Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)


Commentary on Wisdom 11:22-12:2, 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2 and Luke 19:1-10

Hurry, because I must stay at your house today. (Gospel)

WE CONTINUE THE THEME of last Sunday: God’s attitude towards the sinner and the social outcast.

We see Jesus entering Jericho and passing through it. So many times in the Gospel we see him passing by or through a place. If he is not stopped, he will keep going. Similarly, he constantly passes through our lives. He comes every day in one form or another. He will come into my life today. Will I recognise him? Where am I expecting to find him? In what person? In what place? In what experience? To be really ready I have to be prepared to meet him in ANY experience.

A chief tax collector

Next we are told there was a man in the city called Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and very rich. He was not only a tax collector but a chief tax collector. In the cirumstances of the time, it was hardly necessary to add that he was rich. It would be like saying that government officials in certain regimes are well off. Off course they are. We remember the political cronies of Marcos and Suharto but perhaps we do not have to go that far to find examples.

Describing Zacchaeus as a chief tax collector said just one thing to everyone: he was a detestable creep. His modern equivalent would be something akin to a drug baron, who gets wealthy on a product that destroys the lives of thousands of people. Or the mafia chief who bleeds small businessmen dry through threats, extortion and murder.

Seeing Jesus

Zacchaeus is introduced into the story because he wanted to see who Jesus was. We are not at first given the reason. Was it just curiosity towards a person about whom he had heard so many stories? Or was there a deeper reason? It is a good example of someone who comes looking for something only to discover something altogether more wonderful.

We are also told that Zacchaeus was small and, because of the crowd surrounding Jesus, he could not see Jesus. So, in spite of being a rich and important man, he did not hesitate to climb a tree to get a better look. He would not have been very welcome among the crowds anyway. He was not a person people would like to have had around.

There is a message there somehow. Very often we are not able to see Jesus in our lives because we are crowded out by other people and the way they think. To see Jesus clearly we often have to get away from the crowd and risk being different, risk losing our dignity. The word “holy” in Greek actually means someone who is different, someone set apart.

What an invitation!

Imagine Zacchaeus’ surprise when Jesus looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” What wonderful words for Zacchaeus to hear! How wonderful when Jesus says them to us! Yet at every Eucharist he makes his invitation at communion. But at many other times too he wishes to enter into our lives. The Book of Revelation has Jesus in a beautiful image: “I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into his house and eat with him and he will eat with me” (Rev 3:20). Are our doors always open and ready to offer him hospitality?

Zacchaeus has no hesitation. He climbs down quickly, delighted to welcome Jesus into his house. The reaction of the crowd, however, is something else. They are deeply shocked and scandalised. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Of all the people in Jericho, Jesus picks the house of possibly the most obnoxious and detested person in the town.

It is not the first time this charge was made about Jesus. On another occasion the Pharisees said, “He mixes with sinners and tax collectors and even eats with them.” Of course, they do not understand Jesus’ point of view. There was no need for him to go to the houses of the good. It was those who were far from God that he went looking for. “People who are well do not need a doctor but only those who are sick. I have not come to call the respectable people but the outcasts” (Mark 2:17)

The remarks of the crowd are seen to be those of religious bigots and hypocrites who put themselves on a higher moral plane than others. To be honest, this is something we have all been guilty of at one time or another.

One meaning…

There are two interpretations of what follows, depending on how one reads the original text. “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord…” He is standing, the position of one who is confident he is accepted by his Lord. It reminds one of a saying in the early Church: “The one who is risen stands.”

Our translation from the Greek goes on: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” This implies that Zacchaeus, because of his encounter with Jesus, has undergone a radical conversion. He will give up his corrupt and rapacious ways. He will share his wealth with the poor and will make restitution to those he has cheated.

All this is in striking comparison to another rich man, an apparently very good man. He asked Jesus what he should do “to gain eternal life”. Jesus’ answer was, “Keep the commandments, the laws of God’s people.” “I have done that all my life,” says the rich man. “Then,” says Jesus, “there is just one more thing. Share what you have with the poor and then come and follow me.” And this very religious, very pious man, went away sad-faced “because he had many possessions” and could not let go of them.

Here, though, we have another rich man, apparently far from being religious or pious, a sinner in the eyes of the public, giving away half of his wealth. He will become a disciple. He has the necessary qualifications.

…another meaning

There is, however, another way of reading the text which seems closer to the original text of Luke. In this interpretation, Zacchaeus speaks in the present tense: “Half of my possessions I give (Greek, didomi, didwmi, present tense: ‘I give’ or ‘I am giving’) to the poor; and if I find I have taken more than I should, I pay back (apodidomi, apwdidwmi, ‘I give back’) fourfold.”

In other words, although he is a tax collector and apparently rich, he is, in fact, a very good man. Jesus recognised that when he invited himself into Zacchaeus’s house. The crowd, however, judged Zacchaeus simply by his profession. He is a tax collector, therefore he is an evil and corrupt man. And he was treated as an outcast not to be approached by any decent person. A perfect example of stereotyping and of judging people’s ‘holiness’ by their external observance of religious ritual.

But Jesus always sees beyond the external to the potential inside. He praises the repentant tax collector in last week’s Gospel over against the proud and arrogant Pharisee. Today he praises a tax collector whom he knows to be a good and generous person. He sees a unique individual and not just a stereotype.

How often are blinded by the stereotype of a person’s profession, or race, or religion

and fail to see the unique individual inside? A policeman, a truck driver (a hard-drinking womanising redneck), a single mother, a recovering alcoholic, a homosexual…?

The last word

Jesus has the last word today. “Today salvation, wholeness, has come to this house,

because Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham.” ‘Son of Abraham’ was a title for a good-living Jew and sometimes applied to Christians in the early Church. The sign of this is that he has received Jesus joyfully into his home. Something we are called to do every day.

“For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” — the lost include those regarded as sinners and those who are marginalised by so-called respectable society. They are the people to whom we Christians, as disciples of Jesus, are also expected to pay special attention. We need to be particularly careful about pre-judging people, about slotting them into stereotyped compartments…

Stereotypes do not really exist. Only unique individuals with unique needs exist. Jesus saw, not a tax collector, but the unique person, Zacchaeus. Just as in the house of Simon the Pharisee he saw not a prostitute but a deeply contrite and loving person. Every person has the right to be treated with respect and dignity, no matter who they are or what they are like.

For God there are no stereotypes

To do this, sometimes, like Zacchaeus, we may have to climb away from the crowd to get a closer look at the people around us. It is all summed up beautifully in today’s First Reading from the Book of Wisdom:

[Before reading, ask those present to think of a person or group of persons whom they particularly dislike.]

“Lord, you love all things that exist,
and detest none of the things that you have made,
for you would not have made anything if you had hated it.
How would anything have endured if you had not willed it?
Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved?
You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love all that lives.”

In seeing people around as God, their loving Creator, does, salvation will come to our house and will come to theirs also. And we could hardly do better than end with the lovely prayer of Paul in the Second Reading, which fits in so well with God coming into our lives as he did into that of Zacchaeus:

“We pray continually
that our God will make you worthy of his call
and by his power fulfil all your desires for goodness
and complete all that you have been doing through faith;
because in this way the name of our Lord Jesus Christ
will be glorified in you and you in him,
by the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

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