We have for our Gospel reading today the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector who was so short that he had to climb up a tree to get a better view of Jesus as he was passing by. Everyone including Zacchaeus himself is completely surprised when Jesus announces that he intends to stay at Zacchaeus’ house that day.
They were all astonished because Zacchaeus was a tax collector and was therefore someone who was widely despised. At that time Jericho, where he lived, was a very prosperous town which was at the centre of the trade in balsam. As a senior tax collector resident in Jericho Zacchaeus would undoubtedly have been a very wealthy man.
Tax collectors in those days were employed by the Roman occupiers under a kind of franchise system where they got a percentage of whatever taxes they could collect. This would mean that the better Zacchaeus was at his job then the wealthier he would be. This was also a reason why tax collectors were invariably disliked since it was in their interests to screw as much tax out of everyone that they could.
As far as the Jews were concerned, all tax collectors were public sinners because they were raising money for the Roman occupiers and as such they were utterly disliked and disapproved of by everyone. This explains why the people were outraged and accused Jesus of going to eat at the house of a sinner. Talking to a tax collector might be unavoidable but going to eat with one meant treating them as a close friend and signalled that you approved of their behaviour.
At the beginning of the story it says that Zacchaeus ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus. Now there are all kinds of trees and some of them are much easier to climb than others. Ask any small boy and he will tell you that the sycamore tree is definitely one of the most difficult to climb since it has very few branches and those that it does have tend to be far above the ground as well as being rather smooth and not very easy to grip on.
Somehow this small man gets up the tree because he wants to see Jesus. His effort was surely a measure of the greatness of his desire to see Jesus who looks into his heart and recognises that Zacchaeus is at a turning point in his life. By expressing the wish to eat with Zacchaeus Jesus tips the balance and as a direct result Zacchaeus spontaneously repents of his sins and offers to make quadruple restitution to those he has wronged. We don’t get the reaction of the crowd to this extraordinary statement of Zacchaeus but they must have been nonplussed since they would have regarded him as a confirmed sinner and would most likely treat his conversion with a high degree of scepticism.
There is no more recorded in the Gospels about Zacchaeus and this surely indicates that his conversion was indeed a sincere one. There are later Christian traditions which say that he took the name Matthias and was the one chosen as an Apostle to replace Judas Iscariot. Another tradition says that he became the first Bishop of Caesarea. Whatever the truth of these stories it seems extremely likely that Zacchaeus did indeed make a sincere conversion and fulfilled his promises to make restitution to anyone he had swindled.
The point is that it is a wonderful story of repentance. It shows once again how Jesus could look into a person’s heart and draw out the very best in them. It shows also that often the desire for repentance is something that is present in most people but that it often needs the right sort of intervention to bring it to the surface.
One of the remarkable things about this account in the Gospels is the extraordinary statement by Zacchaeus, ‘If I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.’ Repaying those one has defrauded is one thing, but to repay four times the amount is something exceptional.
One of the jobs a priest has in the confessional is to deal with this specific question, that of restitution. Often people come and confess sins of theft or fraud and think that once the sin is forgiven then all has been put right. But this is not the case.
When we steal from someone we are obliged to confess the sin but we are equally obliged to make restitution to them. Having someone else’s money rattling around in our pocket would not be a true sign of contrition. We are morally obliged to restore the losses that have been suffered by our victim. Anything less than this would indicate a lack of true repentance.
Of course there are some circumstances where we could be exempt from this requirement especially if it meant incriminating ourselves or causing an over-reaction or indeed if we were simply unable to pay up. In these cases the priest might recommend that a similar amount of money could be given to some worthy cause so that we did not personally gain by our sin and at least some benefit could result. Or it could be decided that the loss would be repaid over a long period of time. This is one of the reasons why we need to confess our sins to a priest since he is uniquely qualified to advise us on the right course of action depending on the circumstances.
There are many things to consider. One of them is whether the loss would disadvantage our victim considerably or not. There is a difference, for example, between stealing from a very poor person and defrauding a similar sum in taxes. The difference lies in the fact that the poor person would be disproportionally disadvantaged by the theft. Any loss that they incurred would cause them a greater degree of suffering than that to the more nebulous government income tax department. This does not mean that failing to pay taxes is a trivial matter. Both are serious but the suffering caused is greater in the case of a poor person whom we have defrauded.
Any penitent has the duty to make restitution for unfair gains they have made as a result of sin. This is something often neglected or unforeseen by those who come to confess their sins but it is an important aspect of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In the sacrament the priest has several roles; he is to listen, he is to mediate mercy and he is to forgive sins, these are obvious. Less obvious is that he has sometimes to act as a judge and the determination of how restitution is to be made and in what amount is certainly an important aspect of this role.
Zacchaeus offers to pay four times the amount. He could probably have afforded it and he wants to demonstrate to Jesus the depth of his conversion. What we are required to do is simply where possible to restore to other people what we have unjustly removed from them. This is justice; this is our Christian duty; this is the basic requirement which demonstrates our true desire for repentance.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket