“Today salvation has come to this house, for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.”


Two groups of young men gathered in a huddle

The first time I ever read this Gospel in Church, it was when I was working in the Caribbean. And it was to a youth Mass in a place called Albouystown - a very bad part of Georgetown in Guyana - a rough area, full of poverty, disease, violence and drugs.
So, I read them the Gospel and I asked the young people to think of an image of what it would be like for Jesus to walk into their town and into their lives, the way He walked into Jericho and into the life of Zacchaeus.

They thought for a bit and then one young girl said that it would be like having the new Pope walk down the street in Albouystown and going to the house of a well known drug-dealer. And she mentioned a certain name. And everybody laughed. And then, quietly, she said that would be a symbol of how a true prophet - a true man or woman of God - can reach out and touch the hearts of even the most lost.

I was touched by that, because this story of Zacchaeus always reminds me of a man I once knew in Moss Side in Manchester called Zach - his full Christian name was actually Zachary, but never mind.
Zach was a man in his early 30’s who didn’t have a job as such, but he had a very large and expensive house in a very poor part of town, a brand-new white Mercedes Benz, several children by several different women, always carried a gun and he was of course a drug dealer.

One day, an eleven-year old boy that he knew quite well was killed in a drugs-related drive-by shooting. He was shocked. And he was more shocked when he found out that the shooting had been done by the gang to which he belonged. Apparently the 11-year old boy was trying to muscle in on some part of the gang’s territory.

Zach went and did what he always did when he had worries - he went to work out at the gym. And at the gym he got talking to the man next to him on the equipment. And that man turned out to be a priest. No, sadly it wasn’t me - I don’t have muscles like that.
To this day, I don’t actually know what was said, but it was an encounter that changed his life. Zach turned his time, his money, and his enormous talents into organising community activities for young people - youth clubs, boxing clubs, scout clubs, all kinds of clubs - anything to get them off the streets and away from trouble - and especially away from drugs. And he was tremendously successful. Without exaggeration, I am sure that he saved many lives.

His previous colleagues in the trade were initially surprised, then shocked, then angry at his “betrayal”. A couple of times he was beaten up - he had given up carrying the gun. And about 4 or 5 years later, he himself was killed in a drive-by shooting. He knew the risks he was taking. He sometimes talked about the threats that he received, but he was not deterred by them. Because - as he saw it - that chance encounter in the gym was the day that salvation came into his life. I have always thought of him as a kind of modern martyr. And that I believe is what Jesus means when he says:
“Today salvation has come to this house, for this man too is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.”

Let us pray today for all the people we know who are lost and let us pray that Jesus may walk into their towns and into their lives.
Let us pray that the Lord may enter our own hearts and our own lives to seek out and save what was lost within ourselves.
And let us profess our Faith in God for whom no child of Abraham is lost.

Paul O'Reilly SJ