The Gospel reading for the thirty-first Sunday is the encounter of Zacchaeus the tax collector with Jesus. Here is Luke 19:1-10:
At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town.
Now a man there named Zacchaeus,
who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man,
was seeking to see who Jesus was;
but he could not see him because of the crowd,
for he was short in stature.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus,
who was about to pass that way.
When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said,
“Zacchaeus, come down quickly,
for today I must stay at your house.”
And he came down quickly and received him with joy.
When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying,
“He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord,
“Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor,
and if I have extorted anything from anyone
I shall repay it four times over.”
And Jesus said to him,
“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.”
This reading from Luke’s Gospel is yet another example of the Sacred Author describing the faith experience of those who encountered Jesus during his earthly ministry. Luke does not describe mighty works nor the action of eyewitnesses in these passages. Rather, he emphasizes the faith-driven responses of those individuals who encounter Jesus and recognize him as the Christ. Other passages that are similar include the “ten lepers” (Lk 17:11-19) and the “pharisee and the tax collector” (Lk 18:9-14).
Notable in this passage is the fact that Zacchaeus is comfortably removed from Jesus and his entourage, as he prefers to observe from a tree. It is Jesus who calls Zacchaeus down from the tree. More ironic is the business-like conversation that Jesus undertakes with Zacchaeus. Jesus does not speak to him of faith or God, but rather tells Zacchaeus matter-of-factly, “I must stay at your house.”
It is Zacchaeus who responds to both Jesus and the sniggering of the crowd with the promise that, I will give half of my possessions to the poor,
and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over!
The encounter with Christ has initiated a conversion of heart in Zacchaeus, which is caused not so much by the words of Jesus as it is by the faith that Zacchaeus has.
History and tradition suggest that Jericho, where this story took place, was a center of balsam trade. Zacchaeus would have collected taxes on the balsam for the benefit of the state.
The Eastern and Russian Orthodox hold a long-standing tradition that Matthias, the apostle elected to replace Judas, is in fact “Zacchaeus Matthias.” This tradition has its origins in the writings of Clement of Alexandria. He argues that in the second century that Zaccaeus the Tax Collector is surnamed Matthias.
There are divergent traditions about the missionary work of Zacchaeus Matthias. Some hold that he went to Rome with Peter, and that he was executed in Rome. Other traditions suggest Zacchaeus Matthias preached in Egypt and Ethiopia, then returned to Galilee or Jerusalem, where he was stoned to death.