Judging from the harsh things that Jesus said about wealth and privilege, we might reasonably think it well nigh impossible for a rich person not only to enter the gates of heaven, but also to come into the good graces of Jesus himself.
Zacchaeus was rich. A prominent tax collector, he even seemed to have suspicions about fraud in his own practices. He may have been small in stature, but he was definitely into big-time operations. It also happened that he wanted to see what Jesus was like. So, running ahead of a big crowd’s rush, he climbed a sycamore to see what he could see.
It’s an interesting scene—unlike my own imagined scenario. I would have the master, eyes aflame, look at the conniver and warn him of his impending doom. Jesus would then launch into a rousing condemnation of exploitation and injustice. Zacchaeus would serve as prime example.
But the Christ of Luke’s Gospel (a Gospel, mind you, that is one of the harshest in denouncing riches and the oppression of the poor) once again confounds expectations. “Zacchaeus, hurry down. I want to stay at your house.”
Now I would have at least put some conditions on my visit. “Do you promise to turn away from your greedy behavior? Are you willing to abandon the errant ways of your business and lifestyle?”
Why do these things not cross the mind of Jesus?
He has preached about greed often enough. And here’s a real live capitalist pig he could whale into; but instead, he asks to be invited home. Needless to say, Zacchaeus was thrilled. He welcomed Christ with delight.
It is always fascinating to see how Jesus treats sinners, whether tax-collectors, liars, adulterers, or cowards. It’s a wonder how he deals with them, how he deals with us all, how he deals with all things.
Clearly, Jesus is interested in the energy and desire of the little man. He seems impressed by the fact that Zacchaeus would go to such lengths to see him and would eventually stand his ground before the daunting crowd. It is Zacchaeus’s heart, his hope, that draws Jesus.
The fact that Christ liked him seemed to have an immediate effect on Zacchaeus. “I give half my belongings to the poor. … If I have defrauded anyone in the least I pay him back fourfold.”
Even here, I think Christ was too soft. I would have said, “Only half? What about the other 50 percent? And what do you mean, ‘If I have defrauded?’ Be more specific.”
But no! Jesus announces salvation to the whole house of Zacchaeus and calls him, believe it or not, a “true son of Abraham.” That’s that. “The Son of Man has come to search out and save what was lost.”
And so, once again, my paltry prudence, my so-called sense of justice, shrinks in the presence of wisdom, before whom the whole universe is as a grain of sand or a drop of morning dew on the earth. God, indeed, overlooks our sins so that we might repent and thereby change.
Such is the manner of infinite mercy.
For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned. How could a thing remain unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you? You spare all things, because they are yours, O God and lover of souls.
That goes for Zacchaeus. That goes for us too.
What the Book of Wisdom tells us is that we could not even exist if we were not loved by God. The very fact that we live without causing our own existence is proof that we are loved into being. We could not have been made, could not endure an instant, unless we were willed and wanted.
We brothers and sisters of Zacchaeus, more splendidly endowed than other creatures, have an extra gift. It is more desirable than the majesty of mountains, more thrilling than the speed of the finest gazelle.
God, that lover of souls, wants, most of all, to spare that gift in us. It is the gift we share with Zacchaeus, no matter how rich or poor, how young or old, how virtuous or sinful we might be.
We are gifted with a question at the ground of our being. And even in the worst of times, we climb trees to find out what the answer might be.