One Sunday when I was still in seminary in Chicago, a classmate and I went to Mass. During communion time, we observed a mother approach to receive the Eucharist as she held the hand of her toddler who walked beside her. As soon as she reached the Eucharistic minister, the toddler reached up his hand and attempted a leap to grab the Body of Christ from the minister’s hand. The toddler was unsuccessful, but wasn’t about to give up. As the mother turned to lead the toddler back to their pew, he enthusiastically continued to look back towards the minister and reach his hands in the direction of the next person about to receive the Eucharist as his mother tugged him forward. He even escaped his mothers grip for a short second and ran back causing his mother to have to turn around and chase him.
Upon observing this, I leaned over to my classmate and whispered, “if only we were all that eager to receive Jesus Christ.”
This memory came to my mind as I reflected on Zacchaeus and his apparent eagerness to overcome several hurdles in order to reach Jesus (Luke 19:1-10). We know how unpopular tax collectors were among the Jews of the time. They were often viewed as extortionists and co-conspirators with the Roman occupiers and therefore traitors to their people and the covenant. The fact that Luke highlights he was not just your average tax collector but a “chief” tax collector and a wealthy man underscores how disliked this man may have been by many in the crowd that day. How far he would have been seen outside the scope of God’s mercy in their eyes.
Further, at the time it was widely believed that a person’s looks revealed something about their morality. People of small stature were often wrongly judged as being devious people.
Zacchaeus could not have had more working against him in the eyes of the crowd that day and how surprised they must have been to see Jesus choose to receive him.
Yet, people often think this is a story about repentance of a sinful man. As scholars often point out, there is no concrete act of repentance and forgiveness in this story. But there is a willingness on the part of Zacchaeus to examine his conscience, to repent IF harm had been done, and to do his part to make things right if he had harmed anyone.
Whoever has injured another by open insult, or by abusive or incriminating language, must remember to repair the injury as quickly as possible by an apology, and he who suffered the injury must also forgive, without further wrangling.Saint Augustine (The Rule VI, 42)
Jesus responds by affirming Zacchaeus. Contrary to popular opinion, Zacchaeus is also part of God’s plan of salvation He says. Part of building up the Kingdom of God.
Could this therefore not be so much about repentance of someone who is rich and who “looks” like a devious sinner as it is a story about how the scope of God’s mercy exceeds human understanding? Is it a story of how awareness of this immense mercy can lead us to the humility that is so critical to following Christ? Humility that leads us to true love of neighbor as we become able to examine our own complicity in creating the many structures of our modern society that lead to the suffering of so many?
Does our own encounter with Christ’s mercy lead us to be like Zacchaeus today? Are we willing to admit our own complicity to the systemic poverty, the violence, the racism, and environmental damage that hurts the poor that are present in our world today? Are we willing, like Zacchaeus, to do our part to make things right?
For this may be where true justice and peace begins. For there can be no greater threat to unity, harmony, and the common good among any sized group of people … than unresolved hurts.
You should either avoid quarrels altogether or else put an end to them as quickly as possible; otherwise, anger may grow into hatred, making a plank out of a splinter, and turn the soul into a murderer. For so you read: Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer (1 Jn. 3:15).Saint Augustine (The Rule VI, 41)
True restorative justice brings everyone to the table, even those we think are without hope … even those we may initially not think are complicit, including ourselves.
This is where it began for Saint Rita, as she brought her two families who were at war with one another together. Before they were willing or even able to lay down their weapons, they had to overcome their own antipathy and long-held stubborn attitudes … in order to see that everyone hurts from the division … and everyone had a part to play in creating that pain … and everyone has a part to play in creating peace.
The next time we receive the Eucharist, may we receive this great gift we have been given in this Sacrament with the same eagerness as the little toddler that my classmate and I observed a couple of years ago. May we be as eager as Zacchaeus to overcome any obstacles that may be in our way, including our own need for a change of heart and a change of attitude towards others.
Saint Rita, pray for us!
 Anna Rebecca Solev.g, “Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke Comic Figure, Sinner, and Included ‘Other.’” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 14, no. 3 (August 2020): 230
 Michael Di Gregorio, OSA, The Precious Pearl: The Story of Saint Rita of Cascia, Kindle Edition, Location 303.