Luke often tells stories of God’s mercy. Today we’re reading at Mass the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho. He was a wealthy man whom Jesus called down from a tree and stayed with on his way to Jerusalem. His story offers a special lesson in what God’s mercy means. (Luke 19, 1-10)
As chief-tax collector, Zacchaeus was an agent for Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee and Perea in Jesus’ day. As archeologists uncover the ruins of Herod’s building projects in Galilee and elsewhere, it’s evident he built on a grand scale and lavishly, to impress his allies the Romans.
You needed money for his 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. You needed to be tough and relentless for the job. It left you hard headed and hard hearted. An unsavory profession. People resented 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.
The only thing Jesus says 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 or 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.
Notice, 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.
God’s mercy works in the real world and in real life.