Readings: Wisdom 11:22-12:2; Psalm 145; 2 Thess 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10
How did the story of Zaccheus become a story for children? One reason, I suppose, is because he is a small fellow. We are given his name, which is not the case with all the people we meet in the gospels. He also goes in for climbing trees, which children like to do. In England religious education at key stages 1 and 2 has a section entitled ‘Who was Zaccheus?’ Instructions to the teachers about this module include this health and safety warning: ‘children should know that climbing trees can be dangerous’. We will see that encountering Jesus is dangerous also, it will not leave us unchanged.
Zaccheus is unpopular and without friends and presumably feels lonely: perhaps these are other reasons why he will win the sympathy of children who themselves often feel this way. As a small fellow he is easily mocked. As a senior tax-collector he is despised and probably feared. He is someone, it seems, with no friends, and so of particular concern to Jesus.
But sentiment can dull the edge of the story and its challenge. Zaccheus is a complicated figure. He is mocked and despised but he is rich: perhaps his wealth has actually cushioned him from loneliness? How will he relate to Jesus? How will Jesus relate to him? We are reading Luke’s gospel, in which Jesus is critical of the rich, warning frequently of the dangers inherent in being rich.
The enthusiasm of Zaccheus in running up the tree to see what kind of man Jesus was is matched by the desire of Jesus for the well-being of Zaccheus. Jesus focuses not on his past, or on his present predicament, but on their future relationship. Everybody complains: this must include the disciples. But Zaccheus is stubborn in his determination to be with Jesus, so stubborn in this that he frees himself of his wealth in order to fulfill his desire.
Jesus’ treatment of Zaccheus teaches a number of things:
- Don’t judge by appearances, prejudice, or categories. We must allow ourselves to be surprised, by people, and certainly by God’s ways.
- Don’t presume to think that we have cracked the mystery of divine grace. It is infinitely patient and endlessly creative. 'Little by little', as the first reading says, God seeks to draw sinners back to himself.
- The rich man can get through the eye of the needle but not without radical change. We see the small man who is a tax-collector, the rich man who is a sinner. But Jesus sees a son of Abraham, a child of God, one of the lost he has come to seek out and to save.
If there is danger in climbing trees there is a joyful danger in encountering Jesus. If it is a true encounter it will not leave us unchanged. Like Zaccheus before his adventure on the sycamore tree, we might think of ourselves as alive, rich and secure, but the encounter with the Lord lights up the ways in which we are dead, poor and vulnerable. But this is not the last word, the last word is joy and salvation as he teaches us how to be alive, how to be rich, how to be courageous even if we feel we are only little. We can pray in the words of the second reading, for all the Zaccheuses in the world, as also for ourselves, 'may God make you worthy of his calling, and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith'.