Wis 11:22--12:2; 2 Thes 1:11--2:2. Lk 19:1-10
Introduction: The common theme of today’s readings is the benevolent, compassionate and forgiving mercy of God for sinners and the response of repentance and conversion expected from us.
Homily starter anecdote: "I work for the IRS." There is a story about a local fitness center that was offering $1,000 to anyone who could demonstrate that they were stronger than the owner of the place. Here is how it worked. This muscle man would squeeze a lemon until all the juice ran into a glass, and then hand the lemon to the next challenger. Anyone who could squeeze just one more drop of juice out, would win the money. Many people tried over time - other weightlifters, construction workers, even professional wrestlers, but nobody could do it. One day, a short and skinny guy came in and signed up for the contest. After the laughter died down, the owner grabbed a lemon and squeezed away. Then he handed the wrinkled remains to the little man. The crowd's laughter turned to silence as the man clenched his fist around the lemon and six drops fell into the glass. As the crowd cheered, the manager paid out the winning prize and asked the short guy what he did for a living. "Are you a lumberjack, a weightlifter, or what?" The man replied, "I work for the IRS" (Internal Revenue Service). Today’s Gospel describes the conversion of a much-hated Jew by name Zacchaeus who worked for the first-century Roman IRS in Palestine. (http://frtonyshomilies.com/)
Scripture lessons summarized: The first reading reminds us that God's Almighty Power includes His strength to be merciful. That is why God, who created the universe mercifully, waits for sinners to repent. God continues to love us, even when we do not love Him in return. The reading focuses on the love God has for all He has created, the love that overlooks sin so that we all have time for repentance. God shows us His redemptive love through His mercy. In the Responsorial Psalm (Ps 145), the Psalmist also tells us that the Lord is good to all, and His compassion is over all that He has made. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness (Ps. 148:8). In the second reading, St. Paul encourages the Thessalonians to persevere in their Christian Faith, giving glory to God, without idly waiting for the "second coming" of Christ in their lifetime. He advises them to continue to live a good Christian life every day, allowing God to work in their lives so that they may be worthy of their vocation as Christians. Today’s Gospel presents the story of the instantaneous conversion of the tax-collector, Zacchaeus. God’s grace led him to a moment of conversion. The account describes how Jesus recognized Zacchaeus for exactly what he was, a lost sinner in need of a Savior, and how God’s grace worked in Zacchaeus to lead him from idle curiosity to repentance, conversion and restitution. The episode emphasizes the fact that such a conversion can only result from a person’s fully receiving the love, acceptance and grace offered to everyone one
The first reading: Wisdom: 11:22-12:2 explained. The writer, a learned sage from the ancient university city of Alexandria, is attempting to boost the Faith of his fellow Jews by answering the question, "Why doesn’t God do away with evil men?" The answer is that, unlike men, God is benevolent toward all His creatures. God´s love for what He has created becomes a redemptive love through His mercy. God loves His creation, and because of this love He pardons and is patient with people who have gone astray, so that they may repent. God's Providence for all His creatures is clearly shown through His strength and the compassion with which He both can and does deal mercifully with all men. What the Book of Wisdom tells us is that we could not even exist if we were not loved by God. Through His gifts of Faith and Love, God graciously calls each one of us. Through this Divine mercy, we see the fulfilment of the promise, "For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more" (Jer 31:34; Heb 8:12). The Book of Wisdom consoles us saying, “You overlook people’s sins so that they may repent” (11:23).
The second reading: II Thessalonians 1:11-22 explained. St. Paul’s second letter to the Church in Thessalonica encourages the Thessalonians to persevere in their Christian Faith, giving glory to God without idly waiting for the "second coming" of Christ in their lifetime. This letter was intended to correct certain misunderstandings which had arisen in the community. Someone had brought to the believers at Thessalonica either a message or a letter alleged to be from Paul. The letter asserted that the Day of the Lord, i.e., the second coming of Jesus, had already occurred. Some people in the community reacted with terror, while others quit work, and were making nuisances of themselves as they awaited the full effect of the Lord's coming (The Collegeville Bible Commentary). The letter exhorts the Thessalonians, and us, to glorify the Name of Jesus and to conduct ourselves in such a way as to become worthy of God's call by “relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to His own purpose and grace.”
Gospel exegesis: The context: A rich ruler came to Jesus asking how he might be saved (Luke 18). But he went away sad after learning that he would have to sacrifice his riches. When the Apostles wondered if any man with possessions could be saved, Jesus assured them, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God" (18:18-27). This account leads naturally to our Gospel lesson, the story of Zacchaeus, a rich man who found salvation when he surrendered himself to the grace of God. The rich ruler was too attached to his possessions to give them to the poor. The repentant Zacchaeus, on the other hand, voluntarily pledged to give half his possessions to the poor and to make fourfold restitution to any one he might have cheated. The story of Zacchaeus reinforces the lessons of the fifteenth chapter of Luke in which a lost sheep and a lost coin are found, and a lost son is embraced. It also demonstrates the fact that nobody is beyond the possibility of conversion.
The tax and tax-collectors: Jericho was a very wealthy, commercial town in the Jordan valley, famous for its date palms and balsam groves. There were two major highways in Israel at that time, and one of them went through Jericho. Hence, Jericho was one of the great tax centers of Palestine and its tax-collectors were rich and notorious. Zacchaeus, as chief tax-collector in Jericho (roughly equivalent to a district director of the U. S. Internal Revenue Service, the IRS), was probably a man of much wealth and few friends. From the time of Julius Caesar, the options for collecting Rome’s taxes were auctioned off to the highest bidder in each municipality. In order to win the bid, the prospective tax collector would have had to pay to Rome, in advance, all the taxes due in his locale. Then, he would hire agents who would help in collecting the taxes so that he could recoup his initial investment, pay his agents and make a generous profit as well. He cheated not only on his return, but everyone else's. He had figured out a way to skim some money off the top and squeeze the last drop from peoples' wallets. Moreover, being a boss himself, no doubt Zacchaeus also took a little off the top from each of his tax-collectors. Because the tax collectors extorted sizable amounts of interest in addition to the taxes fixed by Rome, they were despised by their own townspeople. Since Zacchaeus had reached the top of his profession, he was the most hated man in the district, considered by the other Jews as a traitor, a thief and an outcast.
The official climbs a tree: It was Passover time, which meant that tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims were coming down from Galilee, by-passing Samaria and coming to the toll booth at Jericho to pay their taxes. Bible scholars tell us that two or three million people showed up for the Passover. Jesus also made this trip, coming from Galilee in the north, to Jerusalem in the south, by way of Jericho. Since Jesus had become very famous by that time, people passing through the customs-house at Jericho wanted to see him. Naturally, Zacchaeus was curious to see the new rabbi from Nazareth who, people said, welcomed tax-collectors and sinners as his friends. Zacchaeus might even have heard that a former tax-gatherer, Levi, was one of Jesus’ disciples. Therefore, despite the expected ridicule he might receive from the crowd, he resolved to get a look at Jesus. To escape the crowd and get a clear vision of Jesus, he climbed a sycamore tree--a tree with a short trunk and wide branches--and sat hidden in its leafy branches. Jesus noticed him, however, and cheerfully called, “Zacchaeus! Come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house!” They went off together, the sinner and the Son of God. Just as Zacchaeus had exposed himself to ridicule by climbing a tree, so Jesus exposed himself to criticism by visiting Zacchaeus' house. A mere glance and a few words of acceptance from Jesus changed this man from the sinner the community thought him to be into a man to whom Jesus had brought salvation. The presence of Jesus had given to Zacchaeus the twin gifts of Grace and Justification. Zacchaeus' heart was changed, and he repented of his sins. We, too, are often blocked from seeing the Lord because other people get in the way. They block our sight in many ways. Parents block the sight of their children when they don’t pray with them or take them to Mass. Cultural forces, like those in the entertainment industry or in public schools or institutions of higher learning, or sports and games impede our vision by distorting Jesus’ image, ignoring him altogether, or ridiculing those who believe in him. Sometimes even those who should be icons of Jesus — priests, religious, catechists, godparents — obscure our vision through their scandalous lives or un-Christian behavior. The example of Zacchaeus challenges each of us to consider what is the extent to which we go, what trees or obstacles we’ll mount, in order to see Jesus more clearly.
The secret of instant conversion: What was the cause of Zacchaeus' instantaneous conversion? By entering Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus gave back to its owner the dignity that he had lost and restored his sense of self-worth. Jesus gave him a new life. By making no demands on Zacchaeus, Jesus gave him a feeling of acceptance and a new direction for his life. Hence during the banquet, Zacchaeus made the solemn announcement of his repentance and committed himself to doing justice by the sharing of his wealth (giving half his possessions to the poor), and the making of reparations (fourfold to the defrauded). This exceeded what the Torah asked (Ex 22:1-4, 21:2). (According to the law as recorded in the Jewish scriptures, when one who had cheated another confessed his guilt and volunteered to make restitution, the amount required was equal to the amount stolen plus one fifth more (Leviticus 6:5, Numbers 5:7)). Zacchaeus did not make this offer to win Jesus' approval, but to show his gratitude. Hence, confirming the integrity of Zacchaeus’ conversion and affirming the quality of his Faith, Jesus announced that salvation had not come to Zacchaeus alone, but rather to his entire household. Zacchaeus’ household would now share in his blessings as they had previously shared in his unjust practices (Acts 10:2, 11:14, 16:15, 16:31, 18:8).
Son of Abraham once again: The story of the conversion of Zacchaeus ends with Jesus’ declaration, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.” This man, who had previously considered an outcast, was addressed by Jesus as a "son of Abraham." Zacchaeus was not saved in isolation. His salvation would affect the entire community, since he would provide support for the poor and restitution to those he had defrauded. A community would be transformed by the presence of a tax-collector whom people could trust. Zacchaeus reminds us that Jesus continues to call the strangest people from the strangest places. With more than seventy-five percent of people suffering from a conviction of low self-worth, Zacchaeus serves as a good example of how to resist and survive the critical comments of others.
Life messages: 1) We need to accept the Divine invitation for repentance. Jesus takes the initiative of knocking at the door of our souls, asking for entry. We have one thing in common with Zacchaeus: like him, we are all sinners and therefore we need salvation, which requires the total rehabilitation of formerly sinful man. It is a process of discipleship: seeking, meeting, undergoing conversion, and following. To refuse to admit that we are sinners is a fundamental impediment to the working of the mercy and grace of God in our hearts. A second and more common impediment is to refuse to listen to the call to repentance, which God so frequently sends out to us. We are all sinners to a greater or lesser degree. Jesus is inviting each one of us to total conversion today by means of this Gospel lesson. Jesus is our loving Brother who died that we might live. He is the Son of God, a God of Infinite Love. Hence, let us expose and confess to Him all our weaknesses and injustices. Let us remember that Jesus loves us in spite of our ugly thoughts, broken promises, sullied ideals, lack of prayer and Faith, resentments and lusts. He will put us back on the straight road to Heaven. We will become again true "sons and daughters of Abraham." In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in the confessional, Jesus ministers to us individually, just as he interacted individually with Zacchaeus. As Zacchaeus did, we need to come down, to leave the perches of our pride and allow Jesus to go to work through his priestly ministers.
2) We need to love others as Jesus loves us, in spite of our sins. Jesus loved Zacchaeus--the greatest of sinners--and by that love Zacchaeus was transformed. How many parents and teachers can accept children lovingly, without first setting up standards of behavior as conditions for being loved? Sometimes we have the temptation to withhold love from people we consider sinners. For example, a husband and wife may have qualities that grate on each other, prompting one spouse to withhold love from the other. There may be a temptation to withhold one’s love from a rebellious teenager. Perhaps our children make choices that disappoint us, and we become so frustrated by the consequences of their poor choices that we withhold our love from them. Our boss may be unlovable and autocratic, or our neighbor may become an object of hatred because of his incessantly barking dog. But just as Jesus loved Zacchaeus, even though he was the worst of sinners, so we must love others in spite of their sin. Jesus expects this of us, and offers us the strength to do it, if we will accept His grace.
3) We are called to generosity: Zacchaeus was changed from being greedy to being generous, from selfishness to selflessness. There was a change deep within his heart. Jesus wants us to move from our small and feeble Faith to a greater and more powerful Faith, just as Zacchaeus did. God wants us to be financially and spiritually generous. When we feel the warmth of God’s presence within us, that warmth will, in itself, melt our coldness and selfishness and lead us to repentance and a change of life.
4) How would we respond to Jesus’ demand, "I must stay at your house today?" How would we react to such an invitation? Would we be ready to welcome Jesus into our home? Indeed, Jesus has visited the homes of each and every one of us! Through the Sacrament of Confirmation, we have received the indwelling Spirit of Christ within us. Through the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, we receive the Divine Presence of the Lord. Further, if we love one another, God lives in us, and His love is perfected in us (1 Jn. 4:13). Hence, let us be thankful to the Lord for coming to us. For those of us who have not yet received the Lord into our homes and lives, it is never too late to repent and welcome Him. Our Lord is a God of Love, Grace and Mercy. He does not wish to see anyone lost. If we allow Jesus to enter our lives, our lives will change. Grace is the driving power behind this transformation. As we continue with the celebration of the Holy Mass, let us pray for all of us who do not yet have the indwelling of the Lord God in our homes and lives. Let us ask the Lord to reach out to us all as he reached out to Zacchaeus. The result will be repentance, transformation, sanctification, salvation. (Fr. Antony Kadavil)