ColumnsSunday’s Word

Zacchaeus the tax collector

November 3, 2019


Wis 11:22—12:2

Your spirit is in all things

Ps 145:1-2, 8-11, 13-14

I will bless your name forever

2 Thes 1:11—2:2

Do not be alarmed by a forged letter

Lk 19:1-10

Zacchaeus the tax collector 110319.cfm

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There may have been many short people mentioned in the Bible, but we know about Zacchaeus, because he climbed a tree. This detail reflects the pattern of oral traditions, which do not report anything that is not essential to the story.

And the story is about a tax collector. It helps to know something of the disdain felt toward tax collectors. Not only did they make a profession of taking money from their fellow Israelites, but they did it on behalf of the Roman occupiers of the land. There was much to be resentful about here. And Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector.

The picture of Zacchaeus climbing a tree in order to see Jesus puts him outside the crowd, looking over it. This is crucial to the situation. He is not a part of the community. In that regard, he is not unlike the lepers Jesus encountered. Their plight involved exclusion, ostracization. And we have seen that the practice of Jesus is to bring the outsider back into the community.

But this is a rich man. We have read Luke’s beatitudes and woes — “Blessed are you poor; … Woe to you who are rich” (6:20, 24). There is little sympathy for the rich man who has made his fortune by appropriating the bounty of his follow citizens. While some would claim this is true of all riches, it is clearly so in the case of Zacchaeus.

And so Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. This decision to evoke hospitality from the tax collector is an effective move to bring him back into the give and take of the life of the town. It is as effective as touching the leper. And Zacchaeus responds, dispensing funds in all directions.

The liturgy chooses to pair this story with the Old Testament passage from the book of Wisdom. Here too some context makes it interesting. The book itself was written around the time of Christ, perhaps 50 B.C. It was written in Alexandria, in Egypt, the site of a prominent Jewish colony. The Jewish philosopher Pliny was from Alexandria. And the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, used by the New Testament, came from there.

The book consists of three parts so distinct they appear to have been separate books edited into one volume. In 1:1–6:21, a study of God’s justice in the afterlife, leads into 6:22–11:1, a reflection presented as by Solomon on the advantages of wisdom. But the third part (11:2–19:22), from which today’s reading is taken, consists of an extended allegory of the exodus from Egypt.

And that is interesting in itself. What does it mean for a Jewish center in Egypt to produce an extended reflection on the Exodus from Egypt? The events it reflects upon occurred some 12 centuries previous. And yet it was the signature occasion for defining the self-understanding of Israel as a people whom God brought from slavery into freedom.

The allegory itself consists of five examples in which God uses a particular kind of event to gift the Israelites but plague the Egyptians. The five kinds of events include water, animals, rain, light and children. But this exposition is interrupted by lengthy meditations on different topics. Our text for today is from the reflection on mercy, that interrupts the second allegory.

Today’s meditation on mercy is found amid all these considerations. Pivoting on the treatment of Israel, it expands to consider the all-powerful God in terms of his merciful treatment of the sinner. However, the passage sits uneasily amid the images of retribution taken against Israel’s enemies.

Perhaps this is where the Gospel takes it further. Mercy is shown even to the despised tax collector.

For reflection: Context means much.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.