31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Entering Jericho, Jesus passed through the city. There was a wealthy person there named Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector. Zacchaeus was trying to see what Jesus was like. Being small of stature, he was unable to do so because of the crowd. In order to see Jesus, Zacchaeus first ran on in front and then climbed a sycamore tree along the route.
When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down. I intend to stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus quickly climbed down from the tree and welcomed Jesus with delight. Observing all this, the people began to murmur, “Jesus is going as a guest to a sinner’s house.” Zacchaeus stood his ground and said to Jesus, “Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor. If I have defrauded anyone in the least, I shall repay them fourfold.”
Jesus said to the tax collector, “Today, salvation has come to this house. This is what it means to be a descendant of Sarah and Abraham. The Promised One has come to search out and save what was lost.”Homily for 31 October 2004
Fr. Carl Pfeiffer
Who wouldn’t like a job where you were paid a lot of money for only a little bit of work? Perhaps one of the closest examples were the tax collectors in Jesus’ time. Originally the Romans contracted out tax collection. The abuses grew so bad, however, that shortly before our Lord’s lifetime it became a government job. It still was a very profitable job to have. Even though our tax system is confusing, you can actually figure out exactly what you legally owe. Although some taxes were very specific back then, other taxes were more of an approximation. And the tax collector was the one who did the approximating! This was especially true in Jericho. This was because Jericho sat on the trade routes from the East as well as those going North and South. Tax collectors had a wonderfully wide range of goods to tax. The taxes were used to help support the Roman occupiers.
Zacchaeus was one of the fellows in charge of this operation. It had made him very wealthy over the years. Yet despite his money, influence and powerful friends, Zacchaeus was not happy. The very fact that he would climb a tree just to see Jesus indicates he would go to great lengths to find something that would make his life better. A short but powerful man sitting in a tree to see a passing preacher would be quite a sight. The common folk would have a great laugh. Zacchaeus’ friends would be mortally embarrassed. But Zacchaeus did it anyway.
The disciples were probably astounded when Jesus called Zacchaeus down and invited Himself and them to his house. Now the regular people were scandalized. The rich and powerful were shocked that Zacchaeus would allow this dirty and uncouth band into his home. In saying yes to Jesus, Zacchaeus alienated himself from both the ordinary citizen who thought he was getting over and from his normal friends who believed that he had lost his mind. Yet Zacchaeus stood his ground.
In hearing this story over and over, we are usually happy for Zacchaeus. Jesus had made a difference for him. Yet being so familiar, we can forget what the story offers us. Zacchaeus was a miserable man who was willing to risk everything for a new life. It can be hard to see how we are like him.
We are not evil tax collectors who take advantage of others. But I suspect that Zacchaeus did not take advantage of others either. He was a chief tax collector. A public servant very much in the public eye. You don’t get to that kind of position without being good at what you do. In making his generous offer to compensate anyone he defrauded, Zacchaeus may well have known that he no longer deliberately had to cheat to make a lot of money. He had a reached a point where he was doing a necessary but despised job. In other words, Zacchaeus was a lot like us.
We may not do anything really bad. And that is good! Yet when we leave here, will you go over the speed limit while going home? Will you tease your brother or sister because you are bored and would like to have some fun? Will you conveniently forget the reasonable chores your spouse asked you to do? Or if your spouse remembers, will you give them spontaneous advice on how to do them better?
Our faults never seem very bad to us. This has been brought home to me in a powerful way. When I was a celibate priest, few folks ever had anything critical to say. After I married when I would deny a fault, my wife and children are very happy to correct me, often with wonderfully graphic examples. If they are with my family, well, I just get up and take a walk while my list of shortcomings are shared at length. I go not because my family is wrong but precisely because they are right.
Brennan Manning, in his book Ragamuffin Gospel, talks about the power of ten step programs. It seems like ten step programs creep into everything today, including Finding Nemo. Why? Because these programs do what we profess. Men and women gather, admit that they have a problem and talk about it. More amazingly, they act on what they talk about. A stranger is given a ride home although it is on the opposite side of town. A barely known straggler is given a meal and perhaps a place to stay although there is booze on his breath. One woman gives another person her number, tells her to call when she needs help and actually means it. If you ask a member who has been sober for decades why he still comes, he will tell you, to stay alive. He will say that he is sober today but there is no guarantee that he will be sober tomorrow. These recovering drunks and addicts do not advertise their status but neither are they ashamed of it. Instead they rejoice in a new life not bound by their past misdeeds but filled with new possibilities.
Since you are here, you have admitted that you are a sinner. Like Zacchaeus you have acknowledged that your life is not what you would like it to be. There is nothing wrong with that! We are all in exactly the same condition. We are all far less than perfect. So what! The real question is where do I and where do you go from here? Do we have the courage to risk being foolish to maintain our new life in Christ? The great thing about a willingness to risk all is that you see possibilities that no one else sees. Everyone else saw a little man in a tree. Jesus saw a great disciple. Jesus give us the ability to look through our faults to the potential in others. By pouring out ourselves without reserve, we loosen our failings while more deeply discovering the awesome promise within.
Here in the Mass, Jesus again pours Himself out totally under the appearance of some rather bland bread and sharp wine. Judged on appearance alone we would certainly pass them by at any dinner table. Seen with Faith we recognize the infinite power in a tiny wafer and sip of wine. You and I are called to be that reality when we leave here today. Not when it is easy or to our advantage but when it is embarrassing and hard. When we become Christ for others in this way, people-including us-can see beyond our finite imperfections to the glory of life that becomes more and more wonderful until it becomes complete in Heaven.