St. Luke’s Gospel narrative is fond of giving an inclusive picture of the Kingdom of God. For quite a good number of Sundays, we have read very many of these inclusive periscopes unlike the other evangelist especially the Synoptics, Luke has the peculiarity of the inclusive kingdom than the notion of the Jews that God’s Kingdom is exclusively theirs. Luke’s peculiarities are expressed in these periscopes: the story of the prodigal son (15ff), Pharisee and publican at prayer (18:9-14), the ten lepers whereupon only the gentile was recognized for giving thanks (17: 11-19) e.t.c. Hence today’s periscope corroborates his previous narratives. Immediately after setting the center stage for Jesus, Luke described every other ministry of Jesus from chapters 9:51-19 as a travel narrative. Thus these were deeds of Jesus as he travelled to Jerusalem for the fulfillment of his mission-death and resurrection. Jesus traveling through southern Palestine on his way to Jerusalem makes the most of every opportunity to teach, heal and liberate his people. Along the streets of Jericho, a rich agricultural town and a popular resort for royalty and priests was in Jesus’ path. It was along the streets of Jericho he encountered Zacchaeus.
Without a doubt, I am fully convinced that quite a good number of persons here define the man Zacchaeus as a brief seized short man so much so that some may have even given such name to friends and relations who are very short in height. Will it not be swimming against the current of popular opinion should I claim today that Zacchaeus may not have been so short a man as above definition? Nevertheless, am left with no option than to swim against this popular opinion. The word Zacchaeus is a Greek word that means ‘pure and righteous one’ not in any form; a short man. He must not have been as short as we hold today considering the nature of his work as a tax collector since the duty demanded much force on the people. Their work was more of thuggery, lacking every sense of gentility such that a tax collector ought to be a strong man ready for every forceful means/action to achieve their end. Hence his shortness was more of spiritual shortness considering the Jewish definition of spirituality than a physical shortness.
In Jesus’ days was the Roman Imperial hegemony in Palestine. This period, tax collectors were not popular people. They were legitimated thieves, paid by the Imperial Government and were allowed to tax and abuse the imperial subjects excessively, even using force and fear. They were collaborators with the Romans and were despised by many Jewish people. The tax system allowed them to charge more than what was required so that they could make a profit for themselves. Thus, they were considered sinners by their countrymen. That Zacchaeus was chief among these people described above meant that he was considered a very close collaborator with the pagan Roman government and should not by ordinary logic receive the love of the Jews. He was to the male Jewish population what a woman prostitute was to the Jewish female population. Indeed, the phrase often appears in the Gospels “tax collectors and sinners.” Sinners was a euphemism for prostitutes. The two professions were considered the worst sinners. Nevertheless, that Zaccheus himself sought out Jesus by climbing a tree, supplies the sense that it was God’s intervening call that stirred Zaccheus’ heart and mind.
Observers in the crowd grumble because Jesus dines with a sinner. Throughout Scripture, Jesus’ choice of dinner companions set him apart from other observant Jews of his time. In first century Jewish culture, to dine together was to show a bond of fellowship and peace among those at the table. Observant Jews did not generally dine with foreigners and sinners. Yet, Jesus chooses to honor the tax collector, Zacchaeus, by staying at his house. Moved by the audacity of Jesus’ undeserved love and acceptance, Zacchaeus publicly repented acts of corruption and vowed to make restitution for them, and held a feast at his house. It was Zacchaeus’ public change, conversion, commitment and humble confidence that is the center of the story. The very presence of Christ in his life allowed him to re-engage life fully and to have the very “salvation” of God bestowed upon him by Jesus.
Even before Jesus comes to his home, Zacchaeus shows himself to be someone in search of salvation. We know from Luke’s description that Zacchaeus was no ordinary tax collector; he was, in fact, the chief tax collector and a person of some wealth. In his search for salvation, he humbled himself by climbing a tree. Jesus recognizes the faith exhibited by Zacchaeus in his search for salvation and calls him down from the tree. In the hospitality he extends to Jesus and in his conversion of heart, Zacchaeus is raised up by Jesus as a model of salvation. Thus he said: “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 the marginalized. They deserve our special attention.
Following today’s first reading, God is by definition mysterious! God is unknowable and unimaginably great! Among God’s principal qualities are divine compassion, mercy, care, concern and affection for the whole universe, and for its tiniest part. The greatness of that divine love ought to compel us to love unboundedly. God’s love is absolute, overwhelming, and for the entire created universe, each and every individual person, and including all peoples! Imagine the critique of this insight aims and places upon all those human biases and bigotries which are embraced and acted out on a daily basis! This divine wisdom explains why believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the God of Jesus Christ, must without hesitancy try to love as God loves.
Remember the reply of Zacchaeus; “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. As such ready to fulfill the Old Testament rule on restitution; ‘if a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep’ (Ex.22.1). He will give up his corrupt ways. He will share his wealth with the poor and will make restitution to those he had cheated. As we encounter the Lord today in the Eucharist, are we ready to ward off every form of cheat and even to make restitutions for the times we cheat(ed) others? A question for all of us! May God help us to answer this question in the spirit of Zacchaeus Amen!