Daniel J. Harrington
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Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), Nov. 4, 2007
“Today salvation has come to this house” (Lk 19:9)
Today is a recurrent and important word in Lukes Gospel. From Jesus inaugural discourse in the synagogue at Nazareth to his death, resurrection and ascension, today marks the time of Jesus ministry as a special time, the center between the times of Israel and of the church, a time when all the energies of the Holy Spirit are focused on Jesus. In the story of Jesus encounter with Zacchaeus the tax collector, today occurs twice: when Jesus tells Zacchaeus, today I must stay at your house and today salvation has come to this house. Today Jesus, the incarnation of Gods saving power, chooses to visit with Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus neighbors in Jericho are not so kind. They find Jesus behavior regarding Zacchaeus scandalous and say, He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner. Their problem came with Lukes description of Zacchaeus as a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man. That description may seem innocent to us. But to people in Jesus time it was disturbing. Tax collectors in ancient Israel collected taxes for the Roman occupiers. They bid for the contract and were entitled to keep for themselves whatever they took in above their bid. So a wealthy tax collector like Zacchaeus was suspect regarding his patriotism and his honesty. By occupation Zacchaeus might qualify as a sinner, not the type of person with whom a pious Jewish teacher like Jesus should associate.

Was Zacchaeus a sinner in need of conversion? Or was he the victim of his neighbors prejudices? That was the topic of an interesting debate among exegetes several years ago. The problem comes with the verbs in Lk 19:8. In Greek they are in the present tense (literally I giveI repay). If rendered in the present tense, they describe Zacchaeuss customary practices even before he met Jesus. In other words, he is defending himself against his neighbors suspicions about him. If translated as futures (I shall giveI shall repay), they imply Zacchaeuss intention to change his sinful ways and act justly toward his neighbors. The New American Bible Revised and the New Revised Standard Version retain the traditional future tenses. And the selections from Wisdom 1112 and Psalm 145 suggest that the framers of the Lectionary regarded Zacchaeus as a sinner in need of conversion.

In either case Zacchaeus is a very attractive character. His enthusiasm to see Jesus is such that he climbs a tree hoping to catch sight of him. Zacchaeus claims that he will be (or already is) generous to the poor and honest in his business dealings. He is proud to welcome Jesus into his home. Zacchaeus is enthusiastic, generous and hospitablea marvelous combination of human virtues. But beyond and behind all this is Zacchaeus realization and recognitionhowever intuitively or obscurelythat with the arrival of Jesus in Jericho near the end of his long journey from northern Galilee to Jerusalem, the day of salvation is present in the today of Jesus. It is the presence of Jesus that brings forth the responses of enthusiasm, generosity and hospitality from Zacchaeus the tax collector.

What would you do if you knew that the world was going to end tomorrow? That is always an interesting question, and the responses it elicits tell a good deal about the respondents values and character. Pauls Second Letter to the Thessalonians was written in large part to dampen speculations to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand. Some of these speculations may have been fueled by Pauls own statements in 1 Thessalonians 45. It appears that some Christians were not doing their fair share within the community on the grounds that this world would soon pass away.

Pauls advice to them (and us) is to continue living a good Christian life every day. That means letting God work in our lives so that we may be worthy of our vocation as Christians. Christian freedom is not total personal autonomy (no one is going to tell me what to do), but rather acknowledging and serving God as the only master and lord worth serving. Besides accepting our Christian calling, we are challenged to fulfill every good purpose and every effort of faith. Living a Christian life entails imagination and purposefulness. It means examining our consciences and striving to find ways to become better children of God, better human beings. All this is done so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him. In living for the greater glory of God we let God be glorified in us, and we in turn share in the glory of God. Because we recognize that we live out of the today of Jesus, we can imitate Zacchaeuss good example of enthusiasm, generosity and hospitality every day that God may give us.

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.
Readings: 
Readings: Wis 11:22–12:2; Ps 145:1-2, 8-11, 13-14; 2 Thess 1:11–2:2; Lk 19:1-10
Prayer: 

• Was Zacchaeus a sinner in need of conversion or the victim of his neighbors’ prejudices?

• What makes Zacchaeus an attractive character and worthy of imitation?

• What would you do if you knew that the world was going to end tomorrow?