Jesuits of an earlier generation learned the basics of the spiritual life from a book titled The Practice of Christian and Religious Perfection. After chapters reflecting on topics like “The Dangers of Vainglory,” the author offered illustrations from lives of the saints under the heading “The previous, confirmed by diverse examples.” Some of these examples were legendary or difficult to understand out of original context. Most of them, however, emphasized the important point that the Gospel was not a mythic ideal but rather an effective means of transformation.
‘For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.’ (Lk 19:10)
Are you attached to something that draws your attention from Christ?
Who in your world is ready to hear a different message?
What can you say to them?
This is Luke’s strategy in this Sunday’s Gospel passage. The story of Zacchaeus is the example that confirms the truth of last Sunday’s Gospel reading, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18:9-14). Tax collectors in Israel were loathsome agents of a foreign power. Informants told them who had harvested a bumper crop or who had made a profitable exchange in the marketplace, and they then showed up to demand a percentage. Rome even allowed them to take taxes in kind from those who had no cash; such seizures could include the sale of a family’s children into slavery. By such means, even “honest” tax collectors grew both rich and hated.
Luke shows repeatedly that at least some tax collectors were conflicted about their duties. Many came out to hear the preaching first of John the Baptist (Lk 3:12) and then of Jesus (Lk 7:29; 15:1). Because they were so hated, pious Israelites avoided them and never reached out with an invitation to change their lives. Without any encouragement to change, it was easy for tax collectors to cling to what they knew—the accumulation of wealth, and the sense of power that went along with it.
In this Gospel reading, Luke shows the nature of real power. Jesus knew the Father’s love and shared it in unexpected places. Jesus reached out with a request for hospitality. That simple word of friendship was all Zacchaeus needed to undergo a complete transformation.
Luke symbolizes Zacchaeus’s conversion by revealing a change in his relationship to material possessions. C. S. Lewis once observed that the greatest sinners and greatest saints are made of the same stuff. Luke shows us something similar here. Zacchaeus had accumulated wealth with zeal. He even implies (though he carefully does not admit) that he may have defrauded one or more individuals in the course of his duties. Now, because of a kind gesture from Jesus, he turns that same zeal to the service of the Gospel.
Thus Luke makes it clear to his readers that the Gospel has an effect. The parables of Jesus, like the one about the Pharisee and the tax collector, are not ideals drawn from an alternate reality. The example of Zacchaeus shows that they are accurate portraits of the real world. We fail to see their truth only when we ourselves become mesmerized by wealth, power and other worldly allurements. Instead, Christ’s disciples must continue to seek out the company of sinners, even great sinners, for many of these are on the threshold of conversion, awaiting only a sign of God’s love—perhaps from us—to become great saints.