31st Ordinary Sunday (Year C)
First Reading: Wisdom 11:22-12:2 Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2 Gospel Reading: Luke 19:1-10
GOD IS GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL; HE IS GOOD TO ALL, AND COMPASSIONATE TO EVERYTHING HE HAS MADE.
There is a story told about a local fitness center, which was offering $1000 to anyone who could demonstrate that they were stronger than the owner of the place. Here's how it worked. The muscle man would squeeze a lemon until all the juice ran into a glass and then hand the lemon to the next challenger. Anyone who could squeeze just one more drop of juice out would win the money. Many people tried over time – weightlifters, construction workers, even professional wrestlers, but nobody could do it.
One day a short skinny guy came in and signed up for the contest. He clenched his fist around the lemon and six drops fell into the glass. As the crowd cheered, the manager paid out the winning prize and asked the short skinny guy, what did he do for living. “Are you a lumberjack, a weightlifter, or what?” He asked. The man smilingly replied, “I work for the IRS.”
Today's Gospel Reading from St. Luke also focuses on a high ranking IRS man – Zacchaeus, the chief tax-collector of Jericho – his encounter with Jesus and his conversion.
Today is the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time. This Sunday's Scripture Readings speak about God’s love and mercy for everyone. The First Reading from the Book of Wisdom describes how God´s love for what He has created becomes a redemptive love through His mercy. God loves His creation and because of this love He pardons and is patient with people who have gone astray, so that they might repent. The Gospel Reading of today tells us that the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost. Here we have the beautiful story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax-collector of Jericho - a real-life example of the lost sheep being brought back to the fold. The Second Reading from St. Paul's 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians tells the community to place its trust in the Lord and rely on His love and mercy. St. Paul wants them to endure their circumstances patiently and to stop worrying about tomorrow, especially those rumors about the end-time.
UNIVERSAL LOVE AND INFINITE MERCY OF GOD:
Today’s First Reading from the Book of Wisdom speaks of the infinite mercy of God for all the things that He has created. It begins by saying that we are very insignificant in the whole universe – we are like a grain or a drop of dew – but despite our insignificance in relation to everything, we are totally loved by God. He made all things and loves all things made. Far from making us and the rest of our world feel small and insignificant, we are reminded of our own dignity and of the great value of everything God has made. For what God hated, He would not have fashioned! He is the lover of life Who conserves His own creation in a spirit of mercy. If God didn’t think about us, we wouldn’t exist, so we know He is thinking about us, and even if we sin against Him, forget Him, He never forgets us or stops forgiving us. He is a lover of souls; a God who cares for us, a God of unconditional love, unconditional forgiveness and unconditional acceptance. This God, the author says, can be found everywhere: in the beauty of nature, in the changes of the seasons and in people. This passage from the Book of Wisdom is a magnificent prayer to absolutely transcendent God, in serving whom true wisdom is found.
THE STORY OF ZACCHAEUS, THE CHIEF TAX-COLLECTOR:
In the Gospel Reading of today we have another example of Jesus’ interests in the conversion of sinners. The story opens with Jesus entering Jericho and passing through the town. Jericho is a city lying just to the north-east of Jerusalem. Luke’s gospel describes Jesus’ public life as beginning in Nazareth in the north, where he grew up and where he made his ‘mission statement’ before setting out on his life of teaching and healing. His mission brought him in a relatively straight line in a southerly direction to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the focal point and the goal of his life’s work. There he will be arrested, tried, suffer and die and then rise in glory. So, Jericho is the last stage on this journey to Jerusalem and, in fact, before the end of this Chapter 19 he will make his triumphant and final entry into the city on what we call the Palm Sunday.
a) “Zacchaeus - The chief tax-collector”:
Next we are told that there was a man in the city called Zacchaeus. St. Luke says that he was 'a chief tax-collector' and - he adds rather superfluously - 'a wealthy man.' Describing Zacchaeus as a chief tax-collector said just one thing to everyone: he was a detestable creep. As a tax-collector, he worked for Rome and was considered a traitor and a public sinner by the Jewish people, and they hated him. He cheated not only on his return, but everyone else's. He had figured out a way to skim some money off the top and squeeze the last drop from peoples' wallets. Moreover, being a boss himself, no doubt Zacchaeus also took a little off the top from each of his tax-collectors and thus the source of his wealth.
Now, often in the Gospel stories the names can be a clue to understanding and the same is the case here. The name 'Zacchaeus' actually means ‘righteous one' (pure); but he led a 'sinful' (impure) life. Clearly, Zacchaeus in the Gospel never lived like 'Zacchaeus.' That is to say that he did not live according to his name.
Moreover, we are also told that Zacchaeus was a wee little man - 'a man of short stature.' Being a tax-collector he was a public sinner which made him of low moral standard, i.e. he was small from spiritual point of view as well. He had to grow both physically and spiritually; he had to be transformed from a 'sinful' person to a 'righteous one.'
b) “He was seeking to see Jesus.”
Further we are told that Zacchaeus was seeking to see Jesus. We are not at first given the reason. Was it just curiosity towards a person about whom he had heard so many stories? Or was there a deeper reason? Jesus is on the campaign trail passing through Jericho, the crowds engulfing him. Zacchaeus comes along desperate to see Jesus but he is shut out by the crowd; being 'small of stature' he even finds it impossible to see over their heads. Zacchaeus, rather than give up, runs ahead to find a way of seeing Jesus and so ends up perched on a sycamore tree, without caring what others would say. Notice the determination of Zacchaeus. His view of Jesus was obstructed, but that didn’t stop him from seeing Jesus. He had an obstacle (the crowd) and a handicap (his short stature), but he refused to allow any of these to prevent him from reaching his goal of getting a clear view of Jesus.
c) “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”
In was under these improbable circumstances that the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus took place. Imagine Zacchaeus’ surprise when suddenly Jesus looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for I must stay at your house today.” The poor man must almost had fallen from the tree with shock. Did he hear Jesus correctly? And what wonderful words those were! All he had wanted was to see this man Jesus; what he got is a gift far greater than his wildest dreams. Like all true seekers Zacchaeus got more than he bargained for. So the surprised and thrilled Zacchaeus hurried down and was happy to welcome Jesus into his house. What began as curiosity flowered into a joyful homecoming, as Zacchaeus found himself to have been already seen, known and understood. Instead of being a spectator on the fringes Zacchaeus now finds himself at the center of events with Jesus. It is a good example of someone who comes looking for something only to discover something altogether more wonderful.
The reaction of the crowd, however, is something else. They are deeply shocked and scandalized. "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Of all the people in Jericho, Jesus picks the house of possibly the most obnoxious and detested person in the town.
d) “Today salvation has come to this house...”
Zacchaeus was very happy about this turn of events. Upon welcoming Jesus to his house, he said in his joy, “Lord, I shall give to the poor half of my possessions, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” This implies that Zacchaeus, because of his encounter with Jesus, had undergone a radical conversion. The tax collector voluntarily gave away his wealth. He taxed himself. The short man became tall in God’s eyes.
Now, the extraordinary thing is that Zacchaeus repented without any word of rebuke from Jesus. All Jesus asked was that Zacchaeus come down from the tree so that he could get things ready for him to stay. It was not that Zacchaeus was looking at Jesus: rather it was that Jesus was looking at Zacchaeus and that gaze, the gaze of God's love, transformed Zacchaeus, because Jesus recognized him and appealed to what was best in him.
But the climax of the whole story appears to be the announcement by Jesus: “Today salvation has come to this house …” Firstly, this could mean simply that Jesus himself is the salvation that has come into Zacchaeus’ house through his own invitation. Secondly, however, is that the divine mercy has been clearly manifested. This meant that Zacchaeus’ sins had been forgiven, for, even though they had not been specified, the supposition throughout is that he was a sinner. Moreover, Jesus did not say that salvation had come to him alone, but rather to his entire household. It is because the household shared in Zacchaeus’ blessing as they had previously suffered in his unjust practices.
e) “Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
Jesus finally concludes by saying, "For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost" - the lost include those regarded as sinners and those who are marginalized by so-called respectable society. Zacchaeus is one such example where God welcomes back a sinner. He desired to see who Jesus was – but actually, it was Jesus who looked for him. Jesus knocked the door of Zacchaeus and he opened the door for him. Jesus transformed his life. It also means that Jesus loves those who we see as bad sinners, and is the one who can judge their motives and their inner hearts. This acceptance by Jesus often brought people to repentance and salvation and forgiveness.
RELYING TOTALLY ON LOVE AND MERCY OF GOD:
In the Second Reading of today, St. Paul writes to encourage the Christians in Thessalonica. The Thessalonians are assured that they haven't missed anything. All their good works and faith have not been worthless. Jesus will be glorified in them! It is by walking in sound doctrines, by permitting the Spirit of Christ to guide and teach us in all truth, that the Name of the Lord Jesus is glorified in every individual. Having encouraged the Thessalonians to persevere in their faith, and thus give glory to God relying totally in His love and mercy, St. Paul then tells them to stop worrying about tomorrow, especially those rumors about the end-time, viz. 'the Day of the Lord,' when God would bring final punishment to the wicked and reward to the good. Paul himself had used this notion in winning converts. But there were some in Thessalonica who took the idea too literally. They thought that the end of the world was imminent. Some even quit their jobs to wait. This gained Paul's followers a reputation for laziness. Fanatics even claimed to have received angelic messages, warning of the approaching 'the Day of the Lord.' Paul tells them not to be deceived by false teachers lest they become disturbed in spirit. The Apostle thus writes to discourage false anxieties.
To conclude, all the there Scripture Readings of today emphasize the fact that - God is gracious and merciful; He is good to all, and compassionate to everything He has made. In the Gospel Reading we are given the example of Zacchaeus as a proof of this. Zacchaeus is a model for us. We have one thing in common with Zacchaeus: like him, we are all sinners and therefore are in need of salvation. Salvation means the total rehabilitation of formerly sinful man. We all also have a short stature like Zaccheus, trying to see Jesus from a distance, and therefore we need to grow tall spiritually. So like Zacchaeus let us begin “seeking to see who Jesus was.” And like Zacchaeus, we will also be given the opportunity for repentance in an atmosphere of acceptance. For after all, Jesus' mission is “to save what was lost.”
Now, the Zacchaeus story is a delight to read. This story is a paradigm of the process of discipleship: seeking, meeting, undergoing conversion, and following. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. He knew there was something lacking in his life despite his wealth. He met Jesus under strange circumstances, surrounded by a crowd and he sitting up on a tree. He saw the need to change his life and to do restitution for any injustice he had done and finally he became a disciple of Jesus.
Again, God sees us all the time no matter where we are, no matter how short or tall, how big or small we are. He loves us very much. He will hear our prayers from the treetops or in our bed, from the car or at the dinner table. Wherever we happen to be, God hears us. He will answer our prayers in wondrous ways because - God is gracious and merciful; He is good to all, and compassionate to everything He has made. And this is the Good News of today.