Last week, we focused on two types of prayer. The self-righteous prayer of the Pharisee and the humble prayer of the tax collector. This week's readings are about God's mercy.
Zacchaeus was not a popular man. The short, wealthy chief tax collector was probably one of the most despised men in the community. The tax collectors in Israel were known for “taking a little off the top.” And they were working for the oppressive Romans who were taxing the Jewish people. Little wonder tax collectors were at the very bottom of the popularity list of the time.
Unpopular as Zacchaeus would have been, this is precisely the person whom Jesus seeks in this week’s Gospel reading. The Gospel of Luke tells us that as Jesus was passing through the city of Jericho, Zacchaeus was anxious to see Jesus. He climbed up a sycamore tree to get a better look, and to his surprise, it was not just Zacchaeus who was seeking Jesus but actually Jesus who was seeking Zacchaeus! Jesus tells Zacchaeus that he will come to his home, much to the shock of Zacchaeus and the whole crowd.
This story offers great insight into the nature of God. Jesus tells Zacchaeus that he wants to dine at his house. Imagine the expressions of the other people in the crowd that day. “What kind of a prophet is this?” Going to the chief tax collector’s house was not a recipe for Jesus’ popularity! But God isn’t after popularity; he’s after people’s souls. Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus changes his life. He comes down from the tree with joy. He confesses his sins of extortion and pledges to restore whatever he had stolen. Jesus says in the Gospel passage that he came to “seek and save what was lost.” In Zacchaeus’ case, he has great success!
Unpack the First Reading
This reading is a magnificent combination of poetry and religious and philosophical reflection. What a wonderful insight it is that God cannot hate the sinner. He would only create and preserve in existence what he loves. Even the most heinous sinner is God’s creation of love. God isn’t the enemy of the sinner; it’s the sins of the sinner that are a threat to him.
One author says of this reading that it presents a “theology of anxiety,” God’s anxiety for those souls who have rejected him. All of his actions in the economy of salvation have this anxiety over the sinner at their root. Our faith in the God of love requires that we believe that every action he’s reported as taking in the Scriptures is inspired by one motive only—love of souls. We must always remember that God’s mercy doesn’t aim at excusing or condoning sin. He loves the sinner too much to do that. Rather, Wisdom tells us, “you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.” Our repentance is nothing other than our way of reciprocating God’s love for us.
Unpack the Second Reading
Written twenty years or so after Christ’s death, both the first and second letters to the Thessalonians are rich with encouragement for the local church which Paul had founded. This little church seems to have been blessed with God’s favor since it flourished, even in the absence of the apostolic presence of Paul. His praise and direction aims largely at making slight corrections in teaching and in seeing that their faith is properly expressed. In this reading, one of Paul’s concerns is the misunderstanding that some seem to have gained from possibly fabricated reports that “the day of the Lord” had arrived. That phrase was used to refer to the Second Coming of Jesus.
Paul assures the faithful that the day hasn’t arrived and goes on to remind readers of what he told them while he was with them about the events which must transpire before Christ’s return. It’s worth noting that nothing Paul says suggests that the events surround the coming of the “lawless man,” who’s to precede the Second Coming, are imminent at the time of his writing. From what Paul tells us here, the common assertion that the early Christians believed that Jesus was to return at any moment could be questioned.
Unpack the Gospel
This week Jesus again addresses himself to a covenant outsider, Zacchaeus, a tax collector in Jericho. Zacchaeus was a rich man, the chief tax collector in a wealthy region. Chief tax collectors often employed tax collecting agents to do the dirty work of extortion of the local people in collaboration with the Roman authorities, which made these men outcasts in Jewish society. Zacchaeus’ small stature would’ve made it a necessity to employ others to handle the rough stuff, which likely made him all the more hated by the local populace.
When those who observed that Jesus had allowed himself to be invited to the house of a sinner began to murmur, Zacchaeus doesn’t dispute what they assert about him, but, by repenting, instantly turns himself into a righteous “descendant of Abraham,” as Jesus calls him. Zacchaeus wouldn’t have been required by the Mosaic Law to make a fourfold restitution for the evil he had done, still less to give half his wealth to the poor. He demonstrates for us that in the new regime which Jesus establishes as the kingdom of God, covenant outsiders such as Zacchaeus can, in an instant, become “descendants of Abraham.”
Reflect & Discuss
Watch the short Opening the Word video on FORMED. Then reflect and discuss these questions with a friend or use them as journal prompts:
1. In what ways is Zacchaeus’ life changed as a result of his encounter with Jesus?
2. Imagine that Jesus showed up and asked to visit your house. How would you respond?
3. Why might we be hesitant to welcome Jesus to our homes?
Conversion—Radical Reorientation of Our Life
“Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God ’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace.”
Reprinted with permission from Augustine Institute from the Opening the Word Leader Guide available on FORMED.org