The Gospel passage for this coming Sunday offers us a familiar story—yet another one of the stories from the life of Jesus which is recorded in only one place, the “orderly account” that we have been following this year, which we know by custom and tradition as The Gospel according to Luke. (See https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/31/an-orderly-account-a-quick-guide-to-luke-and-acts/)
For Luke alone tells us about Zacchæus of Jericho—a man short of stature, but undoubtedly rich in money and possessions, if I read the text accurately. And an agile character, too—how many of us would be able to shimmy up the nearest syacamore tree so that we could see easily over the heads of the taller people standing in front of us?
At any rate, it is not the appearance, or wealth, or agility of Zacchæus that draws my attention as I hear again this story. It is, rather, in the words that he speaks, after he has seen, and interacted with, Jesus of Nazareth. Not only does Jesus stop and talk to Zacchæus, clinging bravely to the tree trunk, but he invites himself and his retinue to the house of Zacchæus, where they share a meal together.
And the words which Zacchæus speaks are words which should be ringing in our ears, today. “ I am a man of possessions”, he declares; and yet, “half of my possessions I will give to the poor”. He takes seriously what Jesus has just told the rich man a few verses back: sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven (18:22)—and, indeed, what he had instructed all who would follow him, in an earlier chapter: sell your possessions, and give alms; make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys (12:33).
In this regard, Jesus is being utterly faithful to his Jewish tradition, following the command of the lawgiver Moses, in Deut 15:7, if there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbour; and the words attributed to prophet Isaiah, in Isa 58:6-8, is this not the fast that I have chosen: … to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? ; and again, in words attributed to King Lemuel, in Proverbs 31:7, speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor.
Zacchaeus commits to acting with integrity. He follows a central teaching of his tradition. He will give to the poor.
But then, Zacchaeus commits to still more: “I am a man of means, wealth gained through my profession as a collector of taxes”, he affirms; and yet, “to those I have defrauded, I will repay fourfold”—going far beyond what had been commanded in the Law, according to Leviticus 6:2-5, when any of you sin and commit a trespass against the Lord by deceiving a neighbor in a matter of a deposit or a pledge, or by robbery, or if you have defrauded a neighbour … you shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it. Zacchaeus goes way beyond paying back 120%; he pledges to pay 400% to those he has defrauded. That is the radical economics of Jesus, and of Zacchaeus!
I will give my possessions to the poor; I will repay those I have defrauded. Serious words, signalling serious intent. And what are we to make of the fact that the story of Zacchæus was told and retold, remembered and written down, passed on through the early communities who followed Jesus, and retained in one of the key books of sacred scripture in the Christian church?
For myself, this surely indicates that Zacchæus was a man of his word, that Zacchæus carried out the intentions that he had signalled around that table in Jericho, with the man of Nazareth and his rag tag collection of Galilee fishermen and farmers, along with the women of means and capacity that Luke especially tells us were accompanying Jesus on this journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Zacchæus is worth remembering for various reasons, no doubt; a rather colourful character, in the midst of a whole host of followers of Jesus who blur together into a homogenous whole, who fade into obscurity as anonymous figures in the background as Jesus and his disciples, make and female, make their way to Jerusalem. Zacchæus, this colourful character, is remembered, his story is retold, his encounter with Jesus is remembered, and inscribed in scripture, because: he was willing to change his mind.
In Christian tradition, Zacchaeus is sometimes remembered as the patron saint of stewardship, teaching us how to look after our money, or the patron saint of humility, because he was prepared to come down from his vantage point up the tree. For myself, I want to follow the lead that the evangelist who wrote this Gospel offers us, and claim that Zacchæus is the patron saint of change and transition; or if you are not really into saints, then think of Zacchaeus as the role model supreme for being willing to change his mind.
Zacchaeus reminds us that an encounter with Jesus, an engagement with the Gospel, invites us—indeed, presses hard upon us—to change our minds, and our behaviour. Just think about what Zacchaeus does, in this story:
He comes down from his tree. He reaches out to a person passing by, whom he has just encountered. He was willing to be challenged, and accepted the invitation to deeper fellowship with the stranger from Nazareth.
He held his mind open to new possibilities and looked for the ways that he could transition into the kind of person God wanted him to be. He was willing to help those in desperate, destitute situations, and prepared to repay what he had falsely taken and to set forth in a new way of being.
So he looked to the road ahead, where the man of Nazareth was walking onwards, and stepped out in faith on the journey ahead. That’s what it took for Zacchaeus, the patron saint of change and transition!