Today’s readings call us to conversion of heart. The First Reading, (Wis 11:22 – 12:2), stated that the Lord loves everyone because He is our creator. He is therefore merciful to all and overlooks our sins so that we can repent. “Little by little, therefore, you correct those who offend, you admonish and remind them of how they have sinned, so that they may abstain from evil and trust in you, Lord.”The Gospel, (Lk 19:1-10), presented us with the story of Zacchaeus who was a wealthy tax collector. Tax collectors were despised in Israel because they were co-operating with the Romans who were the occupying force, and they were also considered as extortionists because they often collected taxes above what the government had stipulated and used the inflated amount for their personal enrichment.
Last Sunday, Jesus told a parable about a tax collector who went to the Temple to pray. This Sunday’s tax collector, like Matthew the writer of the first Gospel, was not fictitious but a real person. According to the narration, Jesus entered Jericho and was walking on a street when Zacchaeus made his appearance. Jesus may have been walking past his area of residence or work, or providence may have brought him to where Jesus was. He was a short man and being disliked, no one in the crowd would willingly make way for him to come to the fore in order to see Jesus. Being anxious to see Jesus, he did the unimaginable thing for a man of his status by climbing a Sycamore tree.
Jesus must have interpreted this action of Zacchaeus as self-emptying, just as himself, who though, was the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, emptied himself and became human, and that was not all, he humbled himself and died on the cross for our justification! (Phil 2:3-8). Again Zacchaeus may be echoing the Pauline sentiment that, “nothing can outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ my Lord, for him I have counted all advantages as disadvantages if only I can gain Christ and be given a place in him”, (Phil 3:7-). Thus, he was willing to swallow his pride if only Christ could find a space for him in his heart. His effort was not in vain because when Jesus arrived at the spot where he was, he asked him to come down from the tree because he was going to visit his house that day. Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus joyfully in his house, echoing the desire of the psalmist who longed to dwell in the presence of the Lord all the days of his life, (Psalm 27:4).
The people complained on seeing Jesus in Zacchaeus’ house and on the joy in which he, [Zacchaeus], welcomed him. However, once the Lord has touched us, our lives can no longer be the same. Due to the love the Lord has lavished upon us we just want to do something for God. Thus Zacchaeus said he was going to use half his wealth for charity; he was not forced to do this but in his encounter with Christ it dawned on him that, “we are many parts but we are one body and the gifts we have we are given to share”. He came to the realisation that being wealthy is not measured by how big our bank deposits were or how extensive our landed property was, but by how many people one lifted out of poverty and how one used one’s wealth to make a positive difference in the world.
Secondly, Zacchaeus said that if he had defrauded anyone, he would pay back to the person fourfold. This statement of Zacchaeus may be interpreted in two ways. His use of the word ‘if’ may imply that he had not defrauded anyone. There is a tendency for people to paint everyone with the same brush. The fact that tax collectors in Israel in Jesus’ time over-charged people, must not imply that every one of them was involved in this malpractice. There may be the exception that proves the rule. The name Zacchaeus means clean or pure, hence he may have been the good “cop”. It may be interpreted that he had indeed defrauded people – in that case he acknowledged he would make restitution. That is, in paying back the amount he had extorted he would include damages his selfish actions had inflicted on the people affected; hence, he was willing to pay back fourfold. That was a genuine sign of conversion. This made Jesus to assert that, “today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham, for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.”
The people who had complained about Jesus visiting Zacchaeus’ house were also called to conversion because they were not willing to give Zacchaeus a second chance; or put differently, they were like the Pharisee in last Sunday’s reading who thought that he had an impeccable character whereas he was full of pride and arrogance. If this grumbling mob had had personal introspection, they would have realised that they too, like Zacchaeus, needed the redemption brought to us by Christ.
Fr Chinua Okeke CSSp