Little Zacchaeus

Before I begin this gospel reflection, there is one thing that you should know about me: I am not height challenged – in fact I am much more likely to be asked to move out of the way so that others standing in a crowd behind me are able to see the action. So the story that is told only in chapter 19 in the Gospel of Luke about this height-challenged bloke Zacchaeus having to climb up a tree to see Jesus doesn’t really connect with me.

I’ve also sometimes joked that the bible may well be sexist, but it is also heightist – it is the little runt of a kid David who wins over the tall Goliath, and is chosen by the Lord in preference to the tall king Saul. But I guess you can’t win them all.

The encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus stands fittingly as the last episode of the long journey that Jesus and his disciples have been taking from Galilee to Jerusalem. Along the way Jesus has been mocked as a friend of tax collectors and sinners, so it is appropriate that the final act of Jesus is to eat in the house of not just a tax collector, but a chief or senior tax collector. These characters were really entrepreneurs – they were required to pay the contract amount in advance, and then employ others to help them to collect all the taxes, with a tidy profit built into the collection system. While all tax collectors right across history have never been the winners of the most popular awards, these chief tax collectors were especially despised by their fellow Jews. The other people in the town no doubt had watched as Zacchaeus walked around town in ever finer clothes, with more servants at his beck-and-call, attending to his every need in his ever more beautifully furnished and grander house – and all at their expense.

Luke carefully weaves this story into the ones that have gone just before it. In the Gospel that we heard last Sunday – of the Pharisee and another tax collector – Jesus had declared that “all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Today we see this very thing in the person of Zacchaeus. He casts aside all regard for his own dignity by climbing a tree in order to be able to see Jesus. Also in the previous chapter, Jesus had challenged the rich ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor, but that man went away sad.

Here, as soon as the eyes of Jesus met the eyes of Zacchaeus, there was a meeting of souls. Jesus had seen that look in many others that he had encountered before, and he knew that it revealed a sickness in the heart of Zacchaeus that only Jesus could touch and heal. But rather than providing the opportunity for a parable as the people in the crowd complain and groan about this meeting, we hear Zacchaeus himself speak to us in front of Jesus and the whole crowd, bearing witness to the extraordinary and extravagant repentance that has happened in this instance. Zacchaeus knows that words alone are not enough – so he makes a lavish offer to make amends. His offer to sell half his property and to make a four-fold restitution will impact his fortunes deeply. But he knows that in the person of Jesus he has found something of untold value – because today, salvation has come to this house. Now he is restored where he is as part of the renewed Israel. For the son of man has come to seek and save what was lost.

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Recorded for Journey Radio Program (3 mins)
Sunday 31, Year C. Luke 19:1-10.

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