Seeking and Saving What Was Lost, 31st Sunday (C), November 3, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
November 3, 2013
Wis 11:22-12:2, Ps 145, 1 Thes 1:11-2:2, Lk 19:1-10

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click here: 


The written text that served as the basic outline for the text is as follows: 

The Real-Life Version of Last Sunday’s Parable

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” who complain that Jesus actually interacts with sinners 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.

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 despised and excommunicated  tax-collectors loathsome to the Jewish authorities, but the chief tax collector of the whole 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). The very name Zacchaeus means “God remembers,” and God had never forgotten him. Heaven rejoiced on that day more for his return than for those who had never wandered (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.

Jesus wants to share with us his mercy and salvation, just as he did with Zacchaeus

This is the first of three lessons 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 this is where Blessed Pope John Paul II used to say Jesus and the whole Church exist solely for you alone — the confessional. As we talked about last Sunday in the prayer of the publican in the Temple, pondered again two days ago on All Saints Day, and simply cannot stress enough until every Catholic regularly takes advantage of the great gift Jesus has given us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation: in the confessional Jesus ministers to us individually, just as he interacted individually with Zacchaeus. But we have to be willing to go away with Jesus alone to receive this salvation; like Zacchaeus, we need to come down, to leave the perches of our pride and allow Jesus to go to work through his priestly ministers. God remembers us, just like he remembered Zacchaeus. Jesus has come to seek and save what was lost. He has come to call sinners. He has a special care for sinners: he could have stayed in any house in Jericho, including the houses of the very faithful, but he chose to come to the house of the most notorious sinner to show his priority to care for those in most need of his salvation. During this Year of Faith, we’re called to grow in our faith in each one of the seven Sacraments Jesus has instituted to save us. For many of us, that means to grow a great deal in our trust in Jesus in forgiving in the way he established to forgive our sins.  Will we allow Jesus to call and save us, one-on-one, in the Sacrament he has given us for this very purpose?

This morning in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis said, “There’s no profession or social condition, no sin or crime that can eliminate one of God’s children from his memory and his heart. God always remembers. He never forgets anyone he has created. He is a Father who is always in expectant and loving vigil to see reborn in the heart of his child the desire to return home. And when he recognizes that desire, even in a simple and almost unconscious way, he quickly draws near, and with his forgiveness he makes the road of conversion and return lighter and easier. Let us look at Zacchaeus today up on the tree: it’s a ridiculous gesture, but a gesture of salvation. And I say to each one of you: if you have a weight on your conscience, if you ashamed of some of the things you have done, stop for a second, don’t despair. Remember that someone is waiting for you because he has never stopped remembering you. This Someone is your Father. It’s God who awaits you. Just like Zacchaeus did, climb up on the tree of the desire to be forgiven. I assure you that you will not be deceived. Jesus is merciful and it never stops forgiving! Let us let ourselves be called by Jesus by name. In the depth of our heart, let us hear his voice saying to us, “Today I must stay in your house, in your heart, in your life. And let us welcome him with joy. He can change us. He can transform our heart of stone into a heart of flesh. He can free us from selfishness and make our life a gift of love.”

Zacchaeus’ hunger to see Jesus, and ours

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 couldn’t 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, are often blocked from seeing the Lord because other people get in the way. They block our sight in many ways. Parents block the sight of their children when they don’t pray with them or take them to Mass. Cultural forces, like those in the entertainment industry or in public schools or institutions of higher learning, impede our vision by distorting Jesus’ image, ignoring him altogether, or ridiculing those who believe in him. Sometimes even those who should be icons of Jesus — priests, religious, catechists, godparents — obscure our vision because rather than reflecting the image of Jesus to us through virtue they obstruct it through un-Christian behavior.

Similar to Zacchaeus, we may not have the wherewithal to see over such obstacles, and, unfortunately, too often others may be too caught in themselves to do anything to help us out. 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 as he tried to lift his frame up onto branches and everyone would be able to see what he was wearing or not wearing under his tunic. 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. He was willing to do something that others would deem ludicrous in order to see Christ as he was passing by.

His example challenges each of us to consider what is the extent to which we go, what trees or obstacles we’ll mount, 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? During this Year of Faith, it’s a good time for us to review what obstacles there are in our life and how much effort we’ve been making to overcome them. Do we overcome the things that get in the way of solid prayer time? Do we prevail over the stumbling blocks that impede our coming to Bible Study or to daily Mass, or  going out to visit a sick relative or helping someone in need? Do we get over, or under, or around the hindrances that derail our mission to share our faith with those with whom we work or go to school? What trees have we climbed in the last year? What trees do we need to climb now? These are all matters we should be praying about as this Year of Faith draws toward its conclusion — and making resolutions to respond to in the spirit of Zacchaeus.

Conversion to others

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 basically shaking them down for unjust commissions beyond what the tax collectors needed to send to Rome , Zacchaeus knew that he needed to make amends and from that point forward 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 percent 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 a reborn 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 would use his riches, use what God gave him, for building up God’s kingdom.

We’re called to do the same with whatever God has given us, to put it to the use of his kingdom.

During this Year of Faith — which is meant to be a year of continued conversion seeking holiness of life — we’re also called, as we examine our consciences, to make amends with those we’ve injured through our sins. To apologize. To repair the harm we’ve caused through gossip. To make restitution for the things we’ve stolen from family members, from work, from strangers, from the poor through our selfishness.

When we’ve truly encountered Jesus Christ, when we’ve overcome obstacles to see him, when he’s called us by name and sought to bring salvation to our house, we can’t but help live of a life of extravagant conversion, as we see in Zacchaeus, in the character Ebeneezer Scrooge, in so many philanthropists who seek to give all they’ve received away while they still have time, in the lives of so many priests, religious and consecrated who, after late-in-life conversions, have “crazily” given up their careers, families of origin, so many material goods and even their autonomy to follow Jesus up close.

Jesus is “crazier” than Zacchaeus

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 own 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.

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 that you should enter 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! Amen!


The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
WIS 11:22-12:2

Before the LORD the whole universe is as a grain from a balance
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.
For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.
And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it;
or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?
But you spare all things, because they are yours,
O LORD and lover of souls,
for your imperishable spirit is in all things!
Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little,
warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing,
that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O LORD!

Responsorial Psalm
PS 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13, 14

R. (cf. 1) I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.
I will extol you, O my God and King,
and I will bless your name forever and ever.
Every day will I bless you,
and I will praise your name forever and ever.
R. I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.
The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and of great kindness.
The LORD is good to all
and compassionate toward all his works.
R. I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.
Let all your works give you thanks, O LORD,
and let your faithful ones bless you.
Let them discourse of the glory of your kingdom
and speak of your might.
R. I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.
The LORD is faithful in all his words
and holy in all his works.
The LORD lifts up all who are falling
and raises up all who are bowed down.
R. I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.

Reading 2
2 THES 1:11-2:2

Brothers and sisters:
We always pray for you,
that our God may make you worthy of his calling
and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose
and every effort of faith,
that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you,
and you in him,
in accord with the grace of our God and Lord Jesus Christ. 

We ask you, brothers and sisters,
with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ
and our assembling with him,
not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed
either by a "spirit," or by an oral statement,
or by a letter allegedly from us
to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand.

LK 19:1-10

At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town.
Now a man there named Zacchaeus,
who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man,
was seeking to see who Jesus was;
but he could not see him because of the crowd,
for he was short in stature.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus,
who was about to pass that way.
When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said,
“Zacchaeus, come down quickly,
for today I must stay at your house.”
And he came down quickly and received him with joy.
When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying,
“He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord,
“Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor,
and if I have extorted anything from anyone
I shall repay it four times over.”
And Jesus said to him,
“Today salvation has come to this house
because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.
For the Son of Man has come to seek
and to save what was lost.”