Zacchaeus the little tax collector

Reflections on the readings for Sunday 3 November 2013 (Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Wisdom 11:22-12:2; Psalm 145:1-2, 8-11, 13-14; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10. (You can find the readings here.)

We’re back with the tax collectors this week. Zacchaeus isn’t a common-or-garden tax collector either: he is a chief tax collector. That implies that he is a member of the Jewish upper class who had bought from the Romans the lucrative ‘honour’ of collecting taxes on their behalf. Even if he hadn’t been small in stature, I doubt the crowd would have been much inclined to make room for him to get a glimpse of Jesus. What right does a wealthy traitor have to see the prophet who came to proclaim good news for the poor? And yet Jesus sees him, interprets his curiosity as an offer of hospitality and graces him with his presence at table. As a result the man is utterly transformed.

Repentance in these readings isn’t the first step in the process of being restored to a right relationship with God. The initiative lies with God. It is not as if God’s back is turned against us until we have turned away from our wrongdoing. The sage in the book of Wisdom reminds us that God looks on all of creation with love and mercy. That includes every single human being – even the ones we hate. Jesus calling Zacchaeus down from the tree and inviting himself to his home is a striking picture of the God who takes the initiative in seeking the lost and who “overlooks people’s sins that they might repent.” Jesus makes the mercy of God visible and creates the hospitable space in which Zacchaeus can repent.

The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, literally signifies a change of mind. Zacchaeus has been living his life according to one set of principles which he may never have consciously named, but which guided his actions nonetheless. Could he have held the job he did if he did not value material wealth over inclusion in his own wider community? Could he have accumulated wealth at the expense of the oppressed if he considered their lives to be as valuable as his own? But Jesus by offering friendship breaks through to the man’s heart in a way which turns his old way of thinking on its head. Experiencing himself as loved and valued, Zacchaeus suddenly sees the world through different eyes and he can no longer live as he did before. He pledges to act justly and compassionately, and to make restitution for past wrongs. Jesus must have been beaming with joy as he declared Zacchaeus to be the recipient of God’s saving grace, and a member of the community of God’s people.

I wonder did Zacchaeus live up to his commitments once the initial euphoria had worn off? I think he did. Paul’s prayer for the Christians in Thessalonica reminds us that the journey from the point of repentance onward is also one that is graced and enabled by God. The sometimes hard slog of living out the commitments of our conversion(s) is possible because God is powerfully at work to “bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith.”

[This is a repeat of my post from 25 October 2010]


About Jessie Rogers

I'm a Scripture scholar and Godly Play practitioner living in Ireland.
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