Curiosity might have killed the cat, but it also brought salvation to the house of the tax-collector Zacchaeus. In the 19th chapter of St Luke’s Gospel we see how the whole world wanted to see Jesus of Nazareth, the miracle-worker who taught with greater authority than any of the priests or the professionally religious. There was such a crowd that Zacchaeus, who was “of low stature”, did not seem to have a chance. But what Zacchaeus lacked in height he made up for in his capacity to climb. And so he ascended the sycamore tree, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Saviour. Something wonderful then happened. Our Lord raised His eyes, He fixed His gaze on Zacchaeus, and He addressed him by name: “Zacchaeus! Come down from that tree immediately. I have to stay at your house this evening.” Salvation came to Zacchaeus’ soul, and his life would never be the same again. According to some traditions, the despised publican went on to become the first bishop of Caesarea and to be venerated as a great saint.
Many things considered, it might surprise us that Our Lord should single out Zacchaeus to be his host for the night. The Gospels emphasise God’s special concern for the poor, and make our solicitude for the needy a prerequisite for entry into Heaven. But St Luke tells us explicitly that Zacchaeus was a rich man. Tax-collecting was a highly lucrative business and this little fellow was one of the bosses in the tax office. Very probably he wore expensive clothes and lived in a well-appointed mansion with staff to cook his breakfast and iron his sheets. We might imagine that it would have been a more poignant gesture of humility, simplicity and solidarity with the destitute for Our Lord to choose to have taken up residence for the evening in a poor man’s dwelling. If He had been accompanied by a press team, no doubt it would have guided him in the direction of a more modish cause, perhaps some popular victim of Roman oppression.
From a worldly point of view, Jesus’ choice of Zacchaeus’ mansion as a suitable venue to rest His head was, indeed, a public relations gaffe. The puritans in the crowd “murmured” and complained that He had chosen to avail Himself of the hospitality of a sinner. Zacchaeus, it seems, was outside the peripheries of what was considered to be fashionably marginal. He was the first century equivalent of a modern day Eurosceptic or global warming denier – someone beyond the pale of those considered worth being seen ministering to by the bien pensant of the day.
But man’s ways are not necessarily God’s ways. Mercifully for Zacchaeus, Our Lord did not think like a politician or a spin-doctor. Virtue-signalling was of no interest to Him. He was not looking for a photo-opportunity, but for a soul to save and a disciple to recruit. He actually made it look as if He had come to Jericho precisely to seek out this rich little publican.
So what is the message for us? The truth is that Zachaeus was suffering from the worst type of poverty there is: spiritual poverty. Tax-collecting on behalf of the occupying Roman forces was a dishonourable way of making a living. Much of Zacchaeus’ fortune would have been built on ill-gotten gains. But it seems that, in his large house, waited on by his servants, Zacchaeus was living with the nagging discomfort of spiritual destitution. Perhaps the voice of his conscience had been telling him for some time that, despite all of his creature comforts, he had yet to find real happiness and fulfilment. God made us to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in Heaven, after all. If we attempt to fulfil our human aspirations on the material level alone, then the result can only be interior malnutrition in this life, and ultimately the agony of eternal separation from God in hell.
What spiritual poverty there is around us today. We see unmistakable evidence of it in the ugliness and brutality of so much contemporary art, which can sell for millions and which will have an enduring value in centuries to come if only for the authentic statement it makes about this age through which we are currently living.
We have to make a distinction, however, between spiritual poverty and poverty in spirit. Spiritual poverty is amongst the greatest of evils, destructive to the human soul as famine and plague are detrimental to the body. Poverty in spirit, on the other hand, counts among the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” The man floundering in spiritual poverty may admit to no desire for God or salvation, as he tries to convince himself of his own self-sufficiency. In contrast to this, poverty in spirit is an acknowledgment of our need for Almighty God. And it is the fact that poverty in spirit takes root in Zacchaeus’ heart that salvation comes to his house.
The puritans were focused on Zacchaeus’ transgressions, and contemptuous of his politically-incorrect status. What interested Our Lord, however, was not his sins but his potential for goodness. And as a result of Our Lord inviting Himself into Zacchaeus’ life, and Zacchaeus’ acceptance of that invitation, what a transformation we see. The dreaded tax-collector promised to give half of his property to the poor, and to repay anyone he cheated four times the amount. Note that Zacchaeus only promised to give half of his estate away. Very likely he remained a rich man. But the important thing is that his attitude to his possessions had changed completely. Now he would lively honestly and see to enhancing the lives of the disadvantaged. Through poverty in spirit, his spiritual poverty was changed into beauty of soul. Society would benefit from this transformation.
So rich little Zacchaeus, who possessed so much gold in this world, now wears the golden crown of a saint in Heaven. To those blessed with material wealth, the converted Zacchaeus shows how to use it. Do not wallow in complacency and the delusion of self-sufficiency, because you will not find real happiness in this life, and certainly not in the next. Purify your souls by confession and penance, because it is when we are in a state of grace that almsgiving takes on a supernatural value which benefits the soul of the benefactor in eternity. Cultivate poverty in spirit, and give generously for the love of Christ.
Fr Julian Large