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Friday, November 1, 2019

"I must stay at your house" - 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 19:1-10
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.
When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said,
"Zacchaeus, come down quickly,
for today I must stay at your house."
And he came down quickly and received him with joy.
When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying,
"He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner."
But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord,
"Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor,
and if I have extorted anything from anyone
I shall repay it four times over."
And Jesus said to him,
"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 to save what was lost."


Though our Sunday lectionary readings skip the passage, just before this scene with Zacchaeus, Jesus famously told a rich man that if he wished to be saved, he must sell all he had and follow him (Lk 18:18-30). The crowds marveled at Jesus’ words: “who then can be saved?” Jesus immediately proceeded to answer their question, not with words, but by showing them the kind of people who can be saved. Indeed, in the next scene Jesus asks that a blind beggar be brought to him. “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus tells him. And, unlike the rich man, the text says that “immediately … he followed him.” Here, then, is a man “who can be saved” (Lk 18:35-43). 

It is the same with Zacchaeus in our Gospel reading for this week. Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus occurs right after his encounter with the blind beggar and is meant as another answer to the disciples’ question. But how is this so? The text says Zacchaeus is a “chief tax collector” and, as we know, tax collectors are notorious sinners ― they typically cheated people out of extra money for their own gain. So what is it about Zacchaeus that makes him the type of man who will be saved?  We might think it’s simply because Zacchaeus repents upon encountering Jesus: “half my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” This is definitely part of the story, but there is something even more fundamental at work.

Notice that the text describes Zacchaeus as “a wealthy man, [who] was seeking to see who Jesus was. Notice, too, what Jesus says to Zacchaeus after their interaction: “Today salvation has come to this house ... for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost. At the beginning, we were led to believe this was a story about Zacchaeus’ seeking after Jesus. But it is really a story about Jesus seeking after Zacchaeus. Indeed, it is in this reversal that Jesus most reveals his answer to the disciples’ original question.

It might be the case that you are searching for the Lord, that you are seeking to know him better each day. But much more frantically does the Lord seek after you. It might be the case that ― like Zacchaeus ― you’ll climb a tree just to get a look at him. But he will insist you “come down quickly.” And look at the language he uses: “I must stay at your house.” He simply must. It’s as if Jesus has so fiercely sought you out that missing the chance to stay with you ― to just be with you ― would mean he missed everything.

Indeed, this is the grand answer to the disciples’ original question ―  “who then can be saved?” By our own initiative, no one can be saved. If it were up to men and women to seek out and finally arrive at God, they would all fall short. We would end up corrupt like Zacchaeus the tax collector. But Jesus will not let that be the last word. With Jesus, what is most important is not our weakness, but his desire to save you and to be with you. “I simply must stay at your house,” he says. “I simply must draw near and be with you.” Jesus knows that we are weak, that we are corrupt, and that our houses are unkempt, so to speak. But he simply must stay there. That is how Zacchaeus can be transformed. That is how anyone can be transformed. 

We are saved because God so desperately wants to be with us and near us that he will not stop seeking us out. Indeed, the story of your life is not the story of your seeking after God; it is the story of God seeking after you. This is what drives Zacchaeus’ repentance and transformation. And today, “salvation has come to [your] house” ― because he must stay with you, he must be near you ― “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

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