Sunday, October 31, 2010
Gospel of Luke: Zacchaeus
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading 1. Wisdom 11: 22-12:2
Reading II. 2 Thessalonians 1: 11--2:2
Gospel. Luke 19: 1-10 (Zacchaeus, come down).
The Book of Wisdom was written in the century before the birth of Christ. One commentator calls it "a precursor of the message of mercy that Jesus taught." Today's passage certainly bears that out. It is a hymn to a merciful Lord.
But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook peoples' sins that they may repent.
For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made...
This is a central idea in both the Old and New Testaments. God is Good, God is Love, and His creation can only be full of good and love. Where we find imperfection or evil in the world, it is only because of our own doing. Nevertheless, despite our failings, the God of mercy and love is always open to us who turn to Him.
St. Luke's Gospel is sometimes called the "Gospel of the Great Pardons." Only a few weeks ago we heard the parable of the Prodigal Son. Last week it was the parable of the tax collector who went home "justified" because of his humble prayer, "O God, be merciful to me a sinner." A parable is just a story but this week we have the story of a real tax collector, Zacchaeus.
Remember that tax collectors were hated by the Jews and regarded as sinners because they did the dirty work of the Roman conquerors. The Romans knew better than to try and tax conquered people themselves. They gave out franchises to local leaders. A tax collector like Zacchaeus would advance a large sum of money to the Romans for the right to collect taxes from the local people. Once he collected more than he had paid the Romans, it was pure profit and his to keep.
Besides its spiritual message, St. Luke's gospel is a model of historical accuracy. We certainly can believe him when he tells us that Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of Jericho, was a wealthy man. The Jews despised men like Zacchaeus not only because they cooperated with the Romans, but also because they enriched themselves at the expense of the oppressed.
The gospel account of the conversion of Zacchaeus is sketchy but we can imagine what happened. Seeking to catch a glimpse of Jesus, Zacchaeus climbs a tree only to be called down by Jesus who informs him that He intends to stay at his house. Like so many people who came face to face with Jesus, Zacchaeus is instantly converted. He received our Lord into his house "with joy." When people grumble that Jesus is going "to stay at the house of a sinner," Zacchaeus is so moved that he offers to give half his wealth to the poor. He even promises to think back over his entire career and repay anyone he has wronged four times over.
The conversion of Zacchaeus means that he realizes that he doesn't need all his wealth and possessions once he has found our Lord.
Our Lord pays Zacchaeus one of his highest compliments. He calls him a "descendant of Abraham." It's not that Jesus is calling Zacchaeus a Jew, that would merely be pointing out the obvious. He is saying that the tax collector is acting as a Jew is supposed to act. He is giving to the poor, he will be fair in his dealings with others, and he will make restitution if he has harmed anyone. Anyone who acts this way is a true "descendant of Abraham" no matter what his occupation.
A vocation is a calling. The word comes from the Latin word, "vocare" which means "to call." It is the root of the words, "vocal" and "voice." Sometimes we use it in a very limited sense of religious vocation. In earlier days we used to speak of vocations to the religious life, the married life, and the single life. It's clear though that in the scriptures we all have a vocation and that none of them are unworthy or ignoble.
In St. Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, he prays for that little community of believers. He prays that "God may make you worthy of his calling." He also warns them not to be alarmed or distracted by thoughts about the end of the world. If we are true descendants of Abraham we need not worry about such things. All we have to do is conduct our affairs honestly, keep busy following our own vocation in life, and realize what constitutes real wealth.
There is a famous passage in the Book of Revelation which reminds us of the story of Zacchaeus. It is the passage of Jesus knocking at the door asking us to let Him into our homes and lives. The passage is addressed to those of us who have become comfortable and materialistic.
You say to yourself, 'I am rich, I have made a fortune, and have everything
I want,' never realizing that you are wretchedly and pitiably poor, and blind and naked too."
Even so, He offers us a chance.
Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share his meal, side by side with him.
There is a famous painting of this scene but if you look closely, you will see that there is no knob on the door. It must be opened from the inside.