31st Sunday of the Year (c) 2016
Two weeks ago tomorrow, I was in Manchester to watch the Olympic parade. All those athletes, including the para-Olympians, from Rio, with their various medals of bronze, silver and gold, paraded on top of open-decked lorries. I got their early to ensure I got a good viewpoint from where to watch the parade. I had walked almost the whole route when I saw a place that looked perfect. There were already people standing behind a railing that was on top of a wall right next to the route. This meant that if I could get onto that wall I would have a good view of the athletes as they went past. However, the wall was a little too high for me. I tried twice to jump up but without success. I had to be helped up by two people on either side of me. So embarrassing. It made me realize that I wasn’t getting any younger; ten years ago I could have jumped up there no trouble. It was worthwhile, as I did get a great view of the athletes as they went past. I even caught Katherine Granger’s eye; she, the greatest British female rower of all time.
I mention this in context of the gospel reading, and particularly that Zacchaeus climbed up a tree to see Jesus. It is only a small point but it struck me that Zacchaeus was quite young. He must have been to get up that tree. He certainly wasn’t my age. It’s the kind of thing I did when I was a child. He, like me, went to a lot of trouble to get a good view. He didn’t catch Katherine Granger’s eye, no, instead, he caught the eye of someone much more important: Jesus Christ.
I wondered why he did it: why did he climb that tree? We are told at the beginning that though young, he was wealthy and that he wasn’t a nice man: at least, that is to say, he was a tax collector. He collected taxes from his own people to give to the Romans, and made a nice profit out of it. The Jewish people hated him and his type; they saw him as a sinner, and would never be seen dead in his house. And yet Jesus did. Not only did he go into his house he stayed in it for the day. Much to the astonishment of the people, who looked on Jesus as being a holy man.
We are not told why he wanted to see Jesus so badly. What we are told is that ‘He was anxious to see what kind of man Jesus was.’ He’d obviously heard about him. He would have seen the crowd around him. But he wanted to see him face to face, to see ‘what kind of man Jesus was’. And what did he see? Not an athlete. He must have been shocked when the man spoke to him. He even called him by his name, Zacchaeus. That would have been a shock: “how did he know my name”? We don’t know what his impression of Jesus was, all we know is that when Jesus spoke to him he ‘hurried down and welcomed him joyfully’.
This is an unusual but lovely story about forgiveness. It doesn’t have the drama of the prodigal son but it does have a change of heart, a prerequisite for forgiveness. Indeed, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham”. Zacchaeus is a changed man. This encounter with Christ has changed his life, and he is now, we can presume, a happier man.
The gospel ends with the words from Christ’s lips: “the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost”. He has come for this; this was his mission: to seek out and save what was lost. Zacchaeus was a success story. In Jesus lifetime there would be others, and even after his lifetime. Indeed, down through the centuries there have been wonderful stories of Jesus seeking out someone who was lost. We still don’t now why Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus so badly. But we can presume that he wasn’t happy with his life. He wanted to see a man who was happy. Maybe this man could change his life, make him happy. And this is exactly what happened.
Even in our days people can be lost. How often do I meet people who are lost in one way or another. They are unhappy people, lost in their own selfishness and pride. We can’t help everyone, but maybe God is calling us to help some; especially those closest to us. We have, if you’ll believe me, we have to be Christ for them. One day they may come looking for us and want to know ‘what kind of person are you’; ‘what makes you tick; why are you happy’? Then it will be our turn, like Jesus, not to condemn but just to sit down and listen, to give them time. If we do this much, God will do the rest.
So, you can see, we have a lot of work to do. No one else is going to do it if we don’t. It is our responsibility. However, be patient with people, with those you know who are lost. Maybe the time is not right. But it is always right for us to try to live a good life; if we do, then you can be sure that these people who are lost will come to us one day to ‘see what kind of people we are.’