Zacchaeus and compassion


In today’s gospel reading, Jesus meets Zacchaeus, a tax collector who is welcomed by Jesus and repents of his former way of living, becoming a generous and good man through the encounter with Jesus. (See http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/103016.cfm) There are many points that might be made about this passage, but one aspect stands out to me in particular today. Zacchaeus as a tax collector would have been living a life of moral ambiguity simply by doing his work. Tax collectors at that time did not simply collect a pre-designated tax and then get paid by Rome for doing so. They made their own money by taking a portion of what was collected on behalf of the Roman oppressor. Thus, not only were they seen as working for the oppressive regime (even though they were members of the community and not Roman outsiders, generally), but they also were seen as extortionists who took from those around them.

When I think about Zacchaeus and his motivations for taking up this work, I can imagine a man who thinks to himself, well, somebody has to do the job, and it might as well be me. Even if the system is unjust or oppressive, if I don’t do it, then somebody else will. The Gospel descriptions of Zacchaeus also suggest that he is alone and not well liked by the crowds. One wonders if this was a man who did not fit in or belong, and so allied himself with rules and institutions that would have praised and rewarded his behavior. For example, today, there might be a degree of cultural admiration for someone who made a lot of money in business through being somewhat cutthroat, as in movies like Wall Street. Perhaps Zacchaeus resigned himself to being disliked by his peers, and so chose a life that gave him the illusion of status through power. I think the story is less about love of wealth per se than about his allying himself with an institution that gave him a sense of power.

Then comes Jesus, who is neither wealthy nor powerful, but who must have exuded a great deal of joy even in the midst of his work with those who were sick, impoverished, rejected, and otherwise marginalized. What the Gospel shows us, as the audience of the story, is that Zacchaeus is also a marginalized person in his own way, though he probably does not look that way from the point of view of the ordinary person. While he looks wealthy and powerful, Jesus sees a more complicated dynamic going on, and he pays attention to Zacchaeus. Jesus loves him and shows that love in word and action. He doesn’t wait for Zacchaeus to become “good” before reconciling with him.

I think this is helpful for all of us in thinking about loving the “Zacchaeuses” in our own lives. The people that we might perceive as invested in unjust uses of power, or who are wealthy but not generous,  or who run broken institutions, are just as broken as anyone else is. We can develop the same kind of compassion that Jesus has for Zacchaeus and try to understand others and act in loving ways towards others even in the midst of their limits. The cultural divides in the United States, for example, easily lead to writing off our political opponents as horrible or corrupt people, but every person is more complex, and has motivations that come from some place deep and real inside of him. When we act in loving ways even towards our political enemies, and see them not as “the enemy” but as an individual with a story that only God knows and sees, we can work toward better relationships of reconciliation, as Jesus did.