As we meditate on the Gospels, it’s only natural that we would try to imagine what the various biblical figures looked like, beginning with our Lord Himself. One character I find especially intriguing is Zacchaeus, whose encounter with our Lord is recorded in Luke 19:1-10.
Whenever I think of Zacchaeus, I picture Louie De Palma, Danny DeVito's character in the popular 1980s television series Taxi. We know that Zacchaeus was not only short, but also dishonest, despised, and resourceful. He was hardly the sort of character we might choose to emulate, any more than we would aspire to be like Louie De Palma. Yet I'd suggest that Catholic laymen do well to meditate on the call and conversion of Zacchaeus.
Perhaps the call of the rich young man is better known, so we might compare the two accounts. The rich young man keeps the commandments but wants to know what else he must do to attain eternal life. Good question! Jesus's response sell everything, give to the poor, and follow Him was more than the rich young man bargained for, at least for the moment. We understand in our Lord's response the call to evangelical perfection, as lived by consecrated persons who embrace radical lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Jesus's response to the rich young man is instructive to all of us as we strive to follow Him single-heartedly. But what about us “rich” middle-aged men, with wife, children, job, mortgage, credit-card bills, and student loans? Are we supposed to sell everything, give the proceeds to the poor, and only then follow Jesus? How does Jesus's universal call to discipleship relate to Catholic men who are to remain “in the world,” but not of it?
First, though we might think like Zacchaeus that we're going to great lengths to find Jesus, the reality is that He is the one searching for us. The Incarnation is all about a God Who has come down from heaven to go in search of man. He encounters us where we are. While many in Jerusalem did not recognize the time of their visitation (Lk 19:44), Zacchaeus sure did, and he made the most of it. So must we.
Second, Zacchaeus shows us that two hallmarks of Christian discipleship are obedience and joy. Zacchaeus's response to our Lord was one of immediate, unconditional acceptance. While the rich young man was sad in his hesitation, Zacchaeus was joyful in his prompt obedience. Are we conflicted in some areas of our faith, perhaps when it comes to the Church's teachings on sexual morality? Zacchaeus shows us that the complete acceptance of Jesus Christ and all that He reveals through His Church is the road to true happiness.
Third, Jesus didn't simply seek to enter Zacchaeus's heart. Rather, our Lord also sought entrance into Zacchaeus's house. To the present generation of irresponsible men, unfaithful husbands, and absent fathers, this episode reminds us to be godly men who take personal responsibility for the Christian identity of our families. We must totally give our lives over to Christ, and then lead our families by word and authentic example.
Fourth, our Lord doesn't ask Zacchaeus to sell everything. On his own initiative, though, Zacchaeus does give away half of what he has and also makes full restitution to those whom he has cheated. Being good stewards of our possessions entails some discernment. While tithing (giving ten percent to the Church) is a good rule of thumb, the Church in her wisdom recognizes that faithful stewardship doesn't always lend itself to predetermined formulas or percentages. What's crucial in the case of Zacchaeus is that his actions reflect a true spirit of generosity to God and neighbor, as well as a new set of priorities rooted in His new life in Christ. Catholic laymen would do well to imitate his example.
Lastly, this episode demonstrates yet again how nobody is beyond the reach of a God who has come to save the lost. In response to onlookers who consider Zacchaeus an “illegitimate” or unworthy disciple, our Lord remarkably says, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (Lk 19:9). The God who can raise descendents of Abraham from mere stones has truly made Zacchaeus part of the family. Zacchaeus is not a second-class citizen or mere servant, but a son and thereby an heir to the glory promised to all of God's children.
The new life of grace in the Holy Spirit is a reality that our Lord makes available to the least of us, even the Louie De Palmas of the world. And even to us.
Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is the president of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and Emmaus Road Publishing and the editor-in-chief of Lay Witness magazine, all based in Steubenville, Ohio. He is a contributor to Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass and an adviser to CE’s Catholic Scripture Study. His email address is email@example.com.
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(A version of this article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register.)