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Today’s Gospel speaks of a man called Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector for the Romans. Because of his profession, two things become immediately obvious for anyone living at that time. First, he is hated and distrusted by his fellow Jews. He is seen as a traitor, one who would put wealth ahead of his civic and religious duties. Secondly, Zacchaeus is very rich. Everyone would assume that his wealth comes from the exploitation of the Jews. The tax collectors made their illustrious livings by requiring the people to pay more taxes than Rome demanded and then skimming off the excess for themselves.
Up until today’s interaction with Jesus, Zacchaeus was unconcerned about his lifestyle, other than becoming wealthier. The desire for more is a sickness that the rich possess. They are like a glutton who is never satisfied. There are no lengths such a person will not go to amass more and more. And for Zacchaeus, his wealth came for the overcharging of taxes ill-gotten gains to the distress of the people who eked out a living on a few coins.
And or what purpose? More properties with olive orchards? More gilding on the family chariot? More prized spices from the Orient? Stuffed peacock (a delicacy) twice a week instead of once a month? More gold earrings and rings for the wife? When there is money, anything desired becomes possible.
Even with all that he could purchase, Zacchaeus was still searching. Perhaps he was looking for someone to give him the answers to why he could never feel satisfied. That is why he followed the crowd as it surged after Jesus. He became so enamored to see a person that the throng of people desired to be with that he climbed a sycamore tree for a better look. He forgot that those who made up the crowd were the ones that he had cheated over and over again.
There he is out on a limb. He has run out options. He has no means to save himself. He cannot go forward as the branches will not support his weight. He cannot climb down from the tree as the crowd is waiting below. They have treed a tax collector.
How many people in the crowd have gone hungry for days on end as Zacchaeus dined sumptuously? How many have watched their child die of starvation so that he could add another pair of matched horses to his stable? How many of the crowd wear rags so that his wife can display her new gold ring for the Festival?
Not often do these poor can even the score with a tax collector. Far too often, such a man, when he finds himself in trouble, just buys his way out of the problem. The application of enough money can fix anything. However, maybe this the day when doling out money no longer works. Maybe this is the day that the crowd gets their pound of flesh in retribution for his hoarded pounds of gold.
And so, up a tree is where Zacchaeus first meets Jesus. Jesus, however, offers him a solution. Amazingly, he asks to eat at Zacchaeus’ home, to eat with the rich sinner, a traitor to the Jews. The crowd responds with, “How can Jesus eat with him when we starve? Will Zacchaeus repay Jesus handsomely with gold from his treasure for saving his life?” The crowd is appalled when Jesus does not take their side. This man needs to be stoned not pampered.
To the crowd, It might seem that Jesus was letting the man escape his deserved fate. However, Jesus has other motives, spiritual motives for eating with Zacchaeus. Jesus is bringing Zacchaeus to the brink of conversion, the realization that repentance is what will him get off the tree limb about to break. Zacchaeus only needs to take that next step, a step of faith.
While Jesus asks for Zacchaeus to open his home, what Jesus is really requesting is that Zacchaeus to open his heart to the Lord. In that way, Jesus may come into him and free him from his worldly desires and seek the real wealth of salvation. Zacchaeus climbs down from the tree and with a leap of faith, is saved from his sins. Jesus gives him mercy because Zacchaeus offers much of his fortune to the poor and those he cheated.
As with many other occasions in the Gospels, Jesus inserting into his teachings of the need for Social Justice. How we direct our lives describes our faith. Far too often, we live as if our wealth has more valuable than food, clothing or shelter for the needy. If we got in that direction, then we are inching our way out on a limb where only Jesus can save us. If we can be like Zacchaeus and seek out Jesus, by opening our hearts to him, we will discover his mercy.
Again, and again throughout the Gospels, Jesus offers salvation to the sinner, not concerned about the sin but the plea for forgiveness. The same type of forgiveness holds true for us as well. It takes several steps of hope and courage after recognizing one’s sin to want to change. It takes the steps of faith to seek out Jesus and believe that he will save us. And the result of opening our hearts is that Jesus will fill us with his love. We who were once lost to sin; Jesus has found us and will take us to his home.