By: Fr. James Gross
There’s a popular saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” But thank goodness that God pays close attention to the “small stuff.” We see a demonstration of this in the wonderful encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus in today’s Gospel.
I contend that there are two equally important characters besides Jesus in this Gospel: Zacchaeus and “the crowd.” Now how, you may be asking, can a crowd be considered a character? Consider the following points and I think you’ll see what I mean.
Zacchaeus hears that Jesus is passing through his town of Jericho. But since the Lord has already been carrying out his public ministry for quite some time, the size of the group accompanying him is large and his reputation precedes him. This huge mass of humanity stands between Zacchaeus and Jesus. All of us as individuals have a “crowd” standing in our way, insofar as there’s an obstacle preventing us from seeing and speaking with the Lord Jesus. Have we allowed the noise of the world and far less important activities to fill our ears? Have we placed our trust in voices in the media who deride the Christian life and give an example contrary to the Gospel? What if we were to turn them off, or somehow get around them? Would we not immediately experience greater confidence in God’s mercy and greater peace of mind?
So Zacchaeus gets a clever idea. He sees a sycamore tree right along the Lord’s path, and decides to climb it to get closer to him. Perhaps it looked ridiculous for a grown man to do such a thing, but at that moment, Zacchaeus did not care at all about what his actions looked like to anyone else. His getting a better vantage point is very logical. NASCAR would never televise a race unless most of the cameras were mounted high above the track. The perspective one gets of the position of each car is far better than if one were to watch the whole race at road level.
Biblical scholars have compared this sycamore tree to the past life of Zacchaeus. A tree appears strong and sturdy, but it is more vulnerable than it looks. A strong windstorm can topple it. The blows of an ax can bring it down. Worms and diseases can ravage it from within. So it was for Zacchaeus’s life and career. He appeared well-to-do and secure. But his wealth came through corruption. His short stature was something that could not be helped, but Zacchaeus was morally small. Habitually he had refused to swim against the tide of greed. For years he thought more about doing what was profitable than doing what was right. And in some mysterious way, the voice of his conscience finally broke through. Zacchaeus saw what seemed like a rich life to be an empty shell, and it was time to get a new start.
The surprise comes in Jesus’ eagerness and boldness in inviting himself to Zacchaeus’s home. The worst Zacchaeus could do was to say no. But Jesus knew that this man was hungering for the chance to wipe his slate clean and give his life a new purpose. All he needed was a little push in that direction.
Here the crowd rises up again. “Why is Jesus going to the house of a sinner? There’d be plenty of decent people he could visit in Jericho! Why is he wasting his time with that lousy tax collector?” Zacchaeus can definitely feel the hostility of the crowd. But he doesn’t say, “Listen, Jesus, they’re right about me. You might as well not even bother.” Instead he gives proof of his commitment to conversion. “Whatever I need to fix in my dealings with the community, I’m willing here and now to make it right.” In his promise to pay back four-fold what he may have stolen, Zacchaeus reminds us of a precept in the Law of Moses, in which those found guilty of theft would as restitution have to give to the victim four times as much as they had stolen. And this attitude causes Jesus to make one of the grandest, most beautiful statements we’ve ever heard from him. “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Maybe we think that we are too small and insignificant to show up on God’s radar screen. The Word of God tells us to reject this lie. The author of the Book of Wisdom proclaims in our first reading that, although God made the universe and all it contains, He shows great mercy to each and every person who depends upon it. One could say that we need to become small by humbling ourselves, rebuking our sins, and drawing upon God’s grace, if God is to do great things in our lives.
I had the great joy of spending some time Friday and Saturday at an event in Bismarck called the Thirst Conference. Thousands of people, young and old alike, have taken over the Bismarck Civic Center for a wonderful program of Mass, prayer, and talks, with confessions available and many vendors on hand selling Catholic goods. The very name “Thirst” suggests that the participants don’t see themselves as flawless human beings. They have tasted the love of Jesus and the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit, and they are thirsting for more. Some of the folks there have more in common with Zacchaeus than we may think. But we didn’t see each other through the lens of our past. We saw each other in the present tense, endeavoring to love one another as Christ loves us.
Consider for a moment how it felt when the scene of our Lord’s gracious gesture unfolded in this Gospel. You were glad to hear Jesus being so warm and understanding in his dealings with Zacchaeus. You’d like to receive the same treatment if you were in his shoes, and you think you’re worthy of it. What makes us conclude that someone else may not be good enough? What’s more valuable: our own pride, or an immortal soul? Please don’t be like the crowd from today’s Gospel when Zacchaeus walks through our doors. When the Lord declares that “salvation has come to his house,” this is not reserved only to Zacchaeus or the privileged few. This gift is meant for everyone, great or small.