Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

November 4, 2007

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Wisdom 11:12-12:1; Psalm 145; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10)

Wouldn’t we all like to have seen Jesus? As he really was?

Today’s Gospel is all about seeing Jesus. It offers us a lovely little story. It’s almost comical, really, this short fellow climbing up into the tree. You’re allowed to smile, or even laugh at it — as long as you are careful to be respectful of Zachaeus. He’s the patron saint of us little guys, remember. (And you big lunks might do well to say a prayer to him to be able to really understand us wee folk!)

It’s easy to imagine the scene with Zachaeus in the tree and Jesus inviting himself into his house. But I’d like to suggest that we focus our attention on a different set of players in the story: the crowd that came out to see Jesus. The point made ta the end of the story suggests that they are the real point of it all.

At this point in the Gospel the story of this wandering Galilean preacher had been spreading all through the towns and villages. So when the reports reach Jericho that he could be coming through the town it’s a big event. He’s a celebrity! Everybody is taking about it. Jesus is coming! Jesus is coming!

It gave me the image we’ve seen frequently in movies. A 12-year old boy is on the hill overlooking the river and he spots the steamboat coming ‘round the bend. He runs back into town yelling “The steamboat is comin’! The steamboat is comin’!” And all the working people leave their businesses, the kids rush out of the school house, and everyone rushes to the riverbank to witness the event.

Only when Jesus arrives and looks up to Zachaeus and says he wants to stay with him, the whole mood suddenly changes. People begin to grumble and murmur. “He’s going to stay with a sinner!” What’s going on here? This isn’t what we thought this was all about. We didn’t come rushing out to see this!

The truth is that they couldn’t really see Jesus in spite of their claim that that’s what they wanted to do. They couldn’t see him because their minds were clouded. They were blinded by two prejudices, two pre-judgments.

The first was that the Holy One would never want to be in the company of sinners. If Jesus were really a prophet sent by God he’d never put himself in a situation like that. And the second was that Zachaeus must certainly be a sinner— merely by virtue of his occupation as a tax-collector who had become wealthy.

It’s interesting, isn’t it. These people were Israelites. They were living in a city that had rich symbolic power in the tradition of their people (think of the walls of Jericho falling down as the prophet circled the town and the trumpets blew). They knew the same scriptures we read a few minutes ago from the Book of Wisdom, which only capsulizes themes that run all through the Old Testament. “You have mercy on all; You overlook the sins of people that they may repent; You love all things that are and loathe nothing you have made; Your imperishable spirit is in all things.”

They can’t accept or appreciate this simple act of human hospitality because they came looking for something else. Jesus doesn’t fit their expectations.

It raises an interesting question: How do we ‘find’ Jesus? What are we looking for? What expectations do we bring to the meeting?

In Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians we learn a very interesting thing. This is only about 20 years after the time of Jesus, and we see his followers getting all agitated about rumors that he’s just about to return and the day of the Lord is near. Paul has to tell them: “calm down. Don’t get all excited by these reports.”

It’s a pattern that recurs again and again down through the centuries. In each successive age there are self-anointed ‘prophets’ who proclaim that they know the day and the hour. It will be in 589 on Christmas Day. Then when that fails, it will be 1178 — or 1534 — or 1927. The latest prediction can be found in The National Inquirer at your supermarket checkout counter.

And it’s not just the wild-eyed crazies. Let me tell you of an experience I had just this past week. I was on a plane and sitting next to a man who turned out to be a very bright electrical engineer. He is a private contractor for the big electric companies, called out to test the huge transformers that keep the grid working. I asked him what he thought about our energy future and he offered some interesting ideas. Then he said, very matter-of-factly, that he gives out planet about 20 more years. He went on to tell me that the reality of the neutron bomb and its effects are clearly foretold in the Book of Ezechiel. He wasn’t trying to convert me, he was very calm and quite rational.

We find it very hard to come to terms with the way Jesus actually chose to come: in everyday deeds of everyday people.

Zachaeus can see Jesus, because he does the deeds of Jesus and the Father’s kingdom: he cares for the poor and tries to practice justice. He even goes beyond the prescriptions of the Law, by giving half of his wealth to the poor and paying back fourfold when he has cheated someone. This is what it means to be a descendant of Abraham!

But wait a minute. He’s a sinner. . .

That is the charge that was leveled at Jesus several times in his life. “This man east and drinks with sinners.” And his response was always the same: to just keep on doing it. It was what he came for, and if that gave anyone difficulties, that was their problem.

The two prejudices of the crowd that day in Jericho are with us always. We want God to meet our expectations. We want miracles and cures signs and pizzazz—and he says we will get no sign except the sign of Jonah: as Jonah spent three days in the belly of the whale so the Son of Man will die and be buried for three days. And we continue to put labels on people we call ‘sinners’—and he tells us the prostitutes will enter the kingdom before the self-righteous. He said Solomon would long to see what is right before our eyes every day.

So if someone comes shouting “Jesus is coming! Jesus is coming!” our answer is easy: No, he’s already here. He’s already present—if we can allow him to remove our blinders and prejudice and let him reveal himself in the beauty of the neighbor who sits next to us in these pews or walks beside us on our streets.

The son of man has come to call sinners, not the self-righteous.