Posted November 2, 2016
The story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19: 1-10) conveys to us the charm and the loveliness of the incarnation, of the Lord making the first move, singling us out, coming to our home and making us happy. We find the same charming domesticity, the same homely warmth, elsewhere in the Gospels: in Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, with the child in her womb; in Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary’s house, with Martha complaining to Jesus that her sister is leaving her to do all the work; in Jesus reclining at supper with his apostles, and with the Beloved Disciple cuddling up to him; in Jesus in the garden whispering ‘Mary’ to one who loved him and had lost him. 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 the heart of the story and part of the essence of our religion.
But another important element of our religion is touched on when we are told that Zacchaeus had been a sleazy, fraudulent man before the experience and, by sheer grace, was an honest, generous man after it. The reality of sin, the consciousness of being estranged, and the need to change our lives, is also an essential aspect of the Zacchaeus story. 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, closer to God.
And as to applying the story to ourselves – where in the story do you think you come? We must surely say that, like Zacchaeus at the beginning of the story, we are keen to see Jesus. But maybe, like Zacchaeus, we are prevented by the crowd. Prevented by the crowd, not in the sense that we are wee little people and the people in front of us block our view, but in the sense that perhaps we are rather impersonally being carried along by the crowd. It’s all happening around us: the music is, as always, impressive, the preacher goes on about things that are ‘out there’ or beyond us; we stand and sit and kneel with the crowd; our minds are on our cares and worries, so that we never personally hear the words, ‘Mary, you come down! ‘Brian, you come down! For I’m coming to your house today!’ I mean: whereas our religion makes us members of a community, and that is an essential aspect of it, nevertheless our religion is first and foremost my relationship with my Lord. As Mary Magdalene says to the angels at the tomb, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have put him!’ We Catholics tend to attach far less importance to a personal encounter with the Lord, and a personal conversion, than do Evangelical Protestants, and certain religious traditions stemming from early Methodism. I am impressed by a note in John Wesley’s Journal, where he recalls: ‘In the evening [24 May, 1738] I went, very unwillingly, to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine …’
Then, can we identify, I wonder, with Zacchaeus when he clambers down the tree at speed, dead chuffed because the Lord was calling him down? Actually, I am surprised Zacchaeus comes down so eagerly. Since his mental horizon had hitherto been limited to his deposit account at the Banco di Roma, one would have thought that the prospect of a personal meeting with a wandering prophet preaching poverty and righteousness might have slowed him down a bit, for he must have known that his wealth was at risk, or at least that it would be challenged. Another rich man who met Jesus, and Jesus loved him, went away very sad when Jesus invited him to let go of his wealth. But the rich man Zacchaeus clambered down at speed, and welcomed Jesus with joy. Perhaps he was not very bright and wasn’t aware of the risks; or perhaps he thought that the added kudos of having entertained this celebrity would turn out to be a nice little earner. Or perhaps he had grown tired of his wealth and by some inspired intuition hoped to find new horizons in Jesus. At all events, he didn’t hesitate. Do we hesitate? I don’t mean about wealth, necessarily. It just 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, 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, nervous about what you might stand to lose if you come down.
‘Zacchaeus, you come down!’ The wee little man came down, and salvation came to his house that day. ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’ That word ‘Today’ is a very significant one in St Luke’s Gospel. ‘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 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 a unique 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 charm and loveliness of the incarnation and once again make it our own through personal conversion.
Fr Tom Deidun