Reflection on the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time
Today we find Jesus on the road again and Zacchaeus up a tree.
Jesus has come into Jericho — intending, we’re told, to simply pass through the town and continue his journey to Jerusalem. Zacchaeus, we’re told, simply wanted to see who Jesus was. In their chance encounter Zacchaeus changed Jesus’ plan and his understanding — as so many others in the Gospel have done. They, in their brokenness and pain, form Jesus — open him to become the broken one.
Jericho is an interesting place for Luke to locate Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus. Jericho is thought to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. It dates back to 9,000 BC. It’s located in the Jordan valley — now the west bank of Palestine. In Jesus’ time the town was prosperous. A crossroads town for commerce. It was a lucrative locale for a tax collector. Close by is the area on the Jordan River where Jesus had been baptized by John. Jesus knew Jericho.
There was a crowd gathered to watch as Jesus passed. He must have been a bit of a spectacle or curiosity, but no one engaged him. He was resolute on this journey to Jerusalem. Despite the fact that Jesus is resolute, his journey has seemed meandering. It’s a journey to a destination but also a journey of mission — of teaching, healing and encounter. These past weeks we have heard Luke’s account of those encounters. It’s as though all the people he meets, all the miracles, all the time teaching and preaching, all the stories told are teaching Jesus the meaning of Jerusalem for him — teaching him how to face his future. What his life means.
Zacchaeus, being short of stature, and perhaps unwilling to push his way to the front, climbed up the sycamore tree. That’s not quite a normal path to engagement — one rarely meets an adult up a tree. Up a tree, out on a limb, is metaphorically and literally a precarious place to be.
Zacchaeus, we know, was a tax collector — and not a minor figure — he was a chief tax collector — and quite a wealthy man — and not loved or respected in the community. His stature was short. Again both metaphorically and literally. He wasn’t well regarded. Rather he was despised for his occupation and its inherent complicity with the Roman occupation. Despite his wealth he was an outcast — a wealthy one for sure, but still an outcast. Worthless. He was, in the town’s eyes, a sinner.
Stature brings to mind how the child Jesus remained in Jerusalem and was lost to his parents for three days. We are told he returned home with them, was subject to them and grew in stature before God and people. Zacchaeus, an adult, was short of stature before God and people. And hence up a tree. Perhaps curious about Jesus. Perhaps inwardly longing for something more.
The short man up a tree caught Jesus’ attention.
Since the retreat here a couple of weeks ago, I’ve had giraffes wandering through my consciousness. When the short-in-stature chief tax collector climbed that sycamore three, his vision changed — became giraffe-like. He could see from a different perspective. His world view expanded. His short stature ceased to matter. His world expanded. He saw his neighbors differently. He became open to seeing himself differently.
And Jesus acted on that. He stopped and called out to Zacchaeus. But not with the expected question, “What are you doing up that tree?” But with a command, and using Zacchaeus’ name, like they are old friends, “Zacchaeus, come down. I must stay at your house tonight.” I’m eating at your table. So much for simply passing through the town.
Everything has shifted. Zacchaeus, called by name, no longer short in stature, climbs down from his perch — transformed because Jesus has recognized him, validated his worth. So he stands joyfully before Jesus
and the community that holds him in contempt and promises to share half of his wealth — far beyond the common tithe — with the poor. And he promises to return taxes four times over — at a rate far beyond a common rate of interest — if he has defrauded anyone.
The crowd, always disgusted with Zacchaeus, is now disgusted with Jesus. They complain that Jesus is eating with a sinner. They add fuel to the movement to discredit Jesus that will lead to his torture and execution in Jerusalem.
Jesus’ final words are addressed not to Zacchaeus but to the crowd, spectators whose short stature has been revealed. “Today salvation has come to this house because this man, too, is a descendent of Abraham.” Jesus’ final action, as the one come to save the lost, is to restore Zacchaeus’ place as a member of the community.
Conversion, change, growth, making things right, saving what is lost always happens in the context of community. It’s always about the community. Jesus challenges the Jericho community, which must now accept the restitution Zacchaeus offers, recognize his shift in stature and welcome him. Now they must become giraffe-like. They must climb the sycamore trees of their lives and see differently.
And so must we.