Our impression of an ambush has to do with something negative. Its synonyms are: waylay, ensnare, trap. An ambush is “a surprise attack by people lying in wait in a concealed position.” In general, an ambush is illegal because it is mostly intended to harm one’s opponent. As a teenager, I did lay an ambush once against someone who snatched my soccer ball. I targeted my detractor by hiding in the bush. My image of an ambush then was literally to identify with the bush. In my head then, it meant –“I’m bush.” And sincerely, that was what I did and I paid dearly for it. My parents made me to understand that laying an ambush was not allowed.
Zacchaeus’ ambush is different. He conceals himself for a good cause. He hides himself to be found by Jesus. He goes on the tree, rises above his negative habits. From his extortion-prone life, he takes a risk to get off the old hook. Jesus beckons him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Every encounter with Christ is life changing. In Zacchaeus’ case Jesus invites him to move from the flimsiness of the tree-top to the transforming presence of grace and mercy. The Lord wants to spend time with us, just like he wants for Zacchaeus.
Is Zacchaeus’ story just about a short man who climbs the sycamore tree to meet Jesus? What’s the evangelist Luke doing with this story? Professor Luke Timothy Johnson says:
"the story of Zacchaeus (19:1-9) is meant to contrast with that of the ruler in 18:18-23. Both men were powerful, both wealthy. The first kept all the commandments, and could be considered as righteous. But he could not do the one thing remaining, -- which was to hand over his life utterly to the prophet, and to signal that commitment by selling his possessions and giving them to the poor. Zacchaeus, in contrast, was regarded as a "sinner" by those accompanying Jesus because of his occupation as chief tax-agent. But he is eager to receive the prophet "with joy" and he declares his willingness to share?? indeed if this reading of the story is correct, his regular practice of sharing his possessions with the poor, not as a single gesture but as a steady commitment" (The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina, Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 287).
I see this a little different from professor Johnson. In my view, Zacchaeus seems rather like Jesus’ answer to the confusion about the rich man in Luke 18:18-23. Remember that the crowds had asked Jesus this question after he shared that parable, “Then who can be saved?” (Lk. 18:26) Zacchaeus is a story of a restless heart in search of God’s mercy. His story is the expression of God’s openness to get back the sinner. The parable is the fulfilment of Christ’s mission, “to seek and to save what was lost." Zacchaeus is a tax collector. Zacchaeus is rich. Zacchaeus is a sinner. All these place him in the anthropology of a depraved, broken, unworthy man who by the Jewish standard does not merit Jesus’ attention. He has excess luggage of sin. But this sinful Zacchaeus climbs the sycamore tree to see Jesus. It is the mercy of Jesus with its irresistible force that spots him from a distance and ushers him into the bosom of salvation.
Think about this story in relation to last Sunday’s reading which presented the parable of the two men who went to the temple to pray (Lk. 18:9-14). The Zacchaeus’ narrative seems like a continuation of that story. The Pharisee goes up to justify himself whereas the tax collector stands afar and does not even lift his head. All he does is to ask for mercy from God. The evangelist Luke tells the story of God’s mercy. Could Zacchaeus have been that tax collector who stood at a distance beating his chest and saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner?” Could Jesus’ encounter with him today be God responding to that request for mercy? The first wealthy man could not do the one thing requested of him, to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. He could not open himself up to God’s grace, so, he walked away sad. Zacchaeus showed what practical repentance is all about, a total metanoia, "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." He must be saying to Jesus from the top of his tree, “Thank God you found me.”
Zacchaeus teaches us the value of true richness in God. There’s always a level of risk to that, sacrificing and giving up something, which reminds me of Toby Mac’s song that goes this way, “I don wanna gain the whole world and lose my soul.”
We attended a retreat recently. One of the speakers, Deacon Keith Strohm, challenged the audience to move from institutional faith to intentional faith. Deacon Kieth’s recommendation was to change the paradigm of seeing faith as a transaction. A transactional faith as he explained, places values on what we get, a sort of bargain which looks forward to gains in return for our actions. Whereas Deacon Kieth has a great message, it is important to identify that faith has a transactional dimension to it. We must make sacrifices for what we believe in. We must make restitution for our sins, give back what is stolen or forcefully acquired. We must use our resources to support the less privileged. This is what Zacchaeus does in this encounter. Zacchaeus realized that he was lost in his ill-gotten possession. It did not matter what the popular opinion or impression held about him. He became convinced how much value Jesus put on him and the need to take a reverse action. He realized how useless it would be if he gained the whole world and lost his soul.
This weekend, I want to challenge you to see what you can give up for Jesus. Any old Zacchaeus in you that you need to get rid of? Anything blocking the way of your encounter with Jesus? What’s that? Negative habits? Hateful behaviors? Injustice against someone? Gossip? Calumny against a work colleague? Anger? Unforgiveness? Lies and insincerity? Pride and selfishness? Greed or avarice? Sloth or acadia? It is possible that you have been in that habit and wondering how to get rid of it. The first thing is to recognize that God is searching for you. Being shy or ashamed would not help, otherwise Zacchaeus would not have done it. The Lord is not interested in your status. He wills that you be saved. Don’t act like the young Augustine who prayed “Lord, make me chaste – but not yet!” Of course, be sure the Lord does not give up on recovering your soul. Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house.” God is ready and willing to give his salvation. Yes, today! He demands the readiness of Zacchaeus from you. Zacchaeus’ ambush was in turn hijacked by Jesus to save him. Yes, an ambush may be allowed if it leads you to a transforming encounter with Jesus.
Readings: 1st- Wis. 11:22-12:2; 2nd- 2 Thess. 1:11-2:2; Gospel- Lk. 19:1-10