A strange series of things happen as Jesus passes through Jericho, passes through on his way to Jerusalem. And they all have to do with this short little man named Zacchaeus—a name that is the first oddity in the story. (“Zacchaeus” in Hebrew means “clean,” and that was precisely what this little man was not—he was the chief tax collector in Jericho and that rendered him not only "not clean", but outcast.) So “Mr. Clean” is really “Mr. Unclean.” His name is the opposite of his spiritual state in the eyes of his neighbors,…sort of a walking oxymoron, “dirty Mr. Clean.” And in a marvelous understatement, Saint Luke adds that he was “also a wealthy man.” Actually, given the location of Jericho—right at the intersection of two main trade routes—one going north and the other on up to Jerusalem, it would be difficult for the chief tax collector of that place not to be very rich. So add it up: Zacchaeus is the head tax collector of Jericho, making him in thick with the Romans, liable to be skimming off a bunch of money for himself, and in the process making himself very rich. Oh, and also in the process, making himself an outcast.
Now the next strange thing to happen is that we first notice Zacchaeus just as Jesus is making his way through Jericho—his destination, Jerusalem,…and Golgotha. For some reason, Zacchaeus “was seeking to see who Jesus was.” Curiosity? Some rumors he had heard about Jesus’ habit of caring for outcasts? Who knows? But at any rate, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus but he had two problems. One was that a solid wall of people had already lined the way that
Jesus was going to take—a solid wall of people whose backs were to Zacchaeus. And the second problem was that not one of those lining the street would turn and invite Zacchaeus to go to the front of the crowd. Not likely to happen for dirty Mr. Clean. Have you ever been in a crowd like that and have someone wanting to break into the line? Some driver who didn’t merge left when the interstate sign told everybody a mile ago to merge into the right lane? So here comes this
idiot, passing everybody who had dutifully merged right and now, way up there, the turn signal goes on and the driver is trying to squeeze in ahead of about a hundred other cars. But everyone responds to this outcast by tightening up, bumper to bumper. No way we’re going to let this arrogant driver in line now! And maybe we close up, too. Nobody making room for this “Zacchaeus car” to come in. Hmmm. Now I don’t know about you, but I must admit that it even
feels good to exclude this driver. Just what Mr. or Ms. Zacchaeus deserves. So like a lot of other people, nobody there in Jericho is going to turn and invite Zacchaeus to a front-row seat for the Jesus parade. It is just not going to happen.
However, this little man did not get to be chief tax collector without being ingenious and creative. If he can’t get through the crowd or around them, he’ll climb up over them. So running ahead of the procession drawing near, little Zacchaeus comes to a sycamore tree, scrambles up the trunk and perches himself out on a stout limb right over the parade route. (I told you he was ingenious.) Now he can get to fulfill his need to see Jesus—whatever that need was in the first
place. But when Jesus reached that place, he looked up at Zacchaeus on the limb and announced, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” This is not a suggestion by Jesus to Zacchaeus, but is a statement of necessity. “It is destined that I do this,…” is that way one Bible scholar put it. Not only is it necessary for Jesus to come to Zacchaeus’ house, the whole announcement implies that he is there for dinner and maybe to stay the night. And a lot about this announcement by the Lord is also rather strange. I mean, we usually hear appeals to invite Jesus into our hearts, into our lives, and into our families. But here, Jesus doesn’t wait for an invitation. No, he invites himself! If such a thing happened to us—someone inviting themselves to our house for dinner—we might chalk it up to some kind of intercultural misunderstanding. (“Maybe they do things like that where this person comes from…”) But
Jesus is a Jew and everyone around him is Jewish. Everybody knows the rules and right up there is that big one—“You do not accept an invitation to eat with anyone who is unclean.” (You know, like Gentiles or chief tax collectors.) And in Luke’s gospel, it surprises us even more. I mean, hasn’t Jesus been preaching against the rich, against their wealth? And here is Jesus, inviting himself to the home of a really rich little outcast, hated by almost everyone in Jericho.
Does anyone see anything strange here? I do.
But if Zacchaeus thinks the announcement by Jesus is strange, he also welcomes it with open arms. He scurries down that sycamore tree and receives Jesus with joy. He welcomes Jesus into his house with great joy. But in Jericho, if you have had to deal with little Mr. Clean about your taxes for very long, the joy is not widespread. No, instead, the onlookers “began to grumble.”
“He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.”
And from their perspective they have all spoken the truth. Jesus has gone to the house of a sinner. Good people, of course, don’t act that way. Everyone knows how good people should behave. Everyone, apparently, but Jesus. But now
comes another amazing announcement, this time by Zacchaeus. He stands there and tells Jesus, Look, Sir, I give away half of what I own to the poor. If I have extorted anything from anyone, I pay back four times over. (Jerusalem Bible trans.)
That’s right. You heard it said by Zacchaeus in the present tense. In the Catholic Jerusalem Bible, we hear Zacchaeus literally—he gives away half of what he earns to the poor and pays back four times what he finds he has extorted anyone. Now we heard both of these verbs, “give” and “pay back” in a future tense in our Gospel lection. Zacchaeus says he “shall give to the poor” and “shall repay” anything extorted four times over. And now for the interesting news: both translations have a long history in Christian tradition and the early church fathers differed
among themselves over the two interpretations. So the strangest thing of all is this—our homily this Lord’s Day (or “eve”) has two quite different, but appropriate endings! And each invites a different response from us! First, recall that upon Zacchaeus’ words, Jesus announces, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.” That is, in either case, Zacchaeus and his household have received salvation. So now for the two endings: If we take the translation heard in our Gospel lection, the one with the future tense, then our story comes to its climax as little Mr. Clean comes into the presence of the Lord, sees the folly of his life and his way of living, and repents. He has taken from the poor and so he will now give half of his earnings back to them. He has extorted and so he will repay all who have been robbed four times over. Here is repentance in its fullest biblical meaning—metanoia. Zacchaeus “turns
around” as he turns toward Christ. He now knows what we say during every Mass—“I am not worthy to receive you….” Faced with the presence of our Lord this day, there may well be some who hear and now speak these words with deepened passion and conviction. Perhaps it is time to visit the Reconciliation Sacrament, and, in fact, to turn away from our acquisitive lifestyle and toward the poor. It would be a thing of joy to hear that our sins are forgiven and that we are
invited to new and grace-filled living in Christ. This Word and our response is one alternative ending to the story and to our homily.
On the other hand, what if we take seriously the present tense status of Zacchaeus’ words to Jesus? That is to say, what if this story does not find its turning in Zacchaeus’ repentance but in his disclosure of his previously hidden life of generosity and grace? In this case, the Lord’s words come more as a benediction on Zacchaeus in the face of the grumbling crowd. Salvation
being declared upon Zacchaeus’ house would be an audacious affront to the pious folks who wouldn’t even let the little man in to see Jesus walk by. But in this case, the word is also being addressed to all the Zacchaeus’s in our day who live in shame and know themselves to be outcasts. Jesus invites himself to your house! Salvation has come to you, to this son or daughter of Abraham! No matter what rejection you might be still carrying around, no matter what shame you carry or what voice inside that still tells you you’re no good, an outcast, no matter any of
that, this very day, Jesus invites himself into your house, your home, your heart.
For those of us who find ourselves in this other ending, the second part of our response before Communion may be the most heart-felt: “But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” We, too, are children of Abraham, valued and accepted by our gracious Lord.
Now no preacher can be sure which way to go with this ending. I mean, here are two Catholic translations that lead to different possible ways of hearing what Zacchaeus has to say. And each one has strong support through the tradition of the church. So if it has to be oneending or the other today, perhaps the decision as to whether repentance or healing of shame is at stake here really is a question for each of us. For me, I lean toward the (here, the homilist may wish to reveal his or her own preferred way of hearing the words of Zacchaeus) ending. But for
all of us, the grace of the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ is offered at this Holy Eucharist. And we can all pray together, “But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”