Readings: Wisdom 11:22-12:2; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-22; Luke 19:1-10
I remember when my brother first told me the story of Zacchaeus from today’s Gospel; I was in the second grade. I loved the idea of Zacchaeus climbing a tree to see Jesus. Like him, I was short and in crowds I was always complaining, “I can’t see!” I spent a lot of time on my dad’s shoulders as a little kid.
Of course, Zacchaeus was rich and an adult, so he could do whatever he wanted–and get away with it. Little did I realize that Zacchaeus and Jesus were hardly appreciated by their peers: he has gone to stay at the house of a sinner. We heard no remark like that from the by-standers less than a chapter ago in this same Gospel when Jesus was sought out by another rich man. I mean the rich young man who kept all the commandments from his youth and wanted to be perfect. In fact, when he by-passed Jesus’ offer to follow him in poverty, the apostles were amazed that his salvation hadn’t been assured. If the pious rich didn’t have it made, who did? Instead, here is curious, infamous Zacchaeus who doesn’t hesitate to radically change gears at a word from Jesus.
Granted, some people are wired like that. All in an instant, their potential seems to blossom. Others are more cautious and change gradually or need to be convinced. I don’t think the rich young man was evil or selfish or greedy. He certainly wasn’t smug. We’re told that he went away sad. A smug man would have gone away in an indignant huff! No, he just couldn’t let go of what he’d been taught, that wealth was a sign of God’s approval.
Zacchaeus, too, is anything but smug: he received Jesus with joy. The recompense he performs…well, he wouldn’t remain rich for too long, giving half of his possessions to the poor and paying back four times over the people he’d cheated. I’d love to hear what his accountant had to say about that; or his wife!
What’s the difference between the two rich men? Had the respectable young man clung to childish hopes? Had his wealth insulated him from the harsher lessons of life? But then, could he have ever felt hunger or cold or feared the insecurity of homelessness? Had he ever learned the limits of his wealth? Did he presume that everyone, like himself, gave alms to the needy? Or was he afraid that if he didn’t give to the poor, God might not always provide? Who was God to him? Was God somewhere out there beyond the stars, all merciful, of course, but a little too distant to be dependable on short notice?
The God that Zacchaeus and Jesus know is nothing like that. God is as close as the last person Zacchaeus cheated; or as close as the wallet he empties; as close as his own heart that opens up to the poor. The God Jesus knows is as close as Zacchaeus’ welcome. Doesn’t he glimpse God right there in Zacchaeus self-honesty, in his mercy and generosity? Isn’t God alive and well and effective in that rich man’s curiosity and eagerness to seek Jesus?