by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I mean to stay at your house.”  Luke 19: 1-10

There is no doubt that Luke, in his Gospel, presents us with a Jesus who has a preferential option for the poor and needy. As we have followed the Sunday readings throughout the year, we have read of the woman who had unsuccessfully spent all her savings on doctors, and, in desperation, reached out in faith to touch Jesus’ cloak (Lk 8: 43 ff). There was the story of the rich man who feasted every day but ignored poor Lazarus who was wasting away at the rich man’s door (Lk. 16: 19-31). There have been multiple accounts of Jesus reaching out to ostracised blind people and untouchable lepers (eg Lk. 5:12-16 and Lk. 17: 11-27). And then, there was the story of how Jesus urged a gathering at a celebration in a Pharisee’s house to invite to their banquets poor people who could not return the favour (Lk. 14: 12-14). A close second to Jesus’ preference for the poor was his outreach to those who had been labelled as public sinners, especially tax-collectors, who were universally despised and treated with contempt. Tax collectors have been the focus of the gospel readings of recent Sundays, and this coming Sunday we have the story of Zacchaeus, “a chief tax-collector”.

There is a touch of humour about this story in that it describes the undignified behaviour of a high-profile public identity who resorts to shinning up a tree in order to get a good view of Jesus, the prophet, whose reputation had preceded him. We can only wonder what it was that prompted Zacchaeus to risk further public embarrassment and ridicule by an action such as that. After all, he had already earned the contempt of almost everyone for his collaboration with the Romans and his extortionary methods of bleeding rich and poor alike. He would have been almost friendless. Had he reached the point of being sickened by the man he saw when he looked into the mirror? Had his conscience started to get the better of him? Had he come to realise that accumulation of wealth at the expense of others had given him neither joy nor satisfaction? Was he merely curious?

Whatever it was that possessed him to climb the sycamore tree, it seems to me that he somehow had come to the conclusion that the Jesus he wanted to see might be his only source of inner peace. Jesus, in his turn, somehow sensed that the man he saw up the tree was longing for his hollowness to be filled. Without hesitation and without stopping to consider that, yet again, his critics would condemn him for associating with public sinners, Jesus invited himself to lunch in the house of Zacchaeus. Both Zacchaeus and Jesus pushed to the side personal reputation and human respect.

For whatever reason, Zacchaeus went in search of Jesus. In his turn, Jesus responded to Zacchaeus, affirming that there was some good in him despite his reprehensible past. Whatever Jesus said to Zacchaeus was enough to trigger in him a change of heart, an experience of conversion.

Every gospel-reading we hear calls us to move from the stance of observers to that of active participants. We make that shift by acknowledging that the experience of Zacchaeus is our experience, too. While few of us have earned a reputation for advancing ourselves by gouging the poor, there have been times in our lives when we have compromised our personal integrity, when we have not been true to what we know to be the deepest desire of our heart. We have felt the needle of conscience prodding us to mend our ways, to address whatever is in need of healing in our lives. That is the experience of all humans, be they people of a particular religious faith or of none. We all know in our heart the feeling of dis-ease whenever we fail to live with integrity, whenever we fail to treat others with reverence and respect, with the dignity they deserve as our sisters and brothers.

Those of us who call ourselves Christian, commit ourselves to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to live in accord with his Gospel. We know from experience that conversion of mind and heart is a life-long journey. It is rarely the consequence an instant, life-changing event similar to the dramatic experience that turned the life of Saul of Tarsus upside down. Still, in different ways, Jesus says to each of us: “I mean to come and stay in your house.” Perhaps we are hesitant, even reluctant, to give him entrée. I suspect that’s because we don’t believe we are good enough or because we fear what he might ask of us. Life experience has taught me that most of us are slow to admit that we are good. God doesn’t make junk. And my experience is that there is good in everyone I have encountered, and that human decency is to be found in everyone.

We don’t know whether Zacchaeus’ change of heart in the direction of being magnanimous was complete or lasting. Implicit in his promises was an admission that his conduct had been less than exemplary and that he was resolved to make amends. What this story of his meeting with Jesus does tell us is that Jesus has the ability do deal with the ambiguities evident in the lives of everyone. As he dealt with Zacchaeus in the circumstances of his life, so, too, is he ready and willing to deal with us in the ever-changing circumstances of our lives. We need to be courageous enough to prepare ourselves to listen for the times when he says to us: “I mean to join you in your house for lunch today.”