Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time (C) | Fr Lawrence Lew reflects on the openness to God’s friendship that alone can bring us true happiness.
Wealth, it is often thought, can buy us happiness and status; men and women strive after money not because it has any intrinsic worth but because of what we hope to gain with it. Hence the Gospel introduces us to Zacchaeus, a man that we’re explicitly told was a wealthy man, who had made his fortune, it seems, from being a senior tax collector in Jericho, a town made rich by the production and export of a precious perfume known as balsam. However, Zacchaeus’s wealth does not appear to have won him either status or satisfaction in life. His shortness of stature suggests the former, so nobody in the crowd respects him enough to part and let him through. He has no friends to help him up so Zacchaeus, a self-made man, has to help himself and climb the sycamore tree alone. Money does not buy him affection nor respect nor friendship.
On the other hand, we’re also told that Zacchaeus is anxious to see Jesus, which tells us that he longs to see God; he longs for happiness. For as St Augustine famously said, “our hearts are restless until they rest in God”. We each experience a profound human desire to know the truth, to love the good, and to behold beauty, so Zacchaeus, in his anxiety and strivings to see Jesus, thus stands for everyman who is restlessly seeking God. His wealth, again, brings only transient happiness, a counterfeit joy that neither lasts nor truly satisfies. For only the vision of God brings peace to the human heart, but only in heaven can one see God face to face, hence only in heaven shall all our strivings cease. Until then, Zacchaeus has to strive and climb to see Jesus.
The Gospel also makes it explicit that Zacchaeus is a sinner, or at least, that was his reputation – such was the lot of all tax collectors and, many would say even today, the warranted judgement of the wealthy. But God sees beyond appearances, and he knows the goodness in the human heart. So, some commentators think that Zacchaeus, whose name means ‘pure’ was one whose heart was pure and intent on seeking God. For did Jesus not say that the pure in heart are blessed for they shall see God? (cf Mt 5:8) Hence, Zacchaeus indeed sees God, for Christ stops and looks up at him in the sycamore tree. On the other hand, even if Zacchaeus had committed sins of avarice, the Lord knows the potential of the human heart to be converted and saved by his presence, his gracious look of love. So, as Wisdom says, God overlooks “men’s sins so that they can repent.” Hence, overlooking Zacchaeus’s limitations and sins, Christ looks at Zacchaeus and calls out to him, “Come down”. This is to say, God calls us to humble ourselves before him. The wealthy self-made man struggles with humility which is why Jesus tests the purity of Zacchaeus’s intention by calling him down. For anyone who desires to see God and to be heard by God must first humble himself, as we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel.
Jesus then declares that he must stay with Zacchaeus, that is to say, the Lord is in need of his hospitality. In this way we see the humility of God who became Man so as to dwell among us, and we see, too, the mercy of God, for Jesus was only passing through Jericho but on account of Zacchaeus’s need he wills to remain and stay with him. So it is that God befriends sinners and all who call upon him with humble hearts: he lingers and stays with us, seeking out those who are lost in sin and vice but whose hearts fundamentally are still looking for God, for happiness, for the peace that the world cannot give. Hence, “today salvation has come to this house”.
For something vital has happened when Zacchaeus opens up his house and his heart to the Lord. While the onlookers complain and murmur against God’s mercy, Jesus is busy doing what he does – mercifully seeking out and saving the lost. Thus Christ has come to befriend Zacchaeus and so to lead him to repentance. As we hear in Wisdom: “Little by little, therefore, you correct those who offend, you admonish and remind them of how they have sinned, so that they may abstain from evil and trust in you, Lord.”
This, surely, is why Jesus, in his wisdom, goes to Zacchaeus’s house: to show him that he trusts Zacchaeus, and is in need of his hospitality. Thus, by extending his hand to Zacchaeus in friendship, the friendless tax-collector is enabled by this grace to respond likewise; his heart is opened up by God’s love. So Zacchaeus responds with a gesture of genuine repentance, for his actions reveal a deep change of heart, a recognition that wealth is useless if it is not put at the service of others; if it is not used to restore justice and to lift up the common good. Happiness in this life, indeed, comes from such acts of love. Thus Zacchaeus is saved not by his wealth, nor by any earthly commodity, but through being loved by Christ and by his love for others. These bring a peace and lasting joy that no earthly fortune can obtain.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a stained glass window in St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City.