The name Jericho means “fragrant.” And, in fact, at the time of Jesus, there was in Jericho a very lucrative business in the production and export of balsam. This means that Zacchaeus, one of the chief tax collectors, will have been an important and wealthy figure. Even so, he will have been detested as a traitor and as corrupt by the local people, despite the fact that his name means “pure.” Tax collectors worked for the Romans and were known to pocket a considerable slice of their takings. They enjoyed wealth only at the expense of their reputation and their peace of soul.
Given the status of Zacchaeus, you would have thought that he might turn up on the scene in today’s Gospel on a horse or camel, or being carried on a high chair by slaves. Instead, his behaviour is bizarre. He is literally skulking around, on his own, probably risking his safety by being near the crowd. He was lucky that they were distracted by the famous carpenter from Nazareth. The Gospel tells us that he runs to the sycamore tree and climbs it. It tells us that Zacchaeus was “anxious” to catch a glimpse of Jesus and to see “what kind of man” he was.
It seems to me from the way Zacchaeus is behaving that there’s something else going on inside him. He must have been sick of being “Mr. Unpopular.” Possibly, he was tiring of his wealth in the face of the social isolation it had brought him and the moral misery of his soul. Maybe he was beginning to feel guilty. He will have heard about Jesus long before now; he will have heard that Jesus had even called another tax collector, Matthew, to be one of his closest companions. So, maybe Zacchaeus was thinking that, after all, there might still be a chance for him, to redeem himself and get out of the prison his life-choices had built around him.
St. Luke never fails to mention the crowd hanging around Jesus. He also repeatedly makes clear that Jesus is never seduced by the crowd and its adulation. I imagine that, walking in the crowd, Jesus will have heard them mutter and mumble about Zacchaeus. “What’s that fool doing up that tree ahead of us?” might well have been a snide remark Jesus overheard. No doubt, plenty of detail was given as to the sins of Zacchaeus by the “righteous” in the crowd.
But Jesus retains his redemptive eye for the individual. Hearing what he heard, I imagine he realised he could not pass Zacchaeus by. Just as Zacchaeus was anxious to see Jesus, Jesus “had to” see Zacchaeus. So, Zacchaeus, who was so used to people walking past him, ignoring him, spitting at him and calling him for everything, is suddenly the unique object of the loving attention of Jesus. Jesus stops beneath him, looks up at him and, wonder of wonders, speaks to him! And what he says is not more of the same abuse he usually got, but an urgent invitation. You would think it should have been Zacchaeus to invite Jesus to his home, but instead Jesus invites himself into the home of Zacchaeus. Remember how it is said of St. John at the foot of the Cross that, after Jesus intervened, John made a place for Mary in his home: that is, in his heart and soul, in his life.
It is worthwhile pondering the exact words of Jesus: “Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I must stay at your house today.” Firstly, Jesus calls him by name. I wonder how long it had been since anyone called him by name in friendship or love. Secondly, come down. Don’t stay aloof from me. I became of the earth to raise you to heaven. But you must first leave your pride, the pride of that first tree, and join me on the earth so that I can lead you upwards. Hurry! Salvation brooks no delays. Jesus is impatient to redeem and heal. Why? Because Jesus “has to” (“must”) stay (not pass through) from now on in Zacchaeus. That “has to” is common in the Gospel when Jesus is talking about fulfilling his mission of salvation from the Father. He simply must save Zacchaeus. The word “today” on the lips of Jesus also means much more than a period of 24 hours: it is the “today” of salvation. It is the eternal today, the unending Day of resurrection and heaven.
For his part, Zacchaeus does not look down at Jesus, after having now had a glimpse of him, and wave him on. “On yer bike, you!” as we might put it here. This is proof that his anxiety was not the mere curiosity of Herod who only wanted to see Jesus to witness a miracle. The anxiety of Zacchaeus was for this encounter of salvation. The Gospel notes that, in response to Jesus, Zacchaeus “hurries down.” He had hurried up the tree out of anxiety. He now hurried down from it in obedience to Jesus. The hurriedness of guilt had become the haste of conversion.
The Gospel then tells us that Zacchaeus “welcomed him with joy.” His heart had been hungry for that joy. The heart of Jesus was hungry to give that joy. The welcome of Zacchaeus to Jesus reflected the welcome Jesus gave to Zacchaeus, to his deepest person, like the embrace given to the prodigal son. It was the divine warmth of acceptance which banished the frozen alienation of the sinner.
We have all seen those adverts on television and elsewhere in which there is a picture of someone “before”, then a picture of them “after.” In between, the person has supposedly taken some magical vitamin, diet or exercise regime, transforming them from, let us say, Joe Flabbelly to Joe Sixpack. In the case of Zacchaeus, the transformation takes place in that deep and welcoming embrace of salvation from Jesus. One minute he is the guilt-ridden, grasping misfit. The next, he is the forgiven sinner who has become generous and just to a fault, and most probably restored once more to his community. While his name Zacchaeus, “pure”, had been a joke beforehand, it was now his truest identity. True conversion is seen in the sincerity of action and reaction, in the joy experienced. In some manner or other, Zacchaeus has become “filled with grace.” And we all know who it is of whom St. Luke earlier says that!
In the light of this exchange between himself and Zacchaeus, Jesus now proclaims in solemn fashion the meaning of it all: “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.” Jesus is recognising the faith of Zacchaeus, for the sons of Abraham are those who believe in Jesus. But Jesus goes further: as Son of Man, he is telling the crowd that he is the Judge of humanity. Precisely because he is so, he has come to look for the lost to save them from final condemnation. Jesus will not have this episode reduced to a “nice story.” No, it falls within the deadly serious reality of sin, judgment and salvation. The fragrant balsam of the mercy of Jesus had purified Zacchaeus from sin, a purification which cost the Son of Man the blood of the Cross.
When is the today of salvation for you and me? This is it. Today, Jesus stops, looks and speaks to us. Today he must stay at your house. So, defy the crowd, defy the inner prison which your sins may have built around you, defy the fear you may have of some group or crowd or other. Let Jesus liberate you from who you think, or thought, you might be, to become who you are in his sight. For you, too, are sons and daughters of Abraham.