The image of the Good Shepherd is universally beloved. Christians see Jesus seeking out a stray. This was the most popular statue of Jesus in the ancient world partially because Romans used the image of carrying a sheep for Apollo caring for his devotees. A Christian could go to a sculptor and ask for an Apollo with lamb without causing suspicion. Jews saw the dutiful Shepherd as a sign of divine rule and care as we know from the 23rd Psalm. Also, the prophet Ezekiel used the image of the bad shepherd as the ultimate condemnation of the leaders of Jerusalem. These are particularly powerful passages and many of Jesus’ original listeners would have thought they condemned Jesus for reaching out to Zacchaeus. Luke would have understood this feeling, used it and we can understand the power of this passage only if we do as well.
Zacchaeus is a tax collector. We met one in last week’s gospel in the temple. Tax collectors were Jews who worked for the Roman occupiers and were hated and disowned by other Jews. If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we would have felt and done the same. To do this tax collectors were very well compensated and trapped both by their obligations to the Romans, not a forgiving lot; and by the love of money, a chain stronger than iron. Zaccheus was the chief tax collector and a wealthy man.
Like the tax collector in the temple, Zacchaeus is having second thoughts about his position. How can he escape the golden cage he has made for himself? He has heard about Jesus and is interested in meeting him. Jesus would have done much of his instruction walking with disciples and as he entered a town or village more people would follow him to listen to his words. It would be difficult for a short person to see, much less hear him. Therefore, Zacchaeus climbs a tree so that he could see who this Jesus was. Much to his and everyone else’s shock, Jesus calls him by name and then invites himself to dinner. These are both signs of intimacy. Zacchaeus accepts immediately and joyfully, but the others are appalled. Why would he want a relationship with a traitor? Has he become a Roman stooge as well? Does he want a share of the profits? Is he not a bad shepherd like the ones condemned by Ezikiel who put their profits ahead of the needs of the people?
Although we read the story of the tax collector in the temple last week, several things have occurred that we have not read at Sunday Mass. He has met the rich official. (Luke 18:18-23) This was a good man who observed the law and wants to do more but when asked to “sell what you have and give to the poor” became quite sad and left Jesus “for he was very rich”.
Zaccheus on the other hand received Jesus with Joy, the surest sign of the presence of God. He then promised to give half of his possessions to the poor although he was required to give no more than 10 percent and if he extorted from anyone, he promised to repay it 4 times over. The law only required double.
He was waiting for Jesus to release him. Let us remember the parable of the Sower. (Luke 8:1-15) The word of God is always fruitful, but some people are better prepared to accept it than others. Some plots are waiting to be planted and some are not. For Luke, Our Blessed Lady is the prime example of perfect soil; the rest of us need some help and the right timing. The rich man who asked Jesus about what to do next was not prepared to make the next step, he was not ready. Zaccheus was and Jesus sowed the seed.
This was not purely a matter of faith in Jesus but a change in the way he lived and a return to the community. He was a son of Abraham and now he was restored to his people. The experience of salvation is completed when a person has become part of the people of God: salvation always ends with joining the LORD’S family.
In the passage immediately before Zacchaeus a blind beggar hearing that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by calls out to him to have pity on him. Jesus recognizes his faith and restores his sight.
Luke’s readers approach today’s passage aware of the power of riches to bind us and the power of faith to free us. Jesus however adds another dimension, it is not our faith in him that is most important but his faith in us. He does not wait for Zacchaeus to call out to him but singles him out and as he is in a tree in the most public way possible. He is truly the good shepherd who will take a risk to find a lost sheep. (Luke 15:1-7) and indeed rejoices when the sheep is found. Jesus risks his position within his community to save him.
There are lovely people in our community who we would like to join our church, indeed parish. Some are ex- Catholics, others people who have not heard of Jesus, but would fit in very well. Catechizing them requires a good cheerleader not a good shepherd. The good shepherd is one who will meet those who are not lovely, indeed the tax collectors of our own day. Insert here your personal political, racial, ethnic, or social pariahs. We understand the meaning of the story of Zaccheus not when we realize why Jesus had to call outsiders to come to him to be himself, but that we must call them to join us to be ourselves.
We do not know where anyone is on their life’s journey. No one in the crowd in Jericho imagined that Zacchaeus was ready for a conversion, that he was good soil for the good news. But are their Zaccheauses waiting among us to be called down from their trees and invited to dine with us?