In Sunday’s Gospel reading (Luke 19:1-10), we hear the encounter between Jesus and the tax collector, Zacchaeus. As I reflected on this, it seemed to me that this encounter is a great metaphor for the spiritual life of a Christian. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was anxious to see who Jesus was. Many people at the start of their spiritual life know about Jesus, but are still trying to figure out who He is.
Being short in stature, Zacchaeus climbs a tree to get a look at Jesus, and Jesus looks up and says, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” While it is Zacchaeus who is seeking to know who Jesus is, it is Jesus who initiates the relationship. Jesus not only sees Zacchaeus; Jesus wants to be with him. Jesus wants to be with us! Can you believe it? As we hear in John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “It was not you who chose me, but I chose you.” Jesus loves us and wants to be with us and have a relationship with us, as imperfect as we humans are.
Being in a relationship with Jesus changes Zacchaeus. When the people grumble that Jesus is spending time with a tax collector, Zacchaeus stands his ground and makes some bold statements: “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” Just think about what that meant for Zacchaeus. He was a wealthy man, and yet he was willing to give over half of it away! Talk about a life-changing experience! And yet, this is what can happen, if one is willing to get close to Jesus.
Note how this life-changing experience manifests itself. Zacchaeus not only has a new relationship with Jesus, he has a new relationship with the world. He’s going to use his wealth to help others. He is going to renounce extortion of others.
When we grow closer to God, and deepen our understanding of God’s love in Jesus Christ, the only visible way we have to express the change God has worked in us is how we relate to others. Zacchaeus shows us that the spiritual life can never just be about God and me.
The encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus can seem to imply that conversion and change is a one-time event. There can be dramatic events in our lives with regards to our spiritual life, but the process of conversion and change is ongoing. The more we share God’s love in Jesus Christ with others, the more we learn the extent of that love, which empowers us to love the world even more, and so on. One thing I have learned time and time again in my spiritual life is that it’s not about me, as maddening as that fact can be for my ego.
Are we willing to enter into a deeper relationship with Jesus? Are we willing to be loved and comforted and challenged, and even hurt as we respond to God’s love and surrender to God’s will? Are we willing to be changed? Jesus is calling us, perhaps to come down from an isolated tower, or up from a deep pit, or in from the cold of fear and hate, or out from the darkness of despair. Wherever we may be, Jesus wants us to be with Him, and learn from Him, and love each other!
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P., is a member of the Passionist Community in Birmingham, Alabama.