Dig Deeper into Sunday’s Gospel: Luke 19:1–10
My only son fell out of a tree last summer, smashing into the concrete pool deck below and fracturing his arm in three places. My brother had tied a rope swing high up into the branches of that tree, teaching my son and his cousins to launch themselves off the swaying rope into the water of the deep end below. I remember driving home from the orthopedic office as my son recounted his dramatic fall: “It was amazing how differently things looked to me from that angle up in that tree. Just getting up higher above the ground allowed me to see things that were there, but I’ve never noticed before.”
This week’s gospel reading describes a man who also climbed a tree, gaining a new perspective that would radically change the trajectory of his life. In Luke 19, Jesus introduces us to Zacchaeus, chief tax collector and a wealthy man. During this time in history, most tax collectors were suspected of dishonesty and despised as sinners by collecting personal commissions above the required tax amount.[1,2]
Because he was short in stature and couldn’t see above the crowd, Zacchaeus runs ahead and climbs a sycamore tree to get a glimpse of Jesus passing through Jericho. This episode, only recounted in the Gospel of Luke, is marked with great irony: Zacchaeus seeks with tremendous effort to see Jesus (Luke 19:3–4) only to discover that Jesus is seeking him (Luke 19:10)! Jesus asks Zacchaeus to come down from the tree so that He might be welcomed into his house. Zacchaeus makes haste and immediately comes down.
But there’s more. It’s not just that Zacchaeus comes down; it’s how he scurries down to meet Jesus. Luke tells us he did so “with joy” (Luke 19:6). Once Zacchaeus’ eyes are opened to his sin, he volunteers to give half of his possessions to the poor and to repay what he has extorted four times over. Jesus tells him that salvation has come to his house!
Zacchaeus’ story encourages us to remember that the health of our spiritual life is not determined by the significance of our sin but by our response to it.
In his popular podcast The Bible in A Year, Father Mike Schmitz highlights the stark contrast between the response of Zacchaeus to that of a rich ruler mentioned in Luke 18. Father Mike fondly labels the rich ruler the “church kid,” because the young man reminded Jesus that, from his youth, he had done everything God has asked of him (Luke 18:21). He appears to be on the right path, but when Jesus cuts straight to the heart of the very thing that governs the young man’s heart—asking him to sell all that he has and distribute his wealth to the poor—the young man turns away and becomes sad (Luke 18:23).
Father Mike notes, “That term for sad, grieved, is the same word that is used to describe the grief, the agony that Jesus went through in the Garden of Gethsemane. So he goes away sad, not just kinda bummed out. He goes away wounded. He goes away almost crushed, you’d say, but he does go away.”
Unwilling to give Jesus his full heart, the “church kid” walks away from an encounter with Jesus with a crushed spirit.
Humbly admitting to his mistakes, the selfish sinner, Zacchaeus, confesses and goes away filled with joy.
This leads us to ask, what is our response when we come face to face with sin in our life that God is revealing to us? Do we turn away from the Holy Spirit’s whisper of conviction like the rich ruler, or when made aware of our sin, do we humbly chase Jesus down like Zacchaeus?
The good news is that we have free will. Our response to Jesus’ conviction of our sin is always our choice to make.
I am not a fan of Zacchaeus’ sin, but I am a major fan of his heart’s response once he is convicted of it. The Catholic Church calls this interior repentance a radical reorientation of our whole life. It is “a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God's mercy and trust in the help of his grace.”
We would be wise to recognize that Zacchaeus’ radical reorientation was spurred on by three pivotal decisions:
Sometimes, like Zacchaeus, we are so stuck in patterns of sin, we can’t even see we are struggling with it! God often needs to pull us out of our normal surroundings in order to speak to our heart, nudging us to notice that something we are doing is straining our relationship with Him.
We don’t have to climb a tree to be self-reflective, but we can pursue a deep conversation with a dear friend or spiritual director asking for feedback for how we can mature. We can attend Adoration to sit quietly before the Eucharist. We can sit in silence to pray through an examination of conscience or take a walk alone outside to talk to God.
Food for thought or journaling…
Lord, help me to become more aware and sensitive to my sin this week. Thank You for Your word in 1 John 1:9 that says if we confess our sins, You are faithful and just to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. May I come to You with a humble and repentant heart. Amen.
 Commentary on Luke 19:2, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2010), 143.
 Commentary on Mark 2:14, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament, 68.
 Commentary on Luke 19:1–10, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament, 143.
 Schmitz, Father Mike, “Day 319: Come, Follow Me,” The Bible in a Year (with Fr. Mike Schmitz), produced by Ascension, November 14, 2021.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012), 1431.