First reading Wisdom 11:22-12:2
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 144(145):1-2,8-11,13b-14
Second reading 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2
Gospel Luke 19:1-10
I have a question for the children here today. Do you ever like to climb trees? It’s fun, isn’t it? When I was a kid, I must have spent half my time up in a tree! What about the adults here today, when was the last time you climbed a tree? A fair while ago I bet. This is an important point. Climbing trees is something adults don’t tend to do very much. Children, on the other hand, readily climb trees. “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” says the Lord Jesus (Matt 18:3). Again, Jesus said, “let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the Kingdom of God” (Lk 18:16). Now, I’m not implying that we all need to start climbing trees to get into heaven. My point is, there is something about this man Zacchaeus that equips him for the Kingdom of Heaven. Let’s take a closer look at him. The Gospel tells us that Zacchaeus was a senior tax collector. In fact, the Greek text calls him an “arch” or “chief” tax collector. So, he wasn’t just a more experienced tax collector, he was the boss. That’s probably why the Gospel also tells us that Zacchaeus was a “wealthy man”. We have here a man of wealth, rank and power who, for these reasons, was probably not all that young either. With this in mind, consider what we’ve just heard.
We were told Zacchaeus was seeking to see what kind of man Jesus was (lit. “who Jesus is”), but because he was not tall enough, “he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus…” These are actions that would have stood out as very strange and excessive, firstly because a first-century Middle Eastern man would never run! In order to run without tripping, they would have to tie up their long tunic, showing their bare legs, which was a very embarrassing thing to do in those days. And not only was it undignified for a man, especially a man of wealth and rank, to run, but to then climbs a tree – that’s something only a child would normally do! So, Zacchaeus’ actions here stand out as very dramatic and even extravagant, making him look ridiculous in that culture. This tells us a few things about him: 1) Zacchaeus must have desperately wanted to see and know who Jesus is. 2) His desire to know who Jesus is, was far more important to him than maintaining his public air of dignity and honour. 3) This shows that Zacchaeus did not take himself too seriously, but was a humble and even childlike man, something you very rarely see in powerful men of rank. Now, given Jesus’ words about becoming like little children, it’s hardly surprising what happens next: Jesus tells him to hurry back down, just as he hurried up the tree, for “I must stay at your house today.” This is beautiful. Jesus must stay at his house. But then “they” begin to complain – “He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house.” An interesting expression appears here. The Greek expression used for “to stay” in this case literally means to “untie”, as in, to untie the straps on your horse’s pack or to undo your belt and sandals at the end of a journey. They complain that Jesus has “untied” at the house of a sinner, giving the sense that he is not only staying with Zacchaeus but is resting with him after a long journey. There is a sense of closeness and friendship here.
Now, things get even more interesting. When “they” complain and accuse Zacchaeus of being a sinner (due to his being a tax collector), he stands his ground. Many translations, including our own, say that Zacchaeus pledged to give “half of my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody, I will pay them back four times the amount.” This gives the impression that Zacchaeus admits he has been dishonest and is promising to change his ways. However, in the Greek text, it’s not so clear. Zacchaeus never speaks in the future tense. He speaks only in the present. He literally says, “I give half my property to the poor and if I [discover that I] have cheated anybody, I pay them back four times the amount. It appears that Zacchaeus may not be promising to change his ways, but rather defending himself, pointing out that he is in fact honest and generous with his wealth, despite the public perception that he is a thieving tax collector. Perhaps this is why when Jesus looked up and saw this little man, meek and childlike, generous and honest, anxiously seeking to know who Jesus was, the Lord insisted it was necessary for him to stay and rest with him.
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, there is much to learn from our little arch tax collector. First, Zacchaeus’ generosity with his riches is something Jesus constantly calls us to imitate. Generosity is a theme that comes up again and again in Luke’s Gospel. Secondly, there is something beautifully childlike about Zacchaeus, which makes him eager, ready and even desperate to seek Jesus. Dear friends, if we want salvation to visit our house, we too need to discover something of his urgency, eagerness and perhaps even desperation to know Jesus personally in our lives. This might mean discarding something of our public façade in order to “run” and to “climb” after him, even if it’s embarrassing to do so. The good news is, we have the opportunity to do so right now. Jesus is about to pass by this way in the Holy Eucharist, just as he did in Jericho. If we seek him with that childlike humility and eagerness, with no regard for ourselves, he might just “untie” and rest within us!