ridicule? Surely, Zacchaeus’ great, indeed overriding, concern for the good name of Jesus confounds the half-hearted devotion and spineless commitment of many soft-centered Catholics today.
Oh, dear People of God, you have ‘seen’ Zacchaeus yielding himself totally to the heavenly beauty of Jesus among men, and the wonder of Jesus’ own treasuring of His Father’s gift by so patiently understanding and sympathetically guiding Zacchaeus. Remember, all of us disciples of Jesus are such gifts to Him from the Father, being treasured now (if we allow Him) and to be treasured by Him throughout our lives for the Father.
I can do no better now than to close this address and leave you with your own memories of a most beautiful Gospel episode and the grace of God it enshrines.