The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Sunday's Homily: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

Readings: Wis 11:22-12:2; Ps 145; 2Thes 1:11-2:2; Lk 19:1-10

When I was growing up in suburban New York we had a wonderful tree in our front yard. A Japanese maple, maybe 30 feet high, it was the best climbing tree in the neighborhood. It had lots of branches, closely spaced so it was easy to climb. And about 20 feet up several branches formed a natural couch where I could stretch out comfortably and safely. In the spring and summer I used to climb up there with a book, sit back, and read.

Remarkably, I was up there so much that even the local birds came to accept me, and would often land on a branch just a foot or two away. I felt a bit like St. Francis perched up there. And because of the thick foliage that time of year I was virtually invisible, even though I could see and hear most that went on in the neighborhood.

My perch was, in a sense, my own personal hideout, my little neighborhood spy station. That would’ve been neat if anything ever happened in our neighborhood, but of course nothing did. But I’ll admit I did enjoy my lofty position. It gave me a sense of power, something that kids didn’t usually experience.

Kids are viewed as young and inexperienced, lacking in wisdom and maturity, but above all, they’re short and, therefore, easily overlooked. I can recall being told on many occasions, “Children should be seen and not heard,” an expression I found particularly irksome as a child. After all, God often communicates and acts through children. Consider young Samuel or the children at Fatima…but that’s the subject of another homily.

The point’s so easy to overlook those whom the world overlooks. And Zacchaeus, in today’s Gospel passage from Luke, is a perfect example. Overlooked or ignored by all, he found himself at the back of the crowd, unable to see anything. Poor Zacchaeus…he got no respect. He was short, but also a hated tax collector, a Jew, a son of Abraham who worked for the Romans and made himself wealthy through extortion. And so in the eyes of his world, Zacchaeus had three strikes against him: he was short, he was rich, and he was a crook. They despised him.

But thwarted by the crowd, he found a way to see Jesus. He climbed a big sycamore, a fig tree, and gave himself a birds-eye view. Have you ever been at an event where the crowd prevented you from seeing what was going on? In 2005 Diane and I attended a papal audience in St. Peter’s Square. Pope Benedict had been pope for only a few months, and the crowd was huge. And we had prime seats, up on the platform, only about 40 feet from the pope. But there were a half-dozen rows of Germans in front of us, many from the pope’s home town. And they were so excited they never sat down. As a result, although we could hear the pope, we really didn’t see very much of him. And there were no trees to climb.

But Zacchaeus had a tree, didn’t he? He could have simply listened, hoping to catch a word or two as Jesus passed by, but that wasn’t enough. There's something about seeing, about being up close and personal that connects you to the event, that makes you more than a face on the fringes. Yes, the crowd tried to keep him from Jesus. After all, Jesus was a holy man, a healer, a miracle worker, perhaps even the Messiah. Why would He want to be near a public sinner like Zacchaeus? But that’s exactly what Jesus wanted, isn’t it?

Yes, Jesus is strange; always going out of His way to attract sinners, and the rest of humanity’s rejects. And it just drove all those sinless people crazy.

Oh, wait a minute…there are no sinless people, are there? We’re all sinners. Yes indeed, sinful humanity – every single one of us – is affected by both original sin and the actual sins we commit daily. And yet, Jesus still comes to us, doesn’t He? He still calls us, just as He called Zacchaeus.

How did our first reading put it? “…because they are yours, O LORD and lover of souls.” For Jesus, the Son of God, sees within each of us that glimmer of the divine resulting from the simple fact that we were created by a loving God. God’s image remains in all of us, regardless of the good or evil we’ve committed. And He finds a way to help us find Him.

Longing to see who Jesus is, Zacchaeus climbs a tree. And from there, up in the branches, hanging on for a good view, he not only sees, but is seen. "Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house." Overwhelmed, Zacchaeus finds he is seen, known and understood. And now, neither hidden by the crowd nor lost amid the tree’s foliage, he begins to see everything in a new way, because everything has changed. Conversion has begun.

We know it‘s a true conversion, because it’s not based on fear, but on love. Zacchaeus wasn’t perched up there simply to check out the neighborhood as I once did. How does Luke describe it? “Zacchaeus…was seeking to see who Jesus was…” He was asking the question that Jesus later posed to the apostles, “Who do you say that I am?”

This wasn’t mere curiosity. Zacchaeus climbed that tree at the urging of the Holy Spirit, driven by a spiritual hunger to glimpse Jesus, to see who He was, to know Him, perhaps to reach out and touch God Himself. It was that glimmer of the divine, that spark within Zacchaeus that pushed him up that tree so he could hear Jesus’ call…a call to conversion. And that, brothers and sisters, is what this Gospel passage is all about.  That’s what the entire Gospel, the Good News, is all about. It’s all about God’s call to conversion.

Jesus loves to tease us, even to scandalize us, by calling the most unlikely people: tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, Roman soldiers, Pharisees like Nicodemus, pagans, Samaritans, the blind, the deaf, the halt, the lame, the deformed…a unlikely collection who will go on to become His disciples. Later on He even calls His sworn enemy to conversion, a man who persecuted those disciples, a Pharisee named Saul.

Jesus, you see, overlooks no one. Unlike you and I, who love to pick and choose among the human beings we’ll associate with or even tolerate, Jesus calls everyone.

Zacchaeus finds himself in the gaze of his Savior and realizes that his life so far has been a sham, far too small to hold all that Jesus has to offer. For Jesus brought and promised a priceless gift: “Today salvation has come to this house…”

So, you see, salvation is as easy as climbing a tree. It's not just about hearing, for you and I must be more than mere hearers of the Word. In Baptism, our parents and godparents promised we would be both hearers and do-ers of the Word. We can only hope to keep that promise if we turn to Jesus. He is our teacher. But even more than that, He is the great event of our lives, the One we have been waiting for, the One we must not miss.

Our faith is more than Jesus telling us what to do or how to live. Our faith demands a whole new way of seeing. We must climb above our past lives and see the world from a whole new vantage point. No longer can we live in the imaginary world where we are the center of all things. We’re called to move into the real world where God is the true center, the beginning and end of all, the alpha and the omega.

You see, good people, a life of sin flattens reality, brings everything down, and makes everything into an object for our use or gratification. Sin can even lead us to see God as no more than another object in the world, one to be measured, evaluated, and set aside. But coming to see Jesus is an experience that changes our whole way of seeing.

T.S. Eliot put it beautifully in his Four Quartets:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
it would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
or carry report. You are here to kneel…

That’s right, we’re here to kneel…at the intersection of this timeless moment when God calls us. Our salvation begins in the encounter with Someone who is not just another object, but who reveals to us the very life and love of God Himself. In Him we learn to see ourselves as we should live, not in some empty space that swallows up our desires, but in true reality, the great event of divine love.

Salvation is as easy as climbing a tree, and that’s exactly what Jesus does for us on the Cross. He climbs the tree of life, the tree of our redemption, the tree of our salvation, so that we too can come to share in eternal love, the sights and sounds, the beauty and the music of the Trinity itself. The Cross reveals that we’re called not so much to look at Jesus, as to see all things in Him, with Him, and through Him. He is the light of the world, and in His light we see light.

And so, climb the tree today, and see Jesus in the light of faith. Begin to see how the world is not the empty echo of blind forces, but a place of encounter between lovers, between us and our God.

Climb the tree of life, where you will discover that all along you have been seen and known and understood and loved beyond all measure.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

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