What God does for our salvation is infinitely greater than anything we can do, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have anything to do. The story of Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke (19:1-10) provides valuable insight into what we need to do to cultivate the relationship with God that gives us salvation. In verses three and four we read:
“(Zacchaeus) sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way.”
If we have a desire to know God, we have to act on that desire. And Zacchaeus reminds us that even a little desire can go a long way. He is not going to Jesus seeking forgiveness, or healing, or guidance, he’s just curious. Acting on his curiosity, Zacchaeus discovers the promise of eternal life.
A couple of very important elements in the above verses are the tree and the crowd. In the Bible, trees are places of revelation, places where we meet God. Zacchaeus climbing a tree is a way of pointing to the fact that the one who is the case is going to see is, in fact, God.
We to have to “climb the tree” if we are to encounter Christ. We have to pray, especially taking part in the sacraments. We have to study, to fast, to care for the needy. In other words, we have to engage in the spiritual disciplines that Christ gives us in the Church. Through these spiritual disciples, we enrich our relationship with God that grants us salvation.
In verses five and six it says:
“When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.’ So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully.”
Here, Zacchaeus is being put on the spot; he has to receive an unexpected guest—the most important guest he’ll ever have in his house. He doesn’t hesitate. He doesn’t make excuses. He receives Christ joyfully. Regardless of what our encounter with Jesus means for us, whether it encourages us or challenges us, we accepted all that he sends us joyfully.
Moving on to verse seven we read:
“But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, ‘He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.'”
The “they” in this verse is the crowd from the verses above. When we apply ourselves to the work of enriching the relationship with God—the relationship that grants us salvation—we can be sure to encounter resistance. This resistance will come from two directions, the first direction is from the outside, from the “crowd.”
The “crowd” that gets in the way of us drawing near to Christ is society, it is a fallen culture that is not interested in God, and that doesn’t want to see us interested in God. Zacchaeus teaches us that you have to ignore the crowd, just ignore the resistance that comes from outside.
We also have obstacles on the inside that get in the way of that relationship with God that brings us salvation; we have to remove these as well. In verse eight Zacchaeus declares:
“Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”
We have to address what the saints called the passions — our obsessions, compulsions, and addictions. For Zacchaeus, it was money, for another person, it could be something else. Whatever it is, any spiritual and moral and emotional dead weight has to be jettisoned.
In particular, we have to deal with broken relationships in our lives: “if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” A saving relationship with God is contingent upon us having healthy relationships with the people around us. This is why there are two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor.
We desire to know God and we act on that desire. We receive him into our lives joyfully and we deal with the obstacles, especially broken relationships, that get in the way of deepening our fellowship with the Lord. That’s our part in the relationship with God that grants us salvation. And when we act, God’s part in our salvation becomes a more concrete experience in our lives. Through this two way process, this synergy, we rejoice, hearing words like the ones Jesus said to Zacchaeus in the final two verses of the reading:
“I came to seek and to save the lost. I came to seek and to save you. And today salvation has come to your house.”