Jesus was accustomed to going out on a limb for people who were poor, sick, possessed by demons or marginalized. He deliberately sought out such people. So when Jesus got to Jericho, with its luxurious villas of the rich, he did not even plan to stop there (Lk 19:1). The elite gravitated there because it was balmy all year round. Only 23 miles from Jerusalem, which has an elevation of 2,700 feet, Jericho lies 770 feet below sea level—the lowest city on earth. Moreover, the Dead Sea lies only 10 miles to the south, with its spas and healing waters laden with salts and minerals. With its perennial spring, Jericho is an oasis in the desert, dotted with palm trees and producing luscious fruit all year round. The people who could afford to live or vacation there were not the sort who were looking for what Jesus had to offer.
In addition, Jesus may have wanted to move quickly past Jericho because the Herodians, who wanted to kill him (13:31), had winter palaces there. Luke notes that Herod (Antipas) had long had a desire to see Jesus (9:9), a desire that is finally fulfilled after Jesus’ arrest (23:8). In today’s Gospel, Zacchaeus also desires to see Jesus and goes to extraordinary lengths to do so.
Zacchaeus has become rich himself, but through a most ignoble profession. Hated by his own people as a quisling of Rome, he would also have been despised for lining his own pockets with money extorted in his work. No one would take the job of tax collector unless he were desperate. Rare would be one who could work the system to make himself as rich as Zacchaeus. One wonders what it had cost him to become chief tax collector. What values had he compromised? What people had he defrauded? What relationships had been sacrificed?
In an instant Zacchaeus risks the social stature he has so carefully built up. Small in physical stature, he acts in a most undignified way, racing ahead of the crowd and climbing a tree. When Jesus sees how far out on a limb Zacchaeus has gone, he does the same. Calling him down, Jesus announces he must stay at Zacchaeus’ house. Grumbling and criticism of Jesus for staying with a sinner immediately follow. But the risk Jesus takes for Zacchaeus is worth it.
Like Martha, who received (hypedexato) Jesus into her home (10:38), and like Mary Magdalene, whose discipleship was expressed in financial service (8:3), so Zacchaeus receives (hypedexato) Jesus with joy, opening his heart and his wallet in generous outreach. Zacchaeus declares that half his possessions will go to the poor, and any ill-gotten money he will repay four times over. In addition to his dignity and reputation, Zaccheus now risks his financial security and his social standing among his rich cohorts. The Gospel is not specific about the ways in which Zaccheus felt lost, nor what prompted him to look to Jesus to be found. Nonethe-less, Jesus perceives Zac-chaeus’ need and leaves with him the saving grace to negotiate the challenges ahead.
Jesus does not ask Zacchaeus to leave behind his profession nor to give away the rest of his possessions. Rather, he meets him in the place of his seeking and opens up a saving way forward within his circumstances. One wonders what it will cost Zacchaeus to live out of this saving grace. Will he be ostracized by the Jericho elites? Will he follow Jesus out onto the final limb, the tree of the cross? Will his life, like that of Jesus, seed new shoots of hope and life? Will ours?