by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town. Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said, "Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house." And he came down quickly and received him with joy. When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, "He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner." But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "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." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost."
We all know that we are supposed to find ourselves in certain Gospel scenes. In reading Our Lord’s parables, for example, we understand that we are to identify with certain characters — the prodigal son, the merchant in search of pearls, the importunate widow, etc. But since Our Lord in His providence writes history as well, we should find ourselves also in the characters He encounters in His public ministry. To apply St. Paul’s words from another context: “These things happened as examples for us” (1 Cor 10:6). In the historical figures that appear in the history of Our Lord’s life we find ourselves — what we are, and what we ought to be. Zacchaeus serves as a good case study (cf. Lk 19:1-10). We find in him our faults, our potential and our calling.
Zacchaeus reveals, first of all, something rather unflattering about us. He was a chief tax collector — an unpopular figure in any culture, but even worse in his. The arrangement with Rome was such that the local tax collector had great latitude and would typically collect more than the empire required and keep the surplus for himself. In a word, he was a thief — taking what was not rightly his. And so are we, because our vanity is a form of theft. We take the glory that rightly belongs to God and claim it as our own. The chief tax collector must have put himself forward as a figure of some prominence. So also we push God out of the way and put ourselves forward — robbing Him of the honor that is rightly His.
And as Zacchaeus was “short in stature,” so are we — spiritually. Small in the sense of being peevish and petulant — childish. We insist on our own way from God and sulk when we do not get it. This smallness, however, can be turned to our advantage. In humbly acknowledging it, we can “turn and become like children” (Mt 18:3). We can convert from childish ways and become childlike: simple, trusting, willing to be small.
We have to imagine Zacchaeus’ conversion to get a sense of what ours must be. As chief tax collector he must have carried himself as a man of notoriety and importance. That little man probably looked down on a lot of people. His inability to see Jesus thus would have shocked him and made him painfully aware of his small stature — both physically and spiritually. On the basis of that realization he humbles himself: He climbs the tree. Because what could be more humiliating for a grown man, for the big man around town, than to have to climb a tree?
Like Zacchaeus we carry ourselves with an outward show of importance and greatness, when really we are quite small. Our conversion begins when, like him, we acknowledge our littleness and that we need help seeing Jesus. Because children cannot see in a crowd. So — we need to climb a tree. The tree we must climb is the cross. We do so by humbling ourselves before Our Lord crucified, ascending in affection and adoration from His pierced feet to His sacred head. Or, put another way, as St. Rose of Lima says, “Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.” The cross thus becomes both the tree and the ladder by which we humble ourselves, becoming like children and ascending to see Jesus.
Following Zacchaeus in this repentance and humility, we will then hear with him the words of Our Lord: “Today I must stay at your house.” In our case, however, the “house” is our souls, in which Jesus comes to dwell and to rejoice.
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