ZACCHAEUS THE PUBLICAN
Before approaching Jerusalem in His last trip to it, Jesus entered and passed through Jericho, where He was surrounded by "an innumerable multitude of people" (Luke 12:1). Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature [Luke 19:2-3]. Publicans were tax collectors, who worked for the Roman administration. In every region, tax collectors were grouped in gangs, and every gang had a chief who pledged to pay Rome the fixed tax of the entire region, and who distributed the responsibilities upon his assistants. The fixed sum [tax], was then collected from individuals, in a way that, many (or all) the citizens were defrauded. The difference between, what the publican collected and between what he was due to pay to the government, went to his private pocket. This 'acumen' of theft, was a common matter in Palestine, in a sense that — the word publican — was always associated to the extortion of the collectors. It was not accepted from an appointed collector, to prove incapable of paying.
Why did Zacchaeus sought to see the Prophet from Galilee? Maybe, at first, this was out of his curiosity. Maybe, he was attracted to Him, for another reason. The Book does not mention if he wanted to have a conversation with the Lord. But, being of short stature, he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for Jesus was going to pass that way [Luke 19:4]. Zacchaeus wanted to lift the 'barrier', which was preventing him from seeing the Master. He must have heard that Jesus was socialising with publicans and sinners, which meant that He was breaking the instructions of the fanatic religious party, known as the 'Pharisees'. The same Pharisees who use to mock the disciples that their Master was eating with the tax collectors [Mark 2:16], because He did not follow the 'line of righteousness', which they drew themselves, and considered it to be the 'Divine Righteousness'. Their personal diligence was set equivalent to the Divine Word, but Jesus was setting a great difference between the Divine Word and the human tradition [custom]. Possibly the evangelist, in including this incident in the context of the Passions of the Lord, wanted to give emphasis to the aggravation of the confrontation between Jesus and the leaders of the religious conviction.
And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house." [Luke 19:5]. This is the only time, in which Jesus goes beyond the casual socialising in the streets with the tax collectors, to set up — with specifically this publican — a closer relation, going far beyond the 'rules of purity', which were set by the Pharisees. "I must stay at your house "— in this statement, there is a determination for salvation, an initiative plan of salvation. For Luke, this is an echo of Paul's teaching: "by grace you have been saved" [Eph 2:5], and later in John: "God first loved us." [1John 4:19]. Saint Luke is building a theological foundation, upon what seems to appear simple.
The Lord says: "make haste and come down", and the evangelist adds, "so he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully." Why did he accept Him without hesitating? Is it the Middle Eastern hospitality? Did he feel that something is much greater than the speech of a regular man, who is inviting himself — if such, could be said — to a stranger's house? The Pharisees complained because Jesus "has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner." [Luke 19:7]. Jesus refuses to appreciate righteousness, as a result of severance, discrimination, or boasting. He knows a reason for a contact, and establishes a relationship. God — as Jesus the Nazarene understands — is in a perpetual state of relationship, hugging and adjoining. In His undergoing the baptism of John, which was set for the sinners, Jesus equates Himself with the sinners, because He undertakes what He did not need. The Saviour amalgamates Himself, with those who are called to salvation. This is the density of fusion.
The two men met at the sycamore tree, Zacchaeus said to the Lord: "Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold." [Luke 19:8]. A miraculous encounter, which can never be understood through basic psychology, for the first instance. An 'earthquake' trampled the collector's inner soul. Zacchaeus' soul was deeply shaken, as a result of this trampling meeting between the Perfect Righteousness and the long-nesting sin. Instantly, the time of falling froze, and the fall was wiped away. Zacchaeus becomes a 'new breed', initiated through God's light. The 'coming back home', is always a coming back to the very Face of God, through the grace of the Master.
What we have here, is the ultimate acknowledgement of a sinful past, and a courageous and sincere confession. The man, after living in the riches of life, gives half of his money away. A decision completely uninfluenced by the future, independent from maintaining a standard of life and expenditure (on which he was accustomed). A proclamation, openly confessing his false accusations and unfairness: He restores fourfold to anyone, who he has taken from by false accusation. What will remain for him, from his fortune, at the end? What will guaranty the future, for Zacchaeus and his family, a future that may be many years long?
This man was assumed into another existence, into a new life that does not make any calculations from our world, into a life ingrained in the madness of love. It is then, that Jesus said to him: "Today salvation has come to this house", for Salvation does not know stages, and does not always need instruction. Salvation falls upon the repentant like the lightning, because it is a new process of creation. Days after this incident, when the Lord was hung on the tree, He will say to the thief: "today you will be with Me in Paradise." [Luke 23:43]. Love erases all your wickedness and elevates you to the higher steps of vision and co-habitation.
After all this has been said to the man, the Saviour adds, "because he also is a son of Abraham" in a way that Zacchaeus has became, through renewed faith, a son to the 'father of all believers'. Again, this also recalls St. Paul's theology: "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness."[Rom.4: 3]. In the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus rejects the Jews of being the sons of Abraham: They have rejected the orthodox faith by denouncing Christ. "Son of Abraham" — this announcement enabled Zacchaeus to become one of His favourites — because "those who had not obtained mercy will have mercy", as Hosea said [Hos.2: 23]. And those, who were under the curse of the law, were blessed for they have become brethren of Him, of whom it was written: "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree" [Gal. 3:13]. All those rejected of this world, through love, become brethren of Jesus, "for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost." [Luke 19:10].
Again and again, we are in front of the Divine initiative in saving humankind. Jesus orders the ear to open that the deaf may listen, and the eye to see, in order that the 'inner being' may be consequently formed. "To seek that which was lost"... The word 'lost', in the context of the Greek origin, means the one who was terminally and finally lost. As to say, despite our conscious insistence on sinning, nothing can stop the mercy from changing our human heart.
Maybe, the best of what the Gospel has — is that all those who were neglected by this world, handicapped, possessed, impoverished, torn apart by sin, corrupted until the total loss of sense and discernment, oppressed, and exploited by a tyrant — all those are the friends of Jesus the Nazarene, healing their bodies and healing their hearts. Him, who Neitche mocked in his search for the superior-human, His glory was in the history of humankind according to what the poet said: "Mercifulness was born the day Isa was born."
The vulnerable who were touched by the tenderness of Christ, and those who learned patience from His cross, are much greater, than those who were glorified, by the beauty of their bodies and the intelligence of their minds and despised the lowly and sick of the earth.
Probably, the most dangerous part, is when the pure ones may start boast and judge those who trespassed. God will bring low all who boast.
Blessed are those, who were able to become humble, after they sinned; and blessed are those who were able to repent, in the pursuit of the Joy, which springs forth from the purity.
"Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, And whose sins are covered" [Rom.4: 7], because of the tenderness of the forgivers.
Published January 30, 1999 in the © An-Nahar, Lebanese news paper (http://www.annahar.com.lb/htd/pdfed2.html)—Translated from Arabic