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Mercy for the Man in the Tree

This weekend St. Luke describes the story of the rich man and chief tax collector Zacchaeus, perched in a sycamore tree so he can see Jesus passing by. We can almost see him mouthing the word “Me?” as he points his index finger at his chest and Jesus responding “You.” So why did he go when Jesus called?

Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

First Reading: Wisdom 11:22-12:2

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 145:1-2, 8-11, 13-14

Second Reading: St. Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians 1:11-2:2

Gospel: According to St. Luke 19:1-10

“Mercy!”  One of the great iconic exclamations of the early years of rock-n-roll.  Allegedly, Roy Orbison wanted to have something, anything, to say during the guitar solo in “Pretty Woman” so out came “Mercy!”  As the story goes, Roy did not have this weekend’s readings in mind, but his exclamation is one that could have easily found its origin in the reaction of Zacchaeus to his encounter with Christ in Jericho.

A few weeks back the Gospel reading from St. Luke recounted the parable of the Rich Man, aka Dives, and Lazarus – a parable that is a warning to the “haves” that the clock is ticking on their ability to change their hearts and help out the “have nots.”  In that story Jesus recounts that Dives asks for mercy after it is too late to receive it, and is told by Abraham that the gap is now too wide – Dives abides where justice reigns while Lazarus basks in mercy.

This weekend St. Luke describes the story of a real-life Dives – the rich man and chief tax collector Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus is not the tallest man in Jericho, and so he climbs a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus as He passes by.  To his shock the Messiah not only notices him, but He calls him down from the tree and informs Zacchaeus that He “must stay” at his house.  In response to Jesus “he came down quickly and received Him with joy.”

It is the phrase “must stay” that stands out in this exchange.  Jesus could stay with anyone He wants – so why “must” He stay with Zacchaeus?  St. Luke closes out this story by telling us why: Jesus has come “to seek and to save what was lost.”  It is as if Jesus saw this little man in the tree and chose him for the role of Dives in a living parable to be played out for all in Jericho to see.

Placing ourselves in the sandals of Zacchaeus helps us to see how frightening it must have been to have been called out by Jesus from amongst the many people in the crowd.  We can almost see him mouthing the word “Me?” as he points his index finger at his chest and Jesus responding “You.”  Roy Orbison’s first number one hit was “Running Scared” and that is exactly what Zacchaeus’ brain probably told him to do when he was called by Jesus.

Why wouldn’t a terrible sinner, a man who became rich by squeezing tax money from his countrymen, run as fast as he could in the opposite direction?  Maybe, just maybe, when Jesus said “must” it struck Zacchaeus where he needed to be struck, and he felt in his heart that Jesus wasn’t going to condemn him for what he had done.  Maybe, just maybe, he knew that if he told Jesus how he planned to make up for his past sins that all would be well.  Maybe, just maybe, he looked into the eyes of the Messiah, and in that moment his racing thoughts searched for something, anything, to latch onto.  And maybe, just maybe, he found what he was looking for, which was also what he most needed.  “Mercy!”

A.M.D.G.