The story of Zacchaeus has always fascinated people who hear it. Interesting details abound. Zacchaeus is a short man, who is looked down upon. He is an outsider, even a threat, no doubt disliked by the other people in in the town of Jericho because he is a tax collector and, therefore, a collaborator with the occupying Roman army. He climbs a sycamore tree to see Jesus. But Jesus sees him first and calls him down. They encounter each other, and—as happens so often when people meet Jesus—Zacchaeus’ life is turned around. He changes dramatically.
This Gospel passage opens as a story of exclusion, but Jesus rewrites it to be a story of improbable welcome. As such, we come to know Jesus more deeply and to better understand ourselves in relationship to him. One particular aspect is especially striking. While Jesus, the teacher and the holy one, welcomes Zacchaeus, the sinner and the outsider by calling to him: “Come down!”, Zacchaeus ends up welcoming Jesus: “Yes, come to my house and eat with me.” They welcome each other, and it is improbable that it should happen.
This welcoming is far more than a gesture of hospitality. Jesus is receiving Zacchaeus into his life, and Zacchaeus, similarly, is receiving Jesus into his life. Out of that encounter, Jesus can say these momentous words: “Today salvation has come to this house.”
When we let Jesus receive or welcome us and when we welcome him, our lives turn around—as it did for Zacchaeus: “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.”
We may wonder: does any of this apply to us? today? In our life situation? In fact, it does. Many of us can point to a deeply personal moment when Jesus welcomed us, and we welcomed him. That encounter has a deeply transformative impact on us. But often, in our everyday life, this welcoming and receiving happens through each other. The Word of God tells us that we meet the Lord, and he meets us in our sisters and brothers, especially those who are in need. Whenever we serve and support each other, we welcome the Lord who first received us. And over time, these encounters transform us.
Today in Chicagoland, there are people to meet, to welcome, and to help. Like many of our ancestors, they have come to us from distant places and out of troubled circumstances and with hopeful aspirations of a better life for their families and children. They are the migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers on our doorstep who are in deep need of help and support. They may not stand directly in front of us, but they are present. They are people whom we can welcome and help. We can change their lives, but our outreach to them can also transform our lives.
We will have a second collection for Asylum Seekers the weekend of November 5/6.