Fr. Roger J. Landry
Catholic Online Year of Faith Homily Service
November 19, 2013
As we prepare to finish in five days the Year of Faith, we encounter today two great figures of faith to solidify the lessons we have been learning throughout this 410-day ecclesiastical holy year.
The first figure is Zacchaeus whom we encounter with Jesus in the Gospel. He is a great figure for us of three key aspects of this life of faith.
The first is that he shows us the call to conversion that’s supposed to accompany the life of faith.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 to go in search of each lost sheep, went literally to the nethermost place on earth in search of perhaps the greatest public sinner of that city, to bring him back to his fold. He went to Jericho, the lowest city on the planet — 853 feet below sea level — to find Zacchaeus, who was not just one of a bunch of tax-collectors loathsome to the Jews, but the chief tax collector of the region. Jesus left the crowds behind and entered alone with the tax collector into his home and into his life. He called Zacchaeus, his lost sheep, by name (Is 43:1; John 10:3) and heaven probably rejoiced on that day more for him than for all the others (Lk 15:7).
So, too, throughout this Year of Faith, Jesus has been taking the initiative to knock at the door of our souls, asking for entry, coming to us wherever we are, no matter the depths to which we’ve sunk, no matter the fact that perhaps everyone else around us, like those around Zacchaeus, might despise us. To the extent that we repent of whatever sins we’ve committed and accept Jesus’ gracious invitation by “welcoming him with delight,” we, too, like Zacchaeus, can have salvation come to us. This is the first lesson we learn from the story of Zacchaeus and Jesus, that Jesus wants to take us apart from the crowd and bring us the salvation of his mercy.
The second thing we learn from this encounter of Zacchaeus and Jesus is about the hunger to encounter Jesus that’s supposed to characterize our life of faith.
The diminutive tax collector’s climbing of the sycamore tree is more than an interesting detail. The text tells us that he was trying to see Jesus, but could not because of the crowd, so he ran ahead and climbed a tree along Jesus’ route in order to be able to see him.
We, too, often cannot see the Lord because other people get in the way. They block our sight in many ways. We’re often too small of stature to see over such obstacles, and, unfortunately, too often others are too caught in themselves to do anything to help us and bring us into the presence of the Lord.
Like a little child, however, Zacchaeus climbs a tree to see the Lord. Such an act could have led to great mockery for a middle-aged public figure. But Zacchaeus didn’t care about others’ seeing him and the derision that might ensue. He wanted to see the Lord and no obstacle was going to stop him. His example challenges each of us to consider what is the extent to which we go, what trees or obstacles we’ll climb, in order to see Jesus more clearly. How much do we desire to see the Lord? Are we capable of being accounted fools (1 Cor 4:10) for following those means that others might consider silly if they will bring us into greater contact with Jesus?
One of the fruits of the Year of Faith ought to be an increased courage to overcome obstacles in order to grow in faith, to grow in a deep, life-changing friendship with Jesus.
The third thing this episode with Zacchaeus teaches us is that a true conversion to God also brings about a real conversion to others. The rehabilitation of our relationship with God is not meant to remain private, but is supposed to help us reexamine our relationship with others and inspire us to repair whatever harms we have caused.
Even though Zacchaeus, like his fellow tax-collectors, would have been guilty of ripping off the people of Jericho by unregulated over-taxation, he knew that he needed to make amends and to use the gift of his office to do good rather than evil. So he told Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
Strict justice would have required his giving back precisely what he had overcharged. If he had really wanted to be kind, he would have given it back with modest interest. But he was going to give it back with four-hundred perccent interest, which was a sign of great contrition for the gravity of his previous sins of stealing and intimidation.
Moreover, a strictly observant religious Jew would give ten percent of his income over to God and the poor. Zacchaeus committed himself to giving fifty percent of his income to those who were needy, which was a sign of great love and a recognition that others needed his money more than he did.
From that point forward, he was going to be an honest tax collector, a Christian tax collector, and use his office for his salvation and sanctification and for that of others. Zacchaeus likely remained a rich man, but one who used his riches, used what God gave him, for building up God’s kingdom. We’re called to do the same with whatever God has given us.
Likewise, our conversion during this Year of Faith is a summons by the Lord for us to desire to make amends with those whom we have injured by our sins, to ask for forgiveness from family members, friends and strangers, to do reparation for the times that our greed has led us to be unjust to others.
We do this inspired by the example of the Lord. When we, Zacchaeus, and the whole human race were incapable of seeing God on account of the great weight of sin which was reducing our humanity to smaller and smaller images of what we are called to be, and thereby when we were incapable of climbing any tree at all, he, out of his great love for us, climbed one on our behalf, so that each of us might still be able to see him, perched upon his glorious wooden throne. Jesus invites each of us to respond to his invitation be lifted up by him onto that life-giving tree, so that as God’s children we might spend eternity in that celestial tree house built upon the Cross’ firm foundation. And to join Christ on the Cross means to join him in a life of sacrificial love that doesn’t merely give four-fold, but gives all.
That leads us to the other great figure in today’s readings, the scribe Eleazar, whose example is a powerful witness to us in how to persevere in faith through the end of this Year of Faith and throughout the entirety of our life of faith. Eleazar, a nonagenarian Jew whom the Greeks in 142 BC were trying to force to eat pork in violation of the Mosaic Law, gives us unforgettable lessons about fidelity, courage, and the importance of setting good example.
The Greek authorities opened up Eleazar’s mouth and jammed it with pork, but he spat it out, knowing that the penalty for doing so was death. I’ll let the author of the Second Book of Maccabees take it from there:
“Those in charge of that unlawful ritual meal took the man aside privately… and urged him to bring meat of his own providing… and to pretend to be eating some of the meat of the sacrifice prescribed by the king; in this way he would escape the death penalty, and be treated kindly because of their old friendship with him.
“But he made up his mind in a noble manner, worthy of his years, the dignity of his advanced age, the merited distinction of his gray hair, and of the admirable life he had lived from childhood; and so he declared that above all he would be loyal to the holy laws given by God: ‘At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many young men would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion. Should I thus dissimulate for the sake of a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring shame and dishonor on my old age. Even if, for the time being, I avoid the punishment of men, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hands of the Almighty. Therefore, by manfully giving up my life now, I will prove myself worthy of my old age, and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and generously for the revered and holy laws.’
“Those who shortly before had been kindly disposed, now became hostile toward him because what he had said seemed to them utter madness. When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned and said: ‘The Lord in his holy knowledge knows full well that, although I could have escaped death, I am not only enduring terrible pain in my body from this scourging, but also suffering it with joy in my soul because of my devotion to him.’ This is how he died, leaving in his death a model of courage and an unforgettable example of virtue not only for the young but for the whole nation” (2 Macc 6:18-31).
At the very end of his life, St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith (2 Tim 4:7). Eleazar went out fighting that fight, finishing the marathon of life, maintaining the treasure of faith and being unwilling to betray the faith and the Lord who inspires it even to save one’s life here on earth.
The older one gets, the holier one should be. This Year of Faith has been an opportunity for us to grow in the courage to be faithful all the days of our life.
I was born on February 23 and for that reason I’ve always had a special devotion to St. Polycarp whose feast day each year falls on my birthday. When in 155, a ferocious anti-Christian persecution broke out in Smyrna where he was bishop, several Christians were martyred. The frenzied and bloodthirsty mobs, however, demanded more. They clamored for the death of Polycarp, who at 86 years old was universally acknowledged to be the “father of the Christians” in the region. When the police arrived to arrest him, he said “God’s will be done,” met them at the door and had a nice dinner prepared for them, so that he could have two hours to pray for his flock.
When Polycarp was finally brought into the feverish amphitheater, the proconsul — with threats of death by wild beasts and incineration — exhorted him to remember his age, swear allegiance to Caesar and revile Christ. Polycarp unflinchingly replied, “For 86 years I have served Christ and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior? If you require of me to swear by the genius of Caesar, as you call it, hear my free confession: I am a Christian.” The proconsul condemned him to be burned alive.
After the wood had been prepared and set ablaze, and Polycarp had been bound, he courageously and faithfully gave his Eucharistic valedictory: “I bless you, Lord, for having been pleased to bring me to this hour, that I may receive a portion among your martyrs and partake of the cup of Christ… Grant me to be received today as a pleasing sacrifice, such as you yourself have prepared, O true and faithful God.”
Like the wise Eleazar, St. Polycarp is a “model of courage and an unforgettable example of virtue” not just for the old or the young, but for all of us on the road of faith.
As the Year of Faith draws to a conclusion, we, like Zacchaeus, are called to repent all those times that we haven’t set an example of faith for others. And through the intercession of the martyrs Eleazar and Polycarp, we ask God for the grace to set such an example of fighting the good fight, finishing the race, and keeping the faith, that we will inspire many others to join us on the road of faith so that with them we might enjoy forever the joy at the end of the journey of faith with Christ the King and all his good and faithful servants.