Last week, the gospel passage featured an unnamed toll collector, someone who struggled to make a living, found devious ways of doing so, yet faced his sinfulness. This week’s gospel features Zacchaeus, who also knows himself and is not afraid to demonstrate his faith in a very public way. He is a chief tax collector, possibly responsible for overseeing the activities of other tax collectors. Whether or not this is the case, he is wealthy.
Zacchaeus is height-challenged but fairly enterprising in the face of a dilemma. His short stature is not an impediment to tree climbing in a good cause. He wants to see what Jesus is like and he lets nothing get in the way. He runs ahead, climbs the tree, Jesus looks up and tells him to come down quickly ‘for I must stay at your house today.’ There are echoes here of Mary’s haste to visit her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. Jesus invites himself, and Zacchaeus offers hospitality ‘joyfully’. Hospitality, joy, haste to respond to divine visitation: these are constant themes in Luke.
In any human group, there are the critics. This time, everyone who sees what is happening has something to say. They complain that Jesus chooses to stay with a sinner. They no doubt consider themselves more worthy companions for God’s prophet. They have little love in their hearts.
Their criticism of Zacchaeus echoes that of Simon the Pharisee when Jesus allows himself to be touched by a ‘sinner’ woman (Luke 7:36). Like Zacchaeus, the woman’s sins have been forgiven. That’s why she knows how to love. There are clues in the narrative that Zacchaeus, though labelled as a sinner, has changed his ways. The future tense of our translation (‘I will pay’) obscures this fact.
If he has defrauded or exploited others, he has already changed his ways. He gives half his property to the destitute and if he has cheated anyone, he already pays them back four times the amount. In other words, he goes way beyond what is required.
Jesus looks at Zacchaeus and assures him that salvation has come to his house. He then turns to the crowd and acts to restore honour to Zacchaeus in the eyes of those who hold him and his kind in contempt. Like the bent-over woman and Lazarus the beggar at the rich man’s gate, Zacchaeus is a true descendant of Abraham, his ancestor in faith.