Audio homily here:
Luke’s gospel talks about God’s mercy, not in definitions but in stories. Today at Mass it’s the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho. He was a wealthy man who climbed a tree to see Jesus as he was passing by through his town, and Jesus called him and stayed with him in his house on his way to Jerusalem. In many ways, his story is an interesting lesson that shows how God’s mercy works. It works everywhere. (Luke 19, 1-10)
Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector in Jericho, which means he was an agent for Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Perea in Jesus’ day. Archeologists have uncovered the ruins of many of Herod’s building projects in Galilee and elsewhere, and it’s evident he built on a grand scale and built lavishly, to impress his allies the Romans.
You needed money for this kind of building, of course, and that’s where tax-collectors came in. There was no dialogue or voting on government spending then. Herod told his army of tax-collectors, “Here’s how much I need; you go out and get it. Go to the fishermen along the Sea of Galilee and the farmers around Nazareth and the shepherds in the Jordan Valley and the merchants in Jericho and get what I need; I don’t care how you get it out of them.”
And so the tax collectors went out and got the money, keeping some for themselves too. That was the way the system worked. You needed to be tough and relentless for that job, and it had to leave you hard headed and hard hearted. An unsavory profession. People thoroughly resented them. They wanted nothing to do with them.
Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho, was the one whom Jesus called and the one he stayed with on his way to Jerusalem. God wanted to do something for him.
The only thing Jesus says in the tax collector’s house, a place into which others wouldn’t go, is: “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” No thunderous warnings, no stern corrections. Salvation has come and they sit down for a feast. You can hear in the story echoes of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, also from Luke’s gospel.
It’s interesting to note, too, that Jesus doesn’t call Zacchaeus to follow him, as he told another tax-collector, Matthew. He doesn’t tell him to give up his job and get out of that dirty, complicated situation. No, as far as we can tell Zacchaeus was still chief tax-collector in Jericho after Jesus left, still taking orders from Herod Antipas, still part of a sinful world. But that’s where Zacchaeus will experience salvation, even there.
That might be one of the interesting lessons about God’s mercy. It works in the real world and in real life. God’s mercy works in the difficult, complicated situations that people experience in life. It’s not always easy to get away from life as it is. Yes, surely Zacchaeus was a changed man from his meeting with Jesus. God reached out to him, God came to his house, God called him to change, and he did. “Behold, I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone, I’ll return it fourfold.” He was changed by his experience of the mercy of God.
We hope we are too.