I think when we hear the name Zacchaeus and remember his story we chuckle to ourselves. The most memorable part of the story is the image of Zacchaeus – a short, little, rich man who couldn’t see over the crowd – who climbs into a tree in order to see Jesus. But when his neighbors and the people in the crowd heard the name Zacchaeus they didn’t laugh. The initial description of him wasn’t about his height, it was about his job and social status. Scripture describes him as a chief tax collector and a wealthy man. In other words, Zacchaeus was a sinner. Not only was he a tax collector, he was a chief tax collector – tax collectors earned their living by collecting more taxes than the Romans demanded, as they got to keep the excess; as a chief tax collector, he probably would have also grafted from the other tax collector’s under his authority. His wealth came at the expense of Israel and benefited the foreign, pagan Romans. He was a man who betrayed his own people in order to grow rich. In the eyes of the other Israelites, he had no right to be interested in the preaching of a traveling holy man. By his entire manner of life he was a sinner; there was no conversion in his heart at this point. For all of his eagerness to see Jesus, Zacchaeus had done nothing to change his life.
So we see this short, comedic figure… those around him see a public, unrepentant sinner… but what does Jesus see? What is in the heart of Christ as he see this man? Go back to the first reading from the Book of Wisdom. “[Y]ou love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made… [Y]ou spare all things, because they are yours, O Lord and lover of souls.” Christ is the lover of souls! He looks at Zacchaeus in that tree with the eyes of the Creator, the eyes of one who has ever longed for the sinner to respond and to return his love… his love that so overwhelming that it is literally the cause of the very existence of the soul underneath it’s layer of sin. Christ looks at Zacchaeus and sees that his heart is beginning to open. He sees that he is awakening, and like anyone experiencing a newfound love, is willing to go to extremes to pursue it. Did you notice that Jesus didn’t ask to come to his house? Zacchaeus didn’t invite him either. Jesus says, “I must stay at your house.”… “I must stay.” This is extravagant language, there is something deeper here than Jesus being impressed by eagerness. And then, of course, the response of Zacchaeus goes beyond extravagant. He immediately gives up half of his possessions, and what he extorted from others he promises to pay back fourfold. Conversion is almost an understatement. This isn’t the response of someone who recognizes what is right and wrong, this is the response of someone who is touched by a loving God.
The Lord is the lover of souls. The reading from Wisdom says that before him “the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.” And yet, he is the lover of souls. He is the God that would enter into His own creation, the God who would suffer alongside His own creation, and the God who, little-by-little, would turn sinners away from wickedness and back to His love.
If you take away nothing else from the scriptures today, know that this God, this Lord who is the lover of souls, waits for your heart to begin to open, just as he waited for Zacchaeus all his life. Our faith is not meant to be a custom and a routine, it is meant to be a passion. This liturgy is not meant to be words of rote memory, it is meant to be words spoken from the innermost heart. And this Eucharist that we will share is not meant to be a gesture of belief, it is meant to be the satisfaction of all our longings.
May our hearts be touched by the living God, that the words from the Book of Wisdom, that the Lord who is a lover of souls, become an experience and reality known to us all.
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Homilies are meant to be heard, not read… and part of the Eucharistic liturgy, not words that stand alone. Please remember that no homily is written with this blog in mind.