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Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle C (2)
Let me ask you an uncomfortable question this morning: what criticism are you most likely to hear from the people who know you best? Do they say you are always running late, or you’re too uptight about being early? Or you’re a penny pincher, or you’re always overspending? Very few of us handle criticism graciously, even from people who know us and love us. A famous humorist once wrote, “Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.” (1)
As you know I belong to the Knights of Columbus. I used to belong to the Shrine Council in DC. When someone asked about how something got started and they said the “Late Gene Carroll did that. One day after a meeting I was talking to a brother Knight and asked his name, He said Gene Carroll. I asked any relation to the one who started all those programs. He said that it was He. With the puzzled looked on my face, he went on to explain he is called the Late Gene Carroll because he is always late for meeting.
Winston Churchill served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II, and he was very well-respected at the time. But in his later years, rumors of health problems caused him a lot of trouble.
One evening he was attending some official function, and two men a few rows behind him began speculating about his health. One man said to the other, “That is Winston Churchill. They say he is senile. They say he should step down and let younger men run the government. They say he is over the hill.”
At the end of the program, Churchill turned and scowled at the men and said, “They also say Churchill is going deaf!” (2)
Jesus did not have a hearing problem. He knew that he was the target of criticism. And what was the number one criticism people had about him? That he liked to hang out with sinners. It wasn’t a rumor; it was the truth. Jesus’ critics had plenty of proof, just like in today’s scripture lesson. Jesus liked to hang out with sinners. I’d just like to say, thank the Lord for that—since you and I are among that crowd of sinners.
Our story today centers around a man named Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho. Last week, we talked about why tax collectors were so hated by the Jewish community. They worked for the oppressive Roman government, and they often collected excessively high taxes. They gave the Roman government its required amount, then kept the excess for themselves. As we learned last week, tax collectors were excommunicated from the synagogue. They couldn’t participate in the religious and social supports of their community. Our Bible passage says that Zacchaeus was wealthy, so it’s likely he was profiting off the exploitation and oppression of his neighbors. I’d guess he earned the title Least Popular Guy in Jericho.
I think that explains why Zacchaeus didn’t want Jesus to see him. These Bible verses tell us that Zacchaeus ran ahead of the crowd. It’s reasonable to assume he could have gotten close enough to talk to Jesus or touch him. Instead, he climbed up a sycamore-fig tree. He wanted to see Jesus, but I don’t think he wanted Jesus to see him.
There are a lot of people who feel that they are unacceptable to God. That’s the first insight we get from today’s story. There are many people who feel that they are unacceptable to God. Maybe you feel that way. You come to church searching for something, but you’re afraid to commit to anything. You’re afraid to let anyone get to know you. You’re afraid someone will discover that you’re “not a REAL Christian.” And there are plenty of people outside these church walls who feel that way. They think they have gone too far from God. The real tragedy is, someone in their life may have told them that. One of the most destructive lies we can believe about ourselves is, “I am not worthy of God’s love.”
In the early days of the AIDS crisis, Fr.. Ted Karpf was serving as a priest in Texas. One evening a man showed up at his church door. The man’s face bore the characteristic sores of AIDS-related cancer. He had a question for Fr Ted: “Will you allow me to come to your church and die here?” He had already visited six other churches that night. All had turned him away.
Fr. Ted hesitated. Like many people, he was afraid. Not much was known about the disease at this stage, and the fear was driving a lot of hateful behavior. AIDS patients were losing their jobs, getting kicked out of their churches, facing harassment and death threats. But then Fr. Ted remembered Jesus’ love for lepers, for the sick, for all those who were unacceptable in their society. And he simply said, “My church is open to you. I will stand by you.”
He discovered later that this man planned to commit suicide in the church, to die in a peaceful and beautiful place. But the man was so moved by Fr. Ted’s acceptance that he changed his mind. Not everybody in his church was ready to accept this man. Attendance dropped drastically. But when the dust settled, twenty-one members of the church remained and committed themselves to caring for this man until his death. He died knowing that he was accepted by a community and surrounded by the love of God. (3)
And that brings me to the second insight we get from today’s Bible passage: one of the greatest truths Jesus came to teach us is, “God loves you anyway.” No matter what you’ve done, no matter how unacceptable you feel, God loves you anyway. See how Jesus treated people who were considered nobodies or outsiders? He’s showing us a picture of what God would do if God were to walk into our lives. Our hearts may condemn us. Others may reject us. God loves us anyway. And Zacchaeus was about to discover that in the most surprising way.
Starting with verse 5 we read, “When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’”
Remember, Jesus was surrounded by a crowd. He could have used this moment to preach a rousing sermon, or perform a few healings, or challenge the local religious leaders to a debate. At least he could have done something to help his reputation. But no, he does the exact opposite. Jesus uses this moment to show love to the Least Popular Guy in Jericho. Because Jesus never passed up a chance to show people the heart of God. And remember, no matter how unacceptable we feel we are, God loves us anyway.
I think that’s Zacchaeus spent the rest of his life, trying to be the person Jesus saw in him. The love of God changes lives. It always has. It always will. A person exposed to grace—the unconditional, unearned, undeserved love of God—will be changed by it. So when Zacchaeus is confronted by grace in the form of Jesus Christ, we shouldn’t be surprised by the transformation in his life.
Let’s return to our lesson beginning in verse 8: “But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘”Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor,
and if I have extorted anything from anyone
I shall repay it four times over.”
“Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’”
That brings me to the final insight we get from today’s story. And for this, I’m just going to steal Jesus’ very words: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Please, memorize these words. Inscribe them in your brain, in your heart, in all the dark places where you believe you are unacceptable to God. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
To seek and to save. We need both these verbs to understand God’s love. What if this verse read, “For the Son of Man came to seek the lost”? It would be so easy for us to misunderstand God’s character and purposes. We might believe Jesus seeks the lost so he can correct them, condemn them, stand in judgment of them, use them as an object lesson for a fire-and-brimstone seminar on “10 Ways Not to End up As the Least Popular Guy in Jericho.”
Or what if this verse read, “For the Son of Man came to save the lost”? This verse sounds better, but it still doesn’t show us God’s character and purposes. We could still twist Jesus’ words to mean he saves the lost if they walk in our church doors, if they are compliant and make it easy for us, if they fit into our religious traditions, if they meet us halfway. Nope. That’s not what Jesus said. It’s not what Jesus meant. Jesus said, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” That’s what he said. That’s what he meant. That’s what he did. And that’s what he wants his followers to do also.
A few years ago, the folks at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco decided they would follow Jesus’ lead and go look for people who wanted to meet Jesus but would never walk in the church doors. The church’s Rector, Paul Fromberg and the former Director of Ministry, Sara Miles, went to the busy San Francisco transit stations on Ash Wednesday. They carried with them little bowls of ashes. And as commuters rushed past them, Fromberg and Miles offered to make the sign of the cross on their foreheads and pray for them. That is why on Ash Wednesday I and the other chaplains go to the units to distribute ashes
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Almost as crazy as inviting yourself to the home of the Least Popular Guy in Jericho. And yet people stopped and received the sign of the cross in ashes. They asked for and received prayer. They talked about their faith, or their faith struggles, or their rejection of God. But they stopped to talk. They stopped to listen. It turns out, a lot of people who never go inside a church were still looking for God. And so many people who were touched by their ministry said, “Never before have we had the church come to us,” or “We couldn’t make it to church, but you brought God to us.” (5)
“You brought God to us.” That was Jesus’ mission. Please don’t believe the lie that you are unacceptable to God. One of the greatest truths Jesus came to teach us is, “God loves you anyway.” No matter what your feelings say. No matter what others say. No matter whether you deserve it or not, God loves you anyway. That’s the whole reason God became flesh in the form of Jesus Christ. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” If you are looking for Jesus—and even if you’re not—I guarantee you, Jesus is looking for you. And if you have received the love of God through Jesus Christ, then someone is waiting for you, looking for you to share the love and hope of Jesus and change their life too.
- Franklin P. Jones, https://www.coburgbanks.co.uk/blog/friday-funnies/50-funny-motivational-quotes/.
- Russell Q. Adams, http://www.worship.cboss.com/asp/Sermonlist.asp?Newsid=308&cid=40.
- The Rev. Frank Logue, http://kingofpeace.org/sermons2007-2008/sermon-092808.htm.
- The Rev. Thomas L. Brackett, http://day1.org/2196-jesus_the_rogue_rabbi.
ChristianGlobe Network, Inc., Dynamic Preaching Third Issue Sermons, by King Duncan
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.