Following Zacchaeus Up The Tree, Tuesday of the 33rd Week of Ordinary Time (I), November 16, 1999

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Domus Sanctae Mariae Guadalupensis
Tuesday of the 33rd Week of Ordinary Time, Year I
November 16, 1999
2 Macc 6:18-31; Lk 19:1-10

Time and again, from homilies, to prayers, to banners at football games, we read that God so loved the world that he sent us his only Son so that the world might be saved through him. Countless parables and discourses of the Lord reiterate this soteriological synthesis, driving home the point that the Lord came to call sinners. In today’s Gospel, in the story of Zacchaeus, we see Jesus’s words and promises being put into action.

Jesus’ love for sinners was so profound that he literally went to the deepest place on earth in search of perhaps the greatest public sinner of that city, to reconcile him to the Father. Jesus went to Jericho, the lowest city on the planet, to find Zacchaeus, who was not just one of a bunch of tax-collectors loathsome to the Jewish authorities, but the chief tax collector of the region. Jesus had promised that he, the Good Shepherd, would leave the ninety-nine sheep in his fold to search out and save one lost sheep, and this is what he did, leaving the crowds behind and entering alone with Zacchaeus into his home and into his life. He called Zacchaeus, his lost sheep, by name and heaven rejoiced on that day more for him than for all the others. So, too, today and everyday, Jesus takes the initiative of knocking at the door of our souls, asking for entry, coming to us wherever we are, no matter the depths to which we’ve sunk, no matter the fact that perhaps everyone else around us might despise us. Jesus never abandons us. To the extent that we repent of whatever sins we’ve committed and accept Jesus’ gracious invitation by “welcoming him with delight,” we, too, like Zacchaeus, can have salvation come to us.

The diminutive Zacchaeus’ climbing of the tree, moreover, is more than (merely) an interesting detail. The text tells us that he was trying to see Jesus, but could not because of the crowd, so he ran ahead and climbed a tree along Jesus’ route in order to be able to see him. We, too, often cannot see the Lord because other people get in the way. They block our sight in countless ways. We’re often too small of stature to see over such obstacles, and, unfortunately, too often others are too selfish, distracted, sinful, judgmental or out-of-it, to do anything to help us and bring us into the presence of the Lord. Like a little child, however, Zacchaeus climbs a tree to see the Lord. Such an act could have led to great mockery for a middle-aged public figure. Think about if you saw Alan Greenspan climbing a telephone pole in order to get a better glimpse of the Pope. But Zacchaeus didn’t care. He wanted to see the Lord and none of these obstacles was going to stop him. His example challenges each of us to consider what is the extent to which we go, what trees or obstacles we’ll climb, in order to see Jesus more clearly. Are we capable of being accounted fools for Christ for following those means that others might consider silly if they will bring us into greater relationship with Jesus?

This story of Zacchaeus is ultimately a wonderful follow-up to Sunday’s Gospel of the parable of the talents. Zacchaeus, though small, was a very rich man, but he was not caught up in the gift of his riches. Even before Jesus came to his home, he was giving half of his earnings to Christ in the poor of Jericho and repaying any person he had wronged in his public duties four-fold. To use modern terminology, he was a philanthropist committed to social justice. He wasn’t just tithing, he was tithing five times over, and he was using his goods to serve and help others. And hence this story is crucial for the proper interpretation of another encounter that St. Luke recounts almost immediately before this one, that of the Rich Young Man. Jesus startled the disciples by saying that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, which has led to countless misinterpretations, from the infamous ones of the liberation theologians in South America, to the common, but perhaps equally harmful ones in pulpits and classrooms throughout America, in which hard-working men and women or their children are made to feel guilty simply on the basis of their bank accounts. After mentioning the camel, Jesus added that all things are possible with God, and in the story of Zacchaeus we concretely see God’s possibilities. God can indeed save a rich man without necessarily reducing him to the state of poverty. Zacchaeus remained a rich man, but one who used his riches, used what God gave him, for building up God’s kingdom. Riches aren’t evil, they’re goods and blessings, provided they aren’t divinized. To whom more is given, however, more is to be expected; Jesus, we see, obviously thought that Zacchaeus was living up to these expectations.

At today’s Mass, we can turn to the Lord and thank him for the example of Zacchaeus, who in so many ways is so much like us. We can thank the Lord for continually coming to save us, no matter how far we’ve sunk, and no matter how many times we’ve fallen, for calling us by name, and for inviting himself literally inside of us to abide in us and have us abide in him. O happy fault indeed of Adam, of Roger, Jim, Yvonne Mary, and each of us, that brought us such a great redeemer! We can thank him in advance as well for the graces he’ll give us so that we can with him climb whatever sycamores or redwoods we have to in order to see him more clearly. But most of all we can thank him for going one step further. When we and the whole human race were incapable of seeing him on account of the great weight of sin which was reducing our humanity to smaller and smaller images of what we are called to be, and thereby when we were incapable of climbing any tree at all, he, out of his great love for us, climbed one on our behalf, so that each of us, dying and wailing like the serpent-bit Jews in the desert, might still be able to see him, perched upon his glorious wooden throne. He invites each of us here and now in this Eucharistic participation in his death and resurrection, to be lifted up by him onto that life-giving tree. Today, with Zacchaeus, with SS. Margaret and Gertrude, with the Virgin of Tepeyac and all the saints, let us pick up that Cross — our cross! — and thereby be picked up by it, so that as God’s children we might spend eternity in that celestial tree house built upon the Cross’ firm foundation. God love you!