It appears to Zacchaeus and to us that he is searching strenuously to see Jesus. The crowd gets in his way so he runs on ahead and climbs up a tree so that he will be able to see him. He’s doing some real work to accomplish this goal. But, in the end, Jesus tells us that it is he who is searching for Zacchaeus. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost,” he says. Zacchaeus seeks to see Jesus, but at the time and more importantly Jesus seeks to save Zacchaeus.
While we are looking for the Lord in our lives, it is good to remember that he is the one looking for us. He has been looking for us ever since we hid from him in the garden because of our shame over our sin. Then he went looking for Adam and called out to him, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9). He is calling out to us still today – searching for us among the trees.
Some of us, like Zacchaeus, are looking for the Lord, but some of us, like Adam, are hiding from him. Some of us are climbing our trees to get a better look while some of us are hiding among the trees (Gen 3:8).
The Venerable Bede connects the tree Zacchaeus climbs to that of the Cross. Some of us embrace that cross while some of us shun it.
But notice that whether we make ourselves conspicuous like Zacchaeus or hide like Adam, one thing remains the same: The Lord finds us. He finds Adam who is hiding as easily as he finds Zacchaeus in the tree. The Lord is seeking for us and the Lord is the one who finds what he’s looking for. He comes to seek and save the lost and we can count on him to accomplish his purposes. Still, it will be better for us if, when he finds us, he finds us also searching for him. Things went better for Zacchaeus that day than they did for Adam, as you might recall.
While we’re working to find the Lord in our lives, it can seem to us that we’re all alone – that he isn’t with us, or searching for us, but that we’ve been abandoned. Even Jesus, who is God, knows what it is to feel forsaken by God as he hangs upon a tree seeking the will of his Father. So, if we, like Zacchaeus, are looking for the Lord, have embraced our cross, and climbed our tree and now we feel forsaken and that it was all for naught (there is no darker or more painful feeling) we may rely on the hope that the Lord has gone even into that desolation and is there with us in it. He is with us even when it doesn’t feel like it – and not only passively, but is actively seeking us with an infinitely greater fervor than that with which we seek him. The truth of it is not how it appears to us, but is how the Lord knows it to be.
It appears to the crowd and us that Zacchaeus is a great sinner. And maybe he is. The tax collectors of that time and place grew rich by taking more than was owed. By dishonesty. Zacchaeus was both a chief tax collector and rich. So you do the math I guess.
Still, who is the judge of other men’s sins? The crowd murmurs about the sins of Zacchaeus when the Lord goes to stay with him. Did they forget their own sins while the Lord was walking among them? Were they not in awe that he would stoop to associate with them in their sins? Do we forget our own sins when other’s sins come to light? “Lord, help me to remember my own sins, and not judge my brother and sister.”
In any case, our judgements are worthless. We do not see things as they really are. We see only appearances. It appears to us that we and Zacchaeus are searching for the Lord, when really it is the Lord who is searching for us. It appears to us that Zacchaeus and others are great sinners, while our own sins are paltry. But the truth is that Zacchaeus is penitent while the crowd (and maybe some of us) are oblivious to our own need to repent. Meanwhile impenitence, as long as it lasts, it is the unforgivable sin. If our impenitence were to last forever, so would our estrangement from the God we claim to seek.
Listen to Zacchaeus: “Behold, Lord, half my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” He repents and makes restitution. One of the fathers calculates that after Zacchaeus gives away half his goods and then restores any dishonestly acquired wealth fourfold, he’ll be left with nothing. He’ll have given everything to the poor.
Contrast him to another rich man – the rich ruler who kept all the commandments, but was unwilling to give his wealth to the poor and follow Jesus (Luke 18:18-25). That man seemed to all to be a godly man, but he was unwilling to grow any further toward the perfect and eternal life Jesus is calling us to.
We do not see things as they really are. Jesus does. Jesus proclaims salvation to Zacchaeus, whom the crowd thought a sinner. And Jesus laments how difficult it will be for the other rich man to enter the kingdom, though the crowd thought him a saint. Remember, when Jesus observes how hard it would be for him to be saved, those who hear it ask, “Then who can be saved?” (18:26). In their judgement, if the rich man who kept the commandments cannot be saved, then no one can.
Our judgements are worthless. It is the Lord who sees things as they really are. So let us not trust in appearances, but trust rather in the Lord. Let us repent of our own sins rather than judging others. Let us trust the Lord to find us, even when we are lost.