“Come down quickly, for I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5).
In the narrative structure of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was nearing the end of his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem when he encountered both the blind beggar in yesterday’s reading and the tax collector Zacchaeus in today’s. Jesus’ confrontation with both the Temple establishment and the Roman occupation in Jerusalem must have been paramount in his mind and emotions. He knew that the fate of prophets was to die in Jerusalem, and he was preparing himself for rejection, suffering and death there.
The witness of a blind beggar and a tax collector to Jesus’ mission as God’s Anointed was therefore important to Luke. They were some of the last people to see and experience Jesus’ real identity as the merciful face of God. From Jesus’ own viewpoint, the faith he found in the blind beggar must have contrasted sharply with the blindness of his critics and even his own disciples, and this surely intensified his sense of aloneness in the final ascent of his life. The Jericho road was almost all up hill, and the stark and dangerous landscape must have pervaded his meditation on what was to occur in Jerusalem.
As noted in earlier reflections, Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus, a man up in a tree, may have seemed like an omen of his own fate. He quickly orders the notorious tax collector down out of his perch so they could dine together, knowing that he would soon take his place on the cross as an atonement for the sins of the world. The layered richness of Luke’s design here is stunning.
Our own encounter with the living Word in these stories can take many forms, depending on where we are on our own journeys. Jericho was a lush oasis rife with many temptations. Its location, temperate climate and fresh water made it ideal for merchants, for Herod’s summer palace and Roman garrisons. It is no wonder that Zacchaeus was wealthy and corrupted. To surrender his wealth or to depart Jericho meant a dangerous pilgrimage through the bandit-infested Judean desert to reach the Holy City.
Any encounter with Jesus is always life changing. The sighted beggar followed Jesus. The repentant Zacchaeus abandoned his sinful past and embraced discipleship. What is the cost of discipleship for us? What tree or high horse might we be ordered down from to dine with Jesus and examine ourselves in the light of his love? If we hear the call and come down quickly, we will learn again that life is a series of conversions that deepen our commitment to the Good News: “Today salvation has come to this house ... for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”