Oct 29, 2016

30th Sunday: God is in search for us

(James Tissot)

"Zacchaeus . . . I must stay at your house."

Wis 11: 22 – 12: 2
Thes 1: 11 – 2:2
Lk 19: 1-10

We are well aware of Jesus’ sometimes harsh teaching on the danger of riches.  Through parables of the rich and poor, such as Lazarus and the rich man, he warns his disciples about how difficult it can be for the rich to embrace his words.  His well-known encounter with the well-meaning young rich man who prided himself on living by the letter of the sacred Law yet desired to “justify” himself when he asked about who his neighbor was, might be somewhat confusing to us at times.  It certainly was a shocker in the time of Jesus.  For riches were seen as a blessing from God; while the “sinners” or the sickly were cursed because of their sin.  So, as the impression went, God rewards good and righteous behavior while he punishes transgressions.

Yet, Jesus’ teaching was far more about the dangers of greed and selfishness rather than riches themselves.  Let’s face it; it’s nice to have nice things.  When you have nice things and many advantages due to wealth, it’s tough to sacrifice.  So wealth creates a kind of mind set that potentially can fly in the face of God’s call to generosity and compassion for others. The super wealthy millionaires and billionaires are particularly challenged since wealth becomes their identity.  But, this Sunday’s Gospel points to a man who was indeed financially wealthy.

The very detailed story in our Gospel this Sunday of Jesus’ odd encounter with a man named Zacchaeus, who had more than one strike against him, is so human. First, he was “short of stature.”  That may not seem like much to us but the average adult height in Jesus’ time was about 5’8”.  So Zacchaeus must have been short enough that standing behind the crowd blocked his view all together.  He must have appeared odd to others. I wonder if they deliberately blocked his line of sight by forming a line in front of him?  Not out of the question perhaps.  

Secondly, shunned already due to his despised profession of a chief tax collector, whose wealth obviously came to him through his dishonest squandering from others who now face the fact there is no more since Zacchaeus took it, he likely was deliberately ignored by the crowd. In Jesus time it was believed that only so much of everything was available.  If you were wealthy it probably meant that you took from others who now have nothing more to replace it.  

In spite of these negatives, Zacchaeus remained determined to “see who Jesus was.” Considering Zacchaeus reputation, why would he want to see Jesus?  For some financial or professional gain? As the story continues we see more virtuous motives.

Luke tells us that Jesus “intended to pass through the town.”  That is Jericho which sits hundreds of feet below Jerusalem out in the desert.  So, the clue is perhaps that Jesus encounter with Zacchaeus was an unexpected surprise.  Yet, he stops at the sight of this odd little man peering down above him from a sycamore tree.  Picture it. 

Jesus with the eyes of his heart and his entire mission in play to save the lost, stops below
Zacchaeus, looks up and speaks to him: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” It seems that Zacchaeus is caught off guard.  Perhaps all he wanted was the sight of this famous preacher and wonder worker passing by, like catching a glimpse of a movie star or famous sports figure or the Pope in St. Peter Square.

Unexpectedly impressed Zacchaeus scurries down the tree to welcome this charismatic man. But, he is publically criticized by the crowd as is Jesus: “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.”  Is there no shame or limit to who Jesus will hang out with? 

Despite this, Zacchaeus boldly defends himself and promises to very generously “give to the poor” or to “repay “anyone he may have “extorted.”  So moved was he by Jesus complimentary request, that he took a stand to proclaim his gratitude by becoming a new person.  This encounter with Jesus, who sought out Zacchaeus, forever changed this man’s life. But, Luke reminds us, through Zacchaeus response, that he really isn't that bad.  His promise of generosity is impressive but Jesus offers even more. He takes away his stigma from the crowd's prejudicial commentary.  Zacchaeus, despite his short stature, can now stand tall.  

And so we are reminded about not only the mission God fulfilled in Christ but also about God’s constant search for our hearts.  In so many ways, Jesus displayed this divine intent in his parables – think of the Father in the Prodigal Son – that we must place ourselves in the person of Zacchaeus.  Not our personal wealth which Jesus didn’t care about, but a heart that longs for something more.  Zacchaeus’s desire to see who Jesus was must have been born of an inner emptiness or a perceived need – “Is this all there is?” 

God does not condemn and punish; he searches and longs for our response.  For our desire to find him who is a treasure beyond any earthly wealth.  Maybe we deliberately hide from the Lord at times?  We’d rather stand behind the crowd and hope we’re not sighted.  Yet, God knows our hearts and hopes we find him who is looking for us.

Our first reading from the Book of Wisdom reminds us that all which God has created has great value in his sight: “But you have mercy on all . . . you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.”  Jesus didn’t grill Zacchaeus about his past transgressions.  He well knew them. Rather his invites himself to dinner; he longs to “abide” with Zacchaeus that through his presence and mercy, this man will forever be changed; the new Zacchaeus indeed through God’s abundant mercy.

While we must never minimize our sin but face it for the truth, we need not fear God for he already knows our hearts and our lives.  Yet, like Zacchaeus we need to find that longing for something more; for something better and more deeply fulfilling.  

And so our celebration of the Holy Eucharist is a perpetual memory of what God has done for us through the outpouring of his Son’s love for humanity.  He searches and longs for each of us.
We enter his house to embrace his invitation to dine with him in Word and Sacrament. 

You are indeed Holy and to be glorified, O God, 
who love the human race
and who always walk with us on the journey of life. 
Blessed indeed is your son, 
present in our midst
when we are gathered by his love
and when, as once for the disciples, so now for us, 
he opens the Scriptures and breaks the bread.

(From Eucharistic Prayer IV for use
in Masses for various needs.)