One of the most endearing Gospel moments is when Zacchaeus, a tax collector for the Romans, spotted Jesus entering Jericho from his perch in a tree (Lk 19:1-10). If sinners were ranked by the Jews, tax collectors would be right at the top. They were seen as traitors to their own people. And if ever there was a man with no friends, it was surely Zacchaeus. Other tax collectors most likely didn’t like him either since they competed with each other.
We are told that Zacchaeus was man of short stature. In order to spot Jesus, he was willing to make a fool of himself and climb a tree in order to see him over the heads of the crowd. I can imagine the Jews, seeing him perched in the tree, used this opportunity to scorn and mock him. Jesus shocks the crowd when he spots Zacchaeus. Of all the people to call to, Zacchaeus would have been the last—at least in the eyes of his fellow Jews.
Jesus then invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house to have a meal, which no doubt shocked the people witnessing this moment. Anyone in the crowd, by their own estimation, would have been more worthy than this traitor. But Jesus always does the unexpected. Instead of lifting up the mighty, he lifts up the lowly.
Seated among Sinners
While people were grousing over Jesus’ choice to host him for a meal, God’s grace was already having an effect on Zacchaeus. He was ready to make changes—to pay back what he cheated others. It’s called conversion, and it’s what grace can do. Can you imagine Zacchaeus’ house being filled with loud and boisterous tax collectors, while Jesus sat and enjoyed himself?
Jesus’ treatment of sinners leaves no one out. We can be sure that Jesus didn’t let the tax collectors go home without some words about their own lives. He would have challenged them on how they cheated for their own gain.
That is the point the Gospel of Luke makes to us. There is no one beyond God’s love. We all struggle with dividing people into good and bad; worthy and unworthy. It is automatic to us and to our own wounded human nature to have those feelings and make those judgments. But God wants no one to be lost. No matter what they deserve, God is bigger than sin. We are not. Jesus reminded us that God wants us to seek forgiveness for our sins and live.
We need God’s mercy. We are all sinners in the same boat. But what should make us happy is that, right in the middle of the boat, is Jesus. And you know what? He looks very comfortable in that spot.