The readings for today were so great! In particular, I love the gospel story about Zacchaeus. Here is a man who is defined for us as a “tax collector.” What does that mean? He was a Jew who has taken a position in the Roman government. This was tantamount to treason for the Jewish people, as they resented the occupation of Palestine by the Romans. Additionally, the position of tax collector not only required the person to collect taxes on behalf of the Roman Empire, but unofficially allowed him to use this privilege for his own financial benefit, collecting a higher percentage of taxes than required so as to allow him to keep the excess for himself. It is easy to imagine the resentment that the Jewish people had for such a person. Because of the financial and political benefits of such a position, Zacchaeus was an “untouchable” in both a positive and negative sense. He was protected by the Roman government from harm, insulated from want and need by his financial success, yet at the same time completely rejected by his own people socially and probably not accepted as an equal by the Roman people either.
So this is the situation of the man Jesus encounters today in the Gospel. Zacchaeus is not trying to meet Jesus; he merely wants to see him. If his intention was to meet Jesus, he could have pushed through the crowd to do so or have even arranged a meeting through his connections. Instead this wealthy man climbs a tree just to get a better glimpse. Perhaps he did not feel worthy to be among the crowd that gathered or to meet Jesus face to face.
Yet out of all those who had gathered, Jesus sees him. He recognizes Zacchaeus, and invites himself to his home. What must this encounter, this “seeing” of Jesus, have been like? I don’t think it was an insignificant thing, as the response of Zacchaeus is so dramatic. Here is a man who has been willing for years to risk the rejection of his own people for the sake of financial gain. He has made a life for himself outside of his community. And yet one encounter with Jesus causes him to give ALL of it away. It reminds me again that “being seen” by Jesus, and encounter with Him is life-changing; it requires a RESPONSE of LOVE.
But the message that God had for me today, was in the reaction of the crowd: “When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.”” (Lk 19:7) This is the only response of the crowd that is provided in the story. Is this indeed the predominant response of all the people present? If it is, this is pretty surprising, as it seems like they missed an amazing conversion moment! It is not a small thing for a person to renounce their entire way of life over an act of hospitality – especially one where the person invites himself! Yet if this indeed is the main reaction of the crowd, one should not be surprised. It only highlights the deep-seated propensity of the human heart to judge the dignity of a person in regard to his sin rather than what he is called to be. Who are the “tax collectors” in our culture? Who are those on the margins in our society who can’t seem to escape the stigma of their past? And how many times have I missed the conversion moment of that person because I am so busy looking at the scandal of a social moré being broken?
So I ask myself today, and I pose the question here to those who read it: how many times have I been accused of “staying at the house of a sinner”? Have I risked my own “standing” in order to minister to a broken person who wants to embrace freedom? Am I willing to confront the fears I have of being in an uncomfortable social situation in order to express solidarity with a member of the human family?