I re-read the story of Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke (19:1-10) a little while back, which is sufficient reason for me to post a reflection on it. The Gospel doesn’t say much about him except that he was a rich tax collector, that he was short, and that he lived in Jericho. Jericho was an important city for a major trade route in that part of the world, so there was a lot of money and a lot of goods passing through there. If someone was savvy enough, and especially if he was sucking up to the Roman occupation, he could make a lot of money. That’s what Zacchaeus was doing by collecting taxes and pocketing as much as he could possibly take from everyone who had to pay them. So he was in a pretty comfortable position materially, but he was in a precarious position spiritually.
Yet grace was at work there because it says he desired to see Jesus. Now why the heck would a guy like that desire to see this preacher and magician from the hillbilly north country, when he’s here in the middle of the center of commerce and wealth and fatness and just having the time of his life?
Well, something was happening inside him. God put a desire in him, in his heart, to see Jesus, see who He is. We can learn some lessons from this. One of them is that in order to distinguish the desire from an empty wish, there has to be some action taken to realize it. We can wish for all kinds of things, but if we just sit there and wish and do nothing about it, it won’t come to pass. If you have a genuine desire, you’re going to do something to realize that desire.
So what did Zacchaeus do? Did he just stand there and start crying and say, “Oh I’m short, I can’t see Jesus. Woe is me, all these tall people are around me”? Or did he get angry and resentful and say, “Why has God done this to me, made me short that I can’t see what I want to see?”—and then just be resentful and bitter for the rest of his life? No, he did something about it. He went up a tree.
There’s another little lesson in here. Perhaps we would like to climb up a tree too, although it might be for the wrong reasons. One wrong reason for climbing up a tree is to hide from God so that we don’t have to deal with his demands, but as we see in the Gospel, He knows you’re there, and He’ll call you out instantly. But the other kind of bad reason to climb a tree is to think that you can be an observer of life, that you can look at things from afar as they pass by: I’ll just look at Jesus and see Him passing by, but I don’t have to get involved with Him or involved with life. I’ll just sit on the sidelines and watch everything pass me by and hope that nobody notices me here. Well, that doesn’t work either, because that’s not living life. That’s just counting the days until the gravediggers come. We have to be engaged with life and with God.
Anyway, Zacchaeus is up there in the tree waiting for Jesus, and Jesus came and called him down from the tree. Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Make haste and come down.” So Zacchaeus made haste and came down and received him joyfully.
They all murmured about this. “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” We find this in a lot of places in the Gospels. And we find it in all the history of mankind. There are always murmurers, grumblers and complainers. There’s no lack of them anywhere. But there’s a lesson to learn here as well. In some cases, Jesus rebukes and grumblers and murmurers. But here—and this is significant—Jesus ignores them completely. As soon as it says they murmured, there’s no mention of them anymore. Zacchaeus and Jesus continue their dialogue and the murmurers are just cut right out of the picture. This is important for us to know. Personally, I would rather be rebuked by God than ignored by God. When we are reproved or corrected, we should be glad that happens and not be angry, resentful and defensive about it, because thank God somebody is interested in us. Thank God somebody cares about us. Thank God somebody would like to help us better our lives.
Far worse is it to be ignored, for that is the lot of the damned. On the last day, the angel who holds the key to the abyss is going to round up all the evildoers and throw them in the pit and lock the door and throw away the key. And then forget about them. That’s something we should think about and also learn that lesson from this Gospel: murmurers are ignored by God, and if they continue to murmur they will be ignored forever, and that’s really a fate worse than death.
So Jesus moves on and begins to talk to Zacchaeus, who decides at that moment to change his life. He says, “Behold Lord, I give half my goods to the poor, and if I’ve defrauded anyone”—if I have defrauded anyone? That’s kind of funny, because he’s been doing it all his life—“I restore it fourfold.” This is another lesson for us, because Zacchaeus didn’t just say: I’m so sorry about that stuff that I did but now that I believe in You, everything is OK. If he had said that, Jesus would have said: Wait a minute, it’s not OK yet. You stole something. Give it back.
See, when we say we repent, we have to change our lives, or else it is not true repentance. It’s just a sham, and a pretty dangerous one too, with serious consequences. Repentance means to change your life, and Zacchaeus gives this example. I change my life, I welcome You into my house, I welcome You, Jesus, into my life and here’s what it means. I’m not going to do the things I used to do before I knew You, before I knew the word of God. I’m going to do something else.
We pretty much know what our faults are—if we don’t, someone will quickly point them out to us—so we know what we have to change. We have to make a serious and consistent and even strenuous (if it takes that) effort to make the changes that have to be made, to say “I pay back fourfold what I have taken.”
“What I have taken” doesn’t necessarily have to mean money or possessions from somebody. We can owe something in the sense of whatever damage we’ve done in relationships, in friendships or other things. Whatever we’ve done that has hurt somebody has in fact taken something from somebody, spiritually, emotionally, materially, whatever, so we have to make the necessary restitutions. It’s very clear in the Scriptures, in many places, that God is not so easily satisfied. We can’t pull the wool over God’s eyes. He’s not satisfied with the mere externals of worship and piety. If you don’t change your heart, He’s not interested in the rest.
If you read the first chapter of Isaiah, it’s very strong there. The Lord says: I am sick of your feasts. I’m sick of your Sabbaths and your new moons and all of your sacrifices. The smell of your incense makes me nauseous. I don’t want it anymore. Why? Because your hands are covered with blood and you’re full of sins. Repent of your sins first, then come to me and bring me your prayers and your incense and your sacrifices. Then I’ll accept them. I won’t accept them until you change your life, until you really repent.
Finally, we see that the desire of Zacchaeus is not a unilateral thing. The desire of Zacchaeus is met by the desire of Jesus. Jesus wants Zacchaeus’ salvation more than he does, and that’s why He came to him in the first place. Well, are we ready for this meeting of desires? Is Jesus worth it? Can we accept the sacrifices that life brings and let go of all the junk that we cling to in our own self-pity or whatever reason it is that we’re up in the tree hiding from God?
We have to come down and meet him and engage with Him. He’s saying: come down and I’m going to come into your house. I want to have supper with you tonight. He’s saying: I want to enter into a personal relationship with you. In those times, to eat with somebody was a very symbolic and intimate kind of act. You don’t eat with just anybody. You always go to the house of someone you know, and you share something of yourself with the person with whom you share a meal. So when Jesus invites you down from your tree and wants to stay in your house, He’s saying: I want to create an intimate relationship with you. I want to share life together.
So let’s get involved with Jesus, who wants to share his life with us. Let us be open to Him, to his invitation. Let our desire be his desire. And He will say to us too, when we come to meet Him in Holy Communion: “Today salvation has come to this house”—this “house,” this heart where He wants to take up his residence. Today salvation has come in the person of Jesus Christ, in the meeting of the desires, and He has the power to heal us, to make all things new, to save us. He has promised it, and He will do it.