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Christ calls Zacchaeus drawing by Helen Hudson

What made Zacchaeus do it?

We don’t quite know. We only know the bare facts: that Zacchaeus, “a chief tax collector, and rich,” wanted to see Jesus so badly that when the crowd blocked his view, he climbed a tree to make sure that he saw him (see Lk 19:1-10).

Small-town crook, pipsqueak big-shot though he was, probably even forgetting to spit out the half-smoked cigar that always stuck out of the corner of his mouth, he forgot, too, about the sneers of the local gentry and clambered up a sycamore to gape at this wonder-working preacher from up north, who just happened to be passing through town.

We don’t know, exactly, what made him do it. We would like to think that all sinners have hearts of gold, but it isn’t so. After all, do you? Do I?

No, not all prostitutes are sweeter and more honest than married ladies and innocent virgins. Not all gangsters are misunderstood little boys aching for Holy Communion, and corrupt politicians feasting on the blood of the poor are not really doing the best they can in a tough world.

We would like to think so because then we would be let off the hook, but when that other tax-collector was moaning for mercy and beating his breast in the back of the church, he meant it and he needed it.

No, if prostitutes and gangsters are going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of the rest of us, it is not because they are, at bottom, better than we are. Nor is it that they are worse.

But something in Zacchaeus made him discontent with his crooked life, something that has made him for twenty centuries, and will make him forever, a symbol of every sinner who wants a new life, something beyond a natural big-heartedness or an innate childlikeness.

He was in touch with a yearning within him that he could not satisfy and that could not be satisfied except —by what? He didn’t know. He only knew that he wanted to see Jesus, wanted to know what kind of man he was.

And what kind of man did he turn out to be, this Jesus? He was a man who came to seek and save the lost (Lk 19:10).

He was a man who took away sin and gave new life. He was and is the Savior, and will be until sin is gone forever and only the glory of his life in all creatures remains.

Sin is a terrible burden, the weight of the whole world’s evil pulling our hearts into a darkness worse than annihilation.

It begins so simply with little acts of rejection or mere non-acceptance that hook into our infantile need for total love and create in us fear and rage, guilt and sadness.

By the time we reach adulthood, even if we have been baptized as babies and raised as Christians, almost all of us have chosen again and again and again to be accomplices in our own rejection.

We choose to be woven into the web of selfish fear that is the world’s darkness. We choose to believe in the absence of God, and that absence weighs on our hearts with such constant force that we think it is as normal as gravity.

Then one day, who knows when, we hear that Jesus is passing by. Perhaps we have heard it every Sunday of our lives, but this day that weight of God’s absence in us at last wearies us beyond pride, beyond fear, breaks through to that core of us where we are all emptiness, all longing, and we want only to know one thing: what kind of man is this Jesus?

Suddenly, without knowing how we got there, we are up in that tree with Zacchaeus, our whole being in our eyes, looking for the face of Jesus.

And Jesus looks at us and says, Hurry up and come down! I must stay at your house today (Lk 19:5).

All that waiting, those dreadful years, and it turns out that God has been waiting for us. His absence vanishes in the clear human eyes of Jesus—and with it go all our sins.

When Zacchaeus let Jesus look at him and speak to him and invite himself to his house, he was free, reborn really.

That whole complex life he had built—the lies, the cheating, the betrayal of his people, the fawning over Romans, the turning from God, the spitting on the Torah, the squalid love-affair with his own emptiness—all of it was gone except the money he had made from it. And he ran all the way home to get rid of that too, in a blast of generosity as unconditioned as the generosity God had shown him in Jesus.

Do you think Zacchaeus gave a nice party for the Lord? The kind where everyone sits around and drinks tea, or maybe sherry, and talks about God and the finer points of theology? Do you think Zacchaeus got refined as well as reborn? I doubt it.

The tables were loaded with food and with all the wine his toadies and gofers could find. The place was in an uproar.

People were dancing and shouting, and in the corners slick operators with worried looks on their faces were trying to figure out what their next move was, now that old Zacchaeus had apparently got religion.

The poor were crowding around all the doors and windows, appearing as if by magic as the news spread, dogs were barking, cats yowling, donkeys three blocks away braying their heads off.

The neighbors would have called the cops, but the cops were already there, their spears stacked in the hallway, stuffing themselves with lamb and wine, ogling the pretty ladies along with everyone else.

And Jesus? Well, I suppose he was enjoying himself too. The party was his idea, after all. When the time came for him to reply to Zacchaeus’ renunciation of his money, Jesus recognized him as one of his own.

And then he told a story, evidently, about God’s preference for those who are willing to go out on a limb for him … Yes, I think Jesus enjoyed the party.

Do we? Lent comes, Jesus comes striding out of the desert, asking us to “repent and believe the good news,” and are we running to see his face and to join the Easter party?

More probably we are slinking away in some other direction, if only from our fear that Jesus comes to add to our burden rather than to take it away.

What a blasphemy—and who of us is altogether free of it?

“Repent” means to turn around, to stop believing in the absence of God, to stop building a life without him, to stop trying to find rest by our own efforts—and, like Zacchaeus, to start climbing the tree of salvation so that we can see the life-creating face of Jesus.

Each year the Lord in his Church calls us to turn from anything in us that denies his victory on the cross so that our whole being may lay hold of the risen life already in us through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in baptism and in all those thousands of “baptismal” moments when we let Jesus look at us and become truly Jesus for us.

It is not some roving Galilean or preacher, known by hearsay, whom our hearts are calling us to run toward.

It is the Messiah, the Lord of glory, the crucified and risen Son of God, whose name the Holy Spirit has written on our own spirits, who wants to know if we’d like to come to the party he is already celebrating in us.

It is a serious business all right, but serious does not mean gloomy. I imagine that Zacchaeus, cigar clenched between his teeth, robe tucked up to show his skinny legs, for all his eagerness knew that if what he hoped could possibly be true, he would shortly be inconveniencing himself even more thoroughly than that scratchy sycamore was as he climbed it.

But like Abraham, whose prodigal son he was, and like Moses, whose disobedient pupil he had been, he knew that the face he hoped to see was so filled with light that it would cast out gloom forever.

The hour is coming, and is here now, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live (Jn 5:25).

If we let him, Jesus will show us the fullness of his Father’s love. If we want, we can tune our ears to the inner noise of our longing and come to hear it for what it really is: the Lord’s knocking at the door of our hearts.

If we take the risk of faith, God will show us in the radiant face of his Son that he has become God-with-us, that he has put to death our death and lavished on us immortal life.

If we let him, he will feast with us, not merely for an evening, but always, and we will at least begin to taste our Easter even on Ash Wednesday.

Fr. Pelton, now deceased, was the first priest ordained for the Madonna House community.

From Circling the Sun, (1986), The Pastoral Press, Washington D.C., pp.61-64, out-of-print

Restoration February 2024