IN THE MINISTRY, I have encountered many Christians who are of the belief that being saved is a matter of one’s being sinless. They think that if a person does nothing wrong, he will eventually be saved. And for them, to sin is usually identified with transgressing any of the Ten Commandments. How often have I heard some of them being comfortable with themselves, self-assured as they were that they had really nothing to confess since they had followed the Decalogue. Their claim to clean living, in a culture that identifies sin with transgression, could hardly be disputed, of course.
However one may agree with that claim, though, Luke would probably hesitate to go along with that kind of reasoning. Today’s Gospel is a pericope on Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:1-18). But prior to this narrative, Luke tells us the story of a man from the ruling class who has been faithful in following the Law. Asked by Jesus about the commandments, he replied: “I have kept all these since I was a boy” (Luke 18:21). Walking before the Law, he was certainly blameless. But he could not be saved, for all the blamelessness of his life, because he would not part with his wealth. Challenged by Jesus to sell all he had and distribute to the poor, he became sad (Luke 18:23), and Luke would have us understand that the ruler refused to comply with Jesus’ demand. Which elicited a comment from Jesus: “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24).
Juxtaposed with the story of the man who belonged to the ruling class is the narrative on Zacchaeus. According to Luke, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus when he went to Jericho, and unable to see Jesus on account of his small stature, he climbed a sycamore tree. When Jesus saw him, he told him to hurry down because he would stay at his house, and Zacchaeus welcomed him with delight (Luke 19:1-5). It may be noted that like the young ruler, Zacchaeus was wealthy, but probably unlike him, if we judge simply on the basis of the gospel data, Zacchaeus was not blameless. On the contrary, probably almost every contemporary of Jesus would have described him like any other tax collector: a person of greed. Small though he was, he was big with ambition and greediness. In a poor country like Israel in Jesus’ time, it would have been difficult for a man like him to be rich without using people, disregarding our concept of justice and rights. Of course, as a tax collector, he was notorious, for the occupation of tax collectors at that time was base in the popular estimation. For one thing, they were considered traitors, working for a hated foreign power that oppressed the Jewish people. Why would Zacchaeus secure employment from the Romans if not for the dirty money? For another, tax collectors were in charge of deciding how much each family had to pay, and usually they raised the tax assessment so they could keep for themselves the difference between the money collected and the amount they had to turn over. No wonder the Jews ostracized them. That would have included Zacchaeus. He was rich, but at the expense of his own people. That is why, the righteous, like the Pharisees and the scribes, murmured against him. Practically, he was a thief, one who, unlike the young ruler, could not claim to have followed the Law.
And yet, unlike the rich ruler, Zacchaeus experienced salvation: “Today, salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). What happened? How could the rich young man, who was known to be blameless since he followed the Law since childhood, could not enter the Kingdom of God, whereas Zacchaeus, equally rich, but avoided and despised, and never bothering about the commandments, could attain eternal life? Why is it that Zacchaeus suddenly became a parable that the rich can be saved? The reason is that, unlike the young ruler, Zacchaeus allowed God to work in him; he became a host to Jesus who was bringing salvation to his house.
For, as the 1st Reading and the Responsorial Psalm state, it is in the nature of God to be merciful to those who welcome him in their lives; he overlooks their sins (Wisd 11:23; Ps 145:8-9). Understandably, Jesus the living parable of God’s forgiveness, sought out Zacchaeus the sinner, even as the Son of Man came to seek not the righteous but sinners (Luke 15:4.7). What God does is allow “the scoundrel forsake his way, the wicked man his thoughts; let him turn to the Lord for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving” (Isa 55:7). It may be recalled that it was important for Jesus that the community of Israel experienced wholeness. For this is what salvation, the reason for his coming into the world (1 John 4:14), means—the experience of integrity and wholeness by the community. And in allowing Jesus to enter his house and his life, Zaccheus experienced forgiveness and liberation. He knew wholeness—a new freedom from the world of greed, avarice and trickery.
Because he allowed Jesus to come to and work in his life, he vowed to stop his greed and became generous. Thus, he promised to give half of his property to the poor and, if he defrauded anyone, to pay him back fourfold (Luke 19:8), an amount far more than what the Law required (Lev 6:1-5). It appears thus that even though Jesus said that it was easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God (Luke 18:25), yet Zaccheaus became an example of a rich man—notorious at that—who experienced salvation. Precisely because he allowed Jesus to enter into his life, he became generous to the poor, unlike the rich ruler who could not give up his wealth. Thus, he became an example of a saved rich person, becoming a new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). The old Zacchaeus, along with his old values and lifestyle, passed away.
Salvation, then, is not simply about being unblemished or about doing nothing wrong. It is really about permitting God to enter into our lives, and changing us into loving persons, generous to the poor and the disadvantaged. And in our time, he has provided us an opportunity to come to our lives as members of the Christian community—he comes to us in the Eucharist. He is with us in this sacrament because we are sinners. In the Eucharist he is there, in the form of bread and wine, to seek and save the lost. That is why we begin the Mass with an acknowledgment of our sinfulness before God. The Mass then is not simply a communal worship of God. It is also a personal and communitarian encounter with Jesus. What a blessing would it be, if all of us who come to the Eucharist experience this personal encounter. For it is in this encounter that Jesus himself gives us the grace of salvation. Of course, the proof that we really received that grace, that we really encountered him in the Eucharist, is when, like Zacchaeus, we experience liberation from the world of greed—we go home after the Mass as changed persons and communities. We go home, bringing with us the lesson of breaking the bread; we break our bread with the poor.