When I was a young boy, we had a series of little comic books about the Bible — now you can get them in one volume, called the Action Bible. My brothers and I would read these little books all the time. It’s actually the way I learned all my Bible stories, and I still remember them today because of that. But there was always one New Testament passage that got my attention over and over again: Man in a Tree.
You see, I was a small short kid, so I completely identified with Zacchaeus not being able to see Jesus over the crowd. I also loved to climb things: trees, sheds, bookcases, scaffolding, houses… So this story about a short man in a tree captivated me, and I’ve always had a soft spot for Zacchaeus.
As I grew up, other aspects of this passage came to life for me. I realised that Jesus called Zacchaeus by name the first time He spoke to him. It’s as if Jesus already knew him. Then, the math didn’t make any sense to me: half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I’ve defrauded anyone … I will pay back four times as much (v. 8). Either he was a good investor or a bad counter, because giving back four times what he took with only half of his money left…? It just didn’t add up for me.
But as I began to study Scripture in the seminary, this passage, and many others like it, began to open up to a deeper content. Now, it’s not that there was anything hidden in the story; it’s all completely visible, I just didn’t know to see it.
You see — and I’ve said this several times already since I’ve been here —, Bible passages must always be read within their context: the immediate context of the chapter and the specific book, but also in their wider context of the whole Bible. And for Zacchaeus’ story, this give us so much!
By this time in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is on His final journey to Jerusalem where He will be crucified. He knows this very clearly, because He’s already talked to His disciples about it three times (Lk 9:22; 9:44; 18:31-33). And the closer He gets to Jerusalem, the stronger His language becomes.
In the paragraph before today’s story, Jesus arrived at Jericho (Zacchaeus’ town) and He healed a blind man who had been crying out: Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me! (Lk 18:38). You probably remember the story. Now a crowd had already been following Jesus, but now with the healing, you can imagine the crowd got bigger. And this is where we meet Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus may already have heard about Jesus before, but Luke gives us the impression that he certainly heard about the healing: He was trying to see who Jesus was (v. 3). Zacchaeus’ interest was piqued by what he had heard about Jesus, and he wanted to know who this man was, who could heal the blind. And clearly his curiosity was quite strong; it’s not everyday that an adult would run ahead and climb a tree (cf. v. 4) to see who’s passing by.
Now that’s just Zacchaeus’ actions. Jesus’ actions are all the more powerful! Notice how Jesus calls him by name: Zacchaeus, hurry and come down (v. 5). Again, Jesus looked at him with the heart of God, and loved him. That’s why he then proceeded, not to condemn him for being a sinner, a tax-collector, but rather welcomed him and invited Himself over: I must stay at your house today (v. 5). Zacchaeus met Jesus, and Jesus welcomed him; Jesus accepted Zacchaeus and loved him despite his sins. Think on that for a minute! Whereas the crowd grumbled and rejected Zacchaeus, Jesus accepted and loved him despite his sins.
No wonder Zacchaeus got so excited and generous in his response! See what love does! See what God’s grace does to the sinner! That’s why Jesus said he came to seek out and to save the lost (Lk 19:10). Love brings to conversion when it’s encountered. Jesus welcomed Zacchaeus, whom He already loved; and Zacchaeus, through that loving welcome, encountered the generous love of God, and immediately repented of his sins and changed his life. That’s why Jesus was able to say: Today, salvation has come to this house (v. 9). Encountering Jesus Christ brings with it conversion; repentance brings with it salvation. This is the beautiful gift that our Lord came to bring us! This is the Good News!
Encounter with Christ is why we have the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist; it’s why we have so much Scripture at Mass; it’s why we really do need to daily spend time in prayer. Repentance is why we acknowledging our sins by beginning each Mass with the Penitential Act; it’s why we have Confession. And we gather for the Eucharist as a community so that we may also encounter Jesus in and through each other. All of this works for our salvation.
But we also need to become ‘encounters’ for others. How many people do you think Zacchaeus told about his meeting with Jesus? How many people do you think he told about having Him over as a houseguest? We too need to talk about our faith, but not so much about the doctrines of our faith. As Pope Francis recently said, doctrine doesn’t make sense without knowing Christ (“Interview with Pope Francis”, La Repubblica, 9 October 2013). Rather, we need to talk about the experiences we’ve had of Christ, who continues to welcome us and work in us. This is our mission as disciples: to share the encounter we’ve had of Jesus with everyone around us.
But to do this, we must imitate Jesus: we are not to condemn the sinner, but to welcome and love him. Now that doesn’t mean we put up with sin; but we do put up with people, people who are loved by God, and so should be loved by us also. Who knows what that Love will do? Who knows what that encounter with Jesus will do in their hearts? Maybe, like Zacchaeus, they too will repent and respond with a generous love for God. Amen.