31st Sun [C] 2007

Fr. Charles Irvin

Wisdom 11:22-12-2; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10

The basic message of today’s gospel account is that Jesus went into Zacchaeus’ house and Zacchaeus ended up going into God’s house. Today’s three scripture readings are all about receiving God’s life-changing love. It’s all about receiving and accepting the presence, power, and love of God that He has invited us here to receive.

In last week’s gospel passage we heard Jesus presenting a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector in the Temple. You remember them – the Pharisee was in the front of the Temple proudly justifying himself and claiming to be better than the tax collector who huddled in the back of the Temple beating his breast and asking only for God’s mercy. Today we have a chief tax collector whom Jesus encountered in real life. Today’s gospel event is no parable. It is an account of what Jesus actually did.

Tax collectors were hated, and Jewish tax collectors were the most hated of all because they were puppets of the Romans. They were given a quota of taxes to collect and had the power to resort to the cruelty of Roman soldiers to enforce their tax collections. All the Roman governor cared about was the expected tax quota. Tax collectors could collect more than their quota and could unleash the Roman soldiers upon Jews who didn’t pay the amounts they set, however unfair they were. Not only were these Jewish tax collectors traitors to their fellow countrymen, they were traitors to the Jewish religion.

Today we need to note this particular tax collector we just heard about, Zacchaeus, was the chief tax collector in Jericho, a very wealthy city that was famous and envied by all for its economic privilege and well-off citizens. All of which meant that Zacchaeus was indeed a very wealthy and powerful man.

Now you can realize the shock that electrified the Jews when Jesus calls out to him and says, “Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I am coming to stay in your house.” Not only was Jesus going to dine at Zacchaeus’ table, He was going to stay in his house! To orthodox Jews this was unthinkable… and yet true. Zacchaeus, wealthy and oppressive at the expense of Jews, was friendless up to this point in his life. No one would associate with him. No one, that is, until Jesus came down the road. Suddenly he had the greatest Friend anyone could ever have!

Two things need to be seen. One was that the Jews had completely misjudged Zacchaeus. The second was that as a result of his encounter with Jesus he completely changed. Not only would he make good on any fraud or extortion he had committed, he would see to it that his victims were more than repaid. He went beyond simple restitution and in effect put those whom he had oppressed into standards of living they had never known before.

Well, so what? What’s the point?

The first point is to ask of ourselves just who it is that we condemn and harshly judge. By what standards do we judge them and condemn them? And how do you think God judges them? Do we know what’s in their hearts and do we know their intentions better than God does?

More importantly, when we judge our very own selves, why do we apply such rigid and perfectionistic standards to our selves? Perhaps we have such an idealistic image of ourselves that we set ourselves up with impossible standards to meet.

Two evils flow from that. One is despair. Because of despair we excuse ourselves from prayer, going to church, or any sense of closeness to God.

Despair is a terrible evil. It leads to a complete giving up on ourselves. It leads to self-punishing behavior that certainly doesn’t please God and at the same time it forces others around us to live with someone who is miserable. They don’t deserve that… God doesn’t… and neither do you.

The other effect is to rationalize one’s self out of coming to Mass. It provides a convenient excuse for not participating in the Sacraments and in the life of the Church. “I’m such a terrible sinner,” we say, “that even God couldn’t forgive me.” Therefore I don’t need to go to church any more.

Pride and egoism lurk behind such a sentiment. Why do we think our miserable little sins can restrain Almighty God and keep Him from giving us His loving mercy and His tender forgiveness? What arrogance it is to declare that you are the worst of all sinners, so bad that God Himself stands powerless in front of you! Are your sins and mine more powerful than God’s mercy?

So just as the Son of God ignored the judgments and opinions of the local populace about Zacchaeus, so also God ignores our judgments and opinions about others… and particularly about our selves.

Finally, observe that Zacchaeus is much like the prodigal son who lived among the pigs and who came home to find his father to be even more prodigal in forgiveness, while the elder son stood aloof in icy condemnation and furious judgment. The story of the prodigal son and the story of Zacchaeus are stories of God’s unbounded prodigality in sharing His forgiveness along with His all-powerful, life-changing love.

Do you find yourself to be up a tree and distantly observing Christ as He walks by? If so, be prepared to hear Him call out to you and tell you that He wants to come to your house today and stay with you. Hopefully your response will be as holy as Zacchaeus’ response. For it is God who justifies us — we can never succeed in our own self-justifications. It is God who sanctifies us; we can never succeed in making ourselves holy. It is God who saves us; we are total failures when it comes to saving ourselves.

Is there anything in your life that you would like to change? You really want to change?

We are here now in God’s house because He has invited us to come to His house. The paradox is that God wants to enter your “house” and stay with you. In Holy Communion God enters into the house that is your heart and soul, there to give you His love, there to stay with you. There’s no other house in which that can happen. It happens only here in Holy Communion. God’s life-changing love is here in an infinitely unique way.

If you want to have your life changed, give up the self-delusion that you can change your life all by yourself. Only God can change your life. And He can do it just as easily as He changed the life of Zacchaeus, that hated and traitorous Jewish tax collector who found holiness in simply responding to God’s invitation. God’s life-changing love is here for you in a way that is infinitely more powerful than the life-changing experience that came to Zacchaeus. Why not accept God’s invitation each and every day of your life?

About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”