Homily – 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time

  I always like it when this Gospel today comes around because it can teach us much about our relationship with God.  Zacchaeus merely wanted to see Jesus—he climbed the tree to get some height that his physical stature didn’t allow him.  Up the tree, he could see Jesus, safely, from a distance.  But Jesus had something else in mind—he wanted to know Zacchaeus in a more personal way—he wanted to come to his house—eat with him—talk with him—get to know him.  It is the same with us—Jesus wants to get to know us and share our lives—a concept we shouldn’t miss when reading this gospel. 

   On a deeper level, the story of Zacchaeus tells us something about the culture of the time and within that culture is where Jesus was able to reach Zacchaeus and enter into his life, giving him true life.  Zacchaeus, we know, was a tax-collector; a profession despised by any respectable Jew.  Being a tax-collector meant that you worked for the occupying Romans.  You were not salaried but took your living out of the extra taxes you demanded from your neighbors.  There was no limit on this—Zacchaeus merely had to pay a set amount to the Romans and anything above that was his. We know that he took care of himself because, as the Scriptures say, “he was wealthy.” 

   There are many interesting twists in this story and Jesus uses them all to teach those gathered, along with offering Zacchaeus something he could not buy through his tax-collecting. First, recalling that Zacchaeus was despised by his neighbors for his profession—he joined a group of others—Samaritans, prostitutes, and lepers, also looked down upon.  It was custom/culture to shun people who certainly weren’t living very good lives; it was thought, as to end up in such places and predicaments.  It would be the same if we were to assume that any of us who live with an ailment in life are getting what we deserve.

   Now we might look down on this kind of behavior, but in our day, has the mindset changed that much in dealing with people we don’t understand, can’t accept, or don’t approve of? We may ignore, refuse to listen, even judge them, taking comfort in a group of people who think and act as we do, telling ourselves that we are right and they, the “different ones,” are wrong.  We don’t wish to really hear a dissenting message, as it disturbs our comfort level.  

   Jesus, we know, was one to turn things upside down.  Everyone knew that respectable Jews didn’t enter the home of a known sinner and all the above mentioned; tax-collectors, prostitutes, and lepers, were in that category.  Who are the outcasts in our society, we might ask, that we choose not to be seen with? Jesus, our brother doesn’t let these culture mores stand in his way but enters Zacchaeus’ house anyway.  Jesus always looked deeper, wanted to get to know people; not just assume them worthless because of what they did.  He wanted to talk with them, hear their stories, love them where they were and then call them to be more. 

   We had a lovely example of the above last Sunday when we attended our friend’s Unitarian Universalist (UU) service.  The minister for the day—they are lay-led, prayed a beautiful beginning prayer welcoming all present, “just as we were,” sad, happy, depressed—whatever described us that day.  

   By the very fact that Jesus wanted to come to Zacchaeus’ house already told Zacchaeus that he was dealing with someone a cut above the rest, and one who could offer him true meaning in life.  One of the interesting twists in this story is that even though Zacchaeus was wealthy, which would indicate some power-over-others, he was short in stature—an issue, or it wouldn’t have been mentioned.  We know it impeded Zacchaeus from clearly seeing this important figure to his town, Jesus.  People in Zacchaeus’ time looked at any physical impediment as most likely caused by sin.  Being that Zacchaeus was a tax-collector, a despicable profession, to many, probably was a reason for his shortness, culture dictated.

   Once again Jesus calls the lie to such narrow thinking.  I want to come to your house today Zacchaeus—to dine with you.  I want to know you.  Jesus’ sentiment comes right out of the Wisdom reading for today, “You love all things that are created and loathe nothing.  Because Jesus looked into Zacchaeus’ heart, Zacchaeus found the strength—the grace, to change his life.   Jesus always chose the compassionate, understanding response—not the easier one that so many in his day and we too, at times choose.  If we can categorize those that aren’t like us, put them in a box—because they are wrong and we are right, we don’t need to ever grow closer, ever come to understanding.  And during this election year, there is plenty of grist for such “easy” sizing up of people.

    All the readings today are about salvation—not in the narrow sense of saving folks from their humanness—but in a much broader sense.  Jesus wants people to know, as described in the Wisdom reading, the Creator “loves all of creation,” or would not have made it!  We might also say, “God created only that which is loved!” Think of all the people in this world, categorized in any way—our God simply looks on with love. 

   Jesus, in the great heart of God, knows and understands Zacchaeus—he knows what he does for a living, and he knows why he does it—he knows all that makes up Zacchaeus’ life.  He doesn’t judge but moves to the next step—he respects Zacchaeus and loves him to be more than Zacchaeus thought was possible. 

   With Jesus, simple acceptance of Zacchaeus where he was, then gave him the strength through Jesus’ love to change his life—that is what salvation is really all about—finding the strength to be all we were created to be. No doubt, the idea behind the lovely welcoming at the UU service. 

   We have to smile when we think of Zacchaeus, the wealthy tax-collector, wielding, no doubt a good bit of power around Jericho, by nature of his occupation, climbing the sycamore tree like an excited child to see someone, he knew was important for reasons he wasn’t totally aware of.  He had the misconception that, up the tree, he probably wouldn’t be seen. Little did he know that Jesus was about to teach him and all of Jericho a significant lesson—God loved him right where he was and for what he was. 

   Certainly Jesus knew all that Zacchaeus was capable of and through love, selflessly given, compassion and understanding, Jesus brought about the transformation in him that at some level Zacchaeus was looking for when he climbed the tree that day. 

   For each of us friends, Jesus is on the look-out each and every day of our lives to enter in through the sorrows, the joys, the “ah-ha” moments.  We try to hide, in safe places too, up our own “trees”—behind our names, our situations—our pain, the people we know—thinking that God won’t find us or probably doesn’t care.  And if we think that, we would be wrong.  Let me say that again—if we think that our God doesn’t care—WE WOULD BE WRONG!  All we have to do is reflect on all the Scriptures where Jesus goes out of his way to make a difference in people’s lives like today with Zacchaeus.

   This gospel story tells us in no uncertain terms that our God wants to be part of our lives, wants us to be our best selves.  And it all begins, simply, with love.  Once we know we are loved and accepted, we can then share that love with others. 

   Paul prays today with us that God will continually make us worthy of our call as followers of Jesus, the Christ—that by his power in our lives, all good and works of faith will be accomplished through us.  On this next Tuesday, the Church will celebrate the feast of All Saints. No doubt, we will reflect on some of our favorite saints through the years, who have touched our lives. I think it is important to remember that we are all saints in God’s eyes—we all have that inherent goodness that our God created us with—we just need to show the truth of that each day in our lives. 

    On Wednesday, the Church will celebrate the feast of All Souls—a day we remember all those who have gone before us—many who have shown us the way. It is significant that near the end of the church year, we reflect on who we are in God’s eyes, who have been the people who have touched and mentored us in life and make a resolution to be all that we can be in their memory, going forward.

   Each week we pray for those who have died when we gather here for liturgy. As a community we have created a book that we can open each year during the month of November and remember in a special way all those who have gone before us who have helped make us who we are. So, beginning next Sunday and throughout the month of November, I will invite you to record the names, birth, and death dates of your loved ones. This special book is our parish’s Book of Life.

   Paul’s prayer today, that all good and works of faith be accomplished through us is a mighty challenge. My friends—let us pray for the grace to be faithful to this call.   Amen? Amen!