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Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle C (1)
Question. Who is Mother Goose? What do I have here? That’s right–a collection of Mother Goose nursery rhymes. Did you know that there really was a Mother Goose. I don’t know her first name, but her maiden name was Foster. She lived in Massachusetts about 300 years ago. She married a man named Isaac Goose who died after they brought 10 children into the world. Can you imagine trying to look after 10 children as a single parent? It was hard. But Mother Goose kept all her children entertained by composing nursery rhymes. Her nephew collected and published her nursery rhymes as a book. Millions of children have enjoyed Mother Goose nursery rhymes since then.
Imagine that–ten children! Mother Goose’s story reminds me of the old lady who lived in the shoe. She had so many children–what? That’s right. She didn’t know what to do. Sometimes we may think God is like the old lady who lived in a shoe. God has so many children–over 4 billion of them. How can He love each of us? And yet the Bible says He does.
I love this little story from today’s Gospel reading about the little man named Zaccheus who climbed into a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus. The important thing was not that Zaccheus could see Jesus, but in all that crowd Jesus saw Zaccheus and called him to come down. That’s the way God is, according to the Bible. No matter how many children God has, He can still see each of us, knows us by name, and loves us as much as if there was only one of us for Him to love.
I was reading an article recently called “The Truman Factor,” and it referred to the Jim Carrey movie in which he plays a character called Truman Burbank who, alone in the world, does not know that every bit of his life is being recorded and broadcast. Everything in his life is being staged for others to see. The article said that there were people with a psychological affliction in which they thought that they were being spied upon and broadcast; the revelations about NSA surveillance have not made it easier for these people. Strange to think of a life broadcast to others; stranger, too, to think of people who would look at this kind of life, watching people in their everyday experiences, the ultimate reality TV binge.
As a child, I remember going to a movie called “Rear Window,” a Hitchcock thriller, in which a man watches a crime unfold in the windows across from his bedroom. And, of course, we used to have comedy shows in which pranks were played on unsuspecting folks while the TV cameras were running. What joy or curiosity do we get from being able to peep on others, to watch them without it costing us anything?
Zaccheus seems to have had a very conflicted background, a short guy who ended up betraying his people as a tax collector and cooperator with the Roman enemy. Nothing in the first century Judea was quite so hated and despised as was the Roman tax. It not only reminded the Jews that they were a subjugated people, but it also represented a theological affront. To the Jew, there was only one King, and that was God, not Caesar. Paying tribute to an earthly non-Jewish monarch was something that the Hebrews had opposed throughout their long history.
But there was more. The dirty work of collecting the tax was done not by the Romans, but by collaborating Jews. To make matters worse, some of the money that they collected off the backs of their fellow countrymen stuck to their own fingers. We are told that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. That is the only time in the New Testament that that term is used. It meant that he was over an entire district. Zacchaeus may have been short in stature, but he had wealth, and wealth means power, so, in a manner of speaking, people looked up to him. Zacchaeus was the little man with the big reputation.
But he’s curious. He wants to see Jesus—from a distance, the ancient equivalent of eavesdropping and spying. He goes up in a tree, not only where his height receives some compensation, but also so he can be safe, out of the way, undisclosed. Zaccheus raises the question: can we just watch Jesus from a distance?
Because a lot of us try, not only those who call themselves Christian but have no discernible faith activity but even many of us ordinary Catholics or mostly come to Church. It’s like we can stay on the other side of a window, watching things that happen but never having it entangle our lives. Like a Halloween costume, we can wear the label of believer or disciple, but it’s no more than a pose.
Is Jesus being pushy? What kind of sixth sense did he have to know Zaccheus was there? And, then, he just blurts out, “Zaccheus, I’m going to stay in your house tonight.” Think about that. How would we feel if Jesus knocked on our door and invited himself to stay overnight? Oh, sure, we’d be excited. But we’d probably be as intimidated as anything, because to sit before Jesus is to have your whole life exposed, in a more profound way than Truman ever experienced. Being looked at by others is one thing; being looked at by God is something else. Having a meal with someone is a gesture of friendship, even more, it is a gesture of intimacy. The Lord wanted to be part of Zacchaeus’ life. Many people grumbled at that, but Zacchaeus, the little man, stood his ground and gave half of what he had to the poor, promising to repay fourfold those he had cheated.
Zacchaeus responded to the mercy he had received. How have we responded to the mercy of God we have received in our lives? Do we take it for granted and go on with our lives continuing to sin, or do we really try to change our lives? Saying, “I’m sorry,” and seeking mercy is good, but only if we intend to respond to the mercy we receive.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Some look at Zaccheus’ statement that he already did these things.
But look at Zaccheus’ reaction: he is so thrilled to be accepted by Jesus, crud that he is, that he stands before a crowd that was ready to dismiss him, pointing out the changes that he was bringing to his life. Having met God in the flesh, what alternative did he have?
And what will our reaction be—to this visit we have from Jesus this day at Mass? He has not only invited us into his house, the Church, but also invited himself into our lives, to permeate our lives with his grace, goodness, generosity, and love. And told us to radiate just these things in our own lives. Radiate them to others. In Paul’s day, people were obviously anxious about Jesus’ return in the parousia, the end of the world. But Paul would tell us that the Jesus who comes at the end is the Jesus who comes now into our lives.
Several years ago, a young couple came to see me who had a problem in their marriage. The problem was that the husband kept misbehaving, spending money foolishly, not coming home when he said he would, not carrying his part of the household load, etc. After the wife had her say, I asked him if he had anything he’d like to add or subtract. He said, “But I always tell her I’m sorry.” She said, “Yes, he does, but he is not serious about being sorry. He just says the words and then continues doing these things.”
You see, it is not enough to say that we are sorry and receive forgiveness. We have to do all we can to change our actions. When we say the act of contrition, we express our determination to amend or change our lives. Sometimes, when I say to the Lord, “I’m trying,” I hear Him say to me, “Well, try harder.”
There are times that we treat the sacrament of Penance like a car wash. Get in, get washed, get out, and don’t worry about getting dirty again. Pope Francis said that there are no limits to God’s mercy. The only limits are the ones that we put on his mercy. Sometimes those limits are refusing to ask for mercy. Sometimes those limits are refusing to respond to mercy.
Of course, Jesus is infinitely patient. He gives us time to clean things up, to re-arrange what needs to be re-arranged, just so long as he knows that we’re committed to him, house buddies, roommates, or, to tell the truth, members of his family. Hey, get down from your tree, or get out from behind your window, or drop the remote: Jesus is here, waiting for us.