Zacchaeus and the Bridge
Thirty-First Sunday of the Year. Wis 11:22-12:2; Ps 145:1-2, 8-11, 13-14; 2 Thes 1:11-2:2; Lk 19:1-10
Last week’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector underlined the lesson, which is easy to state but perhaps much harder to accept, that God rejoices in a repentant sinner. This week’s Gospel presents an even more astonishing example of God’s mercy: Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, sees Jesus and receives the gift of salvation. In today’s brief homily I shall try to explain some of the implications of this Gospel and its application to our lives.
On the basis that nothing is recorded in the Bible by accident, the place where this conversion takes place is significant. Jericho is a singular and strange place in many ways: it is the literally the lowest town on earth, sitting nearly a thousand feet below sea level in a great rift in the earth’s crust. It is also possibly the oldest town on earth, with settlements dating back some ten thousand years. Yet in the Old Testament, Jericho lay under a curse. The city stood in the path of the Israelites seeking to enter the Promised Land, and after its destruction Joshua foretold that the man who re-built it would be cursed. So the fact of Jesus' coming to Jericho signifies him entering the lowest place of all, not just physically but also spiritually. However, Jesus goes even further. He not only finds a tax collector, but a chief tax collector. The tax collectors were treated, and indeed generally behaved like, state sponsored extortionists. Zacchaeus, however, would have been even worse. He almost certainly defrauded people on his own account, but as a chief tax collector he probably also led others, by word or example, to imitate his behaviour. In the scheme of Dante’s Inferno, which allegorically maps every mortally sinful state of the human soul, those like Zacchaeus who persuade others to commit fraud are in one of the lowest places in hell. It is one thing to do evil on one’s own account, but to tempt others to do the same is far worse in the sight of God. Persuading someone to do evil is not a matter of stealing something as cheap as money, but a precious soul out of God’s love. Zacchaeus is in a very wretched state indeed.
So the image of Jesus descending to Jericho and bringing salvation to Zacchaeus is astonishing. Jesus descends to the lowest place to seek out the lowest sinner. Indeed, he even gets below him, so that as Zacchaeus looks down from his sycamore tree he sees Jesus looking up at him. And from there, from the deepest place on earth, Jesus ascends, taking his followers with him up the long steep road to Jerusalem and onto the hill of Calvary. From there he will raised and ascend into the glory of heaven to prepare a place for the saints. So the narrative of today’s Gospel is like one end of a great bridge, a bridge that is Christ himself stretching from the lowest and most lost human soul on earth by the way of the cross to the glory of heaven.
What is the lesson for us? In some respects this is a more dramatic version of last week’s Gospel. God rejoices in the repentant sinner, not the virtuous and unrepentant Pharisee, and in today’s Gospel Jesus brings salvation to an even worse sinner, showing the extraordinary love of the Incarnate Son of God. Yet today’s Gospel also underlines certain additional lessons. First, I think it is significant that what Zacchaeus first wanted was to see who Jesus was, in fact, to see Jesus. It is only when he sees Jesus or, rather, that Jesus sees him and speaks to him, that the great melting of Zacchaeus’ heart takes place. He says that he will give half his possessions to the poor and repay anyone he has extorted from fourfold. Justice is done, but only as a fruit of the encounter with Jesus. So I think that the first lesson is that virtue is a fruit of prayer and the sacraments; we do not first become virtuous in order to pray. The first work of a Christian is to know and love God, and when we seek to do this, or rather when we cease resisting his coming, then God can melt even our most hardened hearts.
The second important lesson, I think, is that of urgency. Jesus passes through Jericho, but he only passes that way once on his way to Jerusalem. This is Zacchaeus’ opportunity to see Jesus, but the opportunity may not come his way again. While we are alive we too have an opportunity to repent of sin and to be fruitful, but we too will not pass this way again. Our opportunity to change is limited by the span of our lives. Indeed, even the whole universe, which seems so awesome in size and age to our eyes, is, in the words of the First Reading, like a drop of morning dew upon the earth before the Lord. Dew evaporates upon the rising of the sun, and similarly this temporary universe will also pass away when the purpose of God is fulfilled.
May God inspire us to use our time well, to want to see, know and love him more than anything. May we make worthy use of the great gifts he has given us for our salvation, especially Confession and the Eucharist. In this way may we cross the bridge of Christ from death into life and so enter the glory of the saints.
Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, 4th November 2007
© Fr Andrew Pinsent. Academic Web Site.