Why would Jesus want to dine at the house of a person who, in the view of some in the crowd, was the “chief of sinners”?
“Today salvation has come to this house… For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
—Luke 19:9a, 10
The story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus, the chief tax-collector of the wealthy city of Jericho, is one of the most familiar and human stories we have in the Gospel. And the portrait that Saint Luke paints of Zacchaeus is certainly much more detailed than many others presented in Scripture.
To begin with, it’s important that we remember that Zacchaeus would have been despised by the people of Jericho. As the chief tax collector, he would have worked directly for the Romans and overseen the work of lower-ranking tax collectors, serving as an important piece in a corrupt system that was based on abuse of power and greed. Zacchaeus—a wealthy man—would have gathered his money by taking advantage of others and he was hated for it. As one commentator reflects, “What values had he compromised? What people had he defrauded? What relationships had he sacrificed?”
But, when Zacchaeus hears that Jesus is making his way through Jericho, he wants to see him. We have no idea what inspired this small-statured man to climb a tree—to literally “go out on a limb” to see Jesus—but that’s what he did. It was a risky move and probably one that prompted the people in crowd to make fun of him, especially since he was already so disliked. But, Jesus spots him and, before Zacchaeus says anything, Jesus calls out to him, “Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today!” This statement is even more startling when we remember that Luke specifically says that Jesus only “intended to pass through the town.” Now, he was making an unscheduled stop, accepting hospitality from a hated man, condemned as a public sinner.
In his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Fr. James Martin, S.J., reflects:
Zacchaeus clambers down and welcomes Jesus with rejoicing. Joy is a natural response to the presence of God. But the crowd doesn’t approve. Why would Jesus want to dine at the house of a person who, in the view of some in the crowd, was the “chief of sinners”? Plus, Jesus doesn’t wait to be invited, and he doesn’t wait for Zacchaeus to apologize or make an act of restitution—he makes the first move with the sinner. Luke tells us that “everyone”—this would include the disciples—grumbles… So to the disciples’ question, “Who can be saved?” Jesus answers, in effect, “Take a look at Zacchaeus”…
The story began with the image of Zacchaeus seeking Jesus, but ends by saying that Jesus was seeking Zacchaeus. To find God is to be found by God, who has been looking for us all along.
This encounter is important because Jesus isn’t asking Zacchaeus to leave behind his profession or to give away more of his possessions than he has already promised. Instead, Jesus meets Zacchaeus where he is—out on a limb—and allows for a relationships to develop. It is a relationship that reshapes who Zacchaeus is and how he lives his life.
Ultimately, we don’t know what happens to Zacchaeus after his time with Jesus. And, in the end, I don’t think it is important because this story isn’t really about Zacchaeus—it is about who Jesus is and what he offers to each of us: the gift of salvation, freely given, when we are willing to go “out on a limb” and open our hearts to make a place for the Lord.
When have you experienced forgiveness in your life? How did that transform you?
How does this story help shape your understanding of God’s mercy?
How does the example of Zacchaeus inspire you to go “out on a limb” for Jesus?
Words of Wisdom: “Faced with a vision of justice as the mere observance of the law that judges people simply by dividing them into two groups—the just and sinners—Jesus is bent on revealing the great gift of mercy that searches out sinners and offers them pardon and salvation… The appeal Jesus makes to the text from the book of the prophet Hosea—“I desire love and not sacrifice” (6:6)—is important in this regard. Jesus affirms that, from that time onward, the rule of life for his disciples must place mercy at the center, as Jesus himself demonstrated by sharing meals with sinners. Mercy, once again, is revealed as a fundamental aspect of Jesus’ mission.”—Pope Francis in The Face of Mercy