31st Sunday Year C – Lectio divina on Lk 19,1-10
Frequently, during his public ministry, Jesus could be seen in the company of people of dubious reputation. It was so normal for him to be in bad company that his disciples became uneasy. They were perplexed by his behaviour. It gave his opponents good reason for harsh criticism. They could not understand how a good man could live with such criminals. It was embarrassing enough that Jesus let himself be accompanied by persons of ill repute, but what was even worse was that he actively sought out their company. Today’s Gospel reminds us of this shocking behaviour of Jesus. As he was entering an important city, he chose as his host a well known sinner. It would be a mistake to regard this incident as just a historical anecdote, as if it was only a chance meeting between Jesus and a chief tax collector. In fact, for those of us who want to meet Jesus one day, and find in him our salvation, the story serves as a warning and speaks to us, at the same time of a great opportunity, and how to make the best of it.
At that time: 1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. 3 And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. 5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. 7 And when they saw it they all murmured, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 8 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”
I. READ: understand what the text is saying, focusing on how it says it
Jesus was approaching Jerusalem (Luke 19:28). He was also approaching death, the final destiny of man’s pilgrimage. Jesus passed through Jericho, raising expectations among the people. Luke interrupts the story to tell us about one man’s expectations. He was an important figure, but not a very popular one among his fellow citizens. First he speaks, with a touch of irony, about the interest and curiosity that made Zacchaeus want to see Jesus, despite being small in stature and held in low esteem. It was not easy to find a good place, and he did not mind the shame and indignity of having to climb a tree, because “he was to pass that way.”(Lk 19:4). Jesus did not let the man’s curiosity pass unrewarded. He “looked up” and saw Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus had done everything possible to see Jesus … but it was Jesus who saw him, perched high on a sycamore tree! Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was and Jesus spotted him and became his guest. Throughout the whole episode, the main character is not Zacchaeus but Jesus. It is Jesus passing through Jericho who chooses where he wants to be accommodated. He is the one who looks up and sees the man who had tried so hard to see him, and at the end Jesus will be the one who justifies his decision to stay in the house of Zacchaeus. His presence brings salvation to this house. That is the reason why Jesus went there, despite all the criticism.
It is only at the end of the story that Luke reveals the ultimate purpose of Jesus’ visit to Jericho (Luke 19:10: to seek and to save the lost). One detail should not pass unnoticed – Jesus chooses to be our guest only if we go to the place where he is passing. The Jesus we will meet is the one we have been looking for anxiously. When Jesus comes to our house, he fills us with joy.
Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector in a major city. He was well known but not much loved. The decision of Jesus to be his guest is not understood by everyone. It is not easy to understand why a distinguished visitor should choose a well known sinner as his host. But neither Jesus nor Zacchaeus seemed to worry about the citizens’ problem. Overcome with joy at having Jesus in his house, Zacchaeus felt he had to do something for the poor and those he had mistreated. The gift of half of his goods and the fourfold restitution of what he had stolen was the measure of his conversion (Luke 19:8). The unexpected and unexplained presence of Jesus in the house of Zacchaeus filled his heart, first of al,l with joy and then with generosity towards the poor and the people he had cheated. When Jesus was sought after, he came and brought salvation. And the salvation that he brought benefitted not only the one who received it, but also the poor and needy. In fact, it was for this reason only, and for the one who wanted to see him, that Jesus passed through Jericho and entered the house of Zacchaeus.
II Meditate: apply what the text says to life
It is not the first time that Jesus is seen with “bad company,” in his effort to bring about the kingdom of God in the heart of man. (Lk 5:27-32, 15:1-3). This time it is a bit different: at the entrance of the town, he allows himself to be invited by a person with a bad reputation. It is not just that he does not avoid bad people – he looks for them and wants to be with them. Despite the scandal it caused, he honoured the home of a public sinner with his presence: Jesus does not want unnecessary confrontation with good people, but he wants to do good to those who are not good. It is interesting that Jesus is ready to put up with misunderstanding and slander from good people, in order to do good to those who are considered bad. He faced the wrath of the whole town by becoming a guest in the house of the main tax collector. He must have had a very good reason to make such a controversial decision. It is highly unlikely that the good people who came to Jesus ever got him to visit their homes. Zacchaeus was chief tax collector. Obviously his profession meant that he was not very popular, especially because it was considered sinful and unjust. The tax collectors used to enrich themselves with the money they demanded from others. The king appointed a rich man as tax collector, and demanded a fixed sum. In this way the king was guaranteed a fixed annual income. This man, in turn, appointed someone else and demanded more than what he had to pay the king. This continued. The chain of intermediaries multiplied, and so did the amount collected, and the injustice. That was the collection system of the time was – simple but very unjust. In the end, the people finished up paying far more than they should. They also had to suffer the daily indignity of seeing that their poverty was fuelling the growing wealth of the tax collectors. It was inevitable than that, when they saw Jesus coming to Jericho, they grumbled at the audacity of Jesus in demanding an invitation from the chief tax collector of the city. It would not have been so bad if the initiative had come from Zacchaeus, but it was just inconceivable for Jesus to ask to be a guest in the home of a man so despised, not just because of his wealth but because of the manner in which it was accumulated. Jesus did not argue with them, but he gave good reasons for his way of acting. He had come for those who needed him most. He had come to seek those who were lost and to save those who felt lost. Clearly, Zacchaeus was not a saint. Even he knew that. But this is precisely why Jesus chose to be a guest in his home and to enjoy his hospitality. This was an opportunity for Jesus and a chance to bring the Kingdom closer to sinners.
Zacchaeus knew very well that the source of his wealth was also the source of his injustice. He took advantage of a visit by Jesus to his home, a casual visit that he had not expected, to give up half of his possessions and pay back with interest all those he had cheated. Having Jesus with him, at home, he decided to make his property available to the poor and to those he had cheated, even though he was now at peace with God. He did not waste the opportunity that the visit of Jesus offered him. He received him into his house and placed at his disposal everything he had, and in doing so Zacchaeus became again the son of Abraham that God had created and loved. He was not afraid of the cruel words of his fellow citizens. it was enough to hear that Jesus wanted to stay in his house. The wish of Jesus mattered more to him than the opinion of his enemies. What began as simple curiosity about a stranger he had never seen, ended with a determination to settle his debt of justice. Only those who welcome him wholeheartedly are released from their sin. Those, however, who thought they were good enough to criticize the conduct of Jesus were surprised to hear him saying that of all the people in Jericho, Zacchaeus alone had obtained God’s salvation. The fact is – and here lies the warning of Jesus to us – that anyone who thinks he is good just because he can look down on others because of their wickedness, even if he has good reason, is always on the verge of losing God. If someone fails to recognize that no one, not even himself, is worthy of God, that person will never meet him. Anyone who thinks he deserves a visit from Jesus will never get the chance to welcome him into his home.
Jesus does not usually meet only those who think they deserve it, and today’s Gospel is proof of it. God does not choose to stay among those who do not feel the need for him, no matter how good they may be. Anyone who is so accustomed to God that his passing by does not arouse curiosity, and who is not prepared to do anything extraordinary to get closer to God and see him more clearly, will not be the chosen one when God comes. Those who are sure of God’s invitation are usually not among the chosen ones, much to their surprise. We will lose God, not so much because, unfortunately, we are bad, but because we deceive ourselves that we are good. It would be no harm if we were to learn, eventually, that for the Lord to visit us, we do not have to be very good. It is enough that we do not think we are better than others. However, if Jesus does not worry too much about what others think of us, and if we do not even have to be good, then he has made it really easy for us. This was the case with Zacchaeus and it will be ours too, if we know how to take advantage of it. No one is too unworthy of God, except those who think they are already worthy. We can all fool ourselves that one day Jesus will ask us to invite him to enter our house. It should not be for painful or difficult for us when God comes to see where we live. The conversion that begins when God is our guest will not be in any way humiliating. The fact that he allows himself to be served will make it easier for us to serve him as we ought.
There is no reason to fear the pardon that will be granted when we allow God into our homes. Jesus saves us if we desire his coming, if we feel the need of his presence, and if he comes to share our homes. When he can dispose of our goods, he will be the reason for our wellbeing. This is how it was for Zacchaeus. But Zacchaeus did more than accept Jesus into his house. With Jesus in the house, he was able to deprive himself of his possessions. He gave half his goods to the poor and paid back what did not belong to him, four times the amount he had cheated. His salvation was genuine, because he was saved from his sins. His unjust assets were the evidence of his sins. The truth is that people who live with Jesus, even if only once, must stop living with all that separates them from him. Zacchaeus did not merit a visit, but had to pay the price for it. Jesus did not impose the price. Zacchaeus discovered it for himself when he stayed close to Jesus.
It is hard to know which we should admire more – Zacchaeus’ need to be saved or Jesus’ need to save. For Abraham to regain a son and for God to save a family, we need to accept Jesus into our home and family. It is not so much because we need to be saved. After all, Zacchaeus just wanted to see Jesus from afar and did not expect to meet him personally. It is Jesus who takes the initiative. His compassion moves him to desire our salvation. Today we hear Jesus asking if he can come to our homes because he wants to save us. If he comes, our house will know salvation. We must not forget that Jesus went, not where he was invited, nor to someone who deserved a visit, but where he wanted to go, to the one he had chosen, because he was in need of salvation.
The price Zacchaeus paid was to acknowledge that he was unworthy to have Jesus in his house. His reward was the joy that filled his heart and the salvation which filled his home. But that was not all. The closeness of Jesus brought Zacchaeus to discover the injustice with which he had amassed his fortune. Jesus did not say anything about this. Zacchaeus realized it himself when Jesus was in the house. The proximity of Jesus was enough to make Zacchaeus recognize his sin and respond to the needs of the poor. We deprive ourselves of Jesus when we are not willing to admit our sins and when we fail to remember the poor. We need to be close to Jesus if we are to be close to those who need us. That is how we attain true salvation. Zacchaeus recognized his sin and declared its intention to share his goods before Jesus proclaimed salvation to Zacchaeus.
Today we have the same opportunity that was given that day to Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of Jericho. Let’s not miss it! We can invite Jesus to stay with us and come to our homes. Jesus did not require Zacchaeus to repent before he asked to be a guest in his house, but, by coming to his house, he made it possible for Zacchaeus to repent. When we confess our guilt, Jesus finds a reason to come to us. It is not our sin that keeps him away from us, but our denial of our sin. We do not have to be good for Jesus to come to our house. He did not visit the good people who were scandalized by his behaviour. He went to someone who knew he was unworthy. Zacchaeus’ life left a lot to be desired, but he did not let Jesus pass, without trying to get at least a glimpse of him. The visit was not gratis. Zacchaeus had to pay a price, but it was one he imposed on himself. The good lose out on Jesus, because they think they are good. The bad lose their property, because they recognize their sin. However, God and the Kingdom come close only to those whom Jesus visits. Why are we, today, so determined to be good or to appear good, if it means missing the visit of Jesus to our homes and losing an opportunity to do good to our needy neighbour?