This weekend we are introduced to one of the more intriguing characters of St. Luke’s Gospel: Zacchaeus. He is intriguing because there are only a few things that we know about him, and they all seem to be in conflict with each other.
St. Luke tells us he was “a wealthy man” (Luke 19:2). Certainly there is nothing wrong with that. Many times in the Old Testament and New Testament alike, wealth, property, possessions are understood as a blessing from God.
But St. Luke also tells us that Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector of that region; that was how he made a living, how he became so wealthy. That is where the conflict comes in!
Tax collectors were Jews who worked along with—and in a certain sense, for—the Roman Empire. They collected taxes from their own people and sent most of the money to the Romans, often keeping a sizable portion for themselves! It was a lucrative business. But it was also very risky business, because the people of Israel despised them. They would have hated Zacchaeus for the way he made his living, literally, off his own people.
Which brings us to the last thing we know about Zacchaeus: He was “Seeking to see who Jesus was” (Luke 19:3). That was the desire of his heart. Now that would have been risky business! Remember, everyone in town would have wanted a piece of him. He was quite unpopular. To even venture out in public could be dangerous; but to see Jesus he would have to do exactly that.
To make matters worse, he was short so he had to climb up a tree in order to see Christ. There he was, totally exposed, out in the open, literally out on a limb…but it was a risk that paid off. Suddenly Christ spotted him. Zacchaeus, who was seeking Jesus, found Him and his life was changed forever. He invited Christ into his home, and then into his heart, and nothing was ever the same again.
It is a beautiful and powerful story about conversion and renewal. Yet like so many stories in the Scriptures, there is so much more below that surface level. If we go a little deeper, and listen the final words of Christ in that gospel passage, we discover that it is really not a story about Zacchaeus seeking Jesus at all. In fact, it is really a story about Jesus who was seeking Zacchaeus!
At the end of our gospel this week, Jesus declares that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house, “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). That is not just Zacchaeus’ story. It is our story. It is the story of the God who became man so that we could enter into eternal life with Him. God was willing to come here among us, and to run the risk of being rejected, mistreated, and even crucified, out of love for us and to give us the offer of a life forever with Him.
It is the greatest risk of all, because we have the ability to—on account of the freedom that He gave us—reject that offer of salvation and keep God at a distance. We can choose to remain exactly who we want to be, without ever letting God change and transform us, like He did to Zacchaeus.
There is a beautiful poem by the Spanish mystic and Doctor of the Church, St. John of the Cross, which describes this very risk of God and His passion to break through our complacency. It is a poem about a young shepherd who is absolutely in love with a young shepherd girl. He cannot keep his mind off her. But as the poem begins his heart is broken and he is weeping because she has forgotten him. St. John of the Cross continues:
That one thought:
his shining one
has forgotten him,
is such great pain
that he bows to brutal handling
in a foreign land,
his heart an open wound with love.
And yet even after running the tremendous risk of being beaten and mishandled in a strange place, still she has not returned. Finally, in desperation, and as a last resort, he climbs a tree (like Zacchaeus in this weekend’s gospel):
After a long time
he climbed a tree,
and spread his shining arms,
and hung by them, and died,
his heart an open wound with love.
That is the risk of God. Christ climbs up the tree of the cross and reveals the great love of God in all its glory. It is the distance He was willing to go “to seek and to save what was lost.”
This weekend we must ask ourselves the question:
What is our response to this remarkable risk of God? How is God challenging us to respond to this offer of love? Like Zacchaeus, how are we called to come out of ourselves and into uncharted territory in response to the love of God?
How is God challenging us to take chances and risk our love this week? Perhaps to write that letter; to make that phone call; to forgive someone who has hurt us; to ask forgiveness from others; from God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation?
It might be the risk of intimacy with God. God is constantly seeking to draw closer to us in an intimate relationship of prayer and faith. Like Zacchaeus, He is seeking to enter our homes, our families, our workplaces, and into every single aspect of our lives. Are we letting Him do that? How are we responding to the Son of Man who risked everything “to seek and to save what was lost”?