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

You are merciful to all, because you can do all things and overlook people’s sins so that they can repent. (1st Reading)

Today’s Mass is about God’s love and mercy for everyone and how we should not be surprised at how even the most unlikely people can hear God’s call to change their lives.

The Gospel opens with Jesus entering Jericho and passing through the town. Jericho is a city lying just to the north-east of Jerusalem. Luke’s gospel describes Jesus’ public life as beginning in Nazareth in the north, where he grew up and where he made his ‘mission statement’ (Luke 4:16-21) before setting out on his life of teaching and healing. His mission brought him in a relatively straight line in a southerly direction to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is the focal point and the goal of his life’s work. There he will be arrested, tried, suffer and die and then rise in glory. And in Jerusalem, too, his disciples will be filled with his Spirit and from there begin their mission of bringing Jesus’ message of the Kingdom to the whole world.

So, Jericho is the last stage on this journey to Jerusalem and, in fact, before the end of this chapter 19 he will make his triumphant and final entry into the city on what we call Palm Sunday.

It is at this crucial moment that Zacchaeus appears. Luke says that he was one of the chief tax collectors and – he adds rather superfluously – “a wealthy man”.

Tax collectors were among the most despised group of people in the time of Jesus. It was not just because they had to do an awful job. (Even nowadays people do not exactly warm to the idea of tax collectors and many people go to extraordinary measures to keep out of their clutches.) Their bad reputation was more connected with the system under which they worked.

The Romans – like all governments – imposed taxes in order to fund public works and other expenses. But, as far as possible, they made their subject peoples rather than their own citizens pay the money required. And they did not collect the money themselves. Instead, they farmed out the tax collecting to various individuals. These people paid up a large amount of money for the right to collect taxes and then it was their job to get it back – with as much interest as possible (what we would now call ‘commission’).

So, on two accounts the tax collectors were highly unpopular: they extorted as much money as they could from the people assigned to them and they were working for the hated colonial power. They were what the Chinese Communists used to call ‘running dogs’. Because of their connections with the hated Romans, they were looked down on by most of their fellow-Jews as traitors and renegades and enemies of their own people.

Zacchaeus, whom one commentator calls a “creep”, was not just one of these. He was a chief tax collector and, as in any corrupt administration, had collected vast sums.

He had heard that Jesus was passing through the town. Like many people, he must have heard all the stories that were going around about this extraordinary Teacher and Healer. He was very anxious to get a look at him. He clearly had no intention of approaching Jesus. It was quite obvious that Jesus would not want to have anything to do with the likes of him.

However, we are told that he was a ‘short’ man. Is this also a way of saying that, in spite of all his wealth, he was not really such a big person?

Jesus was, as usual, accompanied by a large crowd of people, a few of them genuine followers but the majority just curious to see what wonders Jesus would perform next. Because of his short stature Zacchaeus could not see Jesus through the crowd. It is also likely that he would not have wanted to get too close to the crowd who would have despised and looked down on him – and not just because he was short.

So he decided to climb a tree so that he could get a glimpse of Jesus passing below without being seen himself.

Imagine Zacchaeus’ surprise when suddenly Jesus looked up and spoke to him. “Zacchaeus come down. Hurry, because I must stay at your house today.” The poor man must almost have fallen from the tree with shock. Did he hear Jesus correctly? And what wonderful words those were! Yet, they are words spoken to me every day of my life and how often do I hear them? And how often do I respond to them?

So, Zacchaeus hurried down from the tree and welcomed Jesus joyfully into his home. The crowd, on the other hand, was utterly disgusted. “He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house.” Of all the people in Jericho, Jesus has to pick the house of the chief tax collector. It would be like the Pope opting to stop over at the house of the biggest drug dealer in town and by-passing all those good Catholic homes which would have been more appropriate for him.

The people, of course, totally missed the meaning and purpose of Jesus’ life. Earlier on, after he was criticised for calling another tax collector, Matthew, as a disciple and having a meal with Matthew’s tax collector colleagues, Jesus had said: “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. Go and find out what is meant by the scripture which says: ‘It is compassion that I want, not animal sacrifices.’ I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts” (Matthew 9:12-13). And here in Zacchaeus was probably the most prominent outcast in Jericho.

Of course, there is another important point too. The people are judging Zacchaeus on his past behaviour. Jesus, on the other hand, is seeing the Zacchaeus that can change and who will change. We do not know what happened in that house that day but we do know that when Jesus came out, Zacchaeus was a changed man. He ignores the taunts of the crowd and says to Jesus: “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.” This amounts to the total conversion of a man who would have been notorious for his corruption and greed.

Jesus then totally endorses Zacchaeus’ change of heart. “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.” Salvation means the total rehabilitation of this formerly sinful man. He is now a true son of Abraham, that is, a true child of God who is reflecting in his life the love that God has for every one of our fellow men. And Jesus justifies his going to Zacchaeus’ house by saying that it was precisely people like Zacchaeus who needed to be sought out by Jesus.

It is worth noting that this story is strategically placed between the story of the healing of a blind beggar and the parable of the gold coins.

Zacchaeus, on the one hand, can be seen as a man who was caught up in a blind pursuit of wealth for its own sake and would stoop to any level to achieve his ends. After meeting Jesus his eyes are opened and he realises that his wealth is not for himself but to be used as a means to lift those in need.

The parable of the gold coins is about three men who were given various sums of money by “a man of high rank who was going to be made king” (a clear reference to Jesus himself) and told to trade with them. Two of the men doubled their capital but the third, the one who had received the least, was afraid to invest and hid the money. When the king returned he had nothing to offer. Again, we can see that this applies to the Zacchaeus story. Up to the time Jesus had come so unexpectedly into his life, Zacchaeus had nothing to show for all the wealth he had earned but now he was sharing it generously with the poor and with those he had treated unjustly.

There is one more comparison to be made. In the previous chapter (Luke 18:18-29) we are told about another rich man, this time a very good man who asked Jesus for advice on leading a perfect life. When Jesus suggested that he should divest himself of his material wealth and share it with the poor, he could not. “He became very sad, because he was very rich.” In fact, he was in Jesus’ eyes now very poor. It is Zacchaeus who is rich, who has been truly liberated and who has become, like Jesus himself, a man for others.

As we read this story, it is for us to see how it applies to our own lives. It is for us to look at the deep compassion of Jesus and how he is not influenced by stereotypes or labels. We all need both of these qualities. We need, too, to be able to see the potential that can be in any person whatever their past or present record may be.

So often our Christian work is in working with the converted. Not nearly enough of our Christian life is spent, like Jesus, mixing with those who have become alienated from society or Church, with those who are marginalised or looked down on. Let us be careful in our use of stereotyping language when we speak of people of other countries, nationalities, ethnic groups, religion or social class or occupation.

Let us work hand in hand and with Jesus our Lord “to seek out and save what was lost”. Let us hear again the words of the First Reading from the book of Wisdom: “You are merciful to all, because you can do all things and overlook people’s sins so that they can repent.”

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