Sunday, October 30, 2016

Zacchaeus Come Down

                        31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    

Christ Knocking at the Door


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.

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Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican

                                    30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                   



Last week we heard the parable about the widow whose prayers were answered because of her persistence. Today, we also deal with the question of whose prayers will be answered. In today's first reading from the Book of Sirach we are told that God "hears the cry of the oppressed." "The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest until it reaches its goal." How unlike our own society where the largest donors are the ones who get the most attention from our leaders.

In today's passage from St. Luke, our Lord addresses a parable "to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else." It is the famous story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the temple to pray. Let's look at the Pharisee's prayer first.

            O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity--
            greedy, dishonest, adulterous--or even like this tax collector.
            I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.

I'm not a big fan of video games but I know that some games require the player to get past a number of obstacles of increasing difficulty before reaching the treasure or final goal. However, at the very end there is often a obstacle or monster that can't be passed or killed. Just when you're almost home, you're zapped or killed and you have to start all over again.

These games are very much like life itself. For just like the Pharisee we can spend a lifetime overcoming obstacles. Look how he got past obstacles like greed, dishonesty, and adultery. He's even disciplined himself by self sacrifice. He fasts and gives a large part of his wealth to support the temple. Still, he is faced with the greatest obstacle, the unpassable monster, Pride. He is not an evil man. He is a good man. But his success in overcoming all these little hurdles has made him proud or self-righteous.

It's really sad when we see such pride in our leaders, whether they be politicians, businessmen, educators, entertainers, or athletes. It's even sadder when we see it in our religious leaders who should know better. However, pride is not just limited to the high and mighty. How many ordinary families have been torn apart by a word or gesture that hurt someone's feelings. Once the wound has been inflicted and the backs have stiffened, pride sets in and prevents any reconciliation.

How often do we see ordinary Christians, for example, acting as if they were better than anyone else?  Isn't it easy for us churchgoers to say, like the Pharisee, "thank God, I'm not like the rest of men."

A parable is not a true story. Our Lord just uses parables to make a point. Remember that tax collectors were despised by the Jews. It wasn't just a natural aversion to taxes. It was common knowledge that tax collectors enriched themselves unfairly and dishonestly. Moreover, they were regarded as traitors since they were doing the dirty work of the hated Romans. Here is what our Lord says about the prayer of the tax collector:

            But the tax collector stood off at a distance
            and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
            but beat his breast and prayed,
            'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'

How many of us say this kind of prayer? I don't mean that we have to consider ourselves evil like Hitler. I just mean that in the words of the immortal Clint Eastwood, "we have to know our limitations." We have to realize that we are fallible, not infallible--that our ideas and opinions might be wrong or in need of correction. In fact, the great antidote to pride is humility and the practice of obedience is the best way to achieve humility.

For children obedience to parents is a necessary first step in developing humility. There is nothing worse to see than a prideful, willful child who treats his or her parents with contempt. Just think how much nicer life would be if teenagers practiced humility and obedience. How many of today's marriages break up because husbands and wives cannot defer to each others authority. Finally, even our senior citizens find it hard to surrender their authority to their children who must  take care of them in their old age.

It might seem that in today's second reading St. Paul is showing a little bit of pride.  We must know that when he wrote the letter to Timothy, Paul was in a Roman prison awaiting his impending execution. He is looking back on his life and says in all humility that if he has achieved anything, it was all due to the Lord "who stood by me and gave me strength." This is one of my favorite passages in scripture. Paul affirms that he has given his own life in doing the Lord's work.

            I am already being poured out like a libation,
            and the time of my departure is at hand.
            I have competed well; I have finished the race;
             I have  kept the faith."


Hopefully, Paul's words will be ours when we look back on our lives.

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Reading 1. Sirach 35: 12-14
Reading II. 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18
Gospel. Luke 18: 9-14 (Pharisee and the Publican).

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Persistence


                                                                                                                                                                       
                                    29th  Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                             



There was no more deadly enemy of the Jews at the time of the Exodus than Amalek and his tribe. In those difficult days of wandering in the desert it was either kill or be killed. Perhaps that explains the bloody and warlike tone of today's first reading. However, we have this reading today because it provides us with an example of persistency in prayer which coincides with today's Gospel account from St. Luke.

Today's parable, as St. Luke tells us, is about "the necessity to pray always without becoming weary." Earlier translations talk about the necessity of praying so as not  "to lose heart." Our Lord makes it clear that if even dishonest and evil people give in to persistence, why wouldn't we expect our heavenly Father to hear our prayers?

            Will not God then secure the rights of His chosen ones
            who call out to Him day and night?  

What does our Lord mean by prayer? A few weeks ago the disciples asked, "Lord, teach us how to pray." We know that Jesus cautioned us to avoid useless multiplication of words in prayer. He seemed to like his prayers short and to the point.

Scholars tell us that even the "Lord's Prayer" is a condensation of a number of much longer Hebrew prayers into their real essence. In it we begin by recognizing our right relationship with God. We pray that God's will  be done--not ours. When we pray for our daily bread, we acknowledge that everything we have comes from our Father in Heaven. We ask forgiveness for our wrongs and promise to forgive those who have wronged us. Finally, we ask for help in avoiding temptation and evil.

Of course, Jesus always makes it clear that it is the faith of the person and not the words that makes a prayer effective.

In the last few weeks He has given us a number of examples of short but effective prayers. Two weeks ago He said,

            When you have done all you have been commanded,
            say, 'We are unprofitable servants;
            we have done what we were obliged to do.'

Believe it or not, this is a prayer. In it we recognize our dependence on God and recognize our obligations to Him and our fellow man.

Last week the ten lepers only had to cry out, "Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!" to be cured of their horrible disease. To the one leper who returned to thank Him, He said, "Stand up and go; your faith has saved you." Next week, we will hear the famous story of the tax collector who went to the temple to pray.

            But the tax collector stood off at a distance
            and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
            but beat his breast and prayed,
            'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'

We will see next week that our Lord makes it clear that it was the attitude of humility expressed by the words of the tax collector which caused his prayer to be answered.

Faith is the primary ingredient in prayer but St. Paul in his letter to Timothy insists that faith is based on the Word of God.  Timothy was ordained by Paul and put in charge of his own local community. This letter is important because Paul is instructing the new bishop in his duties. Above all, Paul urges Timothy to be persistent and not to lose heart. Timothy, like many of us, learned the faith from his parents and grandparents. Paul tells him to "remain faithful to what you have learned and believed."

Although Paul's words are addressed to a church leader, they are appropriate to all of us. Our prayer life will be sterile if it is separated from Scripture for all "scripture is inspired by God."

For most of us the best way to be persistent in prayer is to attend Mass every Sunday, and daily if possible. The Mass is not a private or individual prayer but the prayer of the whole community of faith. If we look at it closely, we will see that it is a collection of prayers all based on Scripture.  We begin in the Confiteor by recognizing our own weaknesses and faults. After hearing the proclamation of the Word of God, we offer our own petitions to God and bring our offering to the altar as a symbol of thanksgiving for all we have received. Before Communion we pray together the Lord's Prayer.  In the Agnus Dei we ask the Lamb of God to have mercy on us just as the lepers did.  Then we say with the priest the great prayer derived from the words of the Roman centurion, "Lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word and my soul will be healed." Finally, at Communion we receive our true daily bread.


I am not saying that we should neglect traditional prayers like the Hail Mary, or the Rosary or the various litanies. All of these are profoundly scriptural. But we should avoid the mindless repetition of words. The greatest of prayers is still the Mass and the basic reason for attending is so that through all the troubles and trials of life, we will not grow weary and lose heart.

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