Zacchaeus: A Strange Conversion Episode

Image from Google (29.09.2011)

Family Unit Meeting VII

I. Introduction: Repentance a free gift from God

“How many of us here can claim having had the kind of breakthrough experience people like St Paul or King David or Zacchaeus had undergone? I mean a sudden, life-changing overthrow of the self, instantly followed by a profound upheaval within, resulting in self-renewal or permanent transformation.” This was how the unorthodox Fr Zachariah the Parish Priest introduced the subject at the FU meeting. He reassured the group: “As decided at our last meeting, we are going to discuss the Zacchaeus story here; and I am sure you have come prepared. But if we begin with consideration of a few cases of apparently sudden conversions, we could appreciate the Zacchaeus story better.”

There was no immediate response from the group.

Engineer Antony’s conversion experience

At length, Antony spoke with some diffidence. “Since no one has responded to Rev Father’s question, I shall narrate my humble experience that was humbling too. At 40, I was an agnostic. On my morning walk one day I just stepped into the compound of our beautifully rebuilt Church, which had been blessed just the other day. There was a joyful crowd of proud parishioners in the compound visually taking in the beauty of the rebuilt church. Being in my jogging suit, I felt rather awkward to get inside. So, after having a look from outside, I stepped back to return. Suddenly I heard someone behind me gently calling me back. I turned around and saw a grandfather-figure beaming a beatific smile at me with his toothless gum exposed. But the call tugged at my heartstrings. For a brief little moment I thought it was ‘He’ and not the old man who called me back. This experience caused a deep turmoil in me that lasted several days and permanently re-made me.”

“Wonderful, Antony”, said Fr Z. “I have no doubt it was a call from above. An unmerited gift indeed, although not as colourful or sensational as in the case of St Paul. Would any one say Paul, on his way to Damascus, ‘breathing threats and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord’ had merited the gift he received?” Or King David after his adultery and subsequent murder of his loyal captain to save himself and his adulterous partner from exposure and people’s wrath? So, repentance comes as a free gift from God. We only have to accept it.”

President James intervened. “In that case, one might as well ask why God chooses some people selectively for this special gift.”

The octogenarian Prof Peter responded, “In my limited understanding, He wants every one to repent and change. But on those occasions when the invitation comes, most of us are unprepared even to sense His gentle call. But when faced with some calamity in your life, your ego is down, and you become ‘poor in spirit’ as alluded to in the Beatitudes. And, as your spirit becomes sensitive, you hear the call.”

Alice Teacher: “That is a good one, Sir. But In that case, how would you explain St Paul’s great conversion? He was ‘breathing threats and slaughter’ against the disciples of the Lord as Fr Z quoted just now. Apparently he was not ‘poor in spirit’ then.”

Sr. Ann smiled appreciatively and said it was a very special gift from God. “He had foreseen the crucial role Saul would play in His future Church. He chose a fierce persecutor of the Church himself to become the leading apostle for gentiles. And Paul became a very special gift to the Church itself.”

Poet Roy was not exactly satisfied with Sr. Ann’s rather simplistic interpretation. “God could have made another, equally zealous St. Paul out of any ordinary human being, just as He made good many apostles from ordinary fisher folk.”

Roy continued, “I have this hypothesis about Saul’s conversion. He was a straightforward man zealous of protecting his religion. And this guileless Pharisee was already tormented by his role in the stoning of Stephen. The martyr’s angelic face and his final prayer for his murderers had made an indelible impress on his psyche and it had been rankling in his heart and soul while on his way to Damascus. His interior conversion, the process of metanoia, had already begun, although he was unaware of it himself. And then comes his mystic experience. Jesus calls. And eventually he responds.”

Fr Z didn’t show any surprise at Roy’s assumption that Saul was tormented by his role in Stephen’s murder. “In the past too, views like these were expressed by scholars. They thought Saul was assailed by doubts, perplexities, fears and remorse while on his way to Damascus. But it is written in the Acts that he was still breathing murder against Christ’s disciples when halted on his way by Christ.”

Fr Z continued, “So, let us keep in mind that God’s ways are mysterious, beyond human comprehension. And now let us leave the great St Paul here and go straight to the episode of Zacchaeus.”

Secretary Leelamma sought to ask one last question before getting into the Zacchaeus story. She asked Engineer Antony if he had any kind of grief or perplexity or agony before he entered the precincts of the newly built Church; whether he was somehow troubled in spirit at the time his steps took him to the new Church.

Antony’s response was “Yes and No”. He admitted he had a serious problem then in his official career, but not serious enough for anyone to seek refuge in religion. “But I observed one strange thing. After my conversion, the burden of that problem had suddenly become light. I could face my detractors with calm assurance. And, as for Saul, I am inclined to believe that he was tormented by severe conscience problems while breathing murder and threats at the same time against the disciples of the Lord.”

II. The episode of Zacchaeus

President James thought it time for taking up the Zacchaeus story. He suggestively turned to Secretary Leelamma. She read out the passage (Luke 19: 1-10) from the KJV.

“And entering he walked through Jericho. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, who was the chief of the publicans: and he was rich. And he sought to see Jesus who he was: and he could not for the crowd, because he was low of stature. And running before, he climbed up into a sycamore tree, that he might see him: for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus had come to the place, looking up, he saw him and said to him: Zacchaeus, make haste and come down: for this day I must abide in your house. And he made haste and came down and received him with joy. And when all saw it, they murmured, saying, that he had gone to be a guest with a man that was a sinner. But Zacchaeus standing, said to the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have wronged any man of anything, I restore him fourfold. Jesus said to him: This day is salvation come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Kids’ Bibles bring harm

Prof Peter said: “The first time I heard about Zacchaeus was when I was in the primary school. We were told Zacchaeus was a little man, the like of whom we see in circus tents, a clown who could do funny things to make the audience laugh. Jesus and his friends were moving along the road, and our little friend climbed up a tree on the wayside to see him. Naturally he caught the attention of Jesus, who called him by name and asked him to come down, offering himself to be his guest that day. He speedily slid down the tree and, in his confused state of mind, freely offered to give half his wealth to the poor and compensate four times those whom he had wronged. Jesus said salvation had come into his house that day. The onlookers were not amused. They called the little man a sinner, because he himself admitted to having cheated others. And no one of us in our childhood understood what a tax gatherer or traitor was. And none of us could comprehend what Jesus said about seeking and saving lost ones.”

Prof Stephen was not surprised by Prof Peter’s childhood experience. He said, in our enthusiasm to teach Biblical stories to children, we make light of those stories and their characters. Children’s literature the world over is replete with such oversimplification. “Zacchaeus story is a serious one, a true ‘adult story’, like the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. It takes a mature mind to grasp its essence. When we make fun of the characters by caricaturing them and narrating them in the ‘baby talk’ style, children fail to get at the true meaning of those episodes; instead, what would remain in their minds are peripherals. We need to treat characters like Zacchaeus with dignity and respect.”

Poet Roy intervened. “I can’t agree more with Prof Stephen. Look at the kind of children’s literature freely floating on the internet. In one illustration I saw a seemingly foolish person perched on an upper branch of a tree and peering down at the passing crowd. Children reading those pages would take Zacchaeus as a derelict, a good-for-nothing fellow. Bishop St. Nicholas (Santa Claus in folklore) and Emperor Mahabali (Maveli of Keralaites) are two other persons I can immediately recall having suffered caricaturing by subsequent generations.”

Zacchaeus was a senior official in powerful position

Prof Stephen resumed: “Zacchaeus or Zaccai was the chief tax gatherer at Jericho, which was a flourishing and prosperous trade centre in those days. All the tax collectors of Jericho, I imagine, reported to him. Compared to him, Apostle Matthew was not more than a junior functionary at an ordinary customs house at the fishing village of Capernaum. Zacchaeus was probably in direct reporting relationship with the Roman Procurator (financial controller), and even with the Prefect (Governor) at Jerusalem. One can also imagine that he was personally known to Annas and Caiaphas who were beholden to the Romans. And he might have moved in the then high social circles and entertained the Roman officials by dining and wining with them. Today a person of such status would be dressed in lounge suit, move around in expensive cars and function from an air-conditioned office complex, attended by a large contingent of senior executives with policing powers and amply served by spies.”

Poet Roy butted in: “In that case, could he have been that ‘disciple known to the high priest and went in with Jesus into the court of the high priest’ after Jesus was arrested, as described in the Gospel according to St John?”

Prof Stephen ignored the interruption and resumed his hypothetical description of Zacchaeus. “This tax collector probably came from a rich family, and might have become richer after taking up his corrupt profession. Revenue officials like him would extort money from traders, pocket part of it and pass on to the government the accounted portion of the tax collected. This practice is continuing to this day the world over. In India, as we are all too familiar, politicians and officials collude in corrupt business practices and cheat the people and the country. They have all been the same everywhere in all ages.”

Politician Rosaline took umbrage at this suggestion. She turned to the Professor, “Sir, are you not stretching it too far? Do you think all politicians are corrupt? It is time for you to change that perception.”

“My apologies Madam; I stand corrected” Stephen said. “To continue with my perception, the corrupt publicans were esteemed low in the fiercely patriotic society of Israel because, apart from being corrupt, they worked for the occupying force. Hence they were regarded as ‘sinners’ at the level of prostitutes.”

Zacchaeus was not corrupt himself

Engineer Antony was not too comfortable about branding Zacchaeus as corrupt. He said, “Even after parting with half of his wealth for the poor, Zacchaeus still had enough resources to promise a fourfold compensation for those whom he had wronged. What does that mean, Rev Fr? It means that his unaccounted money, or ‘black money’, or ‘corrupt money’ formed but an insignificant part of his total wealth. And, compared to modern day corruption in high places, this ‘loot’ was negligible and it would be absolutely unfair to bracket such people along with prostitutes.”

“What a penetrating analysis, Antony”, exclaimed Fr Z. “We often go by our childhood fixations. We repeatedly read the scriptures with preconceived notions and biases that we had acquired in our childhood. The general impression is that Zacchaeus became rich through unfair means. But if that were so, as Antony said it would be impossible for him to give half his wealth to the poor and restore his wrongs fourfold from the remainder of his wealth.

Sr. Ann jumped at this turn in the story, “Very true. In our school days, we used to pun with his name as an example of oxymoron or paradox. His name means ‘pure’, ‘clean’, etc. But, being a tax collector, he had got to be a most corrupt, unclean man!”

She read out the passage in Luke, and continued, “Also, let us carefully examine Zacchaeus’ words. He said, ‘if I have wronged any man of anything, I restore him fourfold’. That means he could not even recollect having wronged anybody of anything. So, how could he be treated as a corrupt official despite being in a notoriously corrupt profession?”

Fr Z continued, “Here, in Luke’s narration, it was the common folk who murmured about Zacchaeus as a ‘sinner’. And, when he declared his own penance, Jesus said salvation had come to his house; he didn’t say his sins were forgiven.

Prof Peter complimented Antony for the new insight provided by him.

Zacchaeus could not have been that short

Prof Stephen sought leave to resume his interrupted thought. “Now, the scripture says Zacchaeus was short in stature. But, had he been a midget as repeatedly misrepresented in cartoons, the Romans would not have appointed him to such a powerful position that should command the respect of his rich and influential customers. Shorter he certainly was compared to most others. In the midst of a crowd, he must have had difficulty in seeing what was ahead unless he stood tiptoe. I myself have had this difficulty at times. And such people, including me, often strut around with erect back to reassure ourselves that we are not that short after all. Now, imagine me, 5’2” in height, at the back of a crowd listening to a political speech in an open ground without a raised stage. If I am interested in the speech and in the speaker, I would move to the front and take a comfortable position there. But certainly I would not climb a tree to see him.”

Industrial Psychologist Dr Susan observed that she was now getting the direction Prof Stephen was taking. She sought Stephen’s permission to carry the discourse forward in her words on the understanding that the Professor could correct her midcourse wherever needed. The Professor gracefully handed the mike to her.

Dr Susan continued, “Zacchaeus probably was self-conscious about his height and had some complexes about it. But let us get on with the spirit of the story. He belonged to a rich family, and financially he didn’t need a job of this kind. The job would bring him in alliance with the powerful Romans, although it would also upset his countrymen. And, on balance, he thought it OK to take up the job. After all, it was a position of power. But, once in the seat of power, he found to his dismay that the profession was steeped in corruption of a scale unimagined before. Especially the publicans at lower levels who were in direct touch with the traders, he found, were incorrigible. He was not corrupt himself, yet he too got branded as a corrupt publican. And soon he was fed up with the job.”

Zacchaeus regrets his job selection

Dr Susan briefly surveyed the group for their reaction. They were cool. Prof Stephen was intently listening. She resumed, “Soon he began to regret his job selection. But he could not resign all of a sudden without offending the Romans. While in this painful dilemma, he heard of a Rabbi in distant Galilee, a miracle worker, who was quite comfortable with all kinds of sinners. This Rabbi even befriended a Galilean tax collector called Matthew and his friends in his profession. Zacchaeus thought it a wonderful thing. He wished he could join the band after leaving his traitorous profession. He, however, dilly dallied for a couple of years. Then, all of a sudden, he heard the Rabbi was in his very home town. None of his spies had tipped him off about his arrival. On an impulse he ran out into the street, ignoring his attendants and even his charioteer. He saw the crowd moving, and he pursued them in full speed. Being of low stature, he could not see the man at the centre. So he overtook the crowd and mounted a sycamore tree on the wayside from where he got a clear view of the oncoming Rabbi.”

Alice Teacher commented that Prof Stephen and Dr Susan were making a kind of short story out of the simple episode. “Why should at all we conjure up the picture of a man in lounge suit leaving his posh car and running on to this tree in this manner? Nowhere has Luke mentioned about Zacchaeus having regretted his job anytime. So, why at all should we deviate from the story and embellish it with our own imagination?”

Poet Roy responded with his characteristically supercilious smile. “Luke narrated the bare minimum story. And an unprepared reader would fail to notice the implicit facts without applying his mind. For instance, when Antony reasoned that Zacchaeus was a very rich man by fair means and that his black money if any was meager in comparison, our view about him instantly changed. He was not such a crook as we thought he was. And when Prof Stephen said he was an authority figure and not an ordinary clown, he had deduced it from the scripture itself. And, Madam, our ancient Church Fathers had all done a great job by making reasoned deductions from the scriptures.”

Fr Z gave Alice an understanding smile and encouraged Dr Susan to continue.

Zacchaeus on the tree

Dr Susan resumed. “Zacchaeus, a man of import and position, perched on the tree in his official dress, must have made a funny spectacle. From his telltale uniform the citizens of Jericho could easily identify his authority, even if they were ignorant of his name. But a stranger to the city straightaway calling him by name! That was unthinkable. And this stranger inviting himself to be his guest at his house that day! This was beyond his wildest expectations. Now Zacchaeus instantly became confident that the Rabbi was on his side and he would help him set his problems aright. All the remnants of his dignity and reserve fled, and straightaway he admitted to his ‘sins’ as alleged by the crowd, and chalked out his own penance. The Rabbi reassured him that salvation had come to his house. And he sought to calm the crowd by reminding them that he had come to seek the lost ones.”

President James complimented the members for drawing a cogent contextual framework for the Zacchaeus episode. “Prof Stephen made him out to be a powerful official in the city; Antony reasoned that he had his own rich inheritance and that his corrupt money was meager, implying that he might have reluctantly joined the profession and was now regretting his job selection but unable to easily get out of the job; Dr Susan succeeded in painting the picture of a man who was seeking salvation especially after he heard of Jesus in Galilee and the conversion of others like Matthew in his profession; Dr Susan said he was taken unawares of Jesus’ visit to the city, and all his reserve and dignity was down the moment he heard the news and he hurriedly ran to see him; in his frantic efforts to get a full glimpse of the Rabbi, the man climbed a tree. The rest we know. The scenario that has emerged from our discussion is certainly different from the oversimplified, trivialized depiction of the story in kids’ literature.”

James, however, added a note of dissent. “Dr Susan would like us to believe that probably Zacchaeus was not fully aware in the beginning about the rampant corruption among the publicans. But, looking to his affluent background and privileged status in the then Palestine under Roman occupation, it is difficult to visualize that before taking up the job he was altogether ‘innocent’ about the scale of such corruption. Of course, from his confessional statement and self-declared penance we may infer that he had not himself amassed much wealth by unfair means. Hence, I too am inclined to believe that it was power and political influence that was the prime motive for him to join this profession. In this bargain, clearly, he was also willing to risk his fair name.”

“However, I admit these are matters which would permit speculation in any direction,” said James.

James now turned to Fr Z and invited him to explain the theological implications of the story.

Theological implications

Fr Zachariah began. “I have always considered this a great story of an unusual repentance and penance. Unconsciously Zacchaeus had been preparing himself for this climacteric moment in his life. His worldly remorse was for twofold reasons: (one) he got stuck in a corrupt profession and got a bad name for himself although he was not corrupt himself; (two) he had to squeeze money from his countrymen to feed the rapacious foreign masters. This remorse must have become obvious to him the moment he heard about Jesus and of Matthew joining him. Over the next couple of years, it caused in him a burning desire, an unquenchable longing, to see the miracle worker, in whose presence he would set right his wrongs to others. Not for getting people’s approval, but to calm his own troubled conscience. So the process of ‘metanoia’, or change of heart, had begun. And his repentance was gradually taking on the nature of contrition, an imperfect kind of contrition though, a guilt-based attrition.”

Fr Z continued, “On hearing about Jesus’ passage through his hometown, a frenzied Zacchaeus forgot himself, forgot everything, and ran and climbed the sycamore tree to see him. And there, when Jesus called him by name and invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house, things changed 180 degrees for him. When scorned by some in the crowd about his sinful background, his mouth responded from the abundance of his heart. What he had conceived in his heart earlier as his penance he confessed to Jesus then and there. Not for the purpose of satisfying the ridiculing crowd, but out of his own spontaneous happiness and joy. This was obviously a case of perfect contrition, because he detested his sin out of his love for God.”

Remorse turns into attrition and then into contrition

Fr Z paused to sense the group’s reaction. Prof Peter responded, “Rev Fr, Your likening of this episode with our sacrament of confession appears to me as very cogent. Initially, Zacchaeus had a worldly kind of ‘remorse’, because he saw enormous corruption in the profession and he soon became the butt of popular ridicule. Even atheists can have that kind of remorse. Then, when he heard of Matthew’s conversion and of Jesus’ preaching and compassion, it grew into a kind of guilt in which popular ridicule had a lesser role; it was a turning away from evil, repugnance towards the evil things he had done, and he was troubled in spirit; this may be what you called ‘attrition’ or ‘imperfect contrition’. But this attrition was powerful enough to propel him towards Jesus and make him climb the tree. And when he heard Jesus calling him by name and offering himself to be his guest, it was as a revelation for him; he must have seen the world changing before him, and his aversion to sin became God-centred: a full-scale ‘contrition’. And his joy knew no bounds. A total transformation.”

Fr Zachariah added that the Faithful should carefully study and understand the Catechism of the Catholic Church, especially about the Sacraments, including the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation in the context of the Zacchaeus story.


Advocate Dimmy: “Now we know why the Rev Fr initiated today’s discourse by asking us about the breakthrough kind of experiences we might have had in our lives. And why he said repentance is God’s gift. Zacchaeus’ remorse was transformed into a complete contrition when Jesus called him and ‘gifted’ him with his offer to be his guest for the day. But for that gift, Zacchaeus would have remained a tortured soul.”

President James: “I just wonder what would have become of Zacchaeus, had Jesus moved on without taking notice of him on the tree.”

Rosaline: “That was unlikely, James. Jesus might have ignored someone on the tree sitting there with idle curiosity. Of course a superficial reading of the beginning of the Zacchaeus passage might give that kind of impression because it is said, ‘And he sought to see Jesus who he was’. But the context as discussed here now does not make him out to be a non-descript nosy-body. Jesus could instantly recognize not only his name but his interior turmoil too. And, as he himself said at the end of the story, he had come to save the lost ones. Hence it was inevitable that Jesus should do what he did!”

Leelamma was curious to know what the other three Evangelists had said about Zacchaeus.

Prof Stephen clarified that the Zacchaeus story was proper to Luke. “There is no reference to him anywhere else in the New Testament. By the way, there was a legend in early Christianity that Apostle Mathias was none other than Zacchaeus himself. The second century theologian Clement of Alexandria had thought that Mathias was the surname of Zacchaeus.”

Fr Zachariah said this was unlikely. “Mathias is described in the Acts as one of the disciples who had been with Jesus throughout his mission beginning with the baptism of John. Zacchaeus had not seen Jesus until the sycamore tree episode. So, we are in the dark about the reason for this assertion of St. Clement of Alexandria.”

President James thought it was time to conclude. Father Zachariah agreed. The meeting was concluded with the blessing of the Reverend Father.

K X M John

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