A local fitness center was offering $1,000 to anyone that could prove they were stronger than the owner. Here’s how it worked: the muscle man would squeeze a lemon until all the juice ran into a glass, then he would hand the lemon to the next challenger. Anyone who could squeeze out one more drop of juice would win the money. Many people tried – weightlifters, construction workers, even professional wrestlers – but nobody could do it. One day a short, skinny man came in, and registered for the contest. After the laughter had died down, the owner grabbed a lemon and squeezed away, and then handed the wrinkled remains to the little man. The crowd’s laughter turned into silence as the challenger clenched his fist around the lemon, andsix drops fell into the glass. As the crowd cheered the manager paid the prize and asked he man what he did for a living: “Are you a lumberjack? A weightlifter? A construction worker?” The man replied, “I work for the IRS.”
Today we hear the story of a man of this same profession: a tax collector, named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus lived in Jericho, which at this time was a very wealthy city. It was one of the great tax centers of Palestine, and its tax collectors were very rich and very notorious. Zacchaeus was not just any tax collector in this city, he was a chief tax collector, roughly the equivalent to a district director of the IRS. He was probably a man of much wealth but very few friends. From the time of Julius Caesar the options for collecting Rome’s taxes were auctioned off to the highest bidder. In order to win the bid the prospective tax collector would have to pay Rome in advance all the taxes due in his locality. Then he would hire agents to send out and collect his investment, plus whatever extra he wanted to make out of it. Tax collectors typically extorted sizeable amounts of interest in addition to the taxes set by Rome. This made them despised by the people, and they were considered traitors and pariah. I can imagine the insults he would receive waling down the street, the despising word his children would have to endure, the rejection and segregation he suffered from society.
Zacchaeus had reached the pinnacle of his profession: he was the most hated man in his side of town. He was a traitor, a thief, and an outcast. It was the time of Passover, a time when tens of thousands of Jews were passing through Jericho, one of these being Jesus, who was also probably paying his taxes. We hear in the Gospel that it was Zacchaeus who was seeking Jesus. There was something about Jesus that appealed to him. Perhaps he had heard that Jesus was the rabbi from Nazareth who accepted tax collectors and sinners; perhaps he heard of his miracles and was intrigued. What was it about the figure of Jesus that compelled him so much? We read that Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus, but in the final words of the Gospel we receive a clue as to who was really seeking who. Zacchaeus became so compelled to seek Jesus out that he, a short man, even climbed a tree so that he could see him, opening himself up to even more ridicule and humiliation. But there was something pushing him to meet this man called Jesus, and out of everyone in the crowd it was Zacchaeus to whom Jesus turned and called by name: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay in your house” (Lk 19:6).
The story of Zacchaeus is our own story. It is my story: It is the story of my hatred, my segregation, my alienation, and my wickedness. It is the story of the incredible mystery of the Holy Eucharist, that Jesus Christ sees me and calls me by my own name to say: “I must stay with you today: in your house, in your job, in your relationships, with your family, in your life.” Jesus seeks us out: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what is lost” (Lk 19:10). Jesus comes to save what is lost, and he does so not in spite of our sins but through them. Jesus comes to restore our lost dignity. Perhaps this is what moved Zacchaeus the most: to be the most hated man in town, alienated and despised, then you meet a man who turns to you, sees you for who you are, calls you by your name, and says “I must stay at your home.” With this simple gesture Jesus restores Zacchaeus his dignity, his prestige, and his love. Paul speaks of this is in the Second Reading, that God will “make you worthy of his calling, and will bring to fulfillment every good effort of faith that you make” (2 Tes 1:11). For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what is lost.
Jesus had been seeking Zacchaeus long before Zacchaeus climbed the tree. The desire to find God was already in Zacchaeus’ heart. But when he saw Jesus, and their eyes connected, that was it, the turning point, after meeting Christ nothing would ever be the same for him. How does Zacchaeus respond to Jesus’ invitation? He declares that he will make restitution, that we will change his life, that he will act. Zacchaeus doesn’t just wallow in the nice feeling of being accepted and loved before continuing on with life as normal. His life is radically transformed. Nothing can ever be the same for Zacchaeus.
Jesus Christ continues to call us, like Zacchaeus, to love others as he has loved us. But isn’t it true that we are stingy with our love? That we calculate how much love we can give? That as a parent it could be easy not to love our children enough if they don’t live up to our standards? That as a colleague we assign labels as to who in our workplace is better, or more successful, and therefore more deserving of our love? We are stingy with the love that Jesus Christ has given us. We are stingy in the love we give to our neighbors, our friends, our families, and our colleagues. Out of disappointment and alienation, we start giving up on those relationships, believing that they are lost, unsalvageable. But if we believe in those words, that the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what is lost, then nothing is ever truly lost; that Christ can bring new life to your “lost” relationships, your “lost” marriage and friendships, your “lost” spiritual life, your “lost” self. It will take courage to respond to Christ, and maybe climb up a tree or two; but he is determined to find and save what is lost.
Nobody knows a person better than their mother. Mary is the “shortcut” to Christ. She knows what Jesus likes, she knows what Jesus seeks, and she can help us to respond more sincerely to his call. On these final days of the month of the Holy Rosary let us call to Mary, that she may show us the way to Christ, the way to respond to his call of conversion, and the way to live it out in our daily lives, so that we may welcome Jesus Christ in our home.
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