When someone is accused of a crime and there are eyewitnesses, it doesn’t seem to matter how loudly he protests his innocence. Even when there isn’t anyone observing us, we often show by our actions that we are not completely innocent. We consider ourselves “law abiding” citizens, but we do break the speed limits from time to time. We tend to pad our charitable deductions on our income taxes. We even burn leaves behind the garage, in violation of city ordinance. So, we’re not entirely innocent.
It happens often enough that someone is finally acquitted of a crime, despite the testimony of witnesses, despite the overwhelming circumstantial evidence. DNA testing has resulted in a number of people being released from prison, some of whom had served many years for a crime they did not commit.
Most of us have been accused of doing something we didn’t do. When I was a child, there were countless times when my brothers and sisters would do something and I would take the punishment in their stead. It didn’t matter how loudly I protested my innocence, I was presumed guilty because I was the eldest child, and sometimes justice was sacrificed to the greater good of having me serve as an example to the ones who, I was told, “looked up to me.” (In fairness, I think there were also times I shifted blame to them, but I just can’t think of any good examples at the moment!
In many parts of the world, we Americans are perceived as the cause of poverty and suffering because we have enormous wealth and our government has policies that you are I are often ignorant of, but which the rest of the world is painfully aware. We’re accused of idolatry, of being “the Great Satan”, of being the world’s most powerful domination system. There are those who believe that the events of 9/11 were an attack on Americans’ worship of money and power, and that’s why the “Temple” of the World Trade Center was the target. Whether we accept this rationale or not, whether we think we worship money or not, we are –like it or not–guilty by association.
Zacchaeus is one of those people who is guilty by association. He is the ‘chief tax collector’, and other local tax collectors report to him. He oversees their activities and might have made a great deal of money in commissions from their work. We don’t know. We know he is short. We do know he is wealthy. We know he is a tax collector. And whether he acted ethically and kept his bookkeeping practices legitimate, we ‘ll never know.
I am NOT a short person, yet on the rare occasion that I go out to a movie, it seems that at the very last minute a tall person chooses to sit right in front of me. Or a woman with big hair. Or a man who doesn’t know it’s proper to remove his hat in a public place. If movie theatre seating were determined by the height of the patrons, this would be a good thing. I wish the same thing would happen with the crowds gathering around the baggage claim at airports. I think the shortest people should be in the front of the crowd, and the taller ones behind. This never happens, and somehow the tallest and widest people tend to end up in the front row with me behind them.
The crowd doesn’t let Zacchaeus through to see Jesus, either. Rather than making it possible for more people to see by letting the short people in the front, the crowd pushes him out and leaves him no other option than to climb a tree and look out over the crowd. Part of the reason for that is the perception of Zacchaeus as a tax collector. He is guilty by association, and people don’t want anything to do with him.
Jesus comes and tries to change their perceptions. Zacchaeus, he reminds them, is a child of Abraham. By speaking to Zacchaeus, by treating him as an heir to the promises of God, by joining him in the intimate setting of his home, Jesus attempts to change the perceptions of the crowd. The surprise comes when Zacchaeus claims that he is, in fact, a man of integrity who is generous and makes amends for errors he has unwittingly committed. He says he gives half of his possessions to the poor!
I am no Greek scholar, but from what I have learned from a variety of sources is that what Zacchaeus says is ambiguous: he might be saying, “I give” or he might be saying, “I will give”, or he might be saying, “I have always given and I will continue to give” half my wealth to the poor. Zacchaeus may be responding to God’s invitation to grace by repenting, but what is equally important is that Jesus is inviting the community to repent of their perceptions of Zacchaeus.
So, maybe instead of concluding this reflection with the words, “Okay, people, if Zach can change and become generous, so can you!”, I will end by focusing on our own need to stop judging others by their external appearance without really knowing their story. My own conclusion – at least this year – is that Jesus sees a man of integrity in Zacchaeus who has been falsely accused. He sees in him a kindred spirit of sorts, because Jesus himself knows what it’s like to be guilty by association. He, too, is generous with what he possesses, and of course, he will ultimately be unjustly accused and unfairly punished.
To those of us who have ever been falsely accused, this is good news. Tthe story of Zacchaeus read this way is a reminder that the truth will prevail, especially for those who are guilty of nothing worse than generosity and integrity. But I also believe this text is a call for us to change our perceptions about the people we see. Jesus is calling us to look at a stranger as a child of God first, a child who is loved as much as we are, a child who needs to be welcomed and included in the household of faith.
When we see others with these eyes, we join Jesus in seeking the lost and inviting them into our lives, in being more generous, in sharing a meal with the stranger and the outcast and to thereby recognize Christ in our midst. This is the meaning of communion. This is the meaning of what it is we gather to celebrate every time we have Mass.