There were some eyebrows raised when John XXIII was elected pope. He was in his seventies and there was no great hope that he was going to shake the Church. One of the first things he did made people sit up and notice. He went in person to visit prisoners in one of Rome’s prisons. He met them as equals and chatted informally with each. He even disclosed that he himself had a relative in jail. The work and short pontificate of this man was going to open many doors and set many prisoners free.
Today’s Gospel presents the story of the immediate conversion of the tax-collector, Zacchaeus. God’s grace led him to a moment of conversion.
Jericho was a very wealthy, commercial town in the Jordan valley, famous for its date palms and cream plantations. There were two major highways in Israel at that time, and one of them went through Jericho. Hence, Jericho was one of the great tax centers of Palestine and its tax-collectors were rich and notorious.
Zacchaeus, as chief tax-collector in Jericho was probably a man of much wealth and few friends. The tax collectors forced large amounts of interest in addition to the taxes fixed by Rome. So they were hated by their own townspeople. Since Zacchaeus had reached the top of his profession, he was the most hated man in the district, considered by the other Jews as a traitor, a thief and an outcast.
It was Passover time, which meant that tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims were coming down from Galilee, by-passing Samaria and coming to the toll booth at Jericho to pay their taxes. Bible scholars tell us that two or three million people showed up for the Passover. Jesus also made this trip, coming from Galilee in the north, to Jerusalem in the south, by way of Jericho. Since Jesus had become very famous by that time, people passing through the customs-house at Jericho wanted to see him. Naturally, Zacchaeus also was curious to see the new rabbi from Nazareth who welcomed tax-collectors and sinners as his friends.
The presence of Jesus gave Zacchaeus the gifts of Grace. Zacchaeus’ heart was changed, and he repented of his sins. By making no demands on Zacchaeus, Jesus gave him a feeling of acceptance and a new direction for his life. The example of Zacchaeus challenges each of us to consider what is the extent to which we go, what trees we should climb in order to see Jesus more clearly.
Sometimes we are blocked from seeing the Lord because other people get in the way. They block our sight in many ways. Parents block the sight of their children when they don’t pray with them or take them to Mass. Sometimes even those who should be icons of Jesus like priests, religious, catechists, and godparents make unclear our vision through their scandalous lives or un-Christian behavior.
When Saint Ignatius Loyola studied in Paris in the 1530’s, a priest he knew wasn’t exactly a model of virtue. He had broken his vows, and was living with a woman. He was giving terrible example to others. Saint Ignatius wasn’t content to ignore this man’s moral misery. He prayed for him. He sacrificed for him. And he did something else. He went to his house one night, knelt next to his bed, and asked him to hear his confession. When the priest witnessed Ignatius’s faith, something changed. He returned to the priesthood and began to dedicate himself to serving God’s people. Through Ignatius Loyola, Christ came to seek and to save what was lost.
We need to accept the Divine invitation for repentance. We are all sinners to a greater or lesser degree. Jesus is inviting each one of us to total conversion today. Let us remember that Jesus loves us in spite of our ugly thoughts, broken promises, damaged ideals, lack of prayer and Faith, resentments and desires. Hence, let us admit our sinfulness and accept God’s call to repentance, conversion and renewal of life.
Let us love others as Jesus loved Zacchaeus, despite his sins. Parents and teachers need to accept children lovingly, without first setting up standards of behavior as conditions for being loved. Husband and wife may have qualities that irritate each other. But they should not withhold love from each other.
We are called to generosity: Jesus needs us to move from our small and feeble Faith to a greater and more powerful Faith, just as Zacchaeus did. He also needs us to be financially and spiritually generous.