Blessed St. Luke, our 1st century physician and evangelist is not known for having a roaring sense of humor; perhaps he was the Don Rickels of his time, but we don’t know Luke for his humor. But then Luke goes and gives us the story of Zacchaeus. We usually read this story with our serious faces on, it is in the Bible after all and Jesus is in the story, but read the story once as if Don Rickles was telling it: Little Zacchaeus ambling along like a leprechaun, scurrying up a tree, waiting to ambush the kids who are after his Lucky Charms. We mentioned Zacchaeus last week when we talked about tax collectors, but Zacchaeus was one of the chief tax collectors. Those chiefs didn’t actually sit at the tolls or run around collecting the taxes and fees. Chief tax collectors like Zacchaeus would bid to Rome for the right to collect taxes; the bid would be paid up front in full and then the collectors would have the right to collect, and in some cases, defraud as much as they could from their people. So Zacchaeus was of the what is sometimes called the drinking class, and work is the scourge of the drinking class. He was free to do as he wished, his agents doing the actual work. He could go anywhere he wanted, but we get the idea he might have found the gates of heaven tough to navigate. Luke was not afraid to openly mock the little rich Zacchaeus, for Zacchaeus was an open enemy of his own people. And yet, like any time Jesus shows up, things take an interesting turn.
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” That’s an odd phrase on many levels, but Jesus is never afraid of the odd phrase. “Hurry and come down” was, of course, a reference to the fact that there was a guy quite literally up a tree, and who needed to come down. This is odd enough, that a five-foot tall, wealthy, prominent man-about-town was hunched in a tree like a little boy, but that’s less odd than Jesus wanting to stay at his house. You see, the righteous didn’t mingle with the unrighteous; Jesus was always being criticized for keeping such company, dining with sinners and not washing up before dinner. There is no way, just no way, that a good Jew, not to mention a good rabbi like Jesus was going to ask Zacchaeus if he could hang out for a while. And yet, like any time Jesus shows up, things take an interesting turn.
Back in the early 1980’s, churches all over but especially in the Northeast saw fewer and fewer people receive from the chalice; some intincted but others skipped the chalice altogether. While you can’t get sick from the Blessed Sacrament when you receive it worthily, and while no one should ever be questioned about their reception of the Blessed Sacrament or lack thereof, the issue was found out: it was what was then called the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, HIV/AIDS. Whole hallways in New York hospitals looked like that scene in E.T when the authorities came and quarantined Elliot’s house. No one knew what they were dealing with, how to treat it or how the disease was transmitted. People were scared, rumors were rampant, this unknown, unseen killer could be lurking anywhere. Gay men were shunned, they were untouchable, they were treated worse than they already had been. Disease is a complicated thing. We like to think we know all about disease and the things that cause it, but there is so much we don’t know, even about the diseases we have controlled. Most of the time it’s the stuff we don’t know that scares us the most. No one wants to be tainted, to live in dis-ease, to die unready. So few of us run into disease ridden places that we know many of the names of those who have: Constance and the martyrs of Memphis come to mind, Florence Nightingale, those doctors without borders who run in when others run out. Wherever they went, they risked death; wherever we go, we risk catching whatever those people have. It works spiritually as well. We are taught to keep good company, lest we ourselves become bad company. If you hang out in church, then it’s likely you will end up like people who hang out in church. If you hang out in a strip club, well, it’s likely you will end up like people who hang out in strip clubs. You can catch ease and you can catch dis-ease. And yet, when Jesus shows up, things take an interesting turn.
“Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus said to Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus may or may not have gone up that tree looking for salvation, but salvation came to him, salvation came as it always does, in the Person of Jesus Christ. The crowds watching this encounter assumed that Jesus would be tainted by going into the sinners house; they had no idea that instead the sinner would be washed clean. “The contagion of sin did not sully Jesus’ holiness but Jesus’ holiness overcame sin.” Everywhere we go, we catch whatever is there. Everywhere Jesus goes, that place catches Jesus. So the question becomes Where do you go, and what are you trying to catch?