31st Sunday in Ordinary Time C

Zacchaeus awoke to the large ramble of his house.  He said his morning prayers and began his rituals.  He came to his empty dining room table, gruff with irony.  No one in town had a more lavish or larger table, but everyone had more people around theirs than he did.  Lately, Zacchaeus had ruminated on many ironies or better yet contradictions in his life.  He was a devout Jew but rejected by the Jews as a tax collector for the Roman Empire.  Everyone knew him yet he was almost always alone.  He was a man with money, but without a place in the world.

It was with these heavy thoughts that he plowed into another day of work in the surging, bustling city of Jericho.  Another day sure to be filled with taking from others, financial success and deeper scarring.  He was neither a fair nor a generous man.  The system was set up for him to take advantage and take advantage he did.  The rejection of the citizens made his plunder easier.  His actions sprung from bitterness and bitterness sprung from his actions, driving him further from his own people like repelling magnets.  Yet, he could not quite give up his religion.   He was a Jew.  The story of his people was his story and it created in him an inconvenient longing to be one with the people who uttered the same rich and ancient prayers, celebrated the same holidays and worshipped the one God.  To be a Jew was to be with other Jews.  He knew that, but that river of contradictions kept him from truly belonging.

However, the tough drudgery of the day was disrupted by an almost audible buzz in the air.  A rabbi of great power in word and deed was making his way through town.  He had heard of Jesus in the wide circles he traveled and he was intrigued.  Jesus seemed never to do or say quite what was expected and often was unaccepted.  Perhaps he was on an island too, but whereas Zacchaeus’ island left him alone, judging by the thickening crowd gathering to glimpse Jesus, people were clamoring to be on his island.  Zacchaeus decided to see him; he decided he must see him.

And therein lied the problem.  As the crowd along the road grew to three or four deep, Zacchaeus could not see for he was, to put it mildly, “short in stature.”  He was left with only one foolish option, a sycamore tree up ahead would give him a vantage point to spot Jesus.  He hesitated.  A man of his status and wealth climbing a tree would surely be ridiculed.  But there is a freedom in being despised – no one would think less of him because no one thought anything good about him anyway.  Besides the tree was a kind of refuge from a crowd that did not want him around and who wondered why such a loathed man wanted anything to do with this holy man.

From his perch he observed Jesus, walking with the crowd and they seemed to flow to his rhythm until it suddenly stopped as Jesus quickly conferred and pointed at him!  Zacchaeus realized there could be no better way to make a positive impression on the crowd, to gain more followers, than for Jesus to make fun of the most hated man in town now caught in an embarrassing position.  He braced himself for what was next, the tenuous thread that held his faith together seemed poised to snap.  In no world could he have imagined what Jesus would say next.  “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

If climbing up the tree had been childish, he climbed down like a child, swiftly and with abandon.  Yet, everything changed during his descent.  The chasm between his faith and his life was bridged by one simple gesture.  He knew what it was like to be singled out, but now he was singled in.   And for all his heavy pondering he had failed to realize one thing that Jesus’ words made crystal clear.  If you are believed in, you can change.  Bitterness could turn into charity, fraud to generosity, despair to hope.  And it all happened in a second and it happened because of Jesus. His heart pounded, his vison grew lighter.  This is conversion.  Not even the low roar of the grumble, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner,” would deter him.  H responded, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”  Twelve words from Jesus and his world had changed.  He belonged.

That night, the large table was filled with disciples and sinners and outsiders.  The air was cheered by laughter and wisdom and hope.  The words Jesus said at the base of the tree rang true to his ear.  “”Today salvation has come to this house.”  It certainly had for salvation has a moment and a definition:  salvation is meeting Jesus.