Luke 19: 1-10
The story of Zacchaeus is so easy to picture. A man climbed up a tree to get a look at Jesus, and Jesus saw him, called him down and told him he will stay at his home. This narrative is a beautiful lesson of God’s love. One that is important to us as we near the end of this Year of Mercy.
We are told that Zacchaeus is a tax collector, or in other words, a traitor to his Jewish identity. He had opted to become an agent of the occupying Roman Government, and not to remain faithful to Israel. He would have been considered a sinner and an outcast because of this. On the day that Jesus came to town something prompted him to go and see him. It could have been just curiosity about who this Jesus is, or the prompting of the Spirit to somehow encounter Jesus. Either way, something happened to him that changed the rest of his life.
Jesus saw him and called him to come down. This was no, “Hey you” but rather a very personal call. Jesus knew him by name, and invited himself to stay at his house. We are told that Zacchaeus responded by receiving Jesus with joy. For years Zacchaeus was the outcast and considered a great sinner. There seemed to be no hope of salvation for him, and now this holy man, wants to come to his house. What a moment of grace and beauty for Zacchaeus when he joyfully received Christ in his home and experienced the love of Christ.
The Pharisees in the Gospel despise Zacchaeus for what he does, despise him for who he is, and despise Jesus for going to his house. Contrary to what Saint Augustine said, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner,” there is an attitude today that would have us hate sin and sinner, and even those who associate with the sinner. Often people apply the “guilt by association” approach to those who associate with sinners. When someone visits and spends time with those who are living a life contrary to the Gospel or Church teachings they are often condemned, just as the acts of the sinner, and the sinner are condemned. Jesus shows us the opposite in the Gospel today and throughout the Gospels, he did not avoid tax collectors, adulterers, prostitutes and other sinners, he engaged them with his love and mercy. Yes, he did say at times, “go and sin no more,” but only after being present and ministering to them, and giving them the opportunity to repent. Jesus teaches us that an admonition to change is much more effective and has more meaning when it comes from a person who has demonstrated that he truly loves and cares for them.
The Gospel is a lesson for us not to be judgmental toward those who associate with those we consider to be sinners, not good Catholics or Christians. We should rather pray for them that their presence might lead those struggling with faith to a deeper understanding of how to live the Gospel. At the Chrism Mass in Rome in 2013, Pope Francis said to the priests, “We need to “go out to the “outskirts” where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters. Be shepherds, with the “odour of the sheep. These words very much reflect the Gospel of today. Let us not judge those who have the odor of “sheep”, and let us not be afraid to be with sinners, suffering, and outcasts.
Father Killian Loch, O.S.B.