A number of years ago I was visiting some friends in Eastern Europe. At one point I had to travel alone from Bratislava, Slovakia, to Brno in the Czech Republic. One friend saw me off in Bratislava and got me on the right train. The challenge would be to make the transfer without knowing the language. As it turned out I got onto the wrong train and ended up in a small village somewhere in between the two cities.
It was a strange feeling, being in a situation where I could not read the signs and I could not communicate because no one spoke English. These were the days before cell phones and smart phones so that would be of no avail. On top of this the train station was a bit seedy and I was starting to think it was unsafe. Needless to say, I was lost.
Then all of a sudden a gentleman came up to me and handed me a piece of paper and pencil. Using hand gestures he asked me to write down where I was headed. When I wrote down Brno he looked up at the schedule board and took me to the track as the train was preparing to leave. With that simple act of kindness I was back on track and headed to my destination.
Being lost is something that most of us have experienced at one point or another in our lives. Depending on the situation, there are degrees of feeling alone, isolated, disoriented and confused. Sometimes even fear might be involved. It’s a great relief when someone reaches out to help us. A similar reaction can take place when we are lost in other ways. Such is the situation in the Gospel account for today’s liturgy.
Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector. We know that, in Jesus’ day, tax collectors were considered public sinners by their fellow Jews. They were looked upon as collaborators with the Empire. Tax collectors were also thought to “fix the scales” they used to collect taxes so that they could take a little extra for themselves.
Zacchaeus, being the chief tax collector, would certainly have had to deal with this type of reputation. In fact it is clear from his interaction with Jesus that he was involved in some extortion. In this manner Zacchaeus represents those who are “lost,” not by location but by way of life.
This is all about to change in one simple encounter. Zacchaeus hears that Jesus is passing through town. For some reason he wants to see Jesus. Most likely he has heard about Jesus of Nazareth and the crowds that were being attracted to him. Something inside of Zacchaeus was longing for an encounter. He being small in stature and the crowd being so great it would not be possible for him to see Jesus as he passed.
The desire to see Jesus was so great that Zacchaeus climbed a tree to get a view. When Jesus sees him and invites himself to his home the crowd begins to murmur about Zacchaeus being a sinner; and they are somewhat scandalized that Jesus would go to his home. In fact they “grumble” about this fact saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.”
The encounter with the person of Jesus is transforming for as soon as Jesus arrives Zacchaeus says: “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.” Zacchaeus decides to give up his former ways and to make restitution to those he has cheated. Jesus rejoices saying: “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.”
The story highlights several important themes related to salvation. First, Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name. He knows Zacchaeus even though he has never met him. Interesting is that Zacchaeus thought he was seeking Jesus, unaware that at the same time, Jesus was seeking him.
Second, Jesus comes to offer salvation to everyone. He offers himself when he says to Zacchaeus “… today, I must stay at your house.” Instead of avoiding the sinner, which often happens in societies then and now, Jesus wants to be with him.
Third, Jesus’ seeking Zacchaeus and visiting his home was an act of love. He loved Zacchaeus and wanted him to have more in life; in fact Jesus offered him life through this encounter. Zacchaeus’ sinful ways were holding him back from experiencing the goodness of life.
Through this encounter Zacchaeus is enabled to leave those ways behind and to move on to something new; he is freed to live. In the encounter Jesus personifies the words of the psalmist: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. The Lord is good and compassionate toward all his works.”
Through the story we are called to recognize ourselves in both Zacchaeus and in Jesus. We are like Zacchaeus because we are in constant need of Jesus’ transforming presence in our lives. Like the figure from last week’s gospel, who also happened to be a tax collector, we too cry out, “O God, have mercy on me a sinner!” Humbly we recognize our need for Jesus’ merciful and gracious love.
Our encounter with him is likewise transformative as we leave behind sinful ways and share in the life that only he can offer. Perhaps the challenge here is recognizing his presence and saving activity each day. As Jesus reached out to Zacchaeus, he reaches out to us and many times it is through people who encounter us day in and day out.
We are like Jesus because, as his disciples, we are called to seek out the lost. This aspect can be challenging. The lost, the disenfranchised, those who are known to be “sinners,” those who do not belong, and those who do not “fit in,” are all worthy of an invitation to life.
In imitation of Christ, we are the ones who must make the invitation, take the first step. The love and life that we experience in Christ Jesus is to be offered freely to all.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.