31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
This Sunday’s gospel (Lk 19:1-10) tells the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector who seeks Jesus. Tax collectors, as I mentioned last week, are portrayed in the gospels as examples of sinful people. They were Jews who worked for the Roman government, so were viewed as colluding with the enemy. They collected money for the Roman empire, but rather than receive a salary, their income came from whatever extra coinage they were able to extrude from their fellow Israelites. So they were also viewed as swindlers and thieves. Zacchaeus, as the gospel points out, is no ordinary tax collector. He is the chief tax collector and “a wealthy man,” presumably because he was particularly adept at squeezing money out of those he collected from.
No wonder “people began to grumble” when Jesus went to dine at his house. He was a notorious sinner. The gospels are full of examples of Jesus, who came to reconcile sinners to God, associating with people that the “righteous” Jewish religious class would never go near. Of course Jesus doesn’t do so to condone the sinful actions of anyone. Rather He does so in order to liberate them from their sins.
Zacchaeus is transformed during his encounter with Jesus. He vows to give half of his wealth to the poor. He promises to repay anyone he has extorted four times over. He seeks to make amends for his sinful ways.
The most important thing to note about Zacchaeus is not his sinful past, nor even his repentance (though that is important). The most important thing about Zacchaeus is that he sought Jesus. For whatever reason, he is drawn Christ. Here is one who can redeem him from his sins. He sees in Christ a way out of darkness and into the light. And so he seeks Jesus.
Zacchaeus’ willingness to repent of his sins leads Jesus to say, “Today salvation has come to this house.” But before Zacchaeus could come to that point, he had to do something else that is so simple we might overlook it. The gospel tells us that Zacchaeus was “short in stature” (Lk 19:3). He physically could not see Jesus over the heads of the crowd. But Zacchaeus did not let this physical obstacle overcome him. He climbed a tree, so that he could see Jesus better. This is what catches Jesus’ attention, this faith that would lead a sinful tax collector to the top of a sycamore tree.
Do you, like Zacchaeus, have things in your life that are keeping you from seeing Christ? When we think about things that are keeping us from Jesus, chances are we think a lot about our own personal sin — as well we should. Sinful habits can indeed serve as impediments to a good relationship with Christ. We need to repent of these things.
But notice when Zacchaeus repents of his sinful ways, he has already encountered Christ. In fact, it is that encounter with Christ which leads to his repentance. If we think we need to eliminate all sin from our lives before Christ can come to us, then we have it backwards. Jesus wants to come to us precisely to help us repent from our sins.
But are there practical obstacles that are keeping us from seeing Jesus? Are there basic things we need to do to overcome those obstacles? Zacchaeus was seeking to see Jesus and did some very practical things toward that end. First, he went to where Jesus was. Then, finding he was too short to see over the crowd, he did something about it. He climbed a tree.
What are you doing to find Jesus? Are you going to where He is? Are you attending Mass? Are you reading the scriptures, especially the gospels? Are you praying? Are you participating in the Christian community? Are you seeking Christ in the faces of the poor? Are you visiting the sick? Are you feeding the hungry?
Perhaps, like Zacchaeus, there are some practical things in your life that are keeping you from seeing Jesus. Do you have to work on Sunday during the time we have Mass on campus? Do you not read the scripture because you don’t own a Bible? Do you not feed the hungry because you have class on the afternoon we volunteer at Community Table? Do you not pray because you are “too busy?” These are all real, practical obstacles. The question is, what are you going to do about them? Zacchaeus didn’t give up and go home because he was too short. He climbed a tree.
As you think about how you might overcome any obstacle in your life keeping you from seeing Jesus (material or spiritual), consider this: Zacchaeus is not the only one doing the seeking in this gospel. The final verse in our reading is, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost” (Lk 19:10). In our relationship with God, it is first and foremost He who seeks for us. He sees us before we see Him. We seek to know Christ; He already knows us perfectly.
Let this be a great comfort to any who are seeking Jesus. The one you seek is seeking you, as well. He is not far away. He is very close, waiting and wanting to be found.