This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 19:1–10:
At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town. Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” And he came down quickly and received him with joy. When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” And Jesus said to him, “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.”
Sometimes, the stories from the Gospel make me smile, not just out of joy but out of humor as well. Fr. James Martin wrote a very good book several years ago that I read while on a retreat titled Between Heaven and Mirth, which reminds us that Jesus had a sense of humor as well as joy, and expressed it in some of his teachings. Then as now, appealing to people through humor, especially in pointing out the silliness of our anxieties and our self-seriousness, makes an effective way to reaching the heart.
This passage makes me think that Luke understood this, too. This anecdote appeals to us in part because of a sense of absurdity and humorous contradictions. Zacchaeus was a wealthy man and a chief tax collector, both of which would make him powerful if not exactly popular. One would expect that combination to produce a stuffy, officious, and self-important personality — and perhaps someone of greater height. Instead, ironically, Zacchaeus turns out to be “short in stature,” so much so that he can’t even see people passing on the street.
Instead of pushing his way through and demanding his rightful place on the street, however, Zacchaeus does something one might expect of a child: he climbs a sycamore tree to get a better view. The sight of a wealthy, powerful, and decidedly short wealthy man struggling to pull himself up into a tree must have been quite a sight for the people whom Zacchaeus taxed for his riches. This never fails to make me smile, at least a little bit, and it probably made those who noticed it smile at the time, too.
But what happens with this good humor? Jesus sees Zacchaeus in the tree and greets him with love and friendship, telling him to “come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” At those words, Zacchaeus “received Him with joy” — as one might expect from a child who has climbed a tree to see his father arrive home from a long journey. At that point, Zacchaeus confesses his sins publicly and pledges to repent and redeem himself — because Jesus has chosen to come to his house.
Note well the order in which this occurred. As a tax collector — as chief tax collector — Zacchaeus would have been among the worst of the oppressors within the community of Israelites. Tax collectors got rich by overtaxing their fellow Judeans and keeping the difference. Small wonder that the crowd began grumbling that this miracle-working rabbi would choose to stay with Zacchaeus rather than offer a remonstration of him in public. Their unhappiness would not have been just that Zacchaeus was a sinner in the abstract, but that Zacchaeus had spent years sinning against them in reality. They hoped for retributive justice, not an offer of hail-fellow-well-met to their tormentor on the procession into Jericho.
And yet, justice is exactly what Jericho’s people received — through the mercy of Christ. Jesus enters into Zacchaeus’ house (or makes clear that’s what He intends), and Zacchaeus comprehends his sinful nature and repents of it. He promises to make good on the damage he’s done to his neighbors and act justly from that day forward, and Jesus declares him reconciled to the Lord. Only through Jesus’ insistence on coming into Zacchaeus’ house has both justice and mercy been delivered.
Our first reading from Wisdom 11 also makes that order plain. “But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things,” the passage instructs, “and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.” The Lord does not overlook our sins because we repent; we can only repent because God gives us the grace to recognize our sins and the ability to repent of them. If we do not welcome the Lord into our houses, then we do cannot see clearly enough to recognize our sinfulness, nor understand that He strengthens us for repentance, and not the other way around.
To put it simply: God does not love us because we repent, or when we repent. God loves us, and so gives us the grace to repent — endlessly.
For Catholics, this truth is also part of our Sunday Mass. Our Eucharistic prayer paraphrases the Roman centurion whose faith in Jesus allowed his servant to be healed without Jesus’ presence. “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof,” we pray, “but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” We are, in essence, praying for that Jericho moment, when Jesus says the word to Zacchaeus that He wants to enter under the sinner’s roof — and only then is the sinner healed and able to properly repent and worship.
We all suffer from sin, from self-haughtiness and the blind illusion of self-sufficiency. We think we can live without the Lord and make our own way, but then we lose sight of our sins and the damage we cause to ourselves and others. The longer this goes, the less able we become to break out of that pattern. Only when we discard that false sense of pride and come to Christ like a child who would climb a tree in order to just get a passing glimpse of the Lord can we be open to His invitation. Even though we might look foolish, trying to climb the tree in the finery in which we draped ourselves as an empty affirmation of our self-assigned status, we can make the Lord smile on us and offer us mercy and joy — and allow ourselves to be instruments of His mercy and justice according to His will.
And maybe — just maybe — the first step along that way is to laugh a little, mostly at ourselves and our own pretensions.
Addendum: Fr. Martin does discuss this Gospel reading in Between Heaven and Mirth, which I had not recalled until taking a look at it just now. “You can easily imagine Jesus smiling at the sight of the wealthy man perched in the tree,” Martin writes. Indeed!
The front page image is a sycamore tree in Jericho; local tradition has this as the place where Jesus spoke to Zacchaeus. From my own collection (taken in 2013).
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.