I never hear the story of Zacchaeus without remembering January 20, 1977. I was in Washington for the inauguration of Jimmy Carter as the 39th President of the United States. It was extremely cold and we were out early to try to find a spot near the Capitol to watch the inauguration. Unfortunately, thousands of other people had the same idea. Being short, of course, put me at a disadvantage. But all of a sudden dozens of kids just scampered up the trees near us in a flash, and I was just frustrated that I hadn’t thought of that myself! Luke is the only evangelist that gives us this wonderful story of Zacchaeus. One writer suggests that perhaps Luke was short himself.
Sycamore trees are some of the largest deciduous trees in the world. Some even have trunks 10 feet in diameter. And if you were on a tour in Jericho today you might hear that Zacchaeus’ tree is over 2,000 years old!
One of the Scripture passages right before this passage (Luke 18:18-26) speaks of a man of the ruling class who asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to share in everlasting life?” When Jesus tells him that there is one more thing to do in order to gain everlasting life, “Sell all you have and give to the poor…….On hearing this he grew melancholy, for he was a very rich man.” “His listeners asked him, ‘Who, then, can be saved?”
Zacchaeus doesn’t climb the tree because he’s afraid of the crowd or ashamed of himself for being a tax collector, the chief collector, at that. But, because “He was trying to see what Jesus was like…..” And he finds out. He finds out the answer to ‘who can be saved?’ All of us!
This brief passage is filled with great urgency on the part of both Jesus and Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus runs, hurries down the tree quickly, and it’s all happening TODAY. And it’s also filled with great joy and ‘delight’ as opposed to the rich man in Chapter 18 who ‘grew melancholy’ with the idea of giving to the poor. Both of these men encounter Jesus. One is transformed and the other isn’t, at least not yet. What makes the difference? Perhaps Zacchaeus had just heard the good news about the blind man who was healed by Jesus as he approached Jericho. If he could be healed, why not Zacchaeus?
The First Reading from Wisdom for today’s liturgy sums up Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus, with us, and the whole universe. “…..you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.” Pope Francis says, “I think, and I say it with humility, that this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy.” As disciples of Jesus we too are called to be vessels of mercy in a world that’s not always ready to believe it.
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