Zacchaeus and Jesus – a Different Kind of Healing
Zacchaeus’s story has always been a delight to me. It is told only by Luke (19:1-11), and although I have reread it many times, only recently did my understanding of the story take on a new depth. But that is the way lectio divina tends to work. In the daily practice of slow and prayerful reading of the bible, suddenly a passage that we think we understand well will open up further, and new aspects of the text reveal themselves.
In the story of Zacchaeus, we find a story of healing. But we are not dealing here with the healing of leprosy, blindness, paralysis or any of the other physical disabilities that are usually brought to Jesus for a cure. Zacchaeus is healed on a different level, for we know well that the body isn’t the only thing that needs healing. Our spirit, our emotions, the personal history with which we are burdened all need to be healed by the Lord. Oh, we try to cover up these wounds by deploying whatever coping mechanisms we can find in our attempt to survive in an unkind world. Sometimes we have learned to cover up so effectively that we convince even ourselves that these wounds are not there. This, no doubt, is what Zacchaeus had to do, too, and St Luke more than hints at this in his telling of Zacchaeus’s story. I would like to try to look at the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus from this perspective in a series of reflections. I suggest that you read only on reflection a day, and allow the time between to yield up whatever insights the Holy Spirit may chose to give you.
First, let’s review the passage. This translation is from the New Jerusalem Bible (Luke 19: 1-11).
Jesus entered Jericho and was going through the town and suddenly a man whose name was Zacchaeus made his appearance; he was one of the senior tax collectors and a wealthy man. He kept trying to see which Jesus was, but he was too short and could not see him for the crowd; so he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus who was to pass that way. When Jesus reached the spot he looked up and spoke to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I am to stay at your house today.’ And he hurried down and welcomed him joyfully. They all complained when they saw what was happening. ‘He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house,’ they said. But 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.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham, for the Son of man has come to seek out and save what was lost.’
I used to see Zacchaeus as a loveable and slightly comical character. In my mind, he was an older man, short and maybe a bit pudgy – a rich man with a rich man’s girth – a bit of a joker, an extrovert playing to the gallery. But Zacchaeus is now much less comical to me. I have revised my whole picture of him. Perhaps you, too, have a picture in your mind of what Zaccheus looks like. Let’s stop here for today and spend some time clarifying our ideas about the kind of man Zacchaeus is.
There is a seemingly unimportant phrase at the end of the first sentence of the gospel passage that tells the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1) – a few words that are very easy simply to skim over. I never noticed them before, but now I believe that these few words are crucial in understanding Zacchaeus’s struggles. The text tells us that Jesus was going through Jericho when ‘…suddenly a man whose name was Zacchaeus made his appearance.’ It’s the words ‘made his appearance’, that are so important, I think. There seems to be a sub-text here. Usually when we say So and So “made his appearance” we are smirking – at least a little bit. We are putting a negative spin on the words because we are talking about someone who is not very likeable, someone whose actions may have harmed us or someone we love, someone who never enters a public scene without having some selfish ulterior motive. The phrase implies, “Oh no. What’s he doing here?” On this particular occasion, a crowd has gathered in order to see Jesus. Surely, there was a religious tone to the gathering. A crowd was there because Jesus was a holy man and a healer. This is an occasion in which a dishonest person and a swindler would not be expected even to be interested.
And, yet, Zacchaeus – a senior tax collector, as the text tells us – was there. Tax collectors were notorious in Jesus’ day for being dishonest, callous, thieving characters, who took more money than they had a right to, in order to line their own pockets. Many times, payment would be forced violently from people who were already poor. Zacchaeus was no different. If anything, he would have been considered worse than many tax collectors, an ‘arch-enemy’, because he was a ‘senior tax collector’ and therefore had seniority over other tax collectors; he was probably the one who made sure that the more junior members of his profession did not become too lenient towards those owing taxes. And this man ‘makes his appearance’ – here, of all places. Zacchaeus is, clearly, not liked.
The gospels are ancient texts, and are not written with the amount of detail and scene-building that later literature requires. But, based on what we can deduce from the text, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that people in the crowd probably glance at Zacchaeus warily, then exchange looks with one another. Probably, the only thing that prevents some of the men in the crowd from confronting Zacchaeus is the thought that this, after all, is an event in which a holy man will be present. It would not do to have a brawl. In any case, Zacchaeus had power to ruin anyone who made his life difficult. So, the people in the crowd try to act as though Zacchaeus isn’t there.
That Zacchaeus was ‘blanked’ by the people, that there was a silent collusion against him, that all were complicit in an act of passive aggression toward him can be inferred from the text, where it says, ‘He kept trying to see who Jesus was, but he was short and could not see him for the crowd.’ In other words, the crowd closed ranks against Zacchaeus. They would not let him through. Think: Jericho was a small town where everyone knew everyone else; in this setting, a crowd might be expected to allow a well-known and much respected town official through. Everyone certainly knew the tax collector. If Zacchaeus had been known for his kindness and philanthropy, I have no doubt that a little murmur of recognition would have passed through the crowd, and Zacchaeus would have found a pathway through the crowd opening up for him, making it possible for him to move forward. But nothing of the kind happens. He is ostracised.
We all have a history. Zacchaeus did, too. We do not know what his history was, but I have allowed my imagination to work with a few things that the text tells us and have filled in a few blanks. We have established that no one likes a tax collector and that Zacchaeus was so friendless that no one in the crowd wanted to move to allow him, short as he was, to see Jesus. As is the case now, so then, it is probable that this friendless man had a difficult, unloving upbringing that taught him few, if any, social skills; perhaps he was tossed out of the home at a young age by an abusive parent, or perhaps he ran away from a situation of poverty and violence and had to fend for himself, to become street-wise, and to learn to manipulate situations to his advantage. The text suggests that he does all those things now, and we know that such manipulative skills don’t come without practice. Whatever happened to him as a child, he became a rich man, but also a dishonest and friendless man in a despised profession. No doubt he was intelligent and successful – too successful, maybe, at getting money – but wealth and the power to ruin people does not attract friends. Sycophants, maybe, but not friends. And not even the sycophants were with him that day. He was alone, unsupported. No wife, no servant. No one.
Zacchaeus is short and physically agile, according to our biblical text. This suggests to me that he had probably been a wiry little boy, able to run fast and scale obstacles easily as he escaped from the angry adults who wanted to thrash him for some misdemeanour – or none. His lack of physical height suggests that perhaps his diet as a child was not good, that he knew what hunger meant, and although he might have survived by his wits, his growth was affected by inadequate nourishment. Now, as a well-to-do adult, I see Zacchaeus having a small, probably compact body. He is abundantly energetic, and is both crafty and lithe enough to solve his current difficulty – which is that he cannot see Jesus because he is too short and the crowd is too big and unyielding. But he can manage this situation without reference to anyone else – it is probably the story of his life. He dashes ahead and swings easily into a sycamore tree. Here is a person with physical resilience and few inhibitions. Here is someone determined never to allow his desires to be thwarted. Here is a man who has never cared what people thought of him as he ruthlessly made his fortune – why start caring now? He climbs higher in his tree. Yes, excellent view, he thinks smugly. He can see Jesus perfectly now.
And what is happening with Jesus? St Luke tells us in the immediately preceding passage (Luke 18: 35-43) that Jesus, on entering Jericho, had healed a blind man, and that ‘all who saw it gave praise to God.’ The formerly blind man then followed Jesus, we are told. He was probably now part of Jesus’ joyful entourage parading down the main road of Jericho. I expect this group might have included many of the people who had known the blind man all his life and had now witnessed his healing. In addition, Jesus rarely travelled anywhere without the Twelve. Chances are, the collection of people coming down the road with Jesus was a large one.
As we have seen in our gospel passage, Jesus already seems to know Zacchaeus’ name when he starts the conversation with him. No one introduces them. We do not need to assume that this is a demonstration of Jesus’ divine omniscience. Zacchaeus was, in fact, infamous. The apostle Matthew, reformed tax collector himself, probably knew him, or knew of him. Networking in such professions was surely as important then as it is now. In any group there are usually those who are anxious to appear well-connected; such a one would probably have warned Jesus about Zacchaeus as he approached the town: “Rich man, but the very devil for collecting taxes,” Jesus might have been told. He was probably also told that Zacchaeus lived a big house. I can see Jesus listening quietly to such information, and forming his own plans. Jesus had nothing to fear from notorious sinners.
Jesus walks on, interacting warmly with the crowd. A blessing for this one, a prayer prayed intently with that one, a beaming smile, a lingering look of support directed into the eyes of a disabled person and then his carer, a listening ear, a wise word; he clasps the hands of the elderly as he goes along; he lays his hands on the heads of the lame and the sick; he embraces babies held up to him; he laughs at the trenchant observation made to him by a young child as he walks by. This was a happy day for Jesus and his followers. Nothing untoward had happened in it – no distressing confrontations with scribes or Pharisees. Everyone in the crowd felt Jesus’ peace and his power. No one was unaffected. The very air around Jesus was super-charged with life and joy. Everyone felt a new surge of hope. They felt that their lives would change now for the better. Jesus was a radiant human being. People easily responded to him; their eyes are shining. They love him.
Suddenly, Matthew taps Jesus’ shoulder and points to the tree, “There’s Zacchaeus,” he may have said. And what of Zacchaeus? He is watching from his perch in the sycamore tree. He is deeply stirred in a way that he did not expect. He recognises power when he sees it, but he has never seen this kind of power before. It has none of the usual trappings. There is no display of wealth. There is no intimidating weaponry. There is no attitude of disdain and arrogance. This power of Jesus was like an irresistible dance, drawing even the clumsy to share in its exciting rhythms. The entire scene was characterised by complete freedom and joy. Zacchaeus recognised some of the people in Jesus’ group. Matthew was there! As one of them! He seemed to belong! That blind beggar was there, his sight restored, telling everyone about what Jesus had done, as if they couldn’t see well enough for themselves. A few of the loose women of the town were right there among Jesus’ group, and some obviously respectable matrons were walking with them, smiling and talking easily to them! Some of the men Zacchaeus had all but ruined were there, looking more hopeful than they had in years. What was going on here? Zacchaeus was mesmerised, stunned. He stood on his thick tree branch, supporting himself with other branches. Friendless Zacchaeus. He was smiling as he watched, but he also felt a peculiar sensation he had not known in years: longing. Loneliness. Usually he kept such feelings far away from his awareness. But today, they surfaced as they had not done since he was a small boy. He watches Jesus and his group coming slowly down the street, sees the flow of good feeling and happiness. He wants desperately to be part of Jesus’ group.
Much to Zacchaeus’s surprise, he sees Jesus look around, then up to the tree; he makes eye-contact with Zacchaeus, and then, smiling, Jesus makes his way through the crowd – which, incidentally, parts to allow him through – and he stands at the bottom of Zacchaeus’s tree. I love to imagine this scene: can Jesus possibly have been in solemn mode here? This is not the Sermon on the Mount, nor is it an occasion when he must undertake a battle of wits with Pharisees who are trying to catch him out. This is Jesus the Friend and Brother, joyfully, even laughingly, calling up to Zacchaeus – who, in fact, looks a bit silly where he is. Jesus, I think, could do bravado when the occasion called for it, and here, the occasion did. He is enjoying this moment. He is giving himself fully. His strong voice sings out, “Zacchaeus!”
When someone undergoes a conversion, time seems to stop running along its usual track of swift seconds and minutes. It seems to slow down. Every moment has an overflowing content of grace. So much grace that it cannot all be absorbed and understood at once. A lifetime is needed. This is what happened when Zacchaeus hears Jesus call him by his name.
How powerful the use of our name can be. In one of the more subtle forms of bullying, the bully pronounces our name with an accent of mockery, making our very name sound contemptible. We feel such an insult intensely. It is very hard to shake off the sense that the bully is right, that we are contemptible, that our very name is drenched in stupidity. In Zacchaeus’s case, he suddenly wakes up to the fact that he himself had been such a bully. But, no time to dwell on this now, for he is hearing the syllables of his own name ring out not in the tones of formality and coldness that people used when speaking to the tax collector – if they spoke to him at all. Now, Zacchaeus’s name is called by the person of Love Incarnate. Probably for the first time ever, Zacchaeus hears his own name resound in warm tones ringing with delight, friendliness and affection. It sounds as though Zacchaeus were dearer to Jesus than life; as though Jesus had now found the one he had been searching for – for years.
Zacchaeus has rarely been at a loss for words in his adult life. He is usually ready with clever rejoinders to whatever is said to him. In business affairs, his sarcasm was dismayingly prompt and devastating. But suddenly, he cannot think of what to say to this man whose very aura is compelling and whose face is radiantly welcoming. He stares at Jesus, feeling like a young child. He so wants what Jesus has, so wants to be part of who Jesus is.
After a moment, Jesus continues in the same glad and hearty tones, ‘Come down!’ Years later, Zacchaeus will tell how he knew even at that moment that those words meant more than simply “Come down from that tree.” They meant, re-evaluate your whole way of being. Come down from this tough, rich-man persona you have created and think you need. You don’t need it. You don’t even want it any more. Come down below, to where I am, with your feet on the ground.
But at this particular moment of the encounter, what does Zacchaeus do? Zacchaeus continues to stand on his tree-branch like a statue. He is stunned. He doesn’t move. So Jesus urges him, ‘Hurry!’ This word is also a word full of deeper resonance for Zacchaeus. Slaves hurried. Zaccheus was a wealthy man and didn’t need to hurry. It wasn’t fitting. He was too important. But he longs to hurry now. He still doesn’t move. He is too confused, too startled. Too happy. He desperately wants to jump down from his branch, but he is momentarily stuck.
But here now, Zacchaeus, Jesus is speaking to you without ceremony, and with urgency, as a man speaks to a close friend: he is telling you to get moving. He has something to ask of you. Here it is: ‘Because today I must stay at your house!’ But he is also offering something to you. He is offering himself. He’s saying, “I, Jesus, am your friend, and I invite myself and my followers to your house for dinner. Only friends make so bold. I am tired and so are my companions. And we are all hungry. You have a big house and a lot of servants. Well? Will you befriend us? I offer you a place among my friends. Isn’t this exactly what you long for?”
At last Zacchaeus seems to come out of his trance. He looks dazed, but he suddenly comprehends what all this means. Jumping like a boy from his branch, ‘he hurries down and welcomes Jesus joyfully.’ He is not the same man who swung into that tree a short while before. Everything is different now. He knows that this is not simply about dinner. He is getting ready to shed years of pain – emotional pain he had lived with for so long that he had ceased to regard it as pain at all. He thought that what he felt inside was simply the price of existence itself – if he thought about it at all. But now he sees that there is a different way to exist. He was barely able to articulate this difference just yet, but as he strode ahead, excitedly pointing out the way to his house, and talking now with a ready flow of words, he was inwardly planning how he would be the new person he felt he had suddenly become, how he would be the friend of Jesus, not merely today, but for the rest of his life.
But wait, what’s going on? There is some commotion in the crowd. The people seem put out. The ones nearby Jesus’ group have sent the perplexing message around: ‘Jesus has gone to stay at a sinner’s house!’ Now the crowd is straining to see if this is true. Zacchaeus is too short to be seen, but they clearly see Jesus smiling, and some of his closest companions looking happy, too. One is even wiping his eyes. They see them preparing to leave together, and yes, they see that Zacchaeus seems to be the centre of attention. He is actually being embraced by some of Jesus’ friends. They look relieved and grateful. Grateful? Because of Zacchaeus? And they are all heading in the direction of his house. The atmosphere in the crowd changes, and angry voices are beginning to surround Jesus and his newly enlarged group. They don’t understand. That horrible tax collector whom they all despised and had relegated to the outermost edges of their lives is suddenly in the inner circle of this holy man’s friends. What is this?
But now, Zacchaeus is ready. He hears the bewildered comments and knows that it is up to him to do something, to act, to explain. Jesus is now his friend, and he is Jesus’ friend, and this means he needs to make some changes. He shouts his promise to Jesus with conviction – and it feels so wonderful, so free to declare the words, ‘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.’ He pauses, panting slightly. He knows Jesus understands the full import of his declaration. Zacchaeus means: now I am a new man. I have a new identity; I am the friend of Jesus, because Jesus befriended me. He did this completely out of the blue, not as a reward for any good deeds of mine for I had no good deeds. He offered his friendship because he is friendship, he is love. The false self, the hurt child, the unscrupulous tax collector, the cheat, the cynic, the bully – he saw through all that, and his friendship has healed me. Jesus endorses this in his words:
‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham, for the Son of man has come to seek out and save what was lost.’
And that seems to be the end of St Luke’s tale of Zacchaeus. But we can linger over these last words of Jesus – as Zacchaeus must have done late that night when everyone else had fallen asleep. How healing Jesus’ words are. There is no hesitation on Jesus’ part. No cynical words like, “Ha. We’ll see how long this lasts. You’ve been a liar and a thief most of your life and now you expect us to believe that you will keep these promises?” Not a word was spoken to that effect. Such remarks would have immediately condemned Zacchaeus to failure, imprisoned him in his past. They would have been murderous words. But that is not the way Jesus is with Zacchaeus or with anyone, ever. Instead, he reinforces Zacchaeus’s good resolution by believing in it and him. He also regards Zacchaeus’s promise as sufficient. There is no lecture along the lines of, “Right, my good man. Repaying those you ruined four times the amount you stole is not as generous as it sounds! Those people need at least that much in order to start all over again. And as for giving half your property to the poor, you will barely even feel the loss, you have so much property as it is.” Jesus does not say anything of the sort here, nor does he ever do so in the gospels. He is friendship, love and forgiveness. So great is his mercy and love that he is always ready to envision our good resolutions as actual achievements, and not merely as unfulfilled promises. This is what friendship with Jesus means.
Let’s conclude by reflecting that Zacchaeus had been an unhappy, wounded person. He managed to surround himself with the comforts of wealth, but he did so to the detriment of his emotional life and his need for human relationships. Jesus, simply by being Jesus, awakened Zacchaeus both to the longings of his own human woundedness and to his deepest human potential. In awakening these longings, Jesus also immediately offered himself as the fulfilment of Zacchaeus’s longings and the healing of his wounds. This shows us what we may courageously hope for from our relationship with Jesus. Perhaps we are in a place where we are tentatively groping toward something, and we do not know what it is. Maybe we are metaphorically on that tree branch, just watching, as Zacchaeus was. Maybe we see Jesus turning to us. Zacchaeus’s story tells us that we can be confident that Jesus will befriend us, too, and offer us as much healing forgiveness with the same joy as he gave to Zacchaeus. He will also ask something of us: to allow him, and his dearest companions into our home.