Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He ran to climb a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.” Zacchaeus had his shortcomings. He was like a frustrated child standing behind a wall of grownups at a parade. Small in stature, he was nonetheless a big-time operator in the rich city of Jericho. He knew how to get what he wanted and rose to the top of his profession as a chief tax collector. Now, he seizes the moment and rises again, this time up a tree, literally going out on a limb where he perches on one of the overhanging branches like a ripe fig ready to be plucked. “Rotten fruit,” some would say. But Jesus looked past the wrinkled outer skin and saw what Zacchaeus could become, good fruit, a righteous man. That is what his name actually means. For others his name was in direct contradiction with his life. They only saw the surface. Jesus saw the heart of Zacchaeus, where something new, fresh and pure was stirring.
Feelings ran high against this lowly tax collector, this collaborator with the Romans who lifted himself up above his own people. Do you remember photographs taken after the liberation of Paris during World War Two? There is one of a young French woman walking shamefully down the street with a baby in her arms. The child was fathered by a German soldier. The woman’s head is bowed and shaved to the bone. She is followed by a jeering crowd of neighbors, hatred drawn on every face.1 That’s how Jews in the time of Jesus looked at tax collectors. They were collaborators with the enemy, helping to maintain the alien, pagan power of Rome. They made a living at the expense of their own countrymen. They were shunned on the streets, unwelcome in any respectable home, excluded from religious celebrations. No decent person would stop to talk with a tax collector as Jesus did.
People judged Zacchaeus by his past. But Jesus saw what Zacchaeus could become, just as Michelangelo could see the beauty of the Pieta in a rough, jagged block of marble. Graced by Jesus, the mercurial Simon bar Jona became Peter the rock; the persecutor Saul became Paul the apostle; the wealthy Francesco Bernardone became St. Francis of Assisi, lover of Lady poverty.
People looked down at Zacchaeus as a sinner, getting their daily exercise by jumping to condemnations. But Jesus looked up at Zacchaeus, and saw a child of Abraham ready to leap into the life of grace. Jesus said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, I must stay at your house today!” There was urgency in his words: “Come down quickly!” St. Benedict, in the Prologue of his rule for monks, writes, “While there is still time … let us run to do now what will profit us for all eternity.” Jesus urged Zacchaeus to seize the opportunity, to do quickly what would profit him for all eternity. And he did.
Zacchaeus lost no time. First, he ran to the sycamore tree. Then, when Jesus called, he quickly came down, and as quickly changed his life. He did not delay his decision to love Jesus more than his own wealth. What a great contrast there is between this wealthy sinner in the city of Jericho who joyfully received the Lord and the rich young man who met Jesus on the road into Jericho, who had obeyed all the commandments, but went away sad because he loved riches more than Jesus. He did not seize the moment of grace to be a companion of Jesus when Jesus offered it to him.
Zacchaeus ran to follow Christ and salvation came to his whole house. The rich young man turned his back on Jesus and went away sad, taking his whole house with him. Their decisions affected the lives of families and descendants for years to come, maybe for centuries. Neither man knew that if he delayed it would be too late, because Jesus was passing through Jericho for the last time. He was on his way to be crucified in Jerusalem where two thieves would be perched on the branches of their trees on Calvary. One missed the opportunity to leap into grace. The other seized the moment and expressed his penitent love, saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Like Zacchaeus we all have our shortcomings, our sins. May we also be like him by seizing the moment whenever grace is offered to us. “While there is still time … let us run to do now what will profit us for all eternity.” Later it might be too late.
- Life Magazine, Aug. 1944.