Wisdom 11: 22-12:2
Thes 1: 11 – 2:2
Luke 19: 1-10
This little story is about the power of choice in the days when meals were still served on airplanes: “It was mealtime during our trip on a small airline in the Northwest. ‘Would you like dinner?’ the flight attendant asked the man seated in front of me. ‘What are my choices?’ he asked. ‘Yes or no,’ replied the flight attendant.”(A World of Stories. William J. Bausch; 23rd Publications).
While the days when you were actually served a meal on a flight are pretty much a thing of the past, that story reflects our daily lives – we always have to choose either yes or no. When it comes to our spiritual life, we are asked to choose God first among the many other attractions we find. However, this Sunday’s readings are not about our choice for God but about God’s choice for us. God’s choice in our favor is the cause of our salvation. The book of Wisdom reminds us: “. . . But you spare all things, because they are yours . . .”
In the Gospel, Jesus and Zacchaeus find themselves in a surprising encounter. Jesus wants to move quickly through Jericho. That ancient city was not necessarily the kind of place where the population would be much interested in the message of Jesus. It was seen as a wealthy city, a home for the rich and powerful. It was filled with luxurious villas and is literally an oasis in a very harsh desert with fresh fruit and lush palm trees. It is the lowest city on earth – 770 feel below sea level so the climate is warm and balmy all year long.
In addition, many enemies of Jesus, the Herodians who wanted to kill him, had winter palaces in Jericho. So, St. Luke makes it clear that Jesus “intended to pass through the town.” It seems our Lord was fixed on slipping out unnoticed or as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, Zacchaeus, likely a strange looking little man, seems obsessed with his desire to “see who Jesus was.” I wonder if that’s all he wanted – to just “see” Jesus? To simply notice him or did he want more? Zacchaeus, judging from Luke’s emphasis on his determination to climb above the crowd for a birds eye view, was more than mildly curious. He may well have been a little man with big ideas. After all, as the chief tax collector in town, he probably has few if any friends with little to loose. So, he scurries ahead and quickly climbs a tree to see over the heads of the taller population.
Then, Jesus’ intention to move through the town meets a sudden change of plans. He spots Zacchaeus up in the tree looking down at him. Does he know who Zacchaeus is and what he’s done? No surprise if he did. Jesus could have simply ignored him and moved on or he could have challenged him to come down and repent of his unethical choices as a tax collector in ancient Palestine. Rather, Jesus invites himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house. . .”
This is one more indication of how God treats sinners. Rather than condemn, if there is any indication of a desire to change on our part, God responds as Jesus did – he wants to come to our home. To be a presence in our lives, our families, our parishes, our places of work. Wherever we might be, the Lord wants to be there with us.
So, Zacchaeus accepts Jesus’ desire and eagerly climbs down the tree to welcome Jesus. But, those around begin to grumble and question Jesus’ wisdom – “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner . . .” Apparently, Zacchaeus overhears their not so subtle complaint and stands his ground in his own defense. He is determined to accept Jesus’ invitation and nothing will stand in the way. On the spot, he decides because he knows, his life is in need of change and this encounter with Jesus will begin that process.
He vows to give away half of his possessions to the poor, to repay any ill-gotten personal wealth and even to, “repay it four times over.” For Zacchaeus it is suddenly Christmas day and he’s ready to follow a new path! All because he welcomed Christ to his home and even more importantly into his own life as he repents of his old way.
Maybe the most surprising thing about this Gospel is that Jesus does not ask anything of Zacchaeus. Jesus risks his own reputation for the sake of Zacchaeus’ salvation. He isn’t about to pass up a chance to save the lost but like Zacchaeus up in the tree, Christ goes out on a limb for us. It’s very clear that Zacchaeus could be anyone who seeks a change of heart that leads to a change of life.
Our celebration of the Eucharist calls us to a change of heart and a Christ-centered direction in our lives. The best thing about it is that Jesus himself will give us the grace, his own life in the Eucharist, to stop hiding in the branches and to come down and say “Yes” to his call. We can only truly be his body, his presence in the world, when we accept his desire to enter our homes, our hearts, and our lives.