THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR, C.
THE ZACCHAEUS EXAMPLE: KILL YOUR PRIDE, ACCEPT GOD’S OFFER
The book of Wisdom today seems as if it pointed directly to the story of Zacchaeus in the gospel. Wisdom speaks eloquently of the omnipotence of God. The whole universe is as a grain or a drop of morning dew upon the earth in the sight of God. The writer attributes all things to God whose love makes him always to care for humanity despite its shortcomings. It concludes thus, “Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little, warn them, and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, Lord!” (Wis.12:2). Wisdom places divine mercy and power side by side. God’s love is immense, so also his power to save. He is in absolute control of the universe he has made.
And the popular story of Zacchaeus is presented to us in the gospel of today, the very “senior tax collector” and “wealthy man”. Last Sunday, in the encounter between the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk.18:9-14), we touched on the fact that tax collectors are perceived as sinners. The Pharisee was bold to say that he was not a sinner like the tax collector. So describing Zacchaeus as "a chief tax collector" also implied that he was a chief sinner in the mindset of the Pharisees.
We are not going to answer the questions here one after the other, but they give us a glimpse of the need to open ourselves up to the promptings of God. Salvation has been given to us, yet salvation demands our giving in to God and giving up our old ways of life. In the first place, Zacchaeus challenges us to look at life with positive lens. Scripture says, “he could not see Jesus because of the crowd, for he was too short” (Lk.19:3).
Zacchaeus could have been disgusted with his height. He could have given up from seeing Jesus. He could have been upset that Jesus was part of his problem. Zacchaeus rather recognized that he could use the resources available to him to get to Jesus. Zacchaeus converted the sycamore tree into an opportunity to advance his chances for getting to Jesus. For others, the sycamore was an ordinary tree, but for Zacchaeus, it became the place or point of encounter; a means to have a clear vision of Jesus.
Remarkably, Zacchaeus' point of conversion began the moment he made up his mind to climb the sycamore tree. He might as well have merely followed the crowd. He might also have been intimidated. He might have also been shy because by his social status, climbing the tree would demean him in three ways: 1). It would ridicule his richness. 2). It would single him out because of his notorious profession. 3). It would mock his diminutive stature. These are all the forces that Zacchaeus defied in his quest to see Jesus.
And when Jesus spotted Zachaeus and invited him to come down, Zacchaeus was filled with joy at the encounter. This was the second point of his defiance against the mounting opposition from the people. For, "When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, "he has gone to stay at the house of a sinner" (Lk.19:7-8). But Zacchaeus, a "people-branded sinner" knew that it wasn't about the people as it was about himself. It was about his desire to be saved. He is offered a special opportunity to chose between earthly wealth and eternal life. He is given the grace to be saved despite himself. Here is he standing before the "Way, Truth and Life" (Jn.14:6), who came that "all may be saved and come to the full knowledge of truth" (1Tim.2:4). Is he going to let the crowds dissuade him from his God given chance? No, he takes it. "Zacchaeus stood his ground and said 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" (Lk.19:8-9). This is what I call "spiritual affirmative action"- a firm purpose of amendment. He makes restitution for his sins. He decides to part ways with earthly possession in order to inherit eternal life. And Jesus says to him, "Today, salvation has come to this house" (Lk.19:9). His prayer is automatically answered, it is practical.
Looking at this story, we could generate many "what if questions" beginning from Zacchaeus' attempt to see Jesus till Jesus' offer of salvation to him. What if Zacchaeus hadn’t been short? What if he gave up for fear of the crowd? What if he hadn’t climbed the sycamore tree? What if Jesus hadn't found him out? What if he had merely followed the crowd? What if Zacchaeus didn’t make restitution?
Zacchaeus teaches us several lessons today. First, we have to recognize that the grace of God searches us out. God doesn't give up on us despite our sins. Even though Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree, it was Christ that discovered him, "When Jesus reached the spot he looked up and spoke to him" (Lk.19:5). Zacchaeus also teaches us to not let the pressures of our environment debar us from seeking salvation. He was diminutive in size. He was mocked by the crowd. He was materially suffocating. Yet, he converts every obstacle on his way to opportunity. He works for his salvation. We need the boldness of Zacchaeus to overcome the pressures of the world. We need the courage of Zacchaeus to invite and receive Jesus in our homes. Jesus is constantly passing our way, but we have to recognize that. Let us use today's opportunity to do away with those distractions that make us not fully repentant, not fully ready to host Jesus. Zacchaeus gives us the key, "Sir, if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times". We just have to part ways with old bad habits. That's repentance. Are you ready to keep your pride aside and make up for the sake of salvation?