The first thing I thought of as I meditated on this Sunday's gospel was, "Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he..." Now, if you don't know that song from your childhood then I think your catechesis was sadly deprived. That was the first thing I thought of, but the second thing that came to my mind, through my prayer and through my reading, was why did Zacchaeus want to see Jesus?
Why did Zacchaeus want to see Jesus? What was going on inside him? Was he just following the crowd, trying to see what was going on? Or was there something more going on in his heart? I think there might be more going on, but to understand what that is, to understand why Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus, we need to look at the context, where this is situated in the overall story of Luke's gospel, and we need to look at some grammar.
First off, as far as context, this story is near the end of the gospel, so we have to read it with a bit of urgency. Most of Luke's gospel is arranged as one big journey. For much of the gospel, Jesus is on his journey from Galilee in the north, his homeland, down to Jerusalem, which historically is where the prophets go to be killed. Today he is passing through Jericho, which is one of the last cities before Jerusalem, so things are building towards a climax. Things are moving and shaking. Jesus doesn't say, "Zacchaeus, when you have some time I'd like to stay at your house." No, he says, "Zacchaeus, hurry up, I need to stay at your house today."
Second, we cant read this story in isolation. We also need to understand one story that came a little bit before it, and that story is the story of the rich ruler. Remember, the rich ruler came to Jesus and said, "What must I do to inherit eternal life." Jesus told him, "Keep the commandments: do not commit adultery, don't lie, don't steal, honor your parents." He said, "I've always done these things" so Jesus said, "Only one thing more: sell everything and follow me." The rich ruler left sad because he couldn't part with his nice things. He let these things be roadblocks to Jesus entering into his life.
So again, why was Zacchaeus looking for Jesus? When we see the Zacchaeus story in contrast with the story of the rich ruler, an answer starts to emerge. Zacchaeus wasn't attached to the things of this world. The rich ruler did things right on the outside, but inside he was all a mess. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, was a mess on the outside, working with the Romans and being despised by everyone, but his internal disposition was better than you could tell from the outside.
To understand his internal disposition, what was going on in his heart, we have to discuss verb tenses. I know, grammar is never exciting, but it will help us get a deeper answer to the question of why Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus. In the Gospel as it's translated here, Zacchaeus says that he will give half his money to the poor, and if he has cheated anyone he will repay them fourfold. This, unfortunately, is a poor translation from the original Greek and it changes the whole meaning of the Gospel. The Greek words for "give" and "repay" are in the present tense, not the future tense. Zacchaeus is telling The Lord what he already does. So a better translation is "Lord, half of my belongings I give to the poor and if I cheat anyone I repay them fourfold." He seems to be talking about something he already does.
What is the point of this? How does this help us see why Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus? When Zacchaeus's words are in the future, it implies that he is going to start being generous and honest. It implies that he was inspired by the sight of Jesus to start being generous and honest. But the better translation, when his words are in the present, suggests that he was already a generous with his belongings even while he was working for the hated Romans.
So when we realize that Zacchaeus was already generous with his belongings, while working for the Romans, we have to compare that to the rich ruler who kept lots of commandments but couldn't be parted from his belongings. Jesus couldn't enter the rich ruler's heart because the rich ruler was attached to his roadblocks, to the things of this world. Jesus was able to enter into Zacchaeus's life because Zacchaeus's wasn't attached to the things of this world.
So why does Zacchaeus seek to see Jesus? Because Jesus was first seeking him. That's what the end of the Gospel tells us. The Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost. This is a point where our current translation is very good. The beginning of the gospel said Zacchaeus was seeking to see Jesus. Then the end tells us that the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost. The word "seek" at the beginning and the end is intentional. We seek God only because he first seeks us. God had already begun working on Zacchaeus's heart and drawing him to himself, and God usually works on a person's heart slowly. This gospel today is a beautiful story of two people that had been seeking each other for a long time, and we get to witness that encounter. And today, Jesus seeks you in that same way. Today, Jesus says, "Come down from that tree, from your attachment to possessions, your attachment to sin, your attachment to these roadblocks. Come down, because today I must stay at your house."