Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- Luke’s Gospel of Jesus (19:1-10) is getting us ever closer to Jerusalem and Jesus’ passion, and we have just had the last of his three predictions of his passion and death which left the disciples utterly uncomprehending as to its meaning. Yet a small ray of light shines in the gloom of our incapacity to fathom Jesus, with the account of his encounter with the tax collector Zacchaeus. Perhaps Zacchaeus stands as an emblem for all of us who have lost the plot or appear quite unworthy of the Kingdom, and yet, and yet.
For Zacchaeus is not just any common old tax man, but as Luke is at pains to point out, the ‘chief’ tax collector of the area, and therefore very rich and extremely powerful. We must suppose he had his own army of sub collectors and their enforcers, and was probably something like the head of the Mafia in Southern Italy. He was feared, and tremendously important and dangerous, and also loathed by those from whom he extracted so much money. Now the very idea that such a man would run to try to see Jesus, or that he would climb a tree as a solution to his height issues, would have caused much mirth to the hearers of the Gospel in a society in which important men definitely neither ran nor climbed trees, and usually ripped you off; since this was the duty of slaves and underlings, and our man’s loss of face would have been monumental. Yet this is precisely what happened! So compelling was Zacchaeus’ curiosity, so determined was he simply to ‘see’ Jesus, that he throws aside his dignity, counting it as nothing in this once in a lifetime chance and, as we shall see, it completely changes his life.
Jesus does not merely acknowledge his presence, as perhaps the crowd might grudgingly have expected him to do, he does the unthinkable by inviting himself to stay, clearly intending to spend the night and eat at this ostracised, unclean and defiled man’s home and thereby making himself defiled, unclean and outside the law. The point is that God has reached out to this terrible sinner, prompting a change in his thinking and lifestyle quite as powerful as in that of St Paul’s transformation, and he has responded. In response to this great act of grace on the part of Jesus, and in the face of the crowd’s justifiable criticism, Zacchaeus is able to fling aside his past life in a gesture of crazy, unparalleled gift, in which he beggars himself to restore and make rich those he had previously defrauded. According to the Jewish law in Leviticus 6:5, those who defrauded should repay the principle plus one fifth. Zacchaeus goes wildly beyond the bounds of the law. What an unfathomable action, almost crazy or obscene in its lavishness, and done in response to one whose entire life and mission, as we have followed it in Luke seems heaven-bent on treading on as many corns as he possibly can, one whose own life is an outpouring of himself for the world. Zacchaeus, Christ-like in his self-giving, has taken wings and has been redeemed!
Our Reading from Wisdom (11:22-12:2) is very instructive as to what is going on here. It speaks of God as the universal creator, saying “You love all that exists, you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence, for had you hated anything, you would not have formed it. And how, had you not willed it, could a thing persist, how be conserved if not called forth by you? You spare all things because all things are yours, Lord, lover of life, you whose imperishable spirit is in all. Little by little, therefore you correct those who offend.”
Generally speaking, we, so of the world, have things the wrong way round. We think that by reason or something else, we appreciate our wrong-doing and come to repentance. Actually, Wisdom and our Gospel see it quite differently. Indeed, so compelling is the desire created in Zacchaeus merely to see Jesus, that casting aside all his past life and its dignities, he behaves quite out of character, meets the Lord, and is utterly astounded by grace when Our Lord invites himself to dine and stay over, in defiance of how he ought to have behaved. Indeed, who could not respond in kind to such divinely bestowed charity? It is the charity of Jesus which then prompts Zacchaeus’ to turn his life upside down for Christ.
All this of course leaves us with some very uncomfortable ideas. For if God is so powerful, and his grace so compelling, we have to accept that his love will ultimately transfigure the lives of not merely our crummy selves, but the likes of Mr Assad and the men who fight for So Called Islamic State too.
Perhaps we can only leave the last word to Paul (2 Thessalonians 1:11-22) “We pray continually that our God will make you worthy of his call, and by his power fulfil all your desires for goodness and complete all that you have been doing through faith, because in this way the name of our lord Jesus Christ will be glorified in you and you in him, by the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is Christ who brings us to God, he who transfigures our lives and brings us to glory in his own being. The first and the last move is always His.