The story of Zacchaeus climbing the tree because he wants to catch a glimpse of Jesus is an example of the gentle humour of the gospels (Luke 19.1-10). Zacchaeus, we are meant to understand, is an important man and well-known in the community. He is rich, powerful, and much disliked because of his work as a tax-gatherer on behalf of the Roman administration. It seems that he has also been putting extra fees on top of what he was allowed to charge. He would be the kind of man who would be touchy, who would stand upon his dignity. Yet when he hears that Jesus is coming he scrambles up a tree like the local youths, agog to see Jesus. He sets his dignity aside.
Why? Was Zacchaeus just what the Americans call a rubber-necker, that is, someone who wanted to gawk at a famous person? Or did his scramble up the tree show something different? I believe that it shows a sense of urgency. He is driven by a quest that he hardly understands.
Clearly, Zacchaeus was lonely. He was tired of the way that his ill-gotten gains isolated him. Deep within him he was wanting a way back into the social life of Jericho and its people. When Jesus comes, Zacchaeus suddenly realises that this is his chance. He can make amends, and do so in public. It can be a turning point, but only if the Son of God recognises that he has changed.
Jesus understands this too, in his wonderful intuitive way. This is why at the end of the story we hear Jesus say, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham.’ Note that phrase, a son of Abraham. This is a way of saying to the crowds that Zacchaeus too is a good Jew. He belongs. Salvation not only saves the soul of Zacchaeus but breaks the long loneliness that he has endured. He has a place among his people where he can be spiritually at home among them. He can share the life and faith of the whole community.
There is a message here for us and for every parish. Our church has to be a community. We are certainly called to save souls, but as part of this we are here to create a spiritual home for those who seek. This calls on us to make inquirers or new members welcome; it asks us to create opportunities for hospitality. If we do that then we will find that each of us is blessed by the shared presence of others. If we can make others feel they belong, then we will find that we too benefit from the stronger sense of community.