Tuesday of week 33 of Ordinary Time – Gospel


Commentary on Luke 19:1-10

Today we have one of the most delightful stories of Luke and indeed of the whole Gospel. It follows immediately – and not by accident – after the healing of a blind man as Jesus enters the city of Jericho, to the northeast of Jerusalem.

The central figure is Zacchaeus, who, Luke tells us, was a chief tax collector and a rich man. This is the only reference in Scripture to a ‘chief tax collector’. It probably means he was responsible for a district or region with other tax collectors answerable to him. The region at this time was prosperous so more tax collectors were needed.

Knowing he was a chief tax collector it was hardly necessary to mention that he was wealthy. Tax collectors were studiously avoided and despised by their fellow-Jews. They made contracts with the Roman authorities to collect taxes and made sure that they got from the public what today we might call generous “commissions”. After all, it was a kind of business and they had to make a living. And, if an ordinary tax collector could do well, it is easy to imagine how much a chief tax collector might make. One commentator refers to him as a ‘creep’.

Apart from forcing people to part with their hard-earned money, they were seen as traitors to their own people by taking their money and giving it to the pagan Roman colonialists occupying their country. One can see how Jesus could cause great offence to the religious-minded by sitting down and eating with such ‘scum’.

Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was in town and he was very curious to see what Jesus was like. Already we have here an echo of yesterday’s story, because Zacchaeus too wants to see. However, at this stage, it seems to be only a kind of curiosity. He just wanted to get a glimpse of a person of whom he undoubtedly heard people talk. Maybe he had even heard that Jesus had a name for mixing with people like himself.

Because he was a small man (in more ways than one?), he could not see over the large crowd of people surrounding Jesus. So he ran on ahead and climbed into the branches of a sycamore tree to get a better look. A sycamore tree can grow to a height of 10 to 15 metres, with a short trunk and spreading branches and hence easy to climb and easily capable of carrying a grown man.

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus but he did not expect that Jesus would see him. He must have practically fallen out of the tree from surprise when he heard Jesus look in his direction and say, “Zacchaeus, hurry down. I want to stay in your house today.” What beautiful words! And yet it is a self-invitation that Jesus constantly extends to us. It is right there in our First Reading for today: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, then I will enter his house and dine with him and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Is my house ready, is my door open to let him in?

Zacchaeus could hardly believe his ears. He rushed down and delightedly welcomed Jesus into his house. Immediately those around began to grumble. “He has gone to a sinner’s house as a guest.” Of all the people in Jericho, Jesus picks the house of the one person in the town who was regarded as a social and religious outcast.

But, as usual, Jesus sees beyond the public image to the real person. Zacchaeus may be a chief tax collector but he is ready to give half of his property to the poor and, if he has cheated anyone, he promises to pay them back four times what they lost. Fourfold restitution was demanded by Jewish law, but in one case only, the theft of a sheep (Exodus 21:37). Roman law demanded such restitution from all convicted thieves. Zacchaeus, however, promises to pay in any case of injustice for which he has been responsible.

Some commentators read the passage as saying that Zacchaeus has already been making these forms of restitution and sharing his wealth with the poor. In which case, Jesus is able to see beyond the stereotype which makes Zacchaeus the tax collector an outcast. He was not going to the house of a sinner but to that of a good man. Jesus always sees the real person and goes beyond the label. Can we always claim to do the same?

Whatever the interpretation, we can see that, though Zacchaeus may have belonged to a discredited profession, his heart was in the right place, in the place of compassion and justice.

And so Jesus tells Zacchaeus that “salvation”, wholeness and integrity has come to his house. In spite of his despised profession he is “a descendant of Abraham” because his behaviour is totally in harmony with the requirements of the Law and in fact goes well beyond it. For Jesus, too, no social status closes the door to salvation. For this is what it means to be a “son of Abraham”, namely, to be a loving, caring person full of compassion and a sense of justice and not just a keeper of ritualistic observances.

Zacchaeus, who had originally just wanted to have an external glimpse of Jesus, has now come to see Jesus in a much deeper sense. A seeing that changed his whole life as it did that of the beggar in yesterday’s story.

Further, in answer to the accusation that he has entered the house of a sinner, Jesus says, “The Son of Man has come to search out and save what was lost.” As he said on another occasion, the healthy have no need of a physician but only the sick. Jesus is the good Shepherd leaving the well-behaved 99 and going in search of the single one that has gone astray.

As we read this story, there are a number of things we could reflect on. We too want to see Jesus in the deepest possible sense. Only then can we truly become his disciples. We need to hear him saying to us, “I want to stay in your house today.” Let us open the door and welcome him in.

And we need to be careful in judging people from their appearance or their social position or their occupation. As a Church, we could spend a lot more time looking for those who are lost instead of concentrating on serving the already converted. In fact, only when people become active evangelisers themselves can we speak of them as “converted”, as “good Christians”.

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