Jesus encountered many people throughout Palestine.
The Gospels have transmitted a record of some of these people and have given us their names for the most part. One prominent detail immediately leaps out: these women and men are almost always in difficult situations or are suffering from a sickness, from grief, or from some other painful situation.
Or worse, they are “sinners”—people living in moral situations in contradiction to the requirements of the Mosaic law and thus not according to God’s will.
Reflect on Jesus’ encounter with one such sinner: Zacchaeus, “a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man” (Luke 19:2). It takes place in Jericho, where Zacchaeus is in a large crowd waiting for Jesus. Because Zacchaeus is short, he climbs a tree along the route of the procession to see Jesus better. When Jesus reaches it, he looks up and says, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house” (19:5). Overjoyed, Zacchaeus hurries down and receives Jesus. But the crowd grumbles: “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner” (19:7).
Just a Sinner?
The citizens despised Zacchaeus because he was compromised by money and power; perhaps they scorned him because he was short. Zacchaeus was nothing but a “sinner” to them. Jesus, on the other hand, went to his house; he left the welcoming crowd of admirers and visited only Zacchaeus. He was acting like the good shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go find the hundredth sheep that is lost. For Jesus, Zacchaeus was above all “a descendant of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).
Jesus welcomes those who are either outcasts of the political system (the poor and oppressed) or who are rejected by the religious system (pagans, tax collectors, and prostitutes). People who do not accept this kind of action by God exclude themselves from salvation.
Seen in this light, the Zacchaeus episode seems like the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee actually coming to pass: God justified the repentant tax collector and sent the Pharisee away empty-handed. Now Jesus brings salvation to Zacchaeus’ house and leaves the arrogant, sanctimonious people murmuring outside.
Inside the house, Zacchaeus promises: “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” (19:8). And Jesus declares that salvation has come to the household of Zacchaeus. “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost” (19:10).
Let us reflect a bit more deeply on this episode. Zacchaeus has heard Jesus talked about as a prophet who is different from the others, so he wants to see him. There is certainly something more than sheer curiosity on Zacchaeus’ part. He has a real interest, though not yet a desire, to convert. Jesus looks up into the tree at him—from many hints in the Gospels, it seems that Jesus’ eyes had a miraculous power and spoke more than his words. He calls Zacchaeus by name.
We might expect that before proclaiming forgiveness, Jesus would have required the five conditions that are normally demanded to obtain the remission of sin: examination of conscience, repentance, a firm resolve not to sin again, a confession of sin, and penance. But none of that happens! Jesus urgently wants to spend time with Zacchaeus—to enter his home, stay for a while, have a meal, and perhaps spend the night.
Jesus compromises himself openly and dangerously because he risks becoming ritually unclean and causing scandal. Yet he meets with a sinner at his home and does not impose any preliminary conditions. He does not ask Zacchaeus to purify himself in terms of the Mosaic law; he does not ask him to leave his disreputable profession or to do restitution or penance.
Zacchaeus, however, is able to read in Jesus’ gaze the same love that Jesus elsewhere directed to the rich young man (Mark 10:21). That gaze fills him with extraordinary joy. He welcomes this presence that lavishes him with love; he lets himself be swept away by this love. Because of this love, he feels himself come back to life and become a human being again. He no longer feels the cloud of disdain that had always hung over him, even when he was dealing with colleagues and subordinates.
Zacchaeus immediately understood that if he wanted this love to be alive and life-giving, he needed to let all of his life be inundated by it; he needed to let it influence all his relationships. And so, spontaneously, Zacchaeus announced he would give half of his goods to the poor and would restore fourfold to anyone he had cheated.
This is a reparation, but one that takes place on the level of human relationships, in the sphere of justice operating among human beings. And Zacchaeus does not do this because of a condition imposed on him by Jesus in order to receive his love. It is instead a consequence of that love. Having been loved first, and freely, Zacchaeus feels the urge to turn toward others, toward those he has defrauded, and he learns to respect and love them.
This is how God’s mercy operates. Let us never forget it!
This article was adapted from The Gaze of Mercy: A Commentary on Divine and Human Mercy, by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap, translated by Marsha Daigle-Williamson.