[Sunday Gospel, November, 3rd 2013]
At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town.
Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”
And he came down quickly and received him with joy.
When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus 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.”
And Jesus said to him, “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.”
We consider Zacchaeus a sympathetic character. The fact that he is short and he has to climb a fig tree to see Jesus has its charms. And even more, if we imagine him as an old man, with expensive clothes –as Luke said he was rich- and a respectable economic position. Imagining him with his clothes rolled up and grabbed a branch is quite comical.
Jericho is a fertile city by the Jordan River, a truly oasis of palm trees surrounded by an arid rock dessert. At that time, it was an important trade-route crossroads which could yield great benefits to tax collectors, especially to the tax collectors’ chief: Zacchaeus.
To his countrymen, he was sympathetic at all. We know that there was little control over collectors, so they could easily swindle. They were also considered sinners and impure to God. Zacchaeus himself recognized that he was a thief, using a very clear statement: “if I have extorted anything from anyone…”, which is an undoubtedly public confession.
At the beginning, it is said that Jesus “intended to pass through” Jericho. Luke uses a vague word: Jesus could stay in the town or just cross it without mentioning a goal.
Zacchaeus’ presentation, as mentioned, is ambiguous. He was surely a man who had enriched himself from others; he was also despised and envied by many. But his curiosity was high: he had heard about Jesus and wanted to see him. He belongs to the same Mediterranean culture –so nosy at times- without gossip magazines full of pictures. What would be Jesus’ face? Which eye color? What tunic would he wear?
Suddenly, the narrator tell us that Zacchaeus was short and despite all his money, the crowd gathered to gossip like him, and prevented him from seeing anything. So, Zacchaeus started running –something no respectable man of his or our culture would dare to do- but the height of absurdity was when he climbed a tree.
Let’s remember that honor and ridicule in that culture had much more weight than in ours. Having in mind what Luke said, we know that Zacchaeus didn’t care what others said about him. We also know that he was looking for Jesus only for curiosity. The Gospels tell us about lots of people who came to Jesus seeking a cure, or asking a trick question, or even to hear his word, although not so many of these. However, Zacchaeus has no vital or religious motivation. He just “wanted to see who was he”, that’s all. When Jesus reaches him, he changes his plans: the “pass-through” the city has become a “stay” in Zacchaeus’ home. Jesus called him and told him some urgent words; this causes him a great joy. Something big was growing inside Zacchaeus as a result of his encounter with Jesus, when he hadn’t even asked for that much.
People, as always, criticize the whole matter: “Zacchaeus is a sinner, he is not worthy to receive Jesus in his home. Jesus is too holy, too important to enter in an impure man’s house”. This criticism is familiar; it is typical of the Pharisees and scribes, they have repeated it a thousand times. But there is something new: there are no scribes and Pharisees here; it is just people, all people who gossip. Were they all saints? It is so easy to judge others!
We already know that Zacchaeus didn’t care about people’s opinions –and Jesus even less-, but we didn’t expect such a radical conversion. Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus talked about nor does he tells how did Zacchaeus understand that he needed to change his life; there are other Gospel’s pages devoted to Jesus’ teachings and exhortations. He is now interested in Zacchaeus’ radical change of life for having met Jesus. He is thinking about giving away half of his great wealth to the poor and giving back more than the law required to those who have stolen.
Besides, Zacchaeus’ conversion is practical and concrete; it doesn’t consist of ambiguous desires to accept Jesus’ message, but of scratching the pocket. The first thing we knew about Zacchaeus was his wealth; however, the last thing we are told is that he offers what he has and defines him to others.
Jesus finishes announcing salvation for Zacchaeus and his family, and acknowledging that he is part of God’s people, in contrast to countrymen who considered him as impure and therefore, excluded from the town’s religiosity.
How do we apply this reading to ourselves? We can consider the attitudes of three characters: Jesus, Zacchaeus and people. The story follows a curious alternation among them in three scenes:
-Jesus passes through
-Zacchaeus wants to see him
-People prevents him to see Jesus
-Zacchaeus runs and climbs up the tree
-Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home
-People criticize him
-Jesus reminds that he has come to save the lost ones
-(people don’t say anything because they had to put up with their criticism)
Now, let’s get the place of Zacchaeus. Jesus passes through, cross our city, our atmosphere, our life. We have heard of him, but we don’t know exactly how he is. Many people think they know him, but everyone gives their opinion and says something different. Some of them think he is a healer; others say he has words that change; still others say that he welcomes sinners… It’s confusing! We want to see him directly, but people stop us with their diversity of opinions. What can we do? The easiest thing is to let him go because we haven’t any incurable disease; we can continue with what we have now….
But, what if Jesus has something special? It would be worthy to see it. We have to put up with our pride and shame, but we have to approach him.
Things change in this moment because Jesus takes the initiative. He looks up to see us –even if we don’t have our best image, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He wants to stay with us; he wants that we invite him to enter into our home, into our life. It almost seems that Jesus didn’t “passed through” by chance; he was rather looking for us discreetly… What should we do now? The easiest thing is again saying no: Jesus, if you come with me, people are going to criticize you; it is not convenient for you…
He doesn’t care! He is welcome to our homes. Opening the doors to Jesus, who has self-invited so blatantly, is risky. It means letting him snoop into our beliefs, attitudes, customs… It means letting him look us in the eyes and say: “that is not right”, “you should consider this”… It also means keeping us in the scope of his word, his message, and his deep gaze. And finally, it means accepting his love, his kindness, his affection for everybody. Jesus may be an uncomfortable guest because at a particular time, he will look at us and ask: “what are you doing with your life?” For the third time, the easiest thing is to say: “I’m getting by”, “I try”, “These are difficult times”…
But, perhaps, we should be challenged by this Jesus, who neither requires nor forces us to anything. Let us look inside our hearts and discover that our life can be renewed. Perhaps, we get up and tell the Lord: “what I am, what I have, what I have given as a gift, my life itself, I share it among those who need it.”
After that, salvation will have come to our house. And Jesus, in a wink, will make us realize that this adventure hadn’t begun when our curiosity made us look for him, but when he passed through our city by chance.
Sunday, 31st Ordinary Time – Cycle C
Translated by: Rocío González Romero