Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 4, 2001
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Wisdom 11:22-12:2; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10)
I have a treat for you today. I'm inviting you on a trip to New York. New York before September 11.
About five years ago my nephew and his wife and four little girls had moved into lower Connecticut, within an hour's drive of New York City. I was visiting at Thanksgiving so it was decided that we would all bundle up and go down to the Thanksgiving Day parade in Manhattan.
If you've never been there, it is some experience. About a million people lining the sidewalks. You have to get there two hours early to have even a hope of seeing anything because the streets are lined 5-6 persons deep. So you run around from place to place, trying to see if there is some kind of open spot to view the parade from. With the four little girls the only hope was to place each one on our shoulders.
Now some of you may have observed that I am not exactly a giant... If those girls were going to have even a prayer of seeing anything we would have had to have a girl on my shoulders and then the two of us up on the shoulders of "Big George", George Jones; or Skip or Purcell or Tom Bruggeman.
The main thing was the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation. You know what that's like: "I think I hear the police motorcycles coming! I can hear the first band!"
That's what it must have been like in Jericho that day. Jericho was a significant city. There would have been a lot of advance rumors that this new prophet-preacher was coming to town. Everyone had heard about him and wanted to see him.
And then there's poor Zachaeus. One Australian writer described him this way: "an outsider. A tax collecting little bloke, he's looked down upon for his work and, actually, just looked down upon."
We can see him scurrying along behind the line of spectators trying to get a spot where he might see. And then he did what kids do at a parade: they climb up on a fence or shinny up the lamppost. In Zachaeus' case it was tree. A sycamore is perfect because its branches are low enough to reach and they extend way out from the trunk.
But then the story takes a dramatic turn: Jesus is looking for him!
"I want to come to your house and dine with you."
Can you imagine Zachaeus' wonder and thrill? It sort of sound like Holy Communion, doesn't it?
There is a great thread running all through the Scripture: people want see Jesus. First there are the Magi coming all the way from the East; then the shepherds ("let us go over to see this child"); the blind man by the side of the road; and even the scribes and Pharisees send a delegation to check him out.
And all the while it is the Lord who is seeking us. We see it in the parable of the prodigal son; while the son is still far off the Father is watching and waiting for him at the edge of the property. In another story he has the master saying, "I want my banquet hall full!"
I read an interesting reflection recently. Have you ever thought of Jesus having a business? The author pointed out that two of Jesus' earliest words pointed to his business, his agenda. When he was left behind in the temple he says to his parents "Didn't you know I must be about my Father's business? And when he's at Cana and Mary notes that they have no wine, he says "What business is that of you and me?" He's about his Father's business: to seek and save what is lost.
In our first reading the author of the book of Wisdom says, "You spare all things because they're yours, lover of souls, lover of life" -- what a wonderful description of the Father: lover of souls, of life -- "and so you rebuke offenders little by little, warn and remind them of their sins so they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you."
"Little by little." I don't know of any other place in Scripture where God's pedagogy is spelled out quite like that. God is transforming us little by little and building us into mature faith. It's a life-long process and God has infinite patience but it will be done.
Jesus comes to town every Sunday. Shaping us a little bit each time. Maybe we ought to put it on our sign in the front of the church: "Jesus is Coming to Town Today!!!"
How should we approach him as we come to this banquet table?
There was a time, in the late 18th, 19th, and early 20th century when the church was caught in the grip of a mentality called Jansenism. The idea of God was shrouded in fear. Everything was focused on our sinfulness, so we were to approach Eucharist only very rarely and with great fear. And of course children were never to approach. Pope Pius X in 1905 concluded that that was all wrong. He said the Lord wants us to come to the table of the Eucharist frequently -- including children.
Writer have noted that the story of Zachaeus fits perfectly the whole tone of Luke's Gospel in particular. It's a story of joyfulness and expansiveness and inclusion of everyone in God's promises.
I'd like to suggest that we should develop a "Zachaeus Spirituality": that we come to the table with joy and excitement and wonder at this gift of God.
[Incidentally, I'm going to let you in on a secret campaign of mine. We have saints who are patrons of lawyers and doctors and chimney sweeps. I am going to start a petition to the Vatican that St. Zachaeus be named patron saint of all the little guys... We'll have sign-up sheets in the back of the church after Mass....]
But shouldn't we be reverent coming to Communion. Of course. But I'd suggest that we need to think about what reverence is all about. Reverence doesn't mean being cold and cramped and clammy: it all depends on who you are approaching or who is approaching you. If it's some high and mighty king you show reverence in a severe way. But think about the reverence between a husband and wife. It can include teasing and playfulness and allusions to experiences they alone appreciate. Or the reverence between friends. There reverence is relaxed, a feeling of being at home, open and anticipating good things.
We are being asked to dine by one who called us 'friends'.
Let me tell of my personal experience. It has to do with being a Eucharistic minister. You know, there's nothing less satisfying than to give Communion to some dead fish. What makes distributing Eucharist most rich is when the person makes eye contact; and smiles; and says in a way that shows they mean it, "Amen!" You know you are allowed to say, "I believe!" which is the same thing.
But we can't leave without noting that the story of Zachaeus isn't all sweetness and light. There's a small bit of ugliness. When Jesus says he's going to stay at Zachaeus' house, other people grumble. "Why, he's going to eat with sinners!"
It's interesting. They make it an attack on Jesus. And he turns it into his motto. Why, of course I eat with sinners. That's why I have come! To seek out and save what was lost.
When you come up to the table today I want you to do something that goes against the way you might have been taught. We were taught not to look around when going to Communion. Well, for once I want you to look around -- and see all your fellow-sinners in line with you.
You know, we don't have to climb a tree to see Jesus. He called Zachaeus to come 'down to the ground', down to the level of his own incarnation. All we need to do is to get in line and smile at the wonder of it all. And say "I believe." "Amen."