There’s a pattern in recent Sunday gospels: Jesus makes spiritual models of the most unlikely people. Two weeks ago it was a widow persistent enough to gain a hearing from a judge who normally listened to nobody. Last week the prayer of a tax collector proves superior to the prayer of a leader in religion. This week features yet another tax collector. His name is Zacchaeus.
Luke begins be telling us that Jesus intended to pass through the town of Jericho. As Jesus was approaching this same town a blind beggar called out to him and asked to be able to see, the very thing everyone else around the Lord could have asked for. So our impression of Jericho is already a good one. If Jesus finds a person of such spiritual caliber outside of Jericho what will he find inside that town?
The first two things we find out about Zacchaeus are that he is a tax collector and that he is a wealthy man. We already know that a tax collector has great potential for good since we heard the prayer of a tax collector just last week. But what about the fact that Zacchaeus is also a wealthy man? In this same chapter of Luke we already met a wealthy man who could not let go of his possessions to follow Jesus. Jesus remarked to him that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a someone wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.
Will this wealthy Zacchaeus fare better than the other wealthy man? Will Zacchaeus be able to pass through that fabled needle’s eye and follow the Lord? One encouraging thing is that Luke goes on to tell us Zacchaeus wanted to see who Jesus was. Unless his motive is mere curiosity there seems to be some promise in this man. Beyond the presumed spiritual problems Zacchaeus has there is also a physical one. He is too short to catch sight of Jesus through the crowd of people that has gathered. But Zacchaeus is resourceful. He runs ahead and climbs a tree. From his new vantage point he will be able to see Jesus as Jesus goes by.
Then something amazing happens. Jesus stops right at that tree, looks up, addresses Zacchaeus by name, and announces that he must stay at this tax collector’s house. And then we discover the true character of this wealthy tax collector. He comes down quickly and is overjoyed to greet Jesus. It seems that plain old sycamore tree has become a tree of life for Zacchaeus. And though not very tall physically Zacchaeus suddenly stands very tall spiritually.
The crowd is not pleased. They complain that Jesus is on his way to stay at the house of a sinner. They do not yet recognize the full significance of the Zacchaeus’ joy, that it comes from a change of heart. And we might wonder if the crowd was so concerned that Jesus was going to stay in a sinner’s house, why didn’t they offer their homes to Jesus? They seem to be unaware of the powerful lesson that takes places right before their eyes. Zacchaeus spells it out for them. Jesus has changed his life. His possessions will not get in the way and he will make restitution to anyone he treated unjustly in the past.
The gospel illustrates beautifully a new title for God that appears in the Wisdom reading: God is a “lover of souls.” And Paul would certainly have recognized the fulfillment of “every good purpose” in the character of Zacchaeus.