You’re aware, I’m sure, that the Bible as we know it is actually a collection of very small books by different authors who lived at different times in a variety of places. The selection of this particular set of books called the Bible was made by the bishops of the early church out of many other documents having to do with the life, the person, the actions, and the teachings of Jesus.
But why in the world was the passage we just heard from St. Luke’s version of the Good News preserved, the one about a tiny man who shinnies up a tree – a sycamore tree, the author bothers to tell us – in order just to get a glimpse of this Jesus about whom he has heard so many glowing comments? Anyone is entitled to a guess, of course, but we must also be guided by what the church itself some 2000 years ago judged to be the meaning of the homely narrative.
To appreciate what is being said here, we have to keep in mind that in Jesus’ day and in his society tax collectors were among the most despised of all persons. The reason for this was that the tax collectors were themselves Jews in the employ of the Roman government. It was their job to force their own people, poor as most of them were, to pay taxes to this occupying government that they hated with a passion. It had to baffle the enthusiastic followers of Jesus that he would respectfully address this tax collector — this public sinner — and, moreover, ask to eat at his house. There must have been some in the crowd who abandoned Jesus that day because they no longer could accept his strange, disturbing ways. Interesting, also, that Jesus took that chance, knowing what damage he could be doing to his own image and his reputation.
What Christian tradition has always seen in this dramatic happening is that Jesus respected everyone, found the good in everyone, even those who, for valid reason, were scorned by others.
I once heard a psychologist say that the word “respect,” that we use as a synonym for “honor,” can also mean “to look again” – “re-spect.” “Spect:” to see, to look. (These are spectacles that I’m wearing.) “Re:” again. Respect: to take another look. For what purpose? To pierce the obvious, visible surface of this other person and penetrate as nearly as possible to his or her core. To see not merely what presents itself exteriorly, but, far more important, also what lies deep within.
That’s what Jesus did with Zacchaeus and what he does with each of us. By allowing the man to do a good deed – in this case, to provide hospitality for a hungry, weary itinerant preacher, he in turn calls forth the man’s better self, the Zacchaeus that no one had ever seen as he went about his nasty job as a low-level civil servant.
Many years ago, I experienced something very much like that, when I worked on a physically demanding community project with a group of persons, some of whom I did not know very well at all. We put our heads together to plan the project largely on the spot, and then for a few days we strained our aging & aching muscles to the limit. We ate together a couple of times; we shared personal stories and lots of good laughs. And what happened was so similar to what occurred between Jesus and Zacchaeus: we discovered goodness in each other that we had never noticed before; we found reason to love and honor each other; I felt that we found God in each other.
You’ve experienced the same, I’m sure. Maybe the message for us is to welcome it again as often as we can.