WE HAVE A MERCIFUL AND LOVING GOD
Wis 11:22-12:1; 2Thess 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10
The story of Zacchaeus gives us an example of a situation where God did the impossible. Jesus sought out a rich man, named Zacchaeus, who was looking for something more in life, and by the end of the day Zacchaeus discovered that what he was looking for was a relationship with Jesus. He came to see that the riches he had worked so hard for and grown so accustomed to were worthless in comparison to what he could have in a relationship with Jesus. For many people, the story of Zacchaeus is relatively familiar because they learned songs about him when they were growing up. The songs often say Zacchaeus was a little man who climbed up in a tree to see Jesus, and as he passed that way he told Zacchaeus to get down because he was going to his house that day. Such songs about him give quite a gist of the story. But today, we called to go further than just the facts of the story.
- THE NATURE OF ZACCHAEUS’ JOB
Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was the chief tax-collector for the area around Jericho. This probably meant that he was in charge of overseeing a team of other tax collectors. Tax collectors, as we learnt from last week’s gospel, were generally regarded as people of low moral standards. Because tax collectors worked for the pagan Romans, mixed up with them and constantly handled their unclean money, the ordinary Jew saw them as being in a state of ritual uncleanliness. As far as the religion of the day was concerned, tax collectors were public sinners on the highway to hell. Tax collectors, of course, knew what people generally thought about them and their profession.
Tax collections were supposed to collect and give fixed amounts of revenue to the Roman government. Anything above that amount would be theirs to keep. As the chief tax-collector, Zacchaeus was probably told the amount that he was supposed to collect from the region, and he in turn told the other tax collectors what each of them was supposed to collect, adding in profit for himself in the process. Some writers have compared Zacchaeus’ job to being equivalent to the leader of a drug cartel—he was a tax kingpin!
- THE PUBLIC IMAGE OF ZACCHAEUS
You can imagine the way most people felt when they saw Zacchaeus, this short little man, show up at gathering around Jesus! He was probably the kind of person that people avoided when they saw him out walking the streets, because nobody really liked him. Luke says that he was wealthy. He was surely, a lonely man. He had everything but he was not happy. Although he was at the top of his profession, he was despised by his fellowmen. He also owned a house (since Jesus wanted to go there), and it would be safe to assume that it was a large and luxurious home. Most of the time we are given very little physical description of characters in the Bible, but Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was short, because it is relevant to the story.
With the coming of a famous visitor like into town, word quickly spread throughout, causing a crowd would gather along the road. Jesus was someone that lots of people wanted to see. Zacchaeus desperately wanted to see Jesus, so he joined the crowd of people along the road. But, unfortunately, being short, he was not able to see unless he got to the front of the crowd. You can almost hear some of the negative things people in the crowd might have been saying (name some!). They surely enjoyed pushing and depriving this rich, greedy, man of what he wanted—seeing Jesus. But Zacchaeus was determined to see Jesus, so he decided to climb up in a tree along the route where Jesus would be traveling, so he could at least get a chance to see the man.
Climbing a tree was not something a rich man like Zacchaeus would do. When Jesus stopped right in front of him and looked up at him, we can imagine his heart stopping. We can picture the people laughing and mocking at him. But Jesus’ response was not one of rebuke. Jesus looked up into the tree and told Zacchaeus to get down because he must eat at his house today. Imagine the shock as Zacchaeus heard those words! And imagine the murmurs from the people along the road as they heard them! They could not believe that this hated man would receive such an honour; so they looked for ways run him down. And Luke tells us that the crowds were recounting Zacchaeus’ reputation to each other, decrying the fact that Jesus was going to eat at the house of such a notorious sinner.
- ZACCHAEUS MAKES REPARATION
In Lk 19:8, we are told that Zacchaeus had a change of heart. This may have taken place at his home, because Jesus pronounced a blessing on “this house”. We read that Zacchaeus stood up and declared that he needed to make things right. He said that he was going to give half of his possessions to the poor, and then on top of that he would repay anyone he had cheated by paying back four times what he had stolen. Regarding restitution, the Law of Moses taught: “When a man or a woman wrongs another, breaking faith with the Lord, that person incurs guilt and shall confess the sin that has been committed. The person shall make full restitution for the wrong adding one fifth to it, and giving it to the one who was wronged,” (Num 5:5-7). While Zacchaeus was only required to add 20% on top of the amount that he had defrauded someone, he committed himself to adding 300% on top of that amount. This was a radical declaration, and if he followed through, it was evidence of a radical change in his heart. Jesus believed that Zacchaeus’ declaration was genuine because he declared that “salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ house and that he was a true son of Abraham”. By this, Jesus declared Zacchaeus a true believer. Mind you, Jesus was not saying that Zacchaeus’ actions had earned him salvation, but rather that his actions demonstrated the faith he had in Jesus—and it was his faith that had saved him.
The restitution of Zacchaeus shows how radical his conversion. In similar way, in the Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation, after we have confessed all our sins to a priest, the priest would advise us to return what we have taken, restore the dignity of others that we have destroyed and much more. Then he gives the penitential works to restore what we have destroyed. The New Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Many sins wrong our neighbour. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g. return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries)… Raised from sin, the sinner must still recover his spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for his sins…” (CCC no. 1459). This was what Zacchaeus resolved to do after confessing his sins. One may say that Zacchaeus lost his wealth; but he certainly found honour. He lost his belongings but found happiness. He lost his comfort but found his dignity. It is this dignity as a child of God who was saved by Christ that made him find his destiny.
- “YOU ARE MERCIFUL TO ALL”
The first reading of today, from the book of wisdom, tells us that we have a God who love all without discrimination. He is a merciful God. The people of Jericho were very annoyed with Jesus when he visited Zacchaeus in his own home. “They all complained when they saw what was happening. ‘He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house’ they said.” But other people’s attitudes never prevented Jesus from welcoming sinners. Therefore, no matter what people think of you, remember Jesus is always waiting for you to turn to him. He is full of mercy and compassion and never refuses anyone, no matter what his/her past is. At the end of our Gospel passage today Jesus said, “The Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.” On another occasion Jesus said he did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32).
Jesus spent so much time with sinners during his ministry that a rhyme was made up about him, “Behold a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners.” The leaders of the Jewish religion, the scribes and Pharisees complained about Jesus because of his ministry to sinners so he told parables about God’s mercy, the parable of the shepherd searching for the lost sheep, the parable of the woman sweeping the house to find the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son being welcomed back by his father. Jesus said there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine virtuous who have no need of repentance (Luke 15:7). Our first reading today also talks of God’s mercy, “You are merciful to all, because you can do all things and overlook men’s sins so that they can repent. Yes, you love all that exists, you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence.” Our Psalm also assured us of God’s mercy, “The Lord is kind and full of compassion.”
- SOME LESSONS TO BE LEARNT FROM THE STORY OF ZACCHAEUS
The story of Zacchaeus is not just a story about some guy who lived in the time of Jesus. There are several things we can learn from the story:
- a) One can never be satisfied by the things of the world.Zacchaeus was a rich man. Inside, however, it seems that he knew that was not enough. Maybe this is why he went out to see this man who had a reputation of loving those who were unloved and rejected by the world. He wanted to meet the man who had transformed the lives of many others. Unlike the rich young ruler (Mtt 19:16; Mk 10:17), Zacchaeus was willing to give away everything he had in order to know the new life offered by Jesus.
- b) No one is too far gone to be restored and made new by God.The people could not believe when Jesus told Zacchaeus he was going to his house. Going to the house of a sinner? The people viewed Zacchaeus as a lost cause, but Jesus knew that Zacchaeus was ready to hear the truth.
- c) Jesus is seeking each and every one of us.Think about how this story would have been different if Jesus had waited for Zacchaeus to come to him and ask him to tell him why he felt so unfulfilled in life. This story would never have happened. Fortunately, Jesus took the first step. He stopped at the tree where Zacchaeus was and told him that he must stay at his house. Jesus is the one who does all of the work, we simply have to respond.
- d) A true encounter with God results in a change in the way we live.No one truly meets Jesus and remains the same. Zacchaeus changed when he met Jesus. Within a single day he had a new first love. No longer was money the most important thing in his life, but Jesus was. Thus he declared his intention to make restitution. People who knew Zacchaeus would certainly have seen that something drastic must have happened to change his heart.
The story of Zacchaeus is one that is fun to read about, but the lesson of his encounter with Jesus is at the crux of everything. In our daily struggles in life, we are challenged to apply this passage to our own lives, by doing the following: i) Examining what is most important in our lives, ii) Learning to see the people on whom God is working. In the eyes of God, no one is a lost cause, iii) Looking for the fruit of genuine faith. When there is a change of heart, there also a change of living. Jesus told his disciples that Christians and non-Christians can be recognized only by the fruit their lives bear. (Matthew 7:15-20).
At the end of the reflection, you can read this poem written by Karl-Heinz Doll, which talks about money. It may be application to Zacchaeus and even to us, especially. The poem runs this way:
Money can buy bed but not sleep
Money can buy food but not appetite
Money can buy a house but not a home
Money can buy medicine but not health
Money can buy pleasure but not joy
Money can buy books but not wisdom
Money can buy style but not beauty
Money can buy contracts but not trustworthiness
Money can buy weapons but not peace
Money can buy bodyguards but not peace of heart
Money can buy beautiful grave but not eternal life.
Another author once said: “Money is an article which may be used as universal passport to everywhere, except heaven and as a universal provider of everything, except happiness.” Just like some of us, Zacchaeus was thinking that to have more money, it could give security to oneself and even happiness. Yes, we can love the money but the money in return could not love us. Money has no feeling. It has a callous nature.