Gospel Reflection for Sunday the 30th of October 2022
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
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This Sunday’s Gospel focuses on the well-known encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus. It may bring back memories of learning the story and probably a song about Zacchaeus, as we prepared for the Sacrament of Confession in primary school. We can all recall encounters with people who have changed our lives, influenced our decisions or taught us a valuable lesson. Maybe it was a teacher at school whose enthusiasm guided us towards a particular career choice or a person who would later become our spouse or a friendship which changed how we saw ourselves.
Zacchaeus meets a person who will change his life forever – Jesus Christ. The central mystery of the Christian faith is that God comes in search of human hearts and to establish communion with them. In this story, Zacchaeus’ search for Jesus converges with Jesus’ search for Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was “anxious to see what kind of man Jesus was” (Lk 19: 3) while at the end of the Gospel, Jesus declares that he “came to seek out and save what was lost” (Lk 19: 10). Pope Benedict XVI once described God’s search for us: “God is a Person and he seeks the person; he has a face and he seeks our face; and he has a heart and he seeks our hearts”.
Jesus is simply passing through Jericho but takes the time to meet Zacchaeus and to touch his life with his salvation. Zacchaeus is despised by his fellow Jews. Even though he is Jewish by birth, he now has a job as a senior tax collector (Lk 19: 2), working for the occupying Roman forces in Palestine and exploiting his own people. He has become wealthy due to unjust financial gains and he no longer deserves to be known as “a son of Abraham” (Lk 19:9). We are not sure why this tax collector wanted to see who Jesus was, maybe it was out of curiosity or maybe at a deeper level, he wanted to meet Jesus to ease his restless heart. In order to see Jesus, Zacchaeus had to overcome three obstacles: his small stature, the paralysis of his own shame, and the grumbling crowd.
The reference to Zacchaeus as short in stature may symbolize his own shortcomings which inhibit him from seeing Jesus. There are moments when we feel small, when we lack confidence or doubt ourselves, and when we struggle with our own weakness. And yet, Zacchaeus finds a way; he climbs a sycamore tree just to “catch a glimpse of Jesus” (Lk 19:4). There is a sense that he wants to keep his distance and yet still see Jesus. Zacchaeus is paralyzed by shame for his life of wealth, dodgy-dealings and corruption. However, he overcomes this paralysis. No doubt, Zacchaeus as a wealthy man with power and prestige, probably very well dressed but now in his encounter with Jesus he is not afraid to lose that image, he runs ahead and climbs up a tree (Lk 19: 4).
When Jesus comes to the sycamore tree, he calls Zacchaeus by name: “Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I must stay at your house today” (Lk 19: 5). Just as Zacchaeus was eager to meet Jesus, Jesus speaks with urgency and invites himself into the home of Zacchaeus. At a deeper level Jesus wants to stay or remain within the home, the life of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus accepts and welcomes Jesus with joy (Lk 19: 6). Similarly, Jesus calls us by name and desires to enter our homes, to dwell in our daily lives: in our studies, our work, our friendships and affections, our hopes and dreams (c.f. Pope Francis, World Youth Day in Krakow, 31 July 2016).
Zacchaeus faces his third obstacle – the grumbling crowd: “They all complained … ‘He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house’” (Lk 19: 7). If Jesus or Zachaeus were both influenced by the crowd, Zacchaeus would not have experienced salvation, and Jericho and the surrounding area would have continued to suffer from his injustice. Sometimes, in our following of Jesus and living the Christian life, the prevailing culture and our peers can dissuade, distract, and judge us harshly. Zacchaeus stands his ground; he may be short but in the presence of Jesus, he knows his true identity. Similarly, despite our shortcomings, we are still “children of God … that is what we are” (1 Jn 3:1).
Zacchaeus stands tall and pledges to give up his wealth: “Look, sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody, I will pay him back four times the amount” (Lk 19: 8). Twice in this Gospel, “today” has been mentioned. In other words, in this present moment, God’s salvation in Jesus forgives, heals and restores Zacchaeus. This is a moment which does not dwell on his past sins or his struggles in the future but on the immediacy of God’s mercy, which is always available to us.
This powerful story of God’s mercy encourages us to repent and to embrace the Sacrament of Confession regularly. Repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil … At the same time, it entails the desire and resolution to change one`s life, with hope in God`s mercy and trust in the help of his grace (CCC 1431).
Within the story, we can identify the elements of the sacrament of Confession; Zacchaeus is contrite, confesses his sin, and his penance involves restoring what he gained unjustly. Then in a moment akin to absolution, Jesus frees Zacchaeus from his sin: “Today salvation has come to this house ….” (Lk 19:9).
-Fr Barry White