In April 2005, I was fortunate to be part of an event that was not just historical but something that I will never forget. I was among the crowd of over a million people to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II. It was an incredible day to get up at 3 a.m. and walk down to St. Peter’s to meet thousands who slept overnight the streets to be part of this historic event. Why did so many people from all over the world come to Rome to attend a funeral because so many were touched by the life of Pope John Paul II? You could see it in the faces of the people as they were clinging to their rosaries and were shedding tears and yes I would say possibly tears of sadness but also of joyous memories of possibly their brief encounter with this great man. The people that were there that probably never physically came in contact with John Paul the great probably just wanted to see his casket, to maybe touch it for one last time.
So here we see in the Gospel story about Zachaeus who was small in stature and he wanted to see this Jesus. As we heard in the Gospel because of his stature he had to climb the sycamore tree in order to see Jesus above the crowd. Of course I could imagine that Zachaeus was only expecting to get a glimpse of Jesus but what he got was a “come on down here Zachaeus and I will have to stay in your house.” Of course the crowd couldn’t believe it and how could Jesus go to a sinner’s home. Now we must understand why people were shocked over this. This of course because Zachaeus was a tax collector. Tax collectors were not liked because of two reasons.
First they were collaborators with the occupying Roman Empire, employed to extract taxes from the Jews; these taxes were over and above what was required towards the temple tax which was 10%. Second, the way the tax system worked lent itself to abuse. Tax collectors were hired by Roman officials; the yearly tax for an area was assessed and the tax collector paid it up front out of his own pocket. The Romans, money in hand left it to the devices of the tax collector to make back his money with a profit—gained through overcharging, cheating, dishonesty. Early Rabbinic writings considered tax collecting a despised trade, also lists them with other “sinners” (Matt. 11:19; Mark 2:15-16, Luke 15:1). Zacchaeus, as chief tax collector, had many tax collectors working for him, adding another layer of employees eager to take their cut. Zacchaeus is thus an embodiment of the outcast and the estranged, or, to use the language of this story, “the lost.” (19:10) Jesus’ meeting with Zacchaeus, his last encounter with sinners before he enters Jerusaleum, summarizes his ministry to this point and replays some earlier themes. Once again, the episode begins by drawing attention to Jesus’ journey and it ends with Jesus’ announcing salvation. The metaphor of finding the lost recalls the parable of the Prodigal Son in which the father rejoices that his son who “was lost [ ] has been found”. This episode also recaps his two previous parables. Like the persistent widow, that we heard about two weeks ago Zacchaeus persists in seeking out Jesus; and like the tax collector in the previous parable, he acknowledges his sin and announces the restitution he repays for extortion committed in the line of business. Such persistence and repentance end with this sinner being saved: this lost child of Abraham has been found—the very reason for which “the Son of Man has come.”
As I mentioned in my homily last week and some of you heard about how I focused on being humble in prayer and to recognize we are sinners. I also touched upon not being so quick to judge others especially those that have been labeled as “public sinners.” We must realize my dear brothers and sisters that we are all sinners and Jesus came down not for the righteous but for the sinner. Jesus attracted people because of his words, his actions and he especially attracted the outcasts of society at that time. That is why we see so many encounters of large crowds around Jesus.
As I mentioned earlier about Pope John Paul II; he attracted so many because he was a man of the people. He embraced all the sick, the dying, the poor and the imprisoned. He was doing what he was called to do and that is to shepherd the flock. Of course John Paul II received much opposition from those in the Vatican but he knew he had to do God’s work. We must remember my dear brothers and sister that our Lord is the divine healer and he will take care of his patients when they come to him. Of course we are to pray for those that have lost the way so that they too can find the path and be healed of all their weaknesses.
Fr. Stavros an Orthodox Priest gave a great commentary on who this Zachaeus could be in our present world. He said that:
Zacchaeus is the person struggling to see Jesus but having a difficult time because they are surrounded by tragedies or other circumstances that make Christ seem far away.
Zacchaeus the person who has scars from childhood or an abusive relationship, difficulty a job or business venture that went sour, or the sadness and grief that came when they lost someone they loved.
Zacchaeus is the senior citizen who fights to stay positive even though their health is declining.
Zacchaeus is the person tenuously clinging to life, whose every day is a challenge, just to survive.
Zacchaeus is the one who is caring for that person.
Zacchaeus is the person who goes to work everyday.
Zacchaeus is the mother that stays home raising children.
Zacchaeus is everyone in this parish, in this town, in this country and in this world who seeks to know who Jesus is.
So my dear brothers and sisters let us assist the Zacchaeus in our lives. Let us invite them into our community with a great embrace so that they too can feel the love of Jesus. “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
Living Liturgy, p. 243