What would you see up a tree?
Thirty-First Sunday of the Year. Fr Brendan Slevin contrasts the new sight Zacchaeus is granted with the blindness of today’s politics.
I don’t know what it’s like elsewhere in the world but here in sunny Scotland our television news bulletins have daily coverage of a certain presidential election. The pictures are like many election campaigns, crowds of people trying to get close to their candidate or just wanting a glimpse of him.
In many ways that image is similar to the one we get in this passage from Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is on the campaign trail passing through Jericho, the crowds engulfing him. Zacchaeus comes along desperate to see Jesus but he is shut out by the crowd; being ‘small of stature’ he even finds it impossible to see over their heads. Zacchaeus, rather than give up, runs ahead to find a way of seeing Jesus and so ends up perched on a tree.
It is here that this image diverts dramatically from any political rally. From the depth of the crowd Jesus calls to Zacchaeus ‘make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ Well this would be the end of any political career. Of all the people crowding round why on earth would you choose Zacchaeus? A rich man known to be less than honest — a sinner. Zacchaeus comes down from his perch and greets Jesus joyfully. The crowd, on the other hand, are less than joyful. They are shocked. They cannot understand why Jesus would choose him and not one of the more respectable men in the crowd. They knew Zacchaeus and had passed judgement on him. They have now seen Jesus and they are no longer sure about him.
But when Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name he is immediately filled with joy. All Zacchaeus had wanted was to see this man Jesus; what he gets is a gift far greater than his wildest dreams. He is called by his name. Remember what it says in Isaiah 43.1:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
From this moment Zacchaeus belongs to the Lord. It is a moment of conversion; the Lord has come near to him and will stay with him.
Paul wrote to the Thessalonians:
To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his call.
Well Zacchaeus has come face to face with Jesus, he has been called by Jesus and the result is an immediate transformation of life, the Lord has made him worthy of his call.
The story that precedes this one in Luke’s Gospel tells of a blind man receiving his sight because of his faith. In this story a blindness of a different sort is at play.
Zacchaeus is drawn to Jesus. He can not catch sight of him because of the crowd and receives no help from the crowd. Alone he takes himself away from the others and struggles up a tree to wait for him to pass. Jesus calls him; comes to his aid. Instead of being a spectator on the fringes Zacchaeus now finds himself at the centre of events with Jesus. The crowd cannot comprehend this; they can see no good reason for Jesus calling Zacchaeus. He, on the other hand, can not only see Jesus but can also see the folly of how he has lived his life and immediately begins to mend his ways. The eyes of faith rekindled in a man who was lost.
It is unfortunate that this image we are left with is so far removed from the image of the political campaign trail. Perhaps we cannot hope for anything else — the Kingdom Christ promises us is so at odds with the world of power politics and wealth. Faith in God may at times be used as a slogan to win a few votes but the blindness remains.
And yet Zacchaeus did not expect his life to change in an instant. The crowd did not expect the wealthy sinner to be chosen by the holy man. We probably do not think that our lives will dramatically change for the better, that we will suddenly see the errors of our ways and immediately be transformed into a better person. But who knows what wonders the Lord might do for us.
Perhaps what we need is to escape from the noise and bustle of the crowd, find a quiet spot, perhaps up a tree, and there in the stillness of our heart listen to that call which comes from God: ‘I must stay with you tonight.’ Perhaps then, just perhaps, we too might come to believe it. We might at long last see the path we should walk and there with Zacchaeus and all the other children of Abraham we might once more walk with our God.