The conversion of Zacchaeus

15th Sunday after the Cross

The conversion of Zacchaeus

Luke 19:1-10

Encounter of Two Searches

By Archbishop Cyrille Salim Bustros

“The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost”

With this Sunday we start our journey to Lent as preparation to the Great feast of Pascha. Lent is the time of repentance and conversion. Our journey begins by the story of the conversion of a tax collector Zacchaeus, which is also the story of our conversion. Every encounter we read in the Gospel between Jesus and a man is a model of the encounter between Jesus and each and every one of us.

Zacchaeus was a tax collector, at the service of the Romans who were occupying Israel. At that time, the kings rented entire districts to anyone who was able to bring ready cash, leaving to his discretion the collection of taxes on goods that the people brought to the town or to the city to sell. Since no one controlled these tax collectors, they tried to make as much money as possible and imposed unbearable taxes on people. Zacchaeus was a troubled man. As a tax collector, he was hated by the Jews because he was collaborating with the occupants of Israel; and as a Jew, he was also hated by the Romans, because he belonged to the nation they despised.

Zacchaeus was rich but he was not happy. He had in the bottom of his heart the desire to salvation. He sought to see Jesus no matter what. To fulfill his desire he invented a way to see Jesus: he climbed on a tree, exposing himself to the ridicule of the crowd. He was seeking to see Jesus, but at the same time Jesus was seeking to see him. He had a desire to see Jesus; and at the same time Jesus had a desire to see him. Sometimes we think that God is too far from us and does not care of us. On the contrary, “The Son of Man, said Jesus, came to seek out and save the lost”.

In this story we have two desires, the desire of man to see God, and the desire of God to see man; two searches: the search of man after God, and the search of God after man; and two looks: the look of man to God, and the look of God to man. Man is not alone. He is created in the image of God. Even though he is separated from God by his sin, the image of God in him drives him incessantly to God, in order to find the fulfillment of his being in the union with God.

God is always ready to answer the search of man. “Ask, said Jesus, and it will be given to you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Mt. 7:7). A simple step towards God, and we find that God is waiting for us. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. He did a little step: he climbed on a tree. Jesus saw him and gave him more than he expected. He not only could see Jesus, but he could also receive him in his own house. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today”. Not only can you see me, but we can spend a good time together. Don’t fool yourself: if you really want to encounter Jesus, you will not be the same as before; the encounter with Jesus will change you. That’s what happened to Zacchaeus: He “stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possession, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” A new life begun for Zacchaeus! No more stealing, no more cheating, no more selfishness; but a life of conversion to justice, to love, to generosity. A radical change, because of an encounter with the Lord!

Jesus, hearing what Zacchaeus said, answered him: “Today salvation has come to this house.” What does salvation mean? “Very truly I tell you, said Jesus, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36). Salvation is first to be free from sin, second to live as a son in the household of God. These are the two aspects of salvation: salvation from sin, and from all that sin represents: selfishness, hatred, greed, pride; and salvation to a life of freedom and friendship with God and to all that life with God represents, summarized in the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

We have a strong desire to see Jesus and to stay with him. He more than us has this strong desire to come to us and stay with us. We read in the Book of Revelation: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (3:20). That is the symbol of a life of friendship with Jesus: we like to eat with our friends; Jesus likes to eat with us; and to eat with Jesus means to share the same values of love, good and truth, and to enjoy the same life. That is conversion: to change our sinful way to the holy way of Jesus.

The Gospel tells us that Zacchaeus “was happy to welcome Jesus”. The encounter with Jesus is always a source of happiness for us. Let us open our heart to Jesus, let us be happy to welcome him in the house of our heart: to welcome his holy Word, and to welcome his holy Body and his precious Blood in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. And let him change us, let him restore the pure image of God in us; let him divinize us. Only the infinite can satisfy the desire of the human heart. With Jesus, who is the incarnation of the infinite Word of God, we can reach the fulfillment of this desire; with Jesus we can reach peace and happiness.