November 3, 2013
It might seem that today’s Gospel is about the tax collector, Zacchaeus. But it’s not. Zacchaeus is not the main character. Jesus is. And it is only when we understand this truth that an important focus of our own life comes into view. Now Zacchaeus, of course, has a role to play in the story. But it is not a particularly noble or pivotal one. Zacchaeus does not seem to be a holy or religious person. He certainly is not a popular person. His role as tax collector sets him at odds with his fellow Jews. There is nothing in the story that indicates Zacchaeus had the intention to follow Jesus. It simply says he was seeking to see who Jesus was. Zacchaeus seems to be more attracted to Jesus’ fame than to his teaching. The Gospel also tells us that Jesus planned simply to walk through the city. Therefore, Zacchaeus’ plan was only to climb up in a tree, so that he could see the famous rabbi as he and his entourage passed by. For Zacchaeus, seeing Jesus was more a diversion than a spiritual journey, more a curiosity than a commitment.
But this is what makes Jesus the main character. Jesus stops, looks up, and calls Zacchaeus by name. He then informs the bewildered tax collector that it is no longer his intention to simply pass through Jericho but that he is going to stay at Zacchaeus’ house that day. In that moment everything changes. The distant observer is invited into a personal relationship. The curious onlooker becomes the host of the Lord. What was going to be just a break from a busy day of tax collecting becomes the beginning of a new life. Without any expectation, and without any striving on Zacchaeus’ part, he becomes a new man—all because Jesus calls him by name.
A central aspect of our relationship to Christ comes from these Zacchaeus moments. And the older we are, the more of them we can see. We sign up for a course at school and we are not even sure we want to take it. But something connects us with the teacher and in time we realize that history or medicine or oceanography is going to be our career. An old friend calls us unexpectedly to go out for a beer. We are not sure we want to do it, but we go. We meet some people, take a phone number, and then realize we have found our future spouse. People in our neighborhood organize a small group to do service for the holidays in a hunger center. We do not think much about it, and we go along. But as we see the line of homeless people coming one by one and taking a plate of hot food from our hands, we realize that from now on a part of our time, a part of our skill, a part of ourselves will be dedicated to issues of poverty in our city. These are Zacchaeus moments, when we thought we were only going to observe, to go along for the ride, to give just an hour or so of our time. But we then discover that Jesus has some very different in mind.
In these Zacchaeus moments we are surprised but we are also blessed because in these times Jesus takes us deeper, and we receive a clearer view of our future and a deeper knowledge about ourselves. In these moments it becomes clear that God has a plan for our life and that that plan emerges in surprising ways.
So there is nothing wrong with planning your life. There is nothing inappropriate with deciding from day to day, “I’m going to do a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” But today’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus has a plan for our life as well. At any moment he can look up and say to us, “Come down. I intend to stay with you today.”