“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him and he with me” (Rev. 3:20).
“Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house” (Luke 19:5).
Zacchaeus, the head tax collector of Jericho who found himself Jesus’ host, was both rich and a kind of outcast. His wealth came from heading up other tax collectors and from using his profession to defraud people. And his outcast status came from being one of those people who earned his living working for the hated Romans by collecting imperial taxes from his fellow Jews. Paying taxes is an unpleasant thing in any circumstance (people get elected by promising no new taxes!); being a tax collector for a tyrannical Empire puts a person in very bad odor with one’s neighbors. So it must have come as a great surprise when Jesus, a fellow Jew, invites himself into Zacchaeus’ home.
A wonderful conversion ensues. At one point in his hosting of Jesus, Zacchaeus says, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall replay it four times over.” At that, Jesus provides a grand commentary on what is happening: “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and save what was lost.”
Now, what exactly is going on here? And how did this wealthy criminal undergo such a conversion? I have my own hunch about what is happening. In the previous chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus had taught, “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” What follows immediately is a narrative about a rich official whose attachment to his wealth prevents him from letting go of that attachment and following Jesus. How different is the way the next rich man, Zacchaeus, approaches Jesus! When Zacchaeus learns that Jesus is coming to town, his whole purpose is simply “to see who Jesus was.” And being short of stature, he does what he needs to do in order to really see Jesus; he scampers up a Sycamore tree. What could be more childlike than climbing a tree to get a better view of something wonderful? Indeed he is receiving the kingdom of God—for that is what Jesus is inaugurating—and he is receiving it like a child. Whatever his flaws as a corrupt official, Zacchaeus is still capable of responding to goodness in a direct, childlike way when he encounters it—as he finds it here, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And he is transformed. He is inspired to own up to his exploitative ways and to make amends. And Jesus observes what is happening. To the extent that Zacchaeus was immersed in a pattern of social injustice, he was truly “lost”. But inspired to trust in the manner of his ancestor Abraham, he allows Jesus to invite himself into his home, and this encounter inspires him to mend his greedy ways. He experiences divine rescue, what Jesus calls “salvation.” He was childlike enough not to be attached to, and blinded by, his wealth, like the rich official of the previous chapter. So Jesus does not ask him to sell everything and give everything to the poor. All this particular rich guy needed was to stop exploiting people and to set things right.
What’s the take-away for us? I hear Jesus’ stunning challenge: “Today I must stay at your house.” Or, in words from today’s first reading, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” If we take a straightforward, childlike look, we will discover, to our astonishment, that this Jesus is none other than “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the source of God’s creation” (Rev. 3:14b). What will it take for me to respond to this presence of the Reign of God in a childlike way? If I respond appropriately, I’ll come out changed for the better. This encounter takes the “letting go” involved in prayer.