Chapter 23: Zacchaeus the Tax Collector
The sacraments of Christian initiation, Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist, confer on the believer the new life in Christ. However, our journey to eternal happiness begins on earth where we encounter all sorts of temptations and pitfalls, and we often weaken, stumble and sin. There is no re-baptism! Christ Jesus, physician of souls and bodies, wants the Church to continue her healing and saving action, even for her own members. Hence, we live two types of repentance in the Christian life: a primordial, fundamental repentance, which changes our whole being; and another continuing repentance, lived every day in our commitments. Have you ever regretted, deeply, having done wrong in your life? How do you understand ‘sin’? Do you feel the need to experience God’s mercy? Is it enough for a person to repent personally, without repairing his fault, and make amends to those he has hurt? That’s what we’re going to look at today, while interpreting the Gospel of Zacchaeus the Tax Collector and the meaning of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
2- Reading and understanding the Gospel: Zacchaeus the Tax Collector (Luke 19:1-10)
1He entered Jericho and was going through the town 2when a man whose name was Zacchaeus made his appearance; he was one of the senior tax collectors and a wealthy man. 3He was anxious to see what kind of man Jesus was, but he was too short and could not see him for the crowd; 4so he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus who was to pass that way. 5When Jesus reached the spot he looked up and spoke to him: “Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I must stay at your house today.” 6And he hurried down and welcomed him joyfully. 7They all complained when they saw what was happening. “He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house,” they said. 8But Zacchaeus stood his ground and said to the Lord, “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.” 9And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham; 10for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.”
2. 1- Explanation
The Gospel begins by describing Zacchaeus as a short man and, as a tax collector, a sinner, but who still seeks to meet Jesus. The story of Zacchaeus teaches that, whatever our limits, physical or moral, they cannot stop us from meeting Jesus. If we are sick physically, or sinners, or even far removed from faith, we should know that the offer of salvation is always held out to us.
The centre of the text is the “meeting” with Christ (vv.5-6). This meeting changed the path of a great many in Jericho, as well as the life and behaviour of Zacchaeus. This meeting was transformed by a joyful welcome of Jesus, on the part of Zacchaeus, to his house. This shows how the presence of Jesus is a source of joy. So, we understand that constantly seeking Jesus is the source of all peace, joy and salvation.
In the text, Jesus repeats the word “today” twice (vv.5.9); this demonstrates how every day is a “today” for Christ. Today is the day of salvation, neither yesterday nor tomorrow; delaying repentance brings no profit, for “today” we have a chance of salvation. The first reaction to the encounter comes from the category of “murmurers” (v.7); they criticize Jesus’ behaviour, judge that Zacchaeus is still a sinful man and that Jesus has acted in a thoughtless manner by going stay at his house. This attitude of the murmuring detractors is not a good example for us Christians. The commandment of Jesus says: “Do not judge so that you are not judged” and should make us stop thinking badly of others, prejudging them for life. Jesus wants us to open the opportunity for them to renew their image in a way different from our initial impression.
We then see what Zacchaeus has accomplished in his repentance (v.8). The “four times the amount” which he pledges to give back, could have been dictated by Jewish Law or be a rule in Roman law. However, the text places less emphasis on compliance with the law than on the generosity of the repentant Zacchaeus. What is important is that we achieve our repentance in a concrete way, through actions that prove we have changed, having discovered God’s mercy and His love for our weakness.
The end of the story (vv.9-10) speaks of the Son of Man who came to seek the one who was lost in order to save him; in doing this, he manifests his great love for the world and his willingness to make all men, even sinners, taste the joy of salvation. Here again Jesus appears as the Good Shepherd who runs after his sheep so that they do not stray on the way. It is enough just to be with Christ; if we belong to his flock, he feeds us daily and constantly accompanies us with his blessings. Then we won’t get lost along the way, we will hear his voice, we will listen to his words, we will live in constant inner joy, and will receive, after long years, eternal salvation.
2. 2- Summary and Practice
Today’s Gospel is rich in spiritual lessons:
From today’s Gospel, we retain the following spiritual conclusions: we must always seek to encounter Jesus, by participating in Sunday Mass and in daily personal prayer, for any encounter with him is a source of peace. When we sin, we must quickly ask forgiveness, especially of those we have offended, for a true confession requires an examination of conscience, contrition, confession and reparation. We must not, under any circumstances, judge others on their appearance or based to our own opinions; on the contrary, we must think of them in a positive way. Trust in God’s love and His infinite capacity for forgiveness for our sins, invites us to make an act of faith in him who is a faithful shepherd for our souls, not wanting another person to be lost, but rather that he will approach the source of salvation and be filled with blessings.
In compensation for a life spent selfishly, amassing money and worldly goods, we have to share, according to the reading of this text, with our brethren, men and women, the blessings that God has filled us with. Solidarity between the rich and the poor is one of the urgent appeals of this text, in addition to repentance and reparation for wrongdoing. In concrete terms, our penitence can take the form of donations to charities, or support to orphanages and nursing homes, or also, in the form of offerings and various other aid.
3- Theological and Spiritual Teaching: Sin and Repentance
Man’s life is about having a good relationship with God; but when he moves away from his Creator, he is really moving away from the source of life, from what makes him alive, grow and gives him joy. As God’s love is limitless and nothing can prevent Him from giving to man, He reveals Himself in the broken hearted, so that he does not remain trapped in darkness and evil, but instead is converted to repentance and to open up to God again. In the repentance of Zacchaeus, we see at what point the initiative of Jesus shook him and made him reflect on the harm he was doing to others, and therefore to God himself.
Sin is what takes us away from God; it is an offence committed against Him, as if I were saying to him, “I would like to do as I please, according to my inclinations, even if it is against love, and does not fulfil your commandment.” That’s what happened with Adam in paradise: he contradicted God’s word, and he followed his own desire to be as God, listening to the devil’s voice. And that’s what also happens when I consider myself THE reference that decides what is right and wrong, by ridding myself of the Word of God.
Sin is then when I voluntarily betray the relationship with God, with man or with myself. It can be in thought, in word, by what I have done or what I have failed to do. And so, I stray from the truth; and my heart is surrounded by darkness.
For me, this sin breaks my path towards Hm. But He remains always a merciful Father, never abandoning His children as the prey of the wild wolf. Therefore, He tries to enlighten me again; He makes the Holy Spirit intervene to remind me that God loves me. And when I repent and come back to him, I see Him opening His arms to embrace me and forgive me. Repentance is then my return to the Father; it is the act of retreating from the path that will take me very far from God. And since no one can forgive himself, he receives it as a gift. I present myself before the priest, so that he may absolve me from my sins.
And when I approach the priest to confess, to make an act of contrition and ask for mercy, he then helps me so that I may resume the right path and discover again the behaviour of a faithful Christian, rejecting sin. Indeed, when I receive the sacrament of mercy, I then feel relieved of a very heavy weight, I realize that the love of God is greater than all evil, for it comes to inhabit my heart, and to Him, alone, belongs the victory.
4- Reading and Meditation: A Reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Many forms of Penance in Christian Life
The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others. Alongside the radical purification brought about by Baptism or martyrdom they cite as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins: effort at reconciliation with one’s neighbour, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one’s neighbour, the intercession of the saints, and the practice of charity “which covers a multitude of sins” (1Pet 4: 8).25