Even the people in the time of our Lord had to deal with taxes. In Judea, the occupying Romans, enlisted Jews to collect the taxes and Zaccheus was one of these, in fact he was the “chief tax collector.” He worked for the enemy and enriched himself by cheating the people and lining his own pockets. For this of course he was despised. Last week, you might recall, that the Pharisee who went to the temple thanked the Lord that he was not like the tax collector who had also come to pray.
This is why the people murmured when Jesus announced that he would go to the house of Zaccheus. “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.”
In an ironic twist, the name “Zaccheus” means “the pure and innocent one.” He was obviously not living up to the name his parents had given him.
We might expect Zaccheus to be calloused, mean, hateful, very much dis-interested in anything other than his own comfort.
But interestingly enough, He plans to see Jesus, even if out of curiosity. He would have heard many things about Jesus, especially his teachings and his great miracles. St. Luke tells us that Zaccheus was short in stature and so that in order to see Jesus, he climbed a tree. Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa mentions that he may have climbed the tree to avoid being seen or even near the crowd because he was so unpopular. How extraordinary then, that Our Lord calls Zaccheus by name and announces that he would be his guest.
We are not privy to the conversation of Our Lord and Zaccheus but we know the result of the visit. Zaccheus gives half his wealth to the poor, and he restores any ill-gotten money four times over. In addition to making restitution to those he had defrauded, he cared for the poor. The Lord then declares “Today salvation has come to this house.” In a word, Zaccheus had “changed.”
This Gospel event is presented as an encouragement to us. No matter how bad off we are, we can change and that others can change. The Lord’s grace enables everyone to have a new beginning. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote: “To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” The Gospel challenges us from complacency to action—to move from where we are to where God wants us to be.
What do I need to change in my life? What must I put behind me and what must I embrace? These things we discover through prayer and examining our conscience.
The Gospel also challenges us to see that others can change. Do we really believe this? How often we are content to leave people in the “boxes” we have created for them and labeled” “Unchangeable,” “Hopeless,”, and “Useless,” “Stubborn.”?
We might be that person, like our friend Zaccheus, in a tree, seeking to catch a glimpse of the Lord from afar, searching him out just as a curiosity. Today the Lord calls us by name, and hopefully we can descend the tree to change and new life.