Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Thirty-First Sunday in OT, Year C
October 31, 2004
Wis 11:22-12:2; 2Thes 1:11-2:2; Lk 19:1-10
1) Last week Jesus presented us the parable contrasting the prayer of the Pharisee and the Publican. Both went up to the temple to pray. Both left. And only one’s prayer was heard. The one who left justified was NOT the outwardly devout Pharisee who fasted twice a week, gave ten percent of his income back to God, and rejoiced that he was not a thief, rogue, adulterer or tax collector. The one who left with a right relationship toward God was a humble tax collector, who stood at the back, beat his breast and begged, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” In today’s Gospel, we encounter those characters from the parable — self-righteous “good people” and a notorious, humble “tax collector” — in real life. And we see how the God-man responds when such a sinner calls out to him for such mercy.
2) Jesus called himself the “Good Shepherd” and said that he would leave the ninety-nine to go in search of one sheep who was lost (John 10:11; Lk 15:4). Before that Good Shepherd headed up to Jerusalem to lay down his life for his sheep (John 10:15), he first wanted to hunt down one who was lost. He went to literally 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 Jewish authorities, 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 rejoiced on that day more for him than for all the others (Lk 15:7). So, too, today and everyday, Jesus takes the initiative of knocking 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 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.
3) 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 place where Jesus ordinarily does that is where Pope John Paul II says Jesus and the whole Church exist solely for you alone — the confessional. There, Jesus ministers to us individually through his priests. Just as Jesus through his priests gives us his body and blood in the sacrament of the Eucharist, so in confession Jesus through his priests showers us with his merciful forgiveness. But we have to be willing to go away with Jesus alone to receive this; like Zacchaeus, we need to come down, to leave the perches of our pride and allow Jesus to go to work. I have to level with you about something. Fr. Frechette and I are concerned that many of those who worship here at Sacred Heart Chapel might not be in the habit of allowing Jesus to minister to them in this way. On Saturday afternoons here, it is very rare that more than two or three penitents come to confession. Yesterday, in fact, none came. Now it’s possible that some of you are going to our main Church in Hyannis, where the priests are generally mobbed. Or some of you might be going to St. Pius X or to some other Catholic Church or shrine. The point is that each of us should be regularly heeding Jesus call to go away with him apart from the crowd and receive his mercy. Otherwise, there is a great risk that one might start to think like the Pharisee last week, that he doesn’t have any sins, which is the most dangerous sin of all.
4) The second thing we learn from this encounter of Zacchaeus and Jesus is about the diminutive tax collector’s hunger to see Jesus. Zacchaeus’ 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. Think about if you saw, for example, Alan Greenspan climbing a telephone pole in order to get a better glimpse of the Pope when he was in Washington. He would be the subject of political cartoons for weeks. Jay Leno and David Letterman would get a lot of mileage out of the scene. But Zacchaeus didn’t care about others’ seeing him and the derision that might ensue. He wanted to see the Lord and none of these obstacles 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?
5) The third thing this episode with Zacchaeus teaches us is that a true conversion to God also brings about a real conversion to others. Even though he, like his fellow tax-collectors, would have been guilty of ripping off the people of Jericho by unregulated over-taxation, Zacchaeus 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 400% 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.
6) At today’s Mass, we turn to the Lord and thank him for the example of Zacchaeus, who shows us the path to forgiveness one-on-one with Jesus, how to overcome whatever hinders us from contact with the Lord and how to made amends for our sins against God and neighbor. Just like the Lord went to the lowest place on earth to bring Zacchaeus back to the fold, so the Lord Jesus will continually come to save us, no matter how far we’ve sunk, and no matter how many times we’ve fallen. And there’s nothing he won’t do to save us. When we and the whole human race were incapable of seeing Him 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. He invites each of us here and now in this Eucharistic participation in his death and resurrection, to 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.
7) Today, he calls us by name and says, “I must stay in your house today.” Even though we, like the Centurion, will soon cry out, humbly, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you under my roof,” Jesus— if we do what we learn from Zacchaeus— will say the word and we will be healed. “The Son of Man,” Jesus tells us at the end of the Gospel passage, “has come to seek and to save what was lost.” He has come to seek and save us sinners. May His salvation come to our homes and our lives today.