Sunday, October 30, 2016

Year Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wis 11:22-12:2; Ps 145:1-2.8-11.13-14; 2 Thes 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10

Throughout most of the summer and into the fall we’ve been making our way with Jesus in St. Luke’s Gospel from his native Galilee to Jerusalem. Three things bear noting up front. First, in the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus makes only one journey to the holy city. Second, the so-called “Journey Narrative” comprises slightly less than half of Luke’s Gospel. Finally, like last week, our Gospel today, which tells of Jesus’ entry into Jericho, from where he turned westward and made his way up the mountain to Jerusalem, it is a despised tax collector who shows what it means to be justified by Christ, that is, saved.

What’s in a name? After all, a name doesn’t make us someone we are not. For example, “Hope” might be a depressed, negative woman and “Christian” may live an utterly faithless life. The name Zacchaeus means “righteous one.” But due to his occupation as a tax collector, his fellow Jews certainly did not consider him to be righteous. In Jewish society under Roman rule tax collectors, who were probably Jews, as Zacchaeus seems to be, were notorious public sinners. As a chief tax collector of a city or area, Zacchaeus would have paid the Romans for the license to collect taxes. Once the license was issued, he would then pay the amount levied by the Romans before collecting taxes from the local population. Anything he collected over and above what the Romans levied was his profit. It is not too difficult to see the corruption inherent in such a system. It was no doubt through exploiting this unjust system that Zacchaeus became wealthy.

Upon learning that Jesus was passing through town, Zacchaeus had a burning desire to see him. It is likely Jesus’ fame preceded him. But it was Jesus who took the initiative when, as he walked through Jericho, he looked up into the sycamore tree and said: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly for today I must stay at your house.” Zacchaeus responded without hesitation. He scrambled down and received Jesus with joy (Luke 19:5-6). Upon witnessing this, the crowd grumbled: “[Jesus] has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” It was Zacchaeus who responded to their compliant, saying, “Behold, half of my possessions . . . I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over” (Luke 19:8). In addition to giving a generous gift to the poor, Zacchaeus offered to repay what he had extorted more than the required amount. According to the Law of Moses, one is required to restore what was taken through robbery or fraud by repaying the principal and adding one-fifth (Lev 6:4-5).

Please note that Jesus did not place any pre-conditions on his announcement that he was going to stay at Zacchaeus’ house. He did not say, “Zacchaeus, if you make a generous offering to the poor and repay what you have extorted more than the Law requires, I will come stay at your house.” Zacchaeus, upon hearing Jesus was going to enter under his roof, seemingly converted and made his offer in response. I don’t think it’s stretching things too far to suggest that Zacchaeus’ offer was his thankful response for receiving Jesus. In other words, his offer has something of what we might call a “Eucharistic” feel to it.

You see my friends, in Zacchaeus we have a paradigm of how one becomes a Christian; which is by grace through faith. Just as Zacchaeus, in going to see Jesus, discovered his own identity as a truly “righteous one” despite his wicked ways, it is Christ who fully reveals us to ourselves (Gaudium et Spes, par 22). We are gathered here because of our desire to receive Jesus in Holy Communion together. Therefore, the question to us is: Does our receiving Jesus make us as grateful Zaccaheus?

Today we also heard in our first reading from the Book of Wisdom: “you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made” (Wis. 11:24). Further on in our first reading we heard God is the “lover of souls” (Wis. 11:26). Jesus calling Zacchaeus by name is a wonderful example of what these words mean. Zacchaeus’ response also indicates that, despite the graciousness of God’s gifts, there is always an implied mutuality.

Respecting our freedom, of which He is the author, God does not force Himself on us. A good example of what I mean by implied mutually is what we pray in the Our Father: “forgive us trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This implied mutuality is probably best illustrated as receiving a gift. Because God’s mercy is a gift, our refusal to respond to God’s grace does not cancel out God’s gracious offer. We call this offer Mercy. Jesus himself is Divine Mercy. During this Jubilee, we have a great opportunity to receive mercy and then to give it. Mercy is never really received until it is given.

As we approach the end of this Year of Grace, which we will mark in a few weeks’ time by celebrating the feast of Christ the King, which, this year, will also bring the Jubilee of Mercy to a close, it bears noting that our second reading reminds us that Christ will come again. His return to judge the living and the dead is an essential article of Christian faith. With the election a little more than a week away, as a Christian citizen of a free republic, it is critical for you to thoughtfully and prayerfully reflect on how best you can best bring the light of the Gospel to bear on our nation through your vote.

By God’s grace, in his encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus immediately grasped what it meant to follow Jesus, to be his disciple. He did not grasp this by understanding a series of theological propositions to which he gave intellectual assent. He comprehended by faith, which is our response to grace. Grace is God’s saving initiative towards us. Pope Benedict once taught: “there is no authentic celebration and adoration of the Eucharist that does not lead to mission. And mission presupposes another essential eucharistic trait, namely the union of hearts.” As Pope Francis has insisted over the course of this year’s Jubilee of Mercy, the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy are how we carry out our mission.

As we receive Jesus in this Eucharist may our hearts be united and our lives changed. And as we recognize the Lord in the bread and in the wine and invite him under our roofs, let us not fail to recognize him in those in need, who St. Teresa of Calcutta called Jesus in a distressing disguise. As the Body of Christ, it is our eucharistic mission to fashion an ever more merciful world day after day, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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