The story of Zacchaeus
The story of Zacchaeus, so beloved by children, is our Gospel today. The city of Jericho is ideally located as a great commercial centre, and therefore like tax collectors everywhere, Zacchaeus ‘followed the money’. In so doing his heart was corrupted and hardened by greed and extortion. He became isolated, feared, despised and ridiculed. He had cut himself off from God through his covetousness and he ruptured his loving relations with others. He was left to his own devices. Yet like the Prodigal Son, he came to his senses. There was a spark of ingenuity and curiosity, a faint flicker of life and hope in his heart. And so, probably unassisted he climbed the sycamore tree to see Jesus for himself.
It is an extraordinary moment of grace and conversion. Out of the thousands of Jews making their way to the Jewish festival of Passover at which 2-3 million would attend, it is all the more extraordinary that this individual encounter could happen. Jesus picked him out of the crowd. He is probably the least likely person in all of Jericho to be converted, as he is described not just as any tax-collector, but as the chief tax-collector, skimming off the profits from the already ill-gotten gains of his underlings.
Just as Jericho was at a crossroads geographically, Zacchaeus is at a crossroads in his life.
The encounter with Jesus not only restores him to God, but he makes just and generous reparation for his sins and resolves to be charitable and lavish to the poor with his money on an ongoing basis.
For most of us conversion is not just a once-off event in our lives where suddenly ‘we saw the light’ but an ongoing struggle to battle the same sins and faults which we have to repeat to our confessor. Why? Because I suspect, we have not uprooted the source of all our personal sins, which is our pride. We need however to purge it not simply by combating it head on, but by practising in real ways each day preferential love for the Lord Jesus. Zacchaeus’ sin of avarice, or love of money, was supplanted by a higher love, that of love for Christ. When our love grows cold, or lukewarm, it is sadly the opportunity for the old weeds to re-emerge. We need to re-kindle our love through ongoing repentance, and intense prayer in which the Holy Spirit can freely act within us, directing our thoughts, words, actions and particularly our desires, once more to the Lord. It is in attentive, persevering good habits of prayer that we realise that we can re-find the Lord again and again.
Finally, as Zacchaeus’ conversion came about in his decision to ascend a tree in Jericho, we realise that the Lord mounted the Tree of Life in Jerusalem for Zacchaeus’ salvation and ours too.
It is in recognising what the Lord has done, He who had ‘no greater love’ for us, that in deep prayer before Him on the Cross our hearts and lives meet and the moment of encounter can happen for us too.
The effects of this graced personal encounter with the Lord Jesus can endure and bear fruit in our lives by repentance and by our changes in attitude in the exercise of justice towards all.
PS The city of Jericho is not far from the photo at the top of this page!