The Book of Wisdom, is the youngest book of the Jewish Bible and was written into excellent Greek at Alexandria in Egypt where the Torah was translated into Greek about 50 years before Jesus was born.
Wisdom attempts to promote service to the God of Israel as the most meaningful way of life. It speaks of eternal life and accentuates God’s loving patience-and-it introduces a new title for God: “Lover of souls.”
The title-phrase “lover of souls” is dramatically carried out in today’s Gospel with Zacchaeus. God would have to be a lover of souls to love Zacchaeus. His story is an ancient version of “Guess who’s coming to dinner.” Zacchaeus is one of the most curious “characters” in the Gospels. He lives in Jericho, a city located about 15 miles east of Jerusalem near where the Jordan empties into the Dead Sea. Jericho is recognized as the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. On this day, a visitor enters Jericho and it will forever be remembered not merely for its longevity.
Zacchaeus was, in our politically correct jargon, “vertically challenged.” He was short. Also, he was less than “cool.” We hear of him, as an adult, running ahead and shinnying up a tree to try to see a passing celebrity, Jesus. Zacchaeus climbed the tree to see Jesus, but it was Jesus who envisions Zacchaeus.
What was it about Jesus and his message that offered Zacchaeus something that all his money and power as chief tax collector could not supply? Zacchaeus wanted something more. What it was propelled him to run ahead and climb the sycamore tree?
Zacchaeus was all too aware of relentless rejection by his fellow Jews. Jewish people then and now are not bashful about saying what they think. Jesus had several options when he saw Zacchaeus in that tree. He could have berated him as he did the Pharisees. He could have pointed up at him and confronted his self-centered greed and dishonesty, his exploitation of his own people.
Instead, Jesus said, “Let’s do lunch.” A lot of things happened rapidly when Jesus invited himself to eat with Zacchaeus. Jesus went to eat in perhaps the finest house in Jericho. The Jews were astonished at Jesus eating with a sinner. His disciples may have tried to disappear, not knowing what to say after Jesus’ latest surprise. Jesus accepted Zacchaeus just as he was. This was precisely what Zacchaeus needed: acceptance from an obviously good person in spite of his sins. Zacchaeus means pure or righteous. He began to live up to his name that day.
Zacchaeus was amazingly moved, promising to give half his fortune to the poor and make quadruple amends for what he had taken unjustly. It was the power of Jesus’ acceptance that could work that miracle of conversion.
This is an important lesson for us followers of Jesus. If we do not associate with those called sinners and only condemn them, what hope is there for them? There is a standoff, not an opportunity for conversion. Someone “living Jesus” who accepts the sinner and does not dwell on the sin can dissolve the distance between them in Christian love.
Jesus said to Zacchaeus: “Today salvation has come to this house since he also is a son of Abraham. For the son of man is come to seek and to save the lost.”
What an inspiring message. Jesus loves us to life in the Eucharist, forgiving us, inviting us into an ongoing relationship of love that witnesses to the depths of his mercy.