31st SUNDAY ORDINARY TIME
30th OCTOBER 2016.
Luke 19: 1-10
Tony van Vuuren
The whole picture of God that emerges through today’s readings is a picture of someone who understands the frailty of human nature, someone who never loses sight of our potential for holiness in spite of various kinds of sinfulness. And this is the image of God that Jesus projected, very deliberately and purposefully, in his own ministry –as a Father who sent his Son, “to seek out and save the lost”; as we see in the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus was a wealthy man and a senior tax-collector. That means that he was somebody who had been prepared to sacrifice his religious principles and his membership of the Jewish community to work for the Romans and increase his own wealth.
But in spite of these apostasies, which mean having rebelled against God, it turns out that Zacchaeus wasn’t someone who was completely closed to God. Luke doesn’t give us any great psychological explanation as to why Zacchaeus was curious about Jesus. He doesn’t tell us whether Christ noticed something special about Zacchaeus’ attitude that suggested a sort of openness to his message. There must have been more to Zacchaeus’ meeting with Christ, which had such a huge impact on him, than we’re told in these few lines.
The important thing though is that after receiving Christ as a guest in his house, Zacchaeus turned his life around. He gives away half of his property to the poor and pays back the people he’s cheated four times the amount he took from them in the first place. Jesus describes these concrete actions as the coming of salvation in Zacchaeus’ life.
There are two aspects to this salvation that comes to Zacchaeus. One aspect is what we might call restoration. The relationship between God and Zacchaeus, which had been lost, is now restored. The relationship between Zacchaeus and the rest of the community of believers is restored. That comes about because Zacchaeus repairs his relationship with the people he’s cheated in the past: he wipes out the wrong he’s done by paying them back four times as much as he took from them in the first place.
The story of Zacchaeus’ restoration reminds me of a statement made by an Italian survivor of the Nazi concentration camps when talking about the Nazis who expressed sorrow afterwards for what they had done, He said that for him “verbal repentance is not enough”; genuine repentance means “a person has to show by their actions that they are no longer the person they were”.
This was what Zacchaeus did. His turn around; his change of heart, his conversion, could hardly have been more spontaneous, more sincere, more complete. He showed by his actions that he was no longer the man he’d been. And when harmony is restored between people in that way, Jesus called it ‘salvation’.
The second aspect of the salvation that’s at work in this incident is what we might call liberation. In the Bible, and in our Christian theology, the idea of salvation always carried with it the meaning of being delivered, or freed, from slavery – and Zacchaeus is freed in a very obvious way from the slavery of accumulating money, which up till this point had been the main goal of his life.
Earlier on in his gospel Luke has already given us an example of somebody who wasn’t able to take this step – the rich young man, who wasn’t necessarily a sinner, but ‘went away sad’ rather than parting with any of his wealth. He didn’t experience his meeting with Christ or hear the gospel message, as liberation. He experienced it as a sacrifice which he wasn’t prepared to make.
Zacchaeus is a counterbalance to the young man. Jesus’ visit to his house left him more than willing to give up the lesser good of his wealth for the greater good of being reconciled with God. And on this one occasion at least, Christ’s preference for the company of people who were outside the boundaries of the religious Law was vindicated.
There is so much enlightenment and comfort for us in this story of Jesus, “going in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” We see Jesus for what he was and still is, ‘the friend of sinners’, and therefore our friend. Our understanding, compassionate, and forgiving friend! Our friend who is there when others fail or desert us! The one who helps and heals when others only criticize and condemn! The one who never gives up on us, never despairs of us! The one who waits patiently for us to change our lives, and who allows us time to do so!
The one, in short, who loves us with an everlasting love, an everlasting forgiving love, an everlasting healing love, and an everlasting transforming love!
Just like Zacchaeus, then, let us welcome Jesus, into our lives and into our home, knowing and trusting what a difference he will make, as he brings to us his precious gift of salvation! Life for us will undoubtedly still have its challenges and temptations, but what an easier journey it will be for us if we answer His knock on the door. There is no handle on His side.
There is something we must always remember about God. On the one hand, He takes us as we are; He overlooks our faults and sins in His desire to restore our friendship with Him. But on the other hand He never leaves us as we are, and it’s only when a fundamental turning-around has taken place in our lives that Jesus will announce the arrival of salvation.