We often associate tree climbing with child’s play—it’s an action that requires flexible limbs and a daring outlook that only winks at the possibility of risk. I can’t imagine it being much different in the ancient world. To see a man quickly climbing up a tree just to get a glimpse of another must have been perceived as childish and perhaps a little embarrassing.
The Gospel today speaks of a short-statured man who grew quickly in the eyes of God. Zacchaeus may be chuckled at for his stature, but he can be looked up to as a model of faith in action. At the time Christ comes to his town of Jericho, Zacchaeus is not an upstanding man. But something about Jesus calls to him, so much so that Zacchaeus is willing to do anything—even climb up a tree—just to catch a glimpse of him. The beginning of the Gospel mentions that Jesus “intended to pass through the town.” However, upon encountering Zacchaeus, he stops, calls him by name, and accompanies him to his home to dine with him. And Zacchaeus’ response is joy.
This joy comes from a newfound generosity blooming in Zacchaeus’ heart. The man who once extorted his community responds quickly and tells Jesus he will give away half his possessions to the poor. Furthermore, he pledges to repay—four times over—anyone he has extorted. The man, called a sinner by the rest of the town, has been called by name by Christ and responds with faith in action. He has experienced conversion, and his actions result in Christ saying, “today salvation has come to this house.”
Is this how we await Christ, so longingly that will we do anything just to glimpse him? Or are we off somewhere else in the town of Jericho, distracted or lukewarm to the knowledge that Christ walks in our midst? What if every member of the Church—the clergy, religious, the laity—awaited Christ with the expectation of Zacchaeus? It is this desire and willingness that has disposed his heart to be receptive to God’s work. It is a small glimmer of the receptivity of Mary when she gave her fiat at the Annunciation. And through this, God can work miracles—the birth of a Savior from a virgin womb, the conversion of a short-statured, greedy sinner.
As a Church, we often go back and forth between roles. We are the sinful people called to encounter Christ and bring his mercy and joy to the world, but we can also play the role of Christ in our work of evangelization. Christ—who calls Zacchaeus by name and is not afraid to dine with sinners. Christ—who changes his plans in order to minister to those right in front of him. Christ—who comes “to seek and to save what was lost.” As Pope Francis said in his closing homily at the end of the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, “That is how God operates. He gets personally involved with preferential love for every person. By his actions, he already communicates his message. Faith thus flowers in life.” And what are Zacchaeus’ actions if not faith flowering?
This flowering faith is what Pope Francis and the Synod Fathers are reminding the Church of once more as the Synod has come to a close. Almost a month out from this historic event, we are called to ponder deeply the prompting of the Holy Spirit and, like Zacchaeus, seek an encounter with Christ. It is this encounter with a personal God who calls us by name that will enable us to go out, as Zacchaeus did, with generous joy to repay our debts and minister to the poor and lowly.
Let us call our brothers and sisters on the fringes by name. Let us put aside our preconceived notions of ministry and evangelization and answer to the needs of the moment. Let us sit and dine with our brothers and sisters. “Let us ask ourselves whether, as Christians, we are capable of becoming neighbours, stepping out of our circles and embracing those who are not ‘one of us’, those whom God ardently seeks.”
Today, let us carry the light of Christ in our hearts and imitate him in seeking and saving what was lost.