Calling Zacchaeus, The Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Brookline, Mass, USA.

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[Jesus said] “….the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”    Luke 19:10.

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Today’s gospel scene is one of the most human and detailed events depicted in Scripture. Look at the details. First, the man is named, Zacchaeus, the ultimate meaning of which is pure or innocent. That is unusual, as single events like this almost always have just an unnamed man or woman present. Then there is his actual physical description, “he was short in stature” or vertically challenged in modern parlance…. He had climbed up a tree in order to be able to spot this holy man who was passing through the town. Note that this was not any old tree, it was a sycamore, another unusual point to make.

Sycomore_in_EthiopiaFicus sycomorus, the sycamore variant found in the Middle East and Africa, Wikipedia.

As you can see, a good tree for climbing, big and wide, to get to a preferred spot above everyone. The event was also placed in Jericho, as Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for the dread final events of his life. Jericho is considered by many experts to be the oldest continuous settlement in the world. In a sense, then, it can be thought of as the ultimate human geographical township, whereas Jesus’ destination, Jerusalem, could be called the ultimate divine settlement, where God’s temple was located, the holiest place on earth for Jews, and still is. Jericho is also below sea level whereas Jerusalem is several hundred feet above, another intriguing detail. It is almost as if Jesus was deliberately using geographical place to make several points. 

So Zacchaeus had simply heard about this holy man who was passing through his town, and only wanted to get a good look at him, climbed up the local sycamore tree and was, presumably, perfectly happy with all that. Unlike several other similar events in Jesus’ ministry, he did not call out to Jesus, asked nothing of him. He just wanted to see what was going on. It was Jesus who took the initiative in this case, and Jesus called on Zacchaeus, not the other way round. How did he know his name? Scholars say that Zacchaeus probably became one of Jesus’ followers, hence he became well known to them, and was identified in this story that way. We’ll never know, but that explanation is quite possible. Certainly the encounter with the holy man seemed to have transformed him. Remember as a tax collector, hence a collaborator with the occupying pagan Roman forces, he would have been despised by the locals, even perhaps even shunned. Not so with the Lord of course. He even wanted to stay with him, actually enter his house, an action which would make Jesus ritually unclean in the eyes of everyone there. No matter, as this was Jesus fulfilling his vocation “to seek and save what was lost” as the gospel says today. Zacchaeus’ salvation was more important than the laws of ritual uncleanliness. Today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom says the Lord has mercy on all, mercy being compassion on those who do not deserve it. Jesus fulfilled that description of God in his compassion on Zacchaeus. It also delivers a glowing example for us, as exhorted in today’s second reading, Paul’s prayer for us, that we may be worthy of God’s call, and that we might be the fulfillment of every good cause so that God may be glorified in us and us in God. The transformation in Zacchaeus was certainly a glowing example of what the goodness of God can achieve if we allow it to penetrate our inmost being, our soul.


Psalm 103:2-5, Godly Woman Daily.

Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.