One thing that I remember from my grade school days at St. Joseph parish in Manchester was a mural that we had in one of our stairwells portraying the Gospel passage that we read today, about Jesus and Zacchaeus. I haven’t seen too many paintings or depictions of this story, so that’s the image that sticks with me. It’s not really much of a painting like the Mona Lisa or anything, and to me, Zacchaeus kind of looked like a hobbit or something. But one thing that it did portray was one thing that is central to this story: the love in Jesus’ eyes. Most explanations of the story that I used to hear as a child focused more on the fact that Zacchaeus was short more than anything, but he’s really not the point. Not that I want to belittle Zacchaeus, but really, the story is about Jesus.
In the Gospel today, we hear that Zacchaeus was a tax collector and a wealthy man. We wasn’t really the greatest role model, because he was rich for a reason, and tax collecting wasn’t really the highest paying job in the world. He was a wealthy man because he had cheated other people! He really was half the man that Jesus was. But he hears about this Jesus, and wants to learn a little more, so he climbs a tree. But it turns out that Jesus actually seeks him out, calling to him and telling him that he needs to stay at his house. Basically, he was inviting himself over. That’s a tall order, but how does Zacchaeus respond? He could have simply said, “No thanks,” or he could have been insulted that Jesus would be so presumptuous.
Now I want to go back to the tree thing for a second – why was Zacchaeus sitting up there looking awkward in a sycamore tree in the first place? The gospels say that it was because he was too short, but I really don’t buy that. I’m not doubting the inerrancy of Scripture or anything, but anyone who has ever done anything with children in crowds knows that little people can always find a way to push through. A kid going toward something he wants doesn’t care if he’s little – he just squeezes his way through.
So why was he in the tree? I think it was because he was scared. He knew that he had issues. He knew that he was dishonest and greedy and selfish, and that he had done wrong, even to some of the people that were in the crowd with him! When we do something that is wrong, or when we’re feeling guilty, the last thing that we do is tell our mothers or let everyone know. The first reaction to guilt is to hide ourselves. So I think Zacchaeus was scared, guilty, and he hid himself.
But how does he respond when Jesus turns to him and says, “Zacchaeus, get down from there. I have to go to your home!” He opens his heart to Jesus’ invitation, and came down quickly to welcome him. He wasn’t concerned at that point what others would think, or what his reputation would be. He welcomed Jesus in and allowed his heart to be transformed.
Now here’s something that really caught my attention. Jesus told Zacchaeus, “I must stay at your house.” Now that makes it sound like a visit – he’s coming over, they’re going to eat some lasagna, maybe play some Scrabble afterwards, and he’s going home. But in Greek, the language the Gospel was written in, it’s pretty clear that Jesus has something else in mind. The word more accurately means “to abide.” Abide. Now that’s more than just staying. It’s a lasting, intimate relationship. It is staying with someone or remaining with someone, yes, but it finds its roots in love for that person. Jesus wanted to abide in Zacchaeus, and he wants to abide in us as well.
It took a lot for Zacchaeus to go from hiding in a tree to receiving Jesus to abide in his home. Now I don’t know what kinds of trees in which you find yourself hiding from Jesus as he passes by. It could be drinking excessively or dependently, it could be gossiping about coworkers or classmates, it could be criticizing or bullying people on Facebook, it could be pornography. There are so many trees that we hide ourselves in, and I don’t know which is yours. But Christ wants to abide in you, to make you a living tabernacle. How many of us, when we hear those words, would turn away because we think that if Jesus really knew what kind of person we are, or how guilty we are, he wouldn’t want to abide there? He calls to you, asking you not to waste your life sitting in the tree of your own sinfulness, and welcome him.
He wants to be with us, even when we’re weak, even when we’re in the dark places, feeling like we’re about to commit those sins again. He is there, contemplating the scene and trying to show us love and mercy. That is a love that he has shown even from the foundations of the world, even from the moment of our conception. That’s pure love, and it’s a love that we have trouble understanding because we usually don’t know how to show it to others. It’s a kind of love that only God can show. Jesus chose to abide in Zacchaeus, not because he was rich or perfect, or because he had a nice house or anything, but because he needed the Lord. We need to remember this fact: we aren’t loved because we are good, we are good because we are loved.
The Lord yearns to dwell in our hearts, but first we must come down out of the tree of our sinfulness and welcome him. Do we truly wish to see Jesus, or are we afraid of how he might transform us? As we receive the Lord today, aware of our faults and failings, let us open the doors of our hearts and invite the Lord to abide within us. And then, just as Zacchaeus was transformed by Christ’s love, let us allow ourselves to be changed to be fitting tabernacles, dwelling places of the Lord. Amen.