Fr. Charles Irvin
31st Sun [C] 2010
Wisdom 11:22-12-2; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10
In last week’s Gospel Jesus presented us with the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple. You remember them – the Pharisee was in the front of the Temple justifying himself and claiming to be better than the tax collector who was huddled in the back of the Temple asking only for God’s mercy. Today we have a chief tax collector whom Jesus encountered in real life. Today’s event is no parable. It is an account of an event in Jesus’ life.
Tax collectors were hated, and Jews hated Jewish tax collectors most of all. They were puppets of the Romans and were considered to be traitors. They were given a quota of taxes to collect and had the power Roman soldiers to assist them in collecting taxes. All the Romans expected were their quotas. The tax collectors could collect more than they owed and could unleash the Roman soldiers upon Jews who didn’t pay the amounts set by the tax collector. Not only were these tax collectors traitors to the Jewish people, they were traitors to the Jewish religion.
In today’s Gospel account, Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector in Jericho, a very wealthy city that was famous and envied by all for its economic privilege and very well-off citizens. All of which meant that Zacchaeus was indeed a very wealthy and powerful man.
Now you see the shock that electrified the Jews when Jesus called out to him and said, “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! It was unthinkable that a rabbi would do such a thing… and yet true. Not only was Zacchaeus wealthy at the expense of others, he was friendless. 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 Zacchaeus was 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 think we know how God judges them? Do we think we know what’s in their hearts and do we know their intentions better than God does?
More importantly, when we judge our own individual 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 and frustrate ourselves.
Two evils flow from that. One is despair which allows us to excuse ourselves from prayer, going to church, or keep away from 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 forces others to live with a person 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 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!
So just as the Son of God ignored the judgments and opinions of the local populace with regard to 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 and 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.
If you want to have your life changed, give up the self-delusion that you can change your life on your own. 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.