Vol.6 No.8 DoM Gospel Reflection
31st Sunday Ordinary Time–October 25, 2016
Luke 19: 1-10
Many biblical scholars present the story of Zacchaeus as the radical conversion of an obvious sinner. The chief tax collector was a wealthy man who cared little for victims of oppression or injustice until his encounter with Jesus. The Pharisees, seeing him as an enemy collaborator, are once again grumbling about the company Jesus keeps. Recent interpretations have tended to view Zacchaeus, however, as the victim of undeserved scorn and suggest that his conversion was already under way before the scene we hear about today. According to biblical scholar John J. Pilch, when Zacchaeus speaks of giving half of his possessions to the poor, it is in the Greek present tense, which suggests not a one-time, future action, but an ongoing, customary act. Even though use the future tense in most translations (like ours, which uses “shall”) is grammatically possible, the present tense is more plausible, according to Pilch. And Zacchaeus says “IF I have extorted anything from anyone,” which in the Greek suggests that he has not consciously done so, but if he discovers that he has ever inadvertently defrauded anyone, he pledges to restore it by 400 percent. Jewish law only required repayment of 120 percent.
My point here is that while Zacchaeus is perceived as a grave sinner, Jesus in fact reveals the truth to the people of Jericho about a man who gave alms and showed concern for the welfare of others. The Pharisees and crowd have misjudged Zacchaeus and are proven wrong.
This passage in Luke’s gospel is the only time the name “Zacchaeus” appears in the New Testament. It appears in only one other place in the Bible: the last book of the Old Testament, 2 Maccabees. In Hebrew, the word from which the name is formed means “clean, pure, innocent.”
Zacchaeus, may not have been entirely “clean, pure, and innocent ” before his encounter with Jesus, but Jesus knew Zacchaeus’ heart. The conversion process may have already begun, but it took the encounter with the living Jesus to make possible his salvation.
Two things that struck me in this gospel for Sunday: first, Zacchaeus’ childlike abandon in seeking to “see who Jesus was”; and second, Jesus’ way of always lifting up, loving and showing mercy to sinners, be they tax collectors, adulterers, or cowards.
When was the last time you climbed a tree? Jesus was journeying with his disciples to Jerusalem, and intended to pass through Jericho without stopping. Zacchaeus was “seeking to see who Jesus was.” There was a crowd, making it hard for him to see Jesus, and the presence of that crowd also meant that Zacchaeus, by running ahead and climbing a tree, was subjecting himself to possible scorn and ridicule. Recall that in the previous chapter of Luke (Lk 18:17), Jesus says, “Amen I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” That chapter of Luke continues with a story of a rich ruler who refuses Jesus’ invitation because he can’t give up his wealth and power. This is followed by the saying about the near impossibility of the wealthy getting to heaven. Zacchaeus, unlike the rich ruler in Lk 18, had a childlike desire to seek the truth by whatever means were necessary. Jesus inspires the conversion that leads to salvation, but we must be childlike, uninhibited, and unafraid to answer the invitation.
How can we be more childlike in seeking Jesus every day? It must have been shocking and scandalous for the people of Jesus’ time when they observed how he treated sinners. We need to be reminded of this more often! God overlooks our sins so that we might repent and change. It’s no less puzzling to us now than it was to the contemporaries of Jesus, because by human standards, infinite mercy makes no sense.
Listen to how beautifully Sunday’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom (Wis 11:22-12:2) describes God’s infinite mercy:
…But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
And you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.
For you love all things that are
And loathe nothing that you have made;
For what you hated, you would not have fashioned…
(I can’t help but imagine the influence this may have had on Pope Francis!) It concludes,
…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, O Lord!
“Gospel” means “good news,” not “good suggestions for how to attain salvation.” The gospels don’t tell us what we should do, but what God has already done for us, and continues to do for us always. He has, by creating us, bestowed on us the gift of inherent dignity. But thanks to the fall, we all also have this tendency to sin.
If God’s attitude toward every created thing is love, do we reflect that attitude in our treatment of creation? Our neighbor?
Jesus came “to seek and save what was lost.” Let us follow Zacchaeus’ example: seeking the Lord with child-like abandon; recognizing our sins; accepting His mercy, and going home with him.