The Conversion of the Rich

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    Gospel according to 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 to 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.”

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    Zacchaeus’ story is unique in the Lucan gospel. He must have told his story to Luke the gospel writer who was interested to meet rich people whom Jesus had converted. Luke’s gospel reveals his love for the poor. He revealed this in the beatitude describing the poor as blessed, not because of their virtues but because their poverty attracts the heart of God.

    The conversion by rich people is authenticated when they recognize that their salvation is in the hands of the poor, which moves them to share their resources with them. Zacchaeus did this when he distributed one half of his wealth to the poor, and to anybody whom he defrauded he declared he would pay them fourfold.

    There are no rich people in the cemetery, but actually many people die rich and never shared anything with the poor. To be known as a rich person in the cemetery could be the worst attribute because this means his extreme poverty before God. Those who keep their riches to themselves, even if they have gained this wealth in an honest way, end up keeping what is not theirs. All wealth in this world belongs to God, and the only way out by which the rich would escape condemnation is when they share it with others.

    Zacchaeus remembered vividly his encounter with Jesus, as the tax collector went down the sycamore tree and faced his caller on the ground. Zacchaeus’ eyes must be sparkling when he told his story to Luke. This most moving experience, when the eyes of the Savior looked at the publican with all love, encouraged Zacchaeus to make a radical response to that offer of love. The riches of the planet was suddenly lost to him. He was willing to lose everything for his sake. Losing his riches was gain.

    Before Zacchaeus, Luke also recounted a story of a rich young man who, after enthusiastically offering himself to become Jesus’ disciple, withdrew after Jesus asked him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. The conversion of the rich is a difficult task, but not impossible. God’s grace has a way to penetrate hearts. This was fulfilled in Zacchaeus.

    Before this encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus must have been restless, looking for meaning The wealth that he accumulate through his work as a tax collector had made him socially and ritually repugnant, and people escaped his presence. Jesus did not shy away from him; instead, the Lord even called him out, announcing, to his astonished followers that he would like to enter Zacchaeus’ home effectively making the son of Man “defile” himself by proceeding. Zacchaeus did not encounter condemnation from Jesus, but welcome, understanding, and mercy. That moved him to respond: to “clean” and “purify” himself and his house of the social stigma, he proffered a surprising act of charity.

    Riches should become a cause of restlessness when they are stolen. Politicians and government officials rake money from the nation’s coffers, and some of them were already convicted as plunderers. But they don’t feel the restlessness of Zacchaeus and even present themselves as heroes and servants of the country. Jesus challenges them to imitate Zacchaeus. There would be rejoicing in the heavens when these people give up their stolen wealth, and a celebration in the country for all the poor who are wallowing in misery due to the endless graft and corruption ravishing our country. – Fr. Teotimo Melliza, SSP

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