HOMILY SUNDAY 31-C
Zacchaeus – Son of Abraham
(Wisdom 11:23-12:2; Psalm 145; 2 Thes 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10)
What were the first words the Jesus preached?
“Repent; believe, the kingdom of heaven is near.” Do this and salvation will be yours.
Zacchaeus lived those first words of Jesus. He was a tax collector unsatisfied with life, feeling incomplete, experiencing the human condition. Seeking more, he stepped out in faith to humble himself and climbed a tree. He wanted to see Jesus, hoping for something better.
The readings help us to see God more clearly. In the first reading we are reminded God is merciful to all and overlooks peoples’ sins so they may repent. God corrects them little by little so they can be set free to love and to trust. The psalm proclaims God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God is compassionate to all; upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down.
Building on this image of God, the gospel gives us an exemplary story of faith leading to repentance. The book of Leviticus states to make amends one must repay the amount plus 1/5th. Zacchaeus goes way beyond the law: four-fold restitution and half his possessions. He had found the friend, the intimacy, the love his heart was yearning for despite his status and wealth, and he put his trust in that relationship, enough to let go of half his possessions! Now that is genuine repentance – letting go of past behaviour. His emotional needs were met, and now he could let go of the addiction to the false gods of prestige and money that were controlling his life and leaving him lonely.
During a training session for the Returning To Spirit program for healing the legacy of Indian Residential Schools, the participants and I had an experience of this gospel. The facilitator who developed the program, Marc Pizandawatc, insisted everyone be on time and would not start a session until everyone was there. One day two trainers slept in. We waited for ten minutes, with Mark murmuring “This was unacceptable.” Finally, they entered the room sheepishly, apologizing profusely. To everyone’s surprise, Mark called up different students to facilitate the session. It was obvious he wanted a certain skill in handling this situation, but no one could do it. Then he took over, turned to the two latecomers, and said simply, “Do I have your word you will never do this again?” which of course he obtained immediately, and the session carried on.
What Marc wanted, what none of the group could think of, was a “declaration” of behavioural change! An apology without such a declaration, he taught us, is almost meaningless. A few days later, Ted, one of the class members, was able to apply this learning to a strained relationship with a relative’s husband because of an incident year’s earlier. He had made numerous attempts to apologize and be reconciled, to no avail. The relationship remained painfully cool.
Armed with this new knowledge about a making a declaration, Ted called them, reminded them of their strained relationship, gave them his assurance it would never happen again, and it worked. The husband immediately responded to his declaration by stating he would act more warmly towards him, now that he had his word the offending behaviour would never happen again, and they started talking about skiing. The relationship was healed. The change in Ted had freed them to change their behaviour towards him. He was elated and grateful.
Another slant on this gospel came from a client at a halfway house for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, who asked me to come over one day before doing her Step 5, so she could get to know me. In a sense, she was like Zacchaeus in reverse, asking me to come to her so she could check me out and see if I would be Jesus for her, accepting, forgiving, and not judging. Can we be Jesus for each other like that – accepting, understanding and forgiving, instead of judging and complaining?
The story of Zacchaeus is a tale of unexpected twists and reversals. A chief tax collector humbles himself by running and climbing a tree, but Jesus’ ministry to the outcast and despised reaches the rich as well as the poor, tax collectors as well as harlots. Jesus has sought out and saved the one who was lost. In response to Jesus’ bestowal of favour, unexpected and unmerited, the rich tax collector joyfully pledged to bear “fruits worthy of repentance.” Zacchaeus thought he was seeking Jesus, but in reality, Jesus was seeking Zacchaeus. Thus, salvation can come even to the house of tax collectors. Zacchaeus just wanted to see Jesus, but by the end of the story he could say to God, “My eyes have seen your salvation.”
Jesus is constantly passing through our lives. How are we responding to his invitation to come down out of our own tree of self-made security, addictions, attitudes, and let him be Lord of our lives? Are we ready to really repent, change our lives, and live his way? How do we treat others who are trying to change their lives?
The Eucharist is another instance of “Jesus passing through our midst.” What is our response? Can we be like Zacchaeus and celebrate this event with joyful repentance, or just grumble and attend with hard, judgmental and unchanging hearts?
So, let us truly believe in God’s merciful love, repent, change our ways, and salvation, the kingdom of heaven, will be ours.