THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2019)
Psalms 145:1-2, 8-11, 13-14
2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2
Jesus’ preferential option for the poor, the sinful, and the disenfranchised is nowhere stronger than in the gospel of Luke, often referred to as the Gospel of the Poor. In stories that are peculiarly Lukan, we see Jesus speaking with and changing the lives of people who stood on the fringes of society, something He will do till the very end of His earthly life when He speaks to and promises salvation to a criminal who is also enduring the ignominy of crucifixion.
Our first reading from the Book of Wisdom reminds the reader why Jesus is the way He is. The God spoken of in Wisdom is a God who has “mercy on all,” who loves “all things that are” and “loathe[s] nothing [that] He has made.” What comfort we should rightly take to know that God “rebukes offenders little by little, warns them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in” God. The God made manifest in His Son, Jesus, is a God of infinite patience, who hates nothing or no one that God has “fashioned.” This first reading and our beautiful psalm should put to rest any argument that the God of the Old Testament is a vengeful God, for God is, indeed, “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. The Lord is good to all and compassionate toward all his works.” (Ps. 145)
This brings us to our gospel reading where we meet the character of Zacchaeus. Unlike the previous Sundays, note that what we have in today’s gospel is not a parable. It is more like a historical reminiscence, a glimpse of what just might be an actual event, the memory of which was so strong that it made its way into the inspired writings of the Church. Zacchaeus must have made quite an impression. As a chief tax collector he was a wealthy man, someone well known in the city of Jericho, and someone surely despised by the Jews of Jericho. For whatever reason, Zacchaeus wished to catch a glimpse of the itinerant preacher from Nazareth who would be passing through town. His short stature put him at a serious disadvantage, so when it was clear that he would never be able to see Jesus, he decided to climb a “sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way.” Zacchaeus could never have imagined when he placed himself in those branches that Jesus would actually speak to him in such a deliberate manner, and present him with an invitation which would be impossible to resist.
Our gospel says nothing about the make up of the crowd present, but it is likely that Jesus knew His invite would cause the crowd to grumble about Him: “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” As if to disagree with the crowd’s assessment, Zacchaeus stood there and quickly told Jesus: “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.” While Zacchaeus did not stand with head bowed, asking the Lord to be “merciful to him, a sinner” (as in last week’s gospel), Zacchaeus’ pledge to remedy anything that might rightly be interpreted as making him sinful is as much a sign of deep conversion as the “beating of one’s breast.”
What brought about this conversion by Zacchaeus? His encounter with the Lord Jesus. Zacchaeus’ role as chief tax collector made him a member of one of the most despised groups at the time. It is likely that he was unaccustomed to any act of kindness by any Jew, let alone one whose reputation was so stellar that Zacchaeus was willing to climb into a tree just to see Him. We are not told of anything Zacchaeus did to draw attention to himself, yet Jesus directly and boldly speaks to him, inviting Himself to dinner at his house. Jesus is the guest that brings the hope of “salvation” to the house of Zacchaeus, and our genuine encounters with the Lord likewise provide us with a glimpse of the salvation promised to all by the Lord Jesus.
The invitation issued to Zacchaeus to come down from that tree was enough to put the piling up of money and goods in proper perspective, and caused him to recognize his responsibility to the poor and less fortunate. Jesus saw something so few had seen, some spark of goodness within the heart of Zacchaeus, something beyond the label of evil tax collector. We need to see things as God sees, beyond the labels, beyond the boundaries, beyond all the things that divide us, and hear Jesus’ invitation to us to come down from the places that distance us from one another, in order that our encounter with the Lord may truly give us a glimpse of salvation that truly invigorates us into being the people that God calls His own.