There was a man named Zachaeus, who was the head of the Publicans and very rich. He was trying to see Jesus, who he was, but he was un able to do so because of the crowd for he was short.
This story of the conversion of the head tax collector, Zachaeus, from a grasping and oppressive way of life to a repentant follower of Christ suggests much more than it states explicitly. To realize just how striking an incident this change of heart was we need to be aware that Zachaeus had to be a rather unscrupulous and hardened character to have succeeded so largely in his profession. At the time of Jesus there were no tax codes that determined by law the taxes owed by each tax-payer. The concept of justice had no place in the system; its one purpose was to assure the state of a reliable source of revenue. The government simply sold the tax franchise for a given territory to the highest bidder. Having obtained the authority to collect taxes the purchaser was free to assess the inhabitants as he considered feasible. The more he collected the more he himself made.
Delicacy of feeling clearly was not one of the prominent characteristics of such professionals. They were accustomed to squeeze the people for all they were worth. Being the chief of such a band surely required considerable willingness to threaten and pressure the relatively helpless populace; it also demanded a readiness to intimidate the tough and hardened subordinates who answered to him. The leader of such a circle had to be resourceful as well as unscrupulous, capable of holding his own when challenged unexpectedly by the men who worked under his supervi sion and who, no doubt, he forced to pay for his protection. Zachaeus was, to put it gently as possible, an outstanding success in an unsavory business. He was at once feared and despised.
Jesus, as he often proved, had a penetrating gift for reading hearts and character. What was it that he saw in this man's heart that he chose him out of a large crowd to bestow on him special attention? Whatever he observed about him, that Zachaeus made himself visible to Jesus by climbing a tree under which the Lord was to pass seems to have been a condition for the contact to be made at all. There is something quite disarming about a rich, prominent man putting aside any concern for his dignity and appearances and running ahead of the crowd to perch in a tree. He displayed in his conduct not only his decided resourcefulness but a certain simplicity and intensity of purpose. He was used to ignoring popular feeling and opinion, and his willingness to stand out, even to appear a bit ridiculous, served him to good purpose on this occasion. Are these the qualities that drew the Lord's attention to this man among so many admirers? In any case the Lord certainly perceived that some higher aspirations led to this remarkable display of eagerness to have some direct contact with himself.
Soon as Jesus acknowledged him and invited himself to his home for dinner, Zachaeus displays with striking readiness, his bold and decisive character. When people complained that such a man was not worthy of the recognition so spontaneously accorded him, Zachaeus remains undaunted. He makes a public declaration of his guilt and before all states his intention to make reparation. He measures up to the confidence the Lord showed him, responding with a generos ity of soul that matched his former assertiveness in exploiting his helpless victims.
This account of a conversion invites each of us to imitate Zachaeus in his lack of dependence on the approval of others. This trait, formerly associated with an indifference and even contempt for others, evolved into a true freedom, an inner liberty of spirit, once it found its proper object in Jesus, whom he recognized as the Savior. Dissatisfaction with this world's pleasures and the incipient love of divine truth and beauty are what drove Zachaeus to climb that tree to see the one whom he sensed was his one hope of a truly happy and fulfilled life. Willing ness to break with his past and to make a new beginning, paying the full cost of honesty, came easily to this direct and blunt man once he heard Jesus' voice inviting him to share his meal with himself. May we prove as generous and determined as we partake of this Eucharist with the Lord Jesus who came to call sinners and not the just.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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