31st Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached November 3, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Last Sunday we heard Jesus tell a parable involving a tax collector. Today we heard about a real life encounter between a chief tax collector and Jesus.
Last Sunday the tax collector in the parable showed us our starting point in our relationship to God; namely, the prayer of interior humility that recognizes where we stand before God as creatures and as sinners. O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. (Lk 18:13)
The tax collector was a man who was despised by men, simply on account of his occupation. It would be a good exercise for each one of us to think of the one person we are most tempted to despise, for whatever reason, and think, “Some day that man might turn to God just as the tax collector in the parable.” Or: “Some day that man might encounter Jesus, just as the chief tax collector in today’s Gospel.”
The tax collector in the parable showed us our starting point in relation to God; the chief tax collector in today’s Gospel gives us an overview of the whole path of salvation.
Zacchaeus path begins in faith that leads him to desire to see Jesus.
We should note, however, that Zacchaeus would not have started on that path if Jesus had not already drawn him through the actual grace of the Holy Spirit. This actual grace is offered to all at some point in their life, many times even, but only a few seem to accept it. To those who do accept it, however, Jesus reminds us: It is not you who have chosen me, but I who have chosen you. (Jn 15:16)
Next, Zacchaeus acted on the desire of faith by climbing a tree in order to get a glimpse of Jesus. By climbing the tree he is willing to appear foolish in the sight of men, for the sake of Jesus. He thereby overcomes his fear of human opinion, while he shows that he is not ashamed of Jesus.
The tree also represents the cross that we must embrace in our life if we are truly to encounter Christ.
One very concrete time and place where we encounter Jesus Christ crucified, where we come to stand before his very Cross, is the consecration at Mass, when his Body and Blood are shown separately. Here the cruel and bloody spectacle of the actual crucifixion is revealed in the attractive beauty and splendor of the unbloody offering that draws us into the mystery of the Cross, which is the mystery of divine love. This is a privileged moment for us to embrace the cross in our own life, dying to our own self will and offering ourselves unconditionally to the Lord.
If we do that, the Lord will always see us as he saw and took notice of Zacchaeus. Then he will speak to us, calling us by name, declaring to us that he must come and dine in our heart in holy communion.
So many times we come to Mass and receive communion, but we do not follow the path of Zacchaeus, because we do not start with the interior repentance and humility of the tax collector in the parable, because our faith is asleep, because we are a little bit ashamed of being seen in church, or because we do not want to embrace the cross in our life.
Jesus once accused certain Christians of offending him because they were neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. Their punishment? He would vomit them from his mouth. (Cf. Rev 3:15-16)
Nevertheless, he gave an invitation to that same group, saying, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter and dine with him, and he with me. (Rev 3:20)
If we indeed follow the path of Zacchaeus we will not just believe in Jesus, but we will encounter him, and we will come to know his presence within us. Then our life will be changed.
Zacchaeus’ life was radically changed in two ways. He generously gave half his possessions to the poor and he made restitution for the harm he had done to others. He came to practice both mercy and justice. He did not seek Jesus in order to change, but finding Jesus he discovered that change was possible and he did change. The change is a consequence of the encounter with Jesus, not the reason for seeking him.
Still the refusal to change can be what, in the end, frustrates our union with Jesus.
Jesus had said, It is not you who have chosen me, but I who have chosen you. He immediately adds: and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain. (Jn 15:16)
If we do not want to bear fruit for the glory of the Father, then we are not sincere in seeking a Jesus.
Which fruit is harder? Mercy or justice? Generosity or restitution?
Without justice there can be no mercy, so let’s consider restitution. Notice that Zacchaeus promises to make fourfold restitution.
Now we usually think it is enough to restore what is taken. God thinks otherwise. In Exodus he commanded fourfold or even fivefold restitution if a sheep or ox was stolen and then sold or killed. If the ox or sheep was found alive in the possession of the thief, twofold restitution was still required. (Cf. Ex 22:1-4)
You see it is not enough just to restore the stolen goods. That would only restore the material equality. Rather, one must make up for the offense, which goes beyond the material goods and impacts both the person who was the victim of the theft and the community as well.
Consider that if you hear about a crime committed in your neighborhood, you feel less secure. We can also point out that the more people are dishonest, the less people trust one another, in which case the whole basis for social and community life is shaken.
Zacchaeus was willing to make reparation for the harm done by any fraud or theft he might have committed, reparation to both the person and by way of the person to the community.
Now let me raise a very painful question. We readily grasp the matter of justice involved in the 7th commandment, Thou shalt not steal, but how about the 6th commandment, Thou shalt not commit adultery? How about reparation for the damage down to a marriage? Or to children who are born out of wedlock or abandoned by divorce? Justice is involved here as well.
There is a lot of ignorance and confusion in this matter – and in people’s lives. Very often the questions are framed purely in the realm of personal happiness. Yet isn’t it evident that every disorder here impacts other persons and the whole community?
We have often heard it said, as though it were an unanswerable retort, “How does what someone does in the privacy of his bedroom affect you?” Well, if a theft in the community makes all property insecure, doesn’t a divorce in a community threaten, in some way, every marriage? And if marriage, the first human social relationship and the foundation of all society, is insecure then doesn’t that undermine the whole community.
Perhaps nothing can now be done to repair the past, but we can at least, like David, accept the painful consequences as our due. We can now, at least, strive to live by the law of God, even if that requires a painful renunciation, such as living in a celibate relation with a new partner.
We might not be able to repair the past, but we might pursue a path of good works with a sense of indebtedness, rather than living with a sense of entitlement.
This might seem difficult or altogether impossible, but we can look at the example of Zacchaeus and remember that with God all things are possible. (cf. Mt 19:26)
If we do what is in our power, we can have confidence before God that the offering made by Christ on the Cross will make up for whatever is lacking on our part. But if we are not willing to do our part, by what right do we claim that confidence? Jesus did not die on the Cross so that we could be lazy, sloppy, and careless.
Let us now return to the main point, a truly fruitful communion that allows Jesus to say, Today, salvation has come to this house.
We have been created for union with God, eternal union with God. The man Jesus Christ, who is God, the very Son of God, is the mediator of this union. Communion with the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, inseparably united to the divinity, the godhead, he shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit, nourishes the union of life, knowledge, and love that began in baptism.
That union, which is now hidden in the mystery of faith, in the reality that we call sanctifying grace, will be brought to perfection in the vision of God’s face in eternal life, and manifest to all on the day of judgment when Christ comes again. Then the body itself will be raised up from dust and ashes, we will be made whole and imperishable.
That future reality, which is already revealed to us in the glorified bodies of Jesus and Mary, is sacramentally anticipated in holy communion. In holy communion we already begin to touch, as it were, the goal of our whole life. Jesus said: He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (Jn 6:54)
St. Paul teaches us to esteem the greatness of that goal in comparison with the sufferings of this passing life: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rm 8:18) And, This slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor 4:17-18)
The glory to be revealed is the fullness of salvation – the name Jesus means “Savior” – offered to all, even to tax collectors. Zacchaeus began to experience that salvation the day he saw Jesus and received him in his house. We begin to experience the same salvation in every worthy, devout, and fruitful communion.