He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:1-10 – NRSV)
This story is unique to Luke. It is yet another story of the lost being found – see particularly Chapter 15 for the three stories which Joseph Fitzmyer describes as “so distinctive of the Lucan portrait of Jesus that this part of his account has been called ‘the heart of the Third Gospel’” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, S. J., The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28A), Yale University Press, 2008, 1071.)
“The story of Zacchaeus seems to be related to the call of Levi and his banquet in 5:27–32. J. M. Creed (The Gospel, 228), R. Bultmann (HST 34), S. M. Gilmour (IB 8. 320), and others have considered it to be a ‘later and secondary’ counterpart of the call of Levi (as the healing of the ten lepers was seen by some commentators to be to that of the leper of Mark 1:40–44), i.e. the fictive elaboration of a minimal tradition into an ideal scene. However, this scarcely accounts for the concrete details of this episode, especially for the name Zacchaeus, the climbing of the tree, and the localization of the scene in Jericho ….” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 1219.)
“Is it clear that Zacchaeus is really a ‘sinner’ …. who repents (cp. 7:37–48; 5:20–21)….? He does not beg Jesus for mercy (cp. 17:13; 18:38) or express any sorrow (cp. 15:21; 18:13). Jesus makes no reference to Zacchaeus’ faith (cp. 7:50; 8:48), repentance or conversion (cp. 15:7, 10), or discipleship. ….. Or, as R. C. White has put it, the ‘form-critical analysis of the pericope reveals none of the expected characteristics of such a [salvation] story’ (“Vindication for Zacchaeus?” 21). For in the episode Jesus pronounces not forgiveness but the vindication of Zacchaeus: Jesus announces salvation ‘to this house’ because he sees that Zacchaeus is innocent, a true ‘son of Abraham,’ despite the post that he held, which branded him otherwise.” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 1220-1221.)”
chief tax collector: In reference to Luke 3:12, one scholar writes of “tax collectors”: “…. often rendered as ‘publicans’ or ‘tax collectors’. In this period in Palestine, they seemed to have been largely collectors of indirect taxes through tolls …. under the supervision of ‘chief tax agents’ such as Zacchaeus, and imperial regulation. The scorn directed at them by the religiously committed is patent (see 15:1–2; 18:10–11). They form one of the groups who accept both the prophet John and the prophet Jesus (see Luke 5:27, 29–30; 7:29–30, 34; 15:1–2; 19:2).” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 65.)
He was trying to see who Jesus was: The verb translated here as “trying” – zēteō – is the same verb used by Jesus in the last sentence of this text: “the Son of Man came to seek out ….”. There is a lovely reciprocity here.
I must stay at your house today: “The word ‘today’ (sēmeron) will portentously be repeated in 19:9 with regard to salvation, as it does other times in the narrative (2:11; 4:21; 5:26; 13:32–33).” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 285.)
happy to welcome him: The Greek word translated as “he was happy” is chairōn. The word “happy” does not do justice to the verb chairō, which means “be glad” or “rejoice”. Johnson writes: “It suggests the deeper resonances of messianic joy (1:14; 2:10; 6:23; 8:13; 10:17, 20). Notice especially how the motif of ‘joy’ is associated with repentance in 15:5, 7, 10, 32.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 285.)
All who saw it began to grumble: This is a bit of a shock. Normally Luke identifies “the Scribes and the Pharisees” as the grumblers – see 5:30; 7:34 & 39 and 15:2. Presumably the “all” includes the disciples!
Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord: The Greek word for Lord is Kyrios. It was used in the Septuagint to translate Yahweh from the Hebrew. It is used frequently by Luke and almost certainly carries with it the same connotation as that of the Septuagint – see 7:13, 19; 10:1, 39, 41; 11:39; 12:42; 16:8; 17:5–6; 18:6; 22:61. Fitzmyer writes of Luke’s “absolute use of ‘the Lord’” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 1218.)
he too is a son of Abraham: The ending would have stunned Jesus’ listeners for he includes this man, despised for his role, among the people of the blessing – see Luke 1:55 and Acts 3:25. It is worth noting that, whereas Jesus had been talking directly to Zacchaeus, this last statement is made to the listeners generally.
Pope Francis reminds us, in Laudato Si, that “everything is interconnected” (#70). We are interconnected with God – however we name God – with ourselves, with other human beings and with the world at large. These interconnections are written into the very structure of existence. They are not optional. Most of these interconnections will however remain unknown to us. Many will remain more or less dormant, even denied, unless or until we are awakened to them by some event – for better or for worse.
We can choose to live open to the possibility of these interconnections becoming life-giving relationships. We can also choose not to do this.
Interconnections become relationships when we awaken to them, embrace them and respond in generous and gracious ways. Sometimes there are special moments of grace when one or more of those interconnections come alive for us. There is some kind of event or encounter. We awaken to the interconnection, we begin to become aware of its import for us, we are enlivened and begin to live from that awakened state with its new consciousness. These events and encounters can be quite literally life-changing.
Today’s Gospel is a story of one such event or encounter. Everyone in this story is interconnected, though only two – Jesus and Zacchaeus – are fully awake to the possibilities. They are both eager for something “more” in their lives. In spirituality we speak of transcendence – from the Latin words, trans meaning “across” and scandere meaning “to climb”. This dynamic is in all of us, more active in some than others. At its best it prompts us towards many awakenings in our life journeys, ever deepening relationships – with God, ourselves, other people and the world at large.
The people watching this encounter – presumably including the disciples – are scandalized. According to cultural and religious mores, this beautiful relationship between Jesus and Zacchaeus should not be happening. How easy it is for us to let our deepest human possibilities and our finest urgings get circumscribed by human fictions.
Pope Benedict XVI reminds us at the beginning of his first encyclical: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”. (Deus Caritas Est (2005), #1.) Pope Francis, in his first major document, quotes those words then continues: “Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption.” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (2013), #8.)
What was it about Jesus that prompted such a response from the little outcast. Perhaps Zacchaeus experienced in the presence of Jesus something that spoke to his heart and his deep human yearning for “more”, to be more than a chief tax collector, more of a human being.