Posted November 2, 2016
There is a happy little Sunday-school song that begins ‘Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he’. It tells the story of the wee little man who got singled out by Jesus (‘Zacchaeus, you come down!’). Jesus entered his home, shared a meal with him, and thrilled him by what he said to him. And – the refrain of the children’s song – ‘Zacchaeus met the Lord that day and a happy man was he: And a very happy man was he!’
The charm, the simplicity, and the warmth of the children’s song is surely an essential part of what St Luke wants to convey in telling the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). And really, what that story conveys (though the children might not have put it this way) is the charm and the loveliness of the incarnation: of the Lord making the first move, singling us out, calling us by name, coming to our home and making us ‘very happy’. Or, as another evangelist puts it: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.’
Incarnation is God making his home in us and sharing with us all that matters to us as human beings, our hopes and our little joys. If we take nothing else away with us from the story of Zacchaeus but the charm and loveliness of the incarnation, we will have taken away with us part of the essence of our religion.
The children’s song doesn’t actually get round to saying that Zacchaeus had been a fraudulent man before the experience and, by sheer grace, was an honest, generous man after it. We shall need to include that moral element if we are to understand St Luke’s point that the story illustrates Jesus’ mission to seek out the lost and bring them home again, changed persons, close to God. The reality of sin, the awareness of being estranged, and the need to change our lives, is also an essential aspect of the Zacchaeus story. Happily, the children are not aware of that aspect. It comes later in life. And when it comes, it’s with us all the time. This rather more sombre aspect must also colour our reading of the story as we seek to apply it to ourselves – though heaven forbid that in considering that aspect of the story we should ever lose sight of the children’s intuition, and their happy song, and their evident contentment that Zacchaeus was a happy man that day, and a very happy man was he.
And as to applying the story to ourselves – Well, we might begin by asking ourselves whether our ears are even attuned to Jesus’ voice when he calls us by name: ‘Mary, you come down! ‘Michael, you come down! For I’m coming to your house today!’ Maybe we are too distracted by the busyness of this world or too taken up with the politics and other externals of our religion to be open to that personal encounter with the Lord, that personal conversion, which must be at the heart of our religion. There is a famous page in the Journal of John Wesley about the moment when he was converted to Christ. In the evening of 24 May 1738 he was attending a group meeting in Aldersgate Street, just down the road from here, where someone was reading from Luther’s Preface to the Letter of St Paul to the Romans, about the change that God works in the heart through faith in Christ. ‘About a quarter before nine,’ Wesley says, ‘I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation.’ Perhaps when we Catholics look for what really matters in our religion we are more inclined to look to the letter pages of The Tablet than to any strange warming of the heart.
Then, I wonder, can we identify with Zacchaeus when he clambers down the tree at speed, dead chuffed because the Lord was calling him down? The rich man Zacchaeus didn’t hesitate when he heard his name being called. He clambered down fast, and welcomed Jesus with joy. Do we hesitate? I don’t mean about wealth, necessarily. It just so happens that this story is about a rich man. But it could have been about any of the selfish attachments that keep us from clambering down with joy to let the Lord into our homes. No need to list them now, for we know what they are, or at least you know what yours is – what it is that keeps you up there in the sycamore tree, apprehensive about what you might lose if you come down and look Jesus in the eye.
Zacchaeus came down, and salvation came to his house that day: ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’ That word ‘today’ is one of St Luke’s favourite words. ‘Today a Saviour has been born for us!’ ‘Today this prophecy is being fulfilled in your hearing’. ‘Today we have seen wonderful things.’ ‘Today I must stay in your house.’ ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’ ‘Today you will deny me three times.’ ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ It is St Luke’s way of telling us that this very day, 30 October 2016, is an intersection between time and eternity, when God’s grace, God’s invitation, God’s promise, and maybe God’s warning, confronts us as never before and perhaps as never again.
Today may our Eucharist be a moment of salvation for us, when we experience once again the loveliness of the incarnation and commit ourselves anew to making it our own.
Fr Tom Deidun