by Fr. Tommy Lane
As an Irishman I fully approve of the annual celebration of July 4th, Independence Day, celebrating independence from England. Palestine at the time of Jesus did not have an Independence Day because in 63 BC it had been taken over by the Roman Empire. That is why you see centurions and Roman soldiers in the Gospels. Zacchaeus in today’s Gospel (Luke 19:1-10) was a Palestinian Jew, employed by the Roman Empire, to collect taxes and send them to Rome. He was the chief tax collector in Jericho so you can imagine how much they loved him! Since tax collectors were known to be rich, everyone presumed the tax collectors were siphoning off large amounts of the taxes for themselves instead of sending everything to Rome (see Luke 3:12-13). Zacchaeus would not have wanted an Independence Day because it would mean he would be unemployed. Zacchaeus certainly did not have many friends in Jericho.
But Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. Was it just curiosity because a crowd was gathering or was it because Zacchaeus had heard much about Jesus already and knew that Jesus would be kind to him? Surely it must be that he already knew much about Jesus because we see that his heart was ready to receive Jesus. Zacchaeus had to climb a sycamore tree to see Jesus because he was so short. If it was anybody else who climbed a sycamore tree it would not be a surprise because farmers and horticulturalists climbed sycamore trees every year to slit the sycamore figs to help them ripen. (see Amos 7:14. Sycamore trees in Palestine are not the sycamore trees of the West). But class distinctions between people were pronounced and when the chief tax collector Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree it shows that he was serious about seeing Jesus. Already he is making an act of humility before his townspeople and Jesus.
His humility is rewarded as Jesus asks him to come down from the tree and wants to visit his home. He is probably the most despised man in Jericho and has the honor of receiving Jesus in his home. Zacchaeus shows repentance as he proclaims,
Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over. (Luke 19:8)
Zacchaeus is going restore what he has stolen or defrauded, he will make restitution for any injustice he has committed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,
Those who, directly or indirectly, have taken possession of the goods of another, are obliged to make restitution of them, or to return the equivalent in kind or in money, if the goods have disappeared, as well as the profit or advantages their owner would have legitimately obtained from them. Likewise, all who in some manner have taken part in a theft or who have knowingly benefited from it - for example, those who ordered it, assisted in it, or received the stolen goods - are obliged to make restitution in proportion to their responsibility and to their share of what was stolen. (CCC 2412)
Zacchaeus puts this teaching in practice. Yet all the townspeople in Jericho are grumbling about Jesus staying with Zacchaeus but Jesus publicly vindicates Zacchaeus,
Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost. (Luke 19:9-10)
The name Zacchaeus comes from Hebrew (זַכַּי) and means “the Pure One.” Before reforming his life and meeting Jesus, Zacchaeus was the pure one only in name but not in deed. After meeting Jesus, Zacchaeus was the pure one both in name and in deed. That was the true Independence Day for Zacchaeus when he gained independence from his former sinful life. There is a tradition that Zacchaeus was later appointed bishop of Caesarea by St. Peter against his will. Whether or not that is true, when he met Jesus he was transformed and became “the Pure One.”
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, in her thirteenth letter to her sister Céline, says that Jesus revealed much to them by making them climb a mystical tree and now Jesus says to them, “come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” (Luke 19:5). If St. Thérèse of Lisieux can write to her sister Céline, also a Carmelite nun, that Jesus is saying to come down quickly because he wants to stay at her house today, surely Jesus is saying to each of us to come down quickly because he wants to stay at our house today. Jesus wants to stay with you. Is your heart ready to receive Jesus? We see from Zacchaeus that just the slightest turning toward Jesus is rewarded many times more by Jesus. We may sometimes put limits on God’s goodness and love and mercy like the people of Jericho but God’s goodness and love and mercy toward us is infinite if we just come down off our tree and invite Jesus to our heart. The first reading today also points out God’s mercy,
…you have mercy on all, because you can do all
and you overlook the sins of men that they may repent.
For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made. (Wis 11:23-24)
Will you come down from your tree, abandon sin, and invite Jesus to your heart? Jesus knows you are seeking him today, like Zacchaeus, and Jesus is looking at you, saying to you he wants to stay with you. Will you, like Zacchaeus, abandon anything that may be keeping you apart from Jesus, and then enjoy even more of Jesus in your life? Jesus wants to meet you today. Jesus doesn’t want you to come here just to fulfill a Sunday obligation or simply because you know Jesus wants you here, but Jesus wants to meet you here and stay with you for the rest of this week. Will you come down from your tree, abandon sin, and invite Jesus to your heart and allow him stay with you for the rest of this week?
Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013
More homilies for the Thirty-First Sunday Year C
Related Homilies: Today’s Gospel in the context of Luke 2007
stories about God’s Mercy