To Make a Long Story Short: Lessons From Zacchaeus for Us

User’s Guide to Sunday, Oct. 30

Zacchaeus climbs a tree in order to be able to see Jesus; so must we, writes Msgr. Charles Pope.
Zacchaeus climbs a tree in order to be able to see Jesus; so must we, writes Msgr. Charles Pope. (photo: rudall30 / Shutterstock)

Sunday, Oct. 30, is the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time. Mass readings: Wisdom 11:22-12:2; Psalm 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13, 14; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10. 

The Gospel today features the familiar and endearing story of Zacchaeus, a man too short to see Jesus, but who climbs a tree (of the cross), encounters him and is changed. The danger with familiar stories is that because they are familiar, we can easily miss their remarkable qualities. 

Perhaps it is well that we look at today’s Gospel anew, searching for the symbolic in the ordinary details.


Shortsighted Sinner

Zacchaeus is physically short, so short that he cannot see the Lord. There is more here than a physical description. It is also a moral description. Zacchaeus cannot see the Lord because of the blindness brought by sin. Scripture says, “My iniquities have overtaken me, till I cannot see” (Psalm 40:12); and, again, “Because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, now they grope through the streets like men who are blind” (Lamentations 4:13). 

So sin brings blindness, an inability to see the Lord. 

Zacchaeus has fallen short through sin, and hence he cannot see Jesus. How has he sinned? Well, he is the chief tax collector of Jericho. Most often, tax collectors were corrupt, exploited the poor and schmoozed with the powerful. These were men who were both feared and hated. Zacchaeus is a kind of mafia boss. Got the picture? Zacchaeus isn’t just physically short. He’s the lowest of the low; he doesn’t measure up morally. His inability to see the Lord is not just a physical problem: It is a moral one.


Saving Sycamore

Zacchaeus climbs a tree in order to be able to see Jesus; so must we. 

The only tree that can really help us to see the Lord is the tree of the cross. Zacchaeus has to cling to the wood of an old sycamore to climb it; we must cling to the wood of the old rugged cross. 

Only by the wood of the cross and the power of Jesus’ blood can we ever hope to climb high enough to see the Lord. By climbing a tree and being able to get a glimpse of Jesus, Zacchaeus foreshadows for us the righteousness that comes from the cross.


Sanctifying Savior

Jesus stops by that tree, for we always meet Jesus at the cross. There, at that tree, that cross, he invites Zacchaeus into a saving and transformative relationship. Yes, Zacchaeus has now begun to see the Lord, and the Lord offers to “dine” with him. 

Symbolically, he draws him into a holy communion, a relationship and a liturgy that will begin to transform him. Zacchaeus and we are one and the same. We, too, have begun to see the Lord, through the power of the cross, to cast out our blindness; and the Lord draws us to sacred communion with him. The liturgy and Holy Communion are essential for this, as the Lord invites himself to our house, that is to say, our soul and our parishes.


Started Surrender

Zacchaeus is experiencing the start of a transformative relationship. But it is just the start. Zacchaeus promises to return fourfold the money he has extorted and to give half his money to the poor. There’s a Christian hymn entitled I Surrender All.

 Zacchaeus hasn’t quite reached that point yet, and neither have most of us. Eventually, Zacchaeus will surrender all, and so will we. For now, he needs to stay near the cross so that he can see and continue to allow Jesus to have communion with him. One day, all will be surrendered.