This Sunday: Climb Zacchaeus’s Tree

This Sunday’s Gospel (the 31st Sunday in Ordinary time Year C) does a remarkable thing when it tells the story of Zacchaeus, the short tax collector who climbed a tree to see Jesus. When we first hear about him, we think of him as a sinner who we feel a little bit superior to. But by the end, it is clear that he is our spiritual better.

Consider the following virtues of Zacchaeus:

  1. He lacked “fear of human respect.”

The fear of what others will think of us is one of the major obstacles to sanctity. Often, we don’t want to mention our faith at work, we don’t want to look too goody-two-shoes in front of our friends, and we certainly don’t want to draw attention to any perceived shortcomings in our physique. But Zacchaeus didn’t care what others thought of him. He wasn’t afraid to look overly enthusiastic about Jesus. And he couldn’t see over the crowd, so this wealthy short man climbed a tree.

  1. He was obedient right away.

Jesus looked up at him and said, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” And down Zacchaeus came. We might think we would do the same thing in his shoes, but there are plenty of times when we have shown that, no, we really wouldn’t: when we ignore an impulse to pray or go to Mass — direct requests from God — or when we avoid someone who needs us because it will take too much time.

  1. He doesn’t cut corners even when everyone else does.

This is an impressive trait of Zacchaeus When he says, “If I have extorted anything from anyone, I shall repay it four times over,” he is saying: “If I have taken more than I should in taxes, then make me guilty of the highest penalty for theft in the land.” Now, tax collectors at this time were practically expected to take a little off the top. To be able to say what he said showed that his integrity was greater than his desire for money. “Everyone does it” was not a part of his moral vocabulary.

So Zacchaeus truly is impressive. But, then, the first reading reminds us that we are all in the position of Zaccheaus. Consider:

  1. We are all “short of stature,” says the Book of Wisdom.

“Before the Lord, the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth,” says the reading. None of us should feel tall when we are surrounded by a universe the size of a dewdrop. We should be looking for a tree to climb.

  1. Jesus takes great pride in us, just like he did in Zacchaeus.

The first reading gives a very clear “God does not create trash” statement: “You love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made,” it says, “for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.” Zacchaeus may have thought that Jesus would treat him with the contempt everyone else does. But God doesn’t treat anyone that way.

  1. Jesus calls us to repentance in every aspect of our lives, like Zacchaeus.

“Therefore, you rebuke offenders little by little,” the first reading says of God, “warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O Lord!”

We all receive messages from the Lord, telling us to clean up our act and live like him. Today’s Gospel is one. Our job is to be able to say with Zacchaeus, “May I be prosecuted to the full extent of the law if I have done anything wrong!”


Photo: Sycamore Gap, England by Sue Langford, Flickr Creative Commons

The Gregorian Institute is Benedictine College’s initiative to promote Catholic identity in public life by equipping leaders (the Gregorian speech digest), training leaders (the Gregorian Fellows), defending the faith (the Memorare Army for Religious Freedom), and celebrating Catholic identity (the Catholic Hall of Fame).


Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.