I wonder what it must be like to be a public hate figure, someone so vilified and attacked day after day by one’s fellows that, psychologically speaking, rest is never possible? Such a man was Zacchaeus …. but he was not the blameless victim of an irrational public vendetta; he had every reason to be hated by his compatriots. This was not to do with his profession as such. As Benjamin Franklin remarked (although he reworked this from Daniel Defoe):- “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” It was not then that he was a tax collector that rankled so much, but that he was both a fraudster and a traitor. A fraudster because he overcharged and kept the surplus for himself; a traitor because he was collecting for a foreign occupying power, the godless, pagan Roman Empire.
The Gospel today tells us that being short of stature, Zacchaeus had to climb a sycamore tree to see Jesus but that was also, maybe, the only safe option. Milling crowds, well, you never know what might happen! What changed everything though was his desire to see Jesus; not merely an impulse of curiosity but the dawning of a vague hope in his breast that here was a man who could help him put things right. Jesus saw that in his heart immediately, faster and more bright than a bolt of lightning and Our Lord’s response was as equally dynamic and forthright … yet puzzling. “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” Why were there no preliminaries, no first words from Zacchaeus himself and why this curious desire to stay at his house?
Very often, St. Luke in his Gospel selects stories of repentance where words are not necessary but only a change of heart. This is true of course in the parable of the Prodigal Son which will be upon us later in this extended pre-Lenten season. The younger son only had to set out for home, leaving his wretchedness behind him, for his father to run out to meet him, embrace him and sit him down at a great celebratory feast. The same is happening here with Zacchaeus. Jesus sees the change in his heart and immediately accepts him. This acceptance is indicated by becoming Zacchaeus’ guest at his house. Imagine how much this antagonistic crowd must have grumbled and sworn at such prodigious love for this other prodigal. Hopefully their attitude might have softened at Zacchaeus’ immediate response … this was his true act of repentance:- “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” ‘Proof of the pudding’ as they say … the socially and personally transforming fruits of repentance, the power in fact to turn the world upside down.
Let us recall that all this started with a meeting of hearts, Christ’s and that of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus initiates, he makes a life changing choice even though he could barely have known what was in store for him. He climbs that tree, simply to see Jesus, but in his heart there is something else going on. Maybe he is just weary with the relentless hatred he experiences every day, the greed that leads him to exploit the poor and then the nagging guilt that he so soon forgets as he enjoys the fruit of his ill-begotten gains. Maybe though there is something more positive here. He could have heard of Jesus beforehand. By now our Lord was probably the talk of Israel. Who had not heard of Jesus, His healings, His friendship with sinners and outcasts, his teachings, the sense that many (but not all) had that here was the Messiah, the coming Kingdom of Emmanuel, God-with-us?
For his heart, seeing Jesus was enough for Zacchaeus. Merely seeing Him kindled that spark in his heart into a bright roaring flame … and that was what Christ saw and responded to. Not only were the lives of the poor thereby transformed but also the whole career of Zacchaeus himself. After the resurrection it is said that he became a disciple of St. Peter, who afterwards ordained him as Bishop of Caesarea.
So, sometimes God waits for us, sometimes we wait for Him or on other occasions He acts simply according to His will. Invariably, however, and whatever the sequence of grace and human response, it starts with a heart to heart encounter … the believer and Christ. The door to Christ’s heart is always open with brightness, grandeur and bliss inside. But there is another door, the door to our own hearts, which, often jammed shut and with hinges rusted up with sin, must be opened and reopened, countless times maybe, in order for our hearts and His heart to touch. Continual repentance then is the oil of healing which keeps those hinges working. Eventually the door itself disappears in that perfect communion and union between Christ and the soul. As our Lord says in the Revelation of St. John:- “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” (Revelation 3:20)
So Christ and Zacchaeus walk off together happy arm in arm; doubtless with the crowd still grumbling and muttering behind them. Christ will come for them one day and we know that He comes daily for us, desiring also that we should repent, come home, sit down and eat at His Divine Table, the Altar of His Eucharistic Body and Blood. This poem by George Herbert expresses this truth beautifully. It is what Zacchaeus discovered to his great joy and it is our present and great privilege to know the same in this church.
“Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin,
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked anything.
‘A guest’, I answered, ‘worthy to be here.’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord, but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not’, says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down’, says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.