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Ashley McKinlessNovember 21, 2023
“Zacchaeus,” by Niels Larsen Stevns (Wikimedia Commons)

A Reflection for the Memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Find today’s readings here.

“At that time Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town.
Now a man there named Zacchaeus,
who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man,
was seeking to see who Jesus was;
but he could not see him because of the crowd,
for he was short in stature.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus,
who was about to pass that way” (Lk 19:1-4)

If you have the chance to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I recommend making a stop in Jericho. In addition to being one of the oldest cities in the world—archaeologists have found settlements there dating back to 9,000 B.C.—it is also the site of one of my favorite Gospel stories: the conversion of Zacchaeus. At a major intersection in the city, you will find a large, old sycamore tree, which “by tradition” is the one Zacchaeus climbed up to catch a glimpse of Jesus. When I visited Jericho with my family 12 years ago, our Franciscan guide informed us that, “by tradition,” the shortest person in the group had the honor of reading this Gospel story in the shade of the sycamore tree. Standing at 5 feet 0 inches, I easily earned that honor.

I don’t only love today’s reading because I, too, am short in stature (and like to climb trees). I find Zacchaeus relatable in deeper ways. He seemingly has it all but knows he is missing something. He is the town’s chief tax collector and, we are told, a “wealthy man.” But because of his occupation and wealth, he is also hated in his community. Jewish tax collectors were seen as collaborators with the oppressive Roman authorities, and they were known to demand extra fees to enrich themselves.

Perhaps it’s because he was used to being an outsider that Zacchaeus wasn’t afraid to make himself look a bit ridiculous by climbing up that tree. And it pays off. Jesus not only sees him but deeply knows him. Jesus knows that Zacchaeus wants something from him but has something to give, too. Someone once told me if you want to befriend a person, ask them for a favor. It sounds counterintuitive, but we all know how it feels to be needed. Jesus seems to know this about Zacchaeus. Here is someone who can afford the finest food and wine, but has no one to share his bounty with. Who would want to dine with a tax collector? So Jesus tells him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” It’s striking for its urgency: Why can Jesus only stay at Zacchaeus’s house? What’s the hurry?

But of course, welcoming Jesus into our homes and our hearts is always an urgent matter, something we have to do right now, not when it’s most convenient. Having agreed to let Jesus stay at his house, Zacchaeus’s conversion goes deeper. He realizes that he not only wants a relationship with Jesus but with the community he has wronged. To restore those relationships, he knows he must give his money to the poor and return his ill-gotten gains, four times over. At the end of the Gospel, he may not have it all anymore, but Zacchaeus has gained something of incalculable worth: Christ’s salvation.

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