Reflection for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)
Rev. Fr. Bonnie Nkem Anusiem Ph.D.
One of the questions you will probably get from people when you have been away from a place for a long time is, “when will you return?” In most cases, returning (or coming back) comes with potentially positive implications. In life, there will always be a reason to return or come back, like the event of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32).
We can recall that towards the end of his earthly ministry, our Lord Jesus Christ said to his disciples that he would go and prepare a place and return to take them to be with him (John 14:1-3).
Who is Zacchaeus?
The story of the meeting of Jesus and Zacchaeus is largely famous and dramatic; therefore, it is not surprising that many preachers would be at liberty to many interpretations. Our reflection, however, intends to focus on the salvific part, which is the main message behind the narrative.
It may shock you to learn that the name “Zacchaeus” means “pure,” “innocent,” or “clean.” Our Lord Jesus could have codified the name in one of the beatitudes where he says: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).
There is power in names; they not only give identity, but they also impact those who bear them. Have you considered why God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Jacob’s name to Israel? Even Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter (Petros), which means rock (Matt. 16:18).
Zacchaeus was an accomplished senior tax collector in Jericho. Tax collectors from the New Testament Bible narrative were agents of the Roman Government who extorted money from the people and were consequently called sinners.
From the clarifications we have, one can see that the life of the man Zacchaeus was a contradiction to what his name stands for. Those who gave him the name had reasoned that he should grow up to become an embodiment of purity or a man of clean character. But he became the opposite of his nomenclature.
Zacchaeus, the Crowd, and the Sycamore Tree
Our Lord Jesus Christ was passing through Jericho to Jerusalem, accompanied by a huge crowd. Zacchaeus could have sighted the crowd moving with the phenomenal teacher from his tax office and desired to see what Jesus looked like.
The narrative described him as a short man, so he could not have a good view of Jesus and decided to do something uncommon considering his social class and status. He ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore tree from where he could have a comfortable view of Jesus when he passed that way.
Zacchaeus’ decision to leave his business to see Jesus was not an accident. Something must have moved him from within to the extent that his physical height limitation and the crowd barrier could not discourage him.
Here, we learn that we often allow internal and external limitations to overcome us. We often need to try harder before we give up. What appears to be a “no” could turn around to become a “yes” if we step out of our comfort zones.
The Return of Zacchaeus
What happened when Jesus approached the Sycamore tree could have shocked both the man on the squatty tree and the crowd. First, Jesus stopped on his way, and looking up, he called Zacchaeus by name and asked him to come down as he must visit his house. Coming down quickly, he welcomed Jesus with joy to his house.
The very moment Zacchaeus came down from the tree was the time he started his return journey. He was returning to fit into the real description of his name. He was returning to become Zacchaeus both in name and character.
The visit of our Lord Jesus Christ was not only to the house of Zacchaeus, but it was chiefly a visit to his heart. Jesus brought light to the heart of Zacchaeus, darkened by his fraudulent lifestyle. Recall that Jesus said in the Gospel of John (8:12): “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
The evidence that Zacchaeus received the light became clear in his words to Jesus in defiance of the grumbling of the people who were faulting Jesus for staying in the house of a sinner. He pledged to give half of his possessions to the poor, and from the other half, he will pay back anyone he defrauded four times over.
Our Lord Jesus Christ responded to his passionate pledge by saying, “Today, salvation has come to his house.” That means that before then, Zacchaeus had signed up for damnation. He was spiritually comatose until that regenerative encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ.
Moving Forward: Returning to our Christian Identity
Medical doctors are not just known by the appellation “doctor” but by their practice. It would be a shame for a doctor to be incompetent in the basics of his practice. Christianity is not just a title; it is a functional identity that can be verified by character and conduct.
Like Zacchaeus, who had a great name but a damnable character, many people out there wear the garment of Christians but behave worse than pagans. The narrative tells us that Zacchaeus was a short man, but we also understand that sin leads us to spiritual dwarfism, making it impossible for us to connect with the Lord.
The good news is that there is also a Sycamore tree down the road from where we can see the Lord and sustain a transformative encounter. The tree represents the Church, where we receive the word of God and the sacraments that can support our growth in the Lord. Recall that the Sycamore tree was very relevant in the process of the Salvation of Zacchaeus.
This Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word invites us to learn from Zacchaeus. We are asked to leave our comfort zone to search for the Lord. The Book of Jeremiah (29:13) says: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
Sometimes, we feel that our situation is too bad to be remedied. The First Reading (Wisdom 11:22-12:2) tells us, among other things, that God will have mercy on all and overlook people’s sins so that they may repent. Furthermore, we should not listen to the discouraging voices of the crowd, as nobody has the right to speak over your life when God has not ordained it (Lam. 3:37).
Let us strive to return to our identity by running to the Sycamore tree. Surely, we shall encounter the Lord, and we shall be saved!