The basic message of Luke’s Gospel account for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time is that Jesus went into Zacchaeus’ house and Zacchaeus ended up going into God’s house. The message in all three of today’s scripture readings (Wisdom 11:22-12:2; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10) is all about receiving God’s life-changing love, about receiving and accepting the presence, power, and love of God, which is why He has invited us here today into His house.
Let’s take a deeper look into what I am talking about.
Last week we heard Jesus telling us of the tax collector sitting in the back of the Temple and the self-congratulating Pharisee sitting up in the front. You remember them, I’m sure. 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 another tax collector, a chief tax collector named Zacchaeus, whom Jesus encountered in real life. Note that today’s Gospel account isn’t a parable; it’s an account of what Jesus actually said and did with a real person, a named person, Zacchaeus.
Tax collectors were hated, and Jewish tax collectors were the most hated of them all because they were puppets of the Romans. They were given a quota of taxes to collect and had the power Roman soldiers to enforce the actual collection of those taxes. All the Romans demanded was their quota. The tax collectors, however, could collect more than they owed the Roman authorities. They could unleash the Roman soldiers upon Jews who didn’t pay the amounts set by those tax collectors. Not only were these tax collectors traitors to the Jewish people; they were traitors to the Jewish religion. Furthermore we need to note this particular one, 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.
With that background you can now realize the shock that electrified the Jews when Jesus calls out to him and says “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! For the Jews that was unthinkable. Yet Jesus did it.
Zacchaeus, wealthy and oppressive at the expense of others, was friendless up to this point in his life. No one of his own people 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 thing 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 do we think God judges them? Do we know what’s in their hearts and do we know their intentions better than God does?
More importantly, when we judge our very own selves, why do we apply such rigid and perfectionistic standards to ourselves? Perhaps we have such an idealistic image of ourselves that we set ourselves up with impossible standards to meet. Is it false pride lurking within us?
Two evils flow from that. One is despair. Because we despair of ever meeting our impossible standards we excuse ourselves from prayer, from going to church, or any sense of closeness to God. In place of high standards we toss up our hands and rid ourselves of any and all standards.
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. It 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 ourselves 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 sentiments. 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! Are our miserable sins more powerful than Almighty God?
So, just as the Son of God ignored the judgments and opinions of the local populace about Zacchaeus, so also He ignores our judgments and opinions about others… and particularly our opinions about ourselves.
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 along with 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.
Is there anything in your life that you would like to change? Do you really want to change?
We are here in God’s house because He has invited us to come to His house. The paradox is that God wants to enter your “house” and stay with you. In Holy Communion God enters into the house that is your heart and soul, there to give you His love, there to stay with you. There’s no other house in which that can happen. It happens only here in Holy Communion. God’s life-changing love is here in an infinitely unique way.
If you want to have your life changed, give up the self-delusion that you can change your life. 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. God’s life-changing love is here for you in a way that is infinitely more powerful than the life-changing experience that came to Zacchaeus. Why not humbly accept God’s invitation each and every day of your life?