One can listen to the homily here.
What does it mean to see Jesus? What does it mean to see not only with our eyes but with our faith for faith in Jesus is true sight. Faith in our Lord is sight that enlightens and saves. To really see and meet our Lord is to be invited, challenged to change. Those who really believe are known by the changes they undergo for the better. They mend what they’ve broken and heal what they have wounded.
Here we have the story of a small man who is not just physically small but morally small too. The Romans knew all about out-sourcing. They sold the rights to collect taxes to men like Zacchaeus who would then extract what they could from the local people. He and his kind are driven by greed, which is a type of idolatry, the worship of wealth. His greed leads him to collaborate with the oppressors of the Jewish people. Remember that it was Christ Himself who said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. How much more so when that wealth is gained through evil? Zacchaeus, as a tax collector, pays the Romans the money they should get from the local Jews and in return he gets the right to collect whatever he can from the locals. Zacchaeus’ sin does not end with this extortion because it was also a collaboration with the foreign, pagan, unclean and occupying forces of the Romans. In fact he was in charge of collecting taxes in his area. So Zacchaeus has become a traitor to his people and his faith. The tax collector is a symbol of the sinner: when we sin not only have we done wrong but we have betrayed our God and our neighbour and become morally unclean and spiritually smaller.
Zacchaeus the extortionist and collaborator is the man left out but he has heard of our Lord, of His teaching and His miracles and he is curious. He searches for Jesus but he is blocked by the crowd. The Fathers see in the crowd a symbol of our sins and our interior passions. Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus without understanding what seeing Jesus really means. Zacchaeus, the small man, must climb the tree, which is a symbol of the Cross. St Augustine notes that the Sycamore tree was considered the tree of ‘silly fruit’. St Paul says: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block indeed to the Jews but folly to the Gentiles.” The Sycamore, therefore, is a symbol of the Cross which is a folly to unbelievers and salvation to us who believe. Indeed Zacchaeus must go further than climb the tree for he must go out on a limb, that is he must risk all, risk his reputation and standing, make himself foolish even, in order to reach and to see Christ. He must climb above his pride, above his earthly cares and concerns. Last week we had the proud Pharisee boasting before God and the humble tax collector begging for mercy. Here we again have the tax collector, the sinner, humbling himself to reach salvation. Zacchaeus, in climbing the tree, dies to himself and is saved, having rejected the wisdom of the crowd and overcome his fear and his pride.
The Lord calls on Zacchaeus to “come down quickly” for there ought to be no delay in responding to God’s invitation, to His offer of mercy and forgiveness. Jesus invites Himself to Zaccheus’ home but it is He, the Lord, who is the true rich man and it is He who offers Zacchaeus true wealth, God’s mercy and forgiveness and eternal communion with Him. Christ is the true and best possible host, the most hospitable, for He has made of His own Self a hospital for sinners. It is He who offers true healing through the grace of His Sacrifice on the tree of the Cross made available to us in the Sacraments.
Note now the signs of true repentance and conversion in Zacchaeus. In giving half his goods to the poor and reimbursing four times the amount to those he has cheated Zacchaeus exceeds the demands of the Law (see Exodus 22:8) which required only that the thief pay back double what he took (there is no chopping off of hands in the Bible!). In fact Zacchaeus by offering a fourfold restitution is making restitution for his lack of mercy (see 2 Samuel 12:6). In response to Christ’s love and mercy Zacchaeus brings forth justice and mercy. He is now a true son of Abraham because he believes in Christ and cares for the poor, seeking to undo the harm he has done. Our proper response to God mercy’s ought to be the same.
We too are spiritually and morally small. In our heart of hearts we want to see Jesus and live but we too are blocked by the crowd. The crowd symbolises those forces within us and outside of us that are opposed to Christ, that mock, obstruct and discourage us. There are those around us who do not want us to change because it would mean their own lack of change would be obvious. People want us to change only in so far as comfortable for them. Real conversion can be threatening. Then there are the passions within us that resist change and drive us to stay with useless and destructive behaviours regardless of where they lead.
Our only hope is to turn to the tree of the Cross and to go out on a limb to seek the Lord. We must lay aside our pride and overcome our fear and by prayer and self-sacrifice climb to where we can meet the Lord. The best place to meet the Lord’s mercy is the Confessional. Reflect on your life daily, examine your conscience and go to Confession regularly. Look for ways, seek advice, on how you can change and beg the Lord for the grace to grow in holiness. Make reparation for the harm you have done to others through charity to the poor and cast yourself upon the Lord’s mercy. You will find that He is the best of hosts and will not turn you away. He has opened His arms to us on the Cross and He will never close them.