As a young boy, one of my favorite books was a picture book of the story of Zacchaeus, the short man who climbed a tree in order to see Jesus. And what did I learn from that humorous book? That Zacchaeus was a short man who climbed a tree to see Jesus! There is, of course, much more to Zacchaeus and his story than just a tax collector who was “short in stature.”
Why did Zacchaeus wish to see Jesus? Luke states that the chief tax collector “was seeking to see who Jesus was,” which leaves the door open for various motives. Perhaps Zacchaeus had heard about the miracles of Jesus, or of Jesus’ teachings, or both. Or maybe Zacchaeus actually knew little about Jesus, but the crowds and commotion surrounding Jesus caught his attention? St. Augustine saw in Zacchaeus a man driven by humility and saw the crowds as purposefully hampering him from seeing Jesus. “The crowd laughs at the lowly, to people walking the way of humility, who leave the wrongs they suffer in God’s hands and do not insist on getting back at their enemies,” he wrote. “Let Zacchaeus grasp the sycamore tree, and let the humble person climb the cross.”
Blessed John Paul II, in a 2002 letter to priests, wrote that “Zacchaeus seems prompted by curiosity alone. … Zacchaeus had no idea that the curiosity which had prompted him to do such an unusual thing was already the fruit of a mercy which had preceded him, attracted him and was about to change him in the depths of his heart.” The exact motives of Zacchaeus are unclear, I think, because the merciful grace of God is a mysterious and powerful force, and explaining why we decide to gaze squarely upon Jesus is not always possible, except by recognizing God’s love for what it is: a gift beyond our full comprehension. The key here is that the desire to see who Jesus is is central to everything else that follows: encounter, forgiveness, communion.
An important contrast can be made between Zacchaeus and the rich young ruler (Lk 18:18-23). The young ruler said he wished to “inherit eternal life” and that he has actually kept the Law since his youth. Yet he refused, with sadness, to sell his possessions and follow Jesus into Jerusalem. Like the young ruler, Zacchaeus is rich and powerful. But he surely hadn’t kept the Law, for the tax collecting profession was well-known for being corrupt and unjust. If the crowds had only shown up for a short while, curious but little else, Zacchaeus was different — and Jesus immediately recognized it. “Zacchaeus, come down quickly,” Jesus said, “for today I must stay at your house.”
Blessed John Paul noted how remarkable Luke’s account is “filled with humanity; it suggests insistence, an urgency to which Jesus gives voice as the one offering the definitive revelation of God’s mercy.” Used to hearing his name spoken with contempt, Zacchaeus hears it used in an entirely new way. “Now he hears it spoken in a tone of tenderness, expressing not just trust but familiarity, insistent friendship.” The tax collector, for his part, responded in haste and received Jesus with joy. The crowds grumbled at Jesus’ invitation.
Yet Jesus did not call Zacchaeus because he was rich, but because he really wished to understand and know him. Thus, Zacchaeus had no qualms about making a fool of himself, of repenting, of paying back wrongfully acquired gain — all so he could rest and rejoice in the mercy and love of his Savior.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.