THE SON OF MAN CAME TO SEEK AND TO SAVE THE LOST
(Biblical reflection on the 31st Ordinary Sunday [Year C] – 30 October 2016)
Gospel Reading: Luke 19:1-10
First Reading: Wisdom 11:22-12:2; Psalms: Psalm 145:1-2,8-11,13-14; Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2
He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man name Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And He sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was to pass that way. 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.” So he made haste and came down and received Him joyfully. And when they saw it they all murmured, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 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 if fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:1-10 RSV)
In chapter 18:18-30 Luke presented us with the story of the rich ruler who could not bring himself to say goodbye to his riches and follow Christ. Now, in a story found only in this Gospel, Luke introduces us to a tax collector who freely offers to give half his riches to the poor, and restore fourfold the amounts he has unjustly extracted from others. Again in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus leads the outcast from the Kingdom of the found, where salvation is given as the gift of God. And it is the outcast rather than the outraged who accepts the opportunity of salvation.
At the opening of the story, Luke tells us that Jesus intended to pass through Jericho on His way to Jerusalem. But something happens in Jericho which makes Jesus change His plan and stay for dinner. Jericho was a wealthy city, and important customs center, and on a trade route between Jerusalem and the East. It was an ideal spot for an ambitious tax collector who had a head for convenient arithmetic. Zacchaeus as chief tax collector would seem to have more than distinguished himself in exploiting other for his own purposes. Although his occupation made him very rich, it would also have made him an obvious target for the hatred of his fellow Jews. Tax collectors were put in the same company as thieves, murderers and prostitutes; but, unlike that particular group of outcasts, the were regarded as traitors who had sought employment from the enemy, and whose employment was an open betrayal of their own people.
Confined to his own small circle of friends, Zacchaeus would have led a life of loneliness and isolation; his riches gave him a loveless privilege, which, in human terms, must have taxed his own contentment and will. But Zacchaeus had heard of the prophet from Nazareth and his reputation in dealing with sinners and outcasts. Perhaps Zacchaeus had heard that Jesus had a former tax collector in his own company, Levi, who had begun his new calling by organizing a feast for his new master (Luke 5:27-32). Little Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus very much, so he risks mixing with a crowd whose undisguised hostility would drive anyone up a tree. Zacchaeus climbs a tree so that he can see this unusual prophet. Tree-climbing might not appear a particularly dignified activity for an adult; but then, perhaps if tax collectors were sensitive about their dignity they would hardly be tax collectors.
Jesus does not pass by the sycamore tree; he notices the little man up a tree and directs His attention to him. Jesus initiates the contact and calls Zacchaeus by name. He does not shout condemnation at Zacchaeus which might have served to drive him further up the tree; Jesus invites him to make haste and come down from his lonely perch. Jesus does not address a vague wish to see Zacchaeus sometime, but says that he must stay at his house today. There is an urgency to see this man, and for Jesus the time of salvation is always now. And as He has shown throughout His public ministry, Jesus has a good instinct for when a dinner is needed as the occasion for the event.
So, the professional outsider plays host to Jesus of Nazareth. But the crowd do not share the joy of Zacchaeus; they are in a different mood about what is happening, and they indulge in the deadly whisper and the murmured complaint. They have not learned yet that Jesus is not embarrassed in the company of sinners, that he does not then as untouchable, but is happy to share a dinner with them. Unlike the crowd, Jesus that write off Zacchaeus as a hopeless case beyond the boundary of salvation. Jesus does not believe that traitor or tax collector is a final description of any man. The crowd is limited in their outlook because they have but a view of Zacchaeus, while Jesus has a vision of who he could be. Jesus’ vision offers Zacchaeus release, and it tells him what he hopes is true – that his life is not summed up by his wrongdoing, that he has within him the possibility of goodness.
Jesus’ vision of Zacchaeus affects Zacchaeus’ own view of himself; Jesus’ vision is catching. Zacchaeus is moved to make public amends for what he has done; he wants to rectify his vicious arithmetic. As Jesus called Zacchaeus publicly, Zacchaeus now returns the gesture and makes his own promises in the presence of the public. The Jewish law required that when an individual defrauded others, he had to repay them plus one-fifth of the original total (Numbers 5:7). Zacchaeus now errs on the side of generosity and promises to repay four times over.
In response, Jesus proclaims that salvation has come to the house of Zacchaeus. It is not an individual event, but is extended to the whole household (see Acts 11:14). Jesus says unambiguously that Zacchaeus is a Jew: God can raise sons of Abraham from the very stones; the tax collector is a faithful son of Abraham because of his generous response to Jesus. Luke concludes the episode with the Son of Man saying: He is the one who has come to save the lost. Jesus has shown Himself to be the seeker after the lost. He did not leave Zacchaeus was misplaced until he was reclaimed by the one who took notice.
One wonders whether the crowd treated Zacchaeus any differently when Jesus left the dinner party and continued on His way to Jerusalem. Perhaps they still regarded him as a traitor. Is it possible to be a “former” traitor? Is God the only one who forgives traitors?
Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, I thank you for the great gift of salvation You have given me. May I never take this gift for granted. May I never become complacent in my love for you or in my service for other people. Today I want to make a return to You, dear Lord, for all that You have done for me. Amen.
Jakarta, 28 October 2016
A Christian Pilgrim