by Brother Julian McDonald cfc

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. “Today salvation has come to this house…” Luke 19, 1-10

In considering this gospel reading, I suggest we need to read the text carefully and tread warily in interpreting it. This is one of the few stories in Luke in which the central figure is actually named. And the Jewish name Zacchaeus literally means “clean” or “pure”. In verse 2 of the story, Luke introduces Zacchaeus as “one of the senior tax collectors (of Jericho) and a wealthy man”. Does that give us the right to presume that he acquired his wealth by robbing the tax-payers, and that Luke is deliberately using the name “Zacchaeus” with heavy-handed irony? Perhaps Luke is tricking his readers into making the same assumption as the crowd seems to have made in the story: that all the tax collectors of the time were dishonest, and doubly so because they worked for the Romans. It is a common human failing to attribute stereotype qualities to people who practice occupations and professions that have fallen into popular disrepute. There have been times in recent years in the developed world when real estate agents and second-hand car sellers were gratuitously labelled as “crooked” because of the dishonest behaviour of some of their number. We know that we are all capable of being influenced by the crowd or “jumping on the band-wagon”.

Secondly, I suggest we look at what Zacchaeus is reported by Luke as saying when Jesus invited himself to dinner with him. Despite the audible bad-mouthing Zacchaeus received from the gathered crowd, we are told that he “stood his ground and said to the Lord: ‘Look, sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody, I will pay him back four times the amount’” (Luke 19, 8-9). Note that he neither expressed sorrow nor begged for mercy. Clearly affected by the fact that Jesus looked up at him and immediately said: “Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I am to stay at your house today”, this tax-collector, thrilled at not being judged, simply says that, if he has done anybody wrong (implying that he hasn’t), he will set things right. Moreover, Jesus himself made no reference to repentance, forgiveness or change of heart, and no comment about swindling anybody.

So, what meaning do we give to this story now?

Maybe, we have to allow that, while Zacchaeus is pursuing a career that has been popularly equated with dishonesty, he is a man of integrity and Jesus is actually vindicating him in the presence of the very crowd that has contributed to giving him a reputation for being corrupt. So, while we might be more comfortable with standing with the crowd, we may well be being challenged to pause and reflect on our tendency to be drawn into hastily misjudging others, especially those who have roles and positions that don’t appeal to us.

There is a popular English expression used to describe people who are in a difficult position. We say they are “up a tree”. Zacchaeus was literally and metaphorically “up a tree”. His shortness of stature meant that he had to set aside the dignity expected of one in his position and climb a tree if he wanted to satisfy his curiosity about Jesus. Did he sense that this was a cross-roads time in his life, a time when all that was being said about Jesus called for going to see for himself? Doing that would mean taking the risk of being seen in public by a crowd that had already misjudged him and catalogued him as crooked. It seems as though Zacchaeus took the double risk of setting aside the dignity of his public position by climbing up a tree (for there was no other way for a man of his small stature to see Jesus for himself) and exposing himself to public insult and abuse from a volatile crowd. He took the risk of following both his intuition and conscience, and Jesus noticed him and spoke up to vindicate him and accept him as a true “son of Abraham” – the equal of everyone else in the crowd.

There are times when we all find ourselves in something of a bind, when following our conscience, our integrity and/or our commitment to Jesus and his Gospel calls us to risk ridicule or public embarrassment. It might call us to voice an opinion that stands in stark contrast to that of the majority, it might mean speaking up when we see injustice being meted out to a minority group, it could be as insignificant as joining a protest march in support of releasing refugees and asylum seekers from detention or deportation.

This gospel story also puts in front of us a mirror in which to gaze at ourselves. Are we with those who are quick to misjudge others because of their family history, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their profession or occupation, their past failures and mistakes? What’s our record of speaking out to defend those who are victims of gossip, prejudice, innuendo and false judgement? Are there people in our society whom we want to see locked in cells and never to be released?

In the case of Zacchaeus, Jesus effectively says: “Yes, I, too, have heard the gossip but I have looked beyond appearances and have found integrity and a good heart.”

A great diplomat and statesman of integrity and good heart was Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary General to the United Nations. He was a true ambassador for peace and died with 15 others in suspicious circumstances while en route to engage in negotiations for a cease-fire in the Republic of Congo. Their plane crashed and burned near Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). There were no survivors. Hammarskjöld was a deeply committed Christian and a man of peace, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously in 1961, having been nominated before his untimely death and during his second term as U. N. Secretary General. In his book of personal reflections called Markings (literally Waymarks or in Swedish Vägmärken) he wrote:

“I don’t know who – or what – put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering it. But at some moment I did say yes to Someone – or – Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”

I suggest that Zacchaeus had a double experience of surrender – surrender to self and to Jesus. His hearing Jesus say “Today salvation has come to this house because this man is a son of Abraham” gave him a renewed sense of purpose.