Last week, we heard a parable about a tax collector. In today’s gospel, we get to meet the real thing – in the person of Zacchaeus, who was not just any old tax collector, but a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man. Those extra details, being a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, presumably were mentioned to make him seem even less likable, just as his being short in stature, and his undignified behavior in running ahead and climbing a tree presumably were mentioned to highlight his apparent ridiculousness.
But even without any extra details, just knowing nothing else about Zacchaeus besides his being a tax collector, Jesus’ audience would certainly assume that he was a sinner. After all, as a tax collector he worked either directly for the Romans or for their client King Herod. But God had given the land of Israel as a permanent promise with his people forever. So to collaborate with the Romans would have seemed self-evidently sinful. Everyone would have understood that.
Sinner or not, Zacchaeus was seeking to see who Jesus was. Just what Jesus meant to him at that stage we have no way of guessing. People have probably always wanted to see celebrities. And Jesus, with his reputation already well established as a successful healer and exorcist, was certainly a celebrity – probably the biggest attraction to hit Jericho in a long time!
Zacchaeus, seeking to see who Jesus was, may have had no more than just a natural curiosity – just as any of us at any particular time may have nay number of natural human motives for coming to church. But, whatever our motives, at least we are here. And so it was with Zachaeus. Whatever his motives for seeking to see who Jesus was, at least they got him there.
And then Jesus himself took over: "Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house." Jesus didn’t mull over Zaccaheus’ motives, and he didn’t wait for a proper invitation. He took advantage of the situation and boldy invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house – as he continues now boldly to invite himself into our lives in this house of his Church today.
Traditionally, this gospel was read at the Mass for the dedication of a church – a usage suggested, I suppose, by Jesus’ words: "Today salvation has come to this house." For that indeed is the purpose of a church – why churches are such special places, why we build them, why we dedicate them, and above all why we attend them.
And salvation did come to Zacchaeus’ house that day, when in response to Jesus’ initiative, Zacchaeus received him with joy, boldly turning his own life around and demonstrating in the process both the genuineness of his conversion and also how serious a matter it really is to become a follower of Jesus: "behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over."
Today – and everyday – salvation comes to this house also, this church, to which we come in order to see Jesus, and within which (however imperfect or mixed our motives may sometimes be) Jesus boldly invites himself to stay with us. Here, we too can experience the real change Zacchaeus experienced – doing what we would never otherwise have done, becoming what we would never otherwise have become, a community of forgiven sinners changed by our faith in the One who reveals God’s mercy by inviting himself to stay with us here in this house today.
Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 30, 1016.