The Little Big Man

Beginning with this issue, we offer a series of articles on the encounters made by Jesus. The topics arise from School of Community. We begin with the hated tax collector, Zacchaeus, who, compelled by insatiable curiosity, wanted to see Jesus at all costs


The story is told completely in the Gospel of Luke, a special correspondent attentive to the essential: Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, had crossed Samaria, had told parables that stirred the hearts of many, had driven out demons and healed the sick, had upset the Pharisees who were scandalized even at seeing Him work miracles on the Sabbath, and had already met the rich young man and told him clearly about the dangers of wealth, which can turn one away from the Kingdom of God. His road took Him through Jericho, the oldest city in the world. When He passed through the center of town, in the middle of a splendid oasis a few miles from the Dead Sea, encircled by desert and mountains, an enormous crowd surrounded Him, and in the midst of the crowd was Zacchaeus. The man was a famous and infamous character, well known to all, “one of the senior tax collectors and a wealthy man,” Luke writes. Wealthy: one of those for whom the door to the Kingdom of Heaven appears very narrow. The tax collectors, moreover, were worse than wealthy, as they were despised, practically impure. They were the ones who had grown rich by collecting taxes on behalf of the Romans. The tax collector has never been a beloved figure, nor has he ever been very popular in any country in the world; besides that, the Jewish tax collector represented a double blasphemy. They were Jews who asked other Jews for money on behalf of the hated Roman Empire, the one that the Messiah was supposed to eliminate, at least in the people’s expectations. This moment seemed imminent, to judge from the teeming of independence movements and Messianic expectations in the days of Jesus. In short, the first to suffer the consequences of the Messiah’s expulsion of the Romans, in the expectations of the people, would be just these tax collectors, these odious people. They also had frequent contact with pagans, which made them unrespectable, almost unworthy even to enter the Temple. And, to make them even less likable, they sometimes skimmed a little off the top of the money they took in.

At all costs
In a word, the worst, the most immoral sort you could meet. And Zacchaeus was their head. Luke describes him as short in stature; the crowd easily blocked his view, and no one would do him the favor of getting out of his way, evidently. Zacchaeus had just one gift to his credit, an insatiable curiosity; he was literally dying to see Jesus, and perhaps he did not even know why. But he had to see Him at any cost, even at the cost of being ridiculous. “He kept trying to see which Jesus was,” Luke goes on, “but… could not see Him for the crowd.” The picture traced by the Gospel grows livelier: Zacchaeus tried, he got all worked up, but to no avail. So he ran ahead, a little man but quick and nimble, and jumped into a tree, climbed it and curled up on “a sycamore tree,” Luke gives this detail; there are still sycamores like that in Jericho, tall, leafy, full of branches that start near the bottom–it is easy to climb them. He knew that Jesus had to pass that way. The Gospel does not stop to dwell on what Zacchaeus was feeling in that moment: curiosity, to be sure, perhaps some confused sense of guilt at a life that was certainly not exemplary, perhaps the intuition that something could happen, something truly new. Perhaps. Who knew? Lots of things were being said about this Nazarene. The Gospel sticks to the facts. Jesus arrived and immediately lifted His gaze. He saw the rich man, the tax collector, the impure man, the Mafia boss, hanging from the branches. The scene may have been a bit ridiculous, a bit pathetic, but we can think that at that moment very few people were laughing or feeling moved at the sight. That little man was a bad person and a sinner and had robbed many poor people. Gazes met, the gaze of Jesus, followed by the crowd with bated breath: “Who knows what He’ll say now….” It was the gaze that only the disciples knew well, which each time signaled that something was happening, something unexpected but that would be very clear in a short while.

“I am coming to your house”
Zacchaeus’ gaze: “He saw me, now what?” The uplifted gaze of the crowd: “Look where he has gone to roost… but surely Jesus will know who he is, what sort of person is up in that sycamore tree!” Fr Giussani has evoked this moment many times: “We can imagine when He passes under that tree where Zacchaeus is perched, the head of the Mafia of all the area northeast of Jerusalem, of Jericho. He stops and looks at him. ‘Zacchaeus’–He says his name–‘Zacchaeus, hurry down, I am coming to your house.’ There is no possibility of tenderness like this among us; we are filthy, boors, we are stones compared to this thing here: Zacchaeus.” It is worthwhile to read and reread the words of Jesus, which Luke transcribes faithfully because they must have stayed imprinted on the hearts of the apostles, unexpected words for everyone, for the disciples, for the crowd, imagine for Zacchaeus! “Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I am to stay at your house today.” What happens next is surprising; even the chronicler of the Gospel this time cannot help reporting the tumult of feelings that are unleashed: Zacchaeus “hurried down and welcomed him joyfully,” practically jumping out of the tree, while the crowd pulled away, murmuring, “He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house!” The same crowd that had pressed in on Jesus, that a few minutes earlier had surrounded Him while he restored sight to a blind man and had also tried to make the troublesome handicapped man who was shouting too loudly be quiet. But this was too much–this tax collector! This Mafia boss! This sinner! Zacchaeus, in the meantime, must have been kneeling, or maybe he had fallen down as he came out of the tree, because the Gospel tells us that he stood and hurriedly said to Jesus the first thing that came into his head, and this was an enormous thing for him, who had made his true God of money, shrewdness, and fraud: “Look, sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.” This was much more than was prescribed by Jewish and Roman law. And Jesus replied, evidently speaking also to the crowd, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham; for the Son of man has come to seek out and save what was lost.”

The parable of the gold coins
And since He was in the mood to make things clear, He turned up the heat by telling the parable of the gold coins, about the nobleman who went on a journey, entrusting his money to his servants, and when he returned after being appointed king, despite the opposition of his fellow countrymen who hated him, summoned them and rewarded them according to the interest they had earned on the money. The one who had secretly and scrupulously put away the gold coin–worth more or less one hundred times a worker’s daily wages–that he had been given, without putting it to work, was punished and his money given to the man who had earned the most interest. To those who objected–“But he already has ten coins”–the king replied harshly, “To everyone who has will be given more; but anyone who has not will be deprived even of what he has. As for my enemies who did not want me for their king, bring them here and execute them in my presence.” This is His last encounter and the last parable told by Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, where His Passion would be played out. And after having lunch in Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus set out for the Holy City, already followed by the crowd that would soon go away, along with the frightened few who would stay with him. Among these were at least two tax collectors, untouchables: Zacchaeus and Levi, son of Alpheus, called Matthew, he too a tax collector, who gave up his rich trade when Jesus stood in front of his table and pointed to him, saying, “Follow me!” “And he got up and followed Him.” Levi became the apostle and evangelist Matthew.

Simplicity of heart
Levi too had had Jesus as his guest at lunch, and in his house too publicans and sinners had come to eat, and then too the fine observant devout Pharisees had been scandalized, but Jesus had cut them short: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Opening the heart, now just as then, to so many poor fellows like us who cannot help sinning, but who in that Man, in that You, in hearing Someone call them by name, tenderly, had encountered the possibility for a greater life, for Heaven. From that time, morality became something much simpler than following impossible rules. “It is simplicity of heart,” Fr Giussani says. “I thank you, Father, because You have hidden these things from those who think they are somebody and have revealed them to the simple folk. Who is the simple person? The moral man. Who is the moral man? Someone who never commits murder? No, somebody can commit a hundred murders and be moral. It is the tax collector at the back of the Temple. The Gospel does not say, ‘He went out of the Temple and never was a tax collector again;’ he continued to be a tax collector. And Zacchaeus was reached by mercy when he was perched on that tree in order to see Jesus. The Gospel doesn’t say anywhere that Zacchaeus never fought with his wife again. It says that he offered half his property to the poor–something has to be there, otherwise nothing has changed! It is the simplicity of your heart, because your salvation does not depend on others, but on the Other. And the relationship with the Other is defined by the word simplicity, which means being poor in spirit or childlike.” And children, we know, absolutely love to climb trees.