October 31, 2004
In this beautiful story from Luke’s Gospel, we learn something important about us and something important about God. We are meant to identify with Zacchaeus in the story, and Zacchaeus was not a perfect person. He was a tax collector. Therefore he cooperated with the Roman oppressors and often times used his authority to enrich himself. He was a wealthy man and his hands were not clean. But the best quality about Zacchaeus is that, even though he knew his shortcomings and flaws, he was not afraid to seek God. When he heard about Jesus, he wanted to meet him. He didn’t know what he would find in meeting Jesus, but he was determined to have the experience. So setting aside any convenience or dignity, he ran ahead and climbed a Sycamore Tree.
All of us are like Zacchaeus. We are not perfect people. There is no one in this church today who is without sin. This is an important thing to acknowledge this weekend when we have invited those who have become estranged from the church to come again and worship with us. Because it is clear that many people stop the practice of their own faith because of the flaws and sins of the church and its members. Since that is the case, then the first order of business today is to apologize. We are not perfect people. If any of you here today have been hurt by a priest or by a church community, I apologize. If you turned to the church at a time of divorce or loss and, instead of experiencing comfort and understanding, you were rejected and judged, I’m very sorry. If you were scandalized by the presence of sexual abuse within the church and indeed even among the priesthood, I apologize, and I assure you that we are taking concrete steps to remove the offenders and protect our children.
It is important for those who have done wrong to change, to say that they are sorry. In that way, we are like Zacchaeus, admitting our flaws and asking for forgiveness. But we should also be like Zacchaeus, in so far as we are willing to continue to seek the way of God. Despite our flaws and at times, because of them, we need one another. Therefore, it is a real value that we come together as a parish community to pray, to learn and to serve.
This leads to the important thing that today’s Gospel tells us about God. Because what it tells us, what God has revealed to us through Jesus Christ, is that whenever anyone takes a step closer to find God’s way, God will never turn that person away. When Jesus saw that Zacchaeus wanted to know him, he did not hesitate. He invited Zacchaeus down and formed a relationship with him. Despite all of Zacchaeus’ flaws, despite the objections of the crowd, Jesus insisted that Zacchaeus could be and should be his follower.
Today, as pastor of St. Noel, on behalf of our church community, I want us to follow the example of Jesus. I warmly welcome any of you who have been away from the church. We are so grateful that you took the step this weekend to come and see, over coming whatever fears or doubts you may have had. It is our prayer that whatever you are seeking from God might be granted to you. We want to suggest that the way of finding God is to come here again and join with us to be a part of this community.
I’m going to be in the narthax after Mass, so will other members of our staff and staff of Welcome Home Ministry. I invite any of you to just come and discuss whatever you want. Don’t feel that there is any need to explain where you have been or to defend whatever decisions you may have made. Your presence here is enough. If you are seeking God, so are we. I invite you to consider re-affirming your Catholic identity and joining with us in seeking God together.
The story of Zacchaeus reminds us that nothing we have done should be a reason that we stop seeking God in our life. It only makes sense that we are stronger if we can make that search together. Because then we can as brothers and sisters encourage one another to believe that whatever we have done God will never turn us away. We can support one another and encourage one another to hold fast to the truth that God is always acting to lead us, to guide us, and to find any excuse that will allow God to welcome us home.
Action as the Solution
November 4, 2007
Dr. Carl Menninger, the famous American psychiatrist, was asked to treat a woman with severe depression. He decided to visit her in her home. He found her slumped in a chair. Her house was dark and quiet. She admitted to him that she had struggled with depression since her husband died several years ago. As the two of them talked, Dr. Menninger noticed that this woman loved violets and grew them. Throughout her house there were pots filled with bright purple and pink and blue flowers. This led him to an unusual prescription. He asked the woman to look in the local papers every day and send a pot of violets to anyone who was experiencing a major event in their life: a birth, a death, a wedding, a graduation. Within a month the woman called Dr. Menninger and said that her life had changed dramatically. The people who had received these unexpected violets were often overwhelmed with the gesture. They would write back to thank her, send her a little present themselves, and even come to visit her. Over time people began to call the woman the “Violet Lady.” Her life was changed because she had replaced her depression with an action, an action of service towards others.
Now when we experience disappointments in life, when the people we love leave us, when we have to face rejection or failure, it is easy to slip into depression. We keep playing over and over again in our minds the way things used to be, the decisions I should have made, the words I could have said. Questions keep streaming through our consciousness: Why did this happen to me? Could I have done something to avoid it? Why is my life so unfair? Such questions are understandable, but they are largely questions without answers. Instead of helping us, they tend to pull us down more into sadness.
So how do we cope with this kind of discouragement? How do we pull ourselves out of a sort of pervasive depression? Denial doesn’t work. We can, for a while think of other things, but sooner or later, the sadness washes over us again and we find ourselves where we started. Positive thinking is good, but after we have looked at the many good things in our life, our pain returns and takes up center stage. Even prayer does not always work. Sometimes as we ask God to remove our sadness or pain, that prayer only reinforces the things that upset us and continue to draw us down.
The surest way out of sadness is action—doing something, taking on a project, giving ourselves in service to another. When we act, we take the focus off ourselves. Action redirects our pain, producing good for ourselves or for others. Such action refocuses our lives and pushes depression aside.
Dr. Menninger knew this. This is why he prescribed action for the “Violet Lady.” Zacchaeus, in today’s gospel, knows the same truth. If anyone had reason to be sad or depressed, it was Zacchaeus. Everybody in Jericho avoided him and shunned him. They tagged him as a sinner. His good actions were either ignored or ridiculed. When Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was coming to Jericho, he could have easily chosen to do nothing. He could have easily said to himself, “What’s the use? Why would Jesus ever be interested in me?” When he could not see Jesus because of the crowd, he could have thrown up his hands and sunk back down into his self pity. But that’s not the choice that Zacchaeus made. Zacchaeus chose to act. He ran out in front of the crown, climbed up a Sycamore tree, made a fool of himself, in the hope that maybe he would have a chance to meet Jesus. His bet paid off big time. Not only did Jesus see him, but he called Zacchaeus down and said that he wanted to stay with him.
Zacchaeus is a model for us. When we get stuck in our sadness, Zacchaeus tells us that the way out is not by sinking, or sighing, but by acting. The way out is by doing something, by throwing ourselves into motion for our own good and for the good of others.
The story of Zacchaeus tells us that action not only will pushes our depression aside, but also leads us to Jesus. And when we meet him, Jesus will say to us, “Today salvation has come to this house for the Son of Man has come to save the lost.” When we are lost in our sadness, the gospel shows us the solution. Like Zacchaeus, we should rise up from our self-pity and run out to meet Jesus in good things that we choose to do.
Standing with the Crowd
October 31, 2010
There are many ways we can approach today’s gospel about Zacchaeus. We could focus on Zacchaeus himself, the repentant sinner. We could emphasize the role of Jesus in his mercy and his welcome to Zacchaeus. But I would like to go in another direction. I would like us to consider today, the role of the crowd—the crowd who reacts to Jesus’ forgiveness of Zacchaeus, the crowd who grumbles because Jesus is going to stay at Zacchaeus’ house.
Now there are two things we should notice about the crowd. The first is that the crowd is upset because Jesus forgives Zacchaeus and welcomes him. It is upset because the crowd has already decided that Zacchaeus does not deserve Jesus’ forgiveness and welcome. The way this is expressed is by saying Zacchaeus is a sinner. Now of course, we are all sinners, and I am sure that Zacchaeus did a number of sinful things. But what is really behind the crowd’s attitude is that it has already judged Zacchaeus because it does not like Zacchaeus. You see, Zacchaeus was a tax collector and as such he was a collaborator with the Romans. He cooperated with the Romans who oppressed the Jewish people. Tax collectors were routinely hated because of this. The crowd is upset with Jesus because he welcomes Zacchaeus. The crowd has already rejected Zacchaeus and written him off. It wants Jesus to do the same.
Now this negative reaction to mercy is actually a theme of Luke’s gospel. We also see it in Luke’s story of the prodigal son where the elder son objects to the love and forgiveness of the father for the younger son who has come home. Luke is rather consistent in insisting that God often extends mercy and forgiveness to those who are undeserving. He also recognizes that such mercy upsets others. We would prefer that distasteful people be excluded from God’s love because such people are already excluded from our love.
That leads us to the second point about the crowd: It is a crowd. The judgment against Zacchaeus is not simply the judgment of one or two individuals. It is the common judgment of the people of Jericho based upon their common perception of who a tax collector is and how a tax collector should be treated. You can be sure that this common perception allowed the people of Jericho to reinforce one another in their conviction that Zacchaeus does not deserve mercy and that Jesus is wrong to go to Zacchaeus’ house.
When we consider these two points about the crowd together, this story challenges us to examine the prejudices we carry, especially if those prejudices are supported by the people around us—by the people in our families, in our neighborhoods and in our society. Do we suppose that all poor people are poor because they are lazy, that all Moslems are terrorists, that lawyers and Wall Street bankers are all corrupt? Do we think that women are less qualified then men or that homosexuals should be ridiculed? Do we join with the crowd in laughing at the person at school who is judged a geek or at the new hire at work who has no sense of fashion? Do we not only as disagree with our political opponents but hate them and wish them harm?
Avoiding these common prejudices in our society is not just a matter of political correctness. It is a part of the gospel. Today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom says, “God loves all things that exist,” and if that is true, then even as we disagree with people, even as we struggle to understand why they act the way that they do, we are called by our faith to love them, too. Today’s gospel asks us to identify who is the Zaccahaeus in our life. Who is the person that we do not like, the person with whom we disagree, the person who is easy to ridicule? Once we have identified our Zaccahaeus, we are asked to bring him or her before the Lord in prayer and ask God to help us see that person as God sees that person. As our Zacchaeus stands before us, we will have to decide how we see him and how we will judge him. Will we approach him with ridicule or with openness, with rejection or acceptance? When our Zacchaeus comes before us, will we stand with the crowd or with Jesus?
November 3, 2013
It might seem that today’s Gospel is about the tax collector, Zacchaeus. But it’s not. Zacchaeus is not the main character. Jesus is. And it is only when we understand this truth that an important focus of our own life comes into view. Now Zacchaeus, of course, has a role to play in the story. But it is not a particularly noble or pivotal one. Zacchaeus does not seem to be a holy or religious person. He certainly is not a popular person. His role as tax collector sets him at odds with his fellow Jews. There is nothing in the story that indicates Zacchaeus had the intention to follow Jesus. It simply says he was seeking to see who Jesus was. Zacchaeus seems to be more attracted to Jesus’ fame than to his teaching. The Gospel also tells us that Jesus planned simply to walk through the city. Therefore, Zacchaeus’ plan was only to climb up in a tree, so that he could see the famous rabbi as he and his entourage passed by. For Zacchaeus, seeing Jesus was more a diversion than a spiritual journey, more a curiosity than a commitment.
But this is what makes Jesus the main character. Jesus stops, looks up, and calls Zacchaeus by name. He then informs the bewildered tax collector that it is no longer his intention to simply pass through Jericho but that he is going to stay at Zacchaeus’ house that day. In that moment everything changes. The distant observer is invited into a personal relationship. The curious onlooker becomes the host of the Lord. What was going to be just a break from a busy day of tax collecting becomes the beginning of a new life. Without any expectation, and without any striving on Zacchaeus’ part, he becomes a new man—all because Jesus calls him by name.
A central aspect of our relationship to Christ comes from these Zacchaeus moments. And the older we are, the more of them we can see. We sign up for a course at school and we are not even sure we want to take it. But something connects us with the teacher and in time we realize that history or medicine or oceanography is going to be our career. An old friend calls us unexpectedly to go out for a beer. We are not sure we want to do it, but we go. We meet some people, take a phone number, and then realize we have found our future spouse. People in our neighborhood organize a small group to do service for the holidays in a hunger center. We do not think much about it, and we go along. But as we see the line of homeless people coming one by one and taking a plate of hot food from our hands, we realize that from now on a part of our time, a part of our skill, a part of ourselves will be dedicated to issues of poverty in our city. These are Zacchaeus moments, when we thought we were only going to observe, to go along for the ride, to give just an hour or so of our time. But we then discover that Jesus has some very different in mind.
In these Zacchaeus moments we are surprised but we are also blessed because in these times Jesus takes us deeper, and we receive a clearer view of our future and a deeper knowledge about ourselves. In these moments it becomes clear that God has a plan for our life and that that plan emerges in surprising ways.
So there is nothing wrong with planning your life. There is nothing inappropriate with deciding from day to day, “I’m going to do a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” But today’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus has a plan for our life as well. At any moment he can look up and say to us, “Come down. I intend to stay with you today.”
Inadequacies and Grace
October 30, 2016
We begin with Zacchaeus standing in a crowd of people, people who want to see Jesus as he passes through their city. Zacchaeus also wants to see Jesus. But he is unable to do so because of his height. You see, Zacchaeus is short. As the crowd presses in around him, all he can see is people’s shoulders and backs. It must have been frustrating. He must have thought to himself, “I miss out on everything.” And as the crowd pushes him from left to right, he remembers how many jokes he had to endure in school about being small; how many women looked the other way because they desired a man with greater stature; how many business deals he did not close because people supposed that his ability was reflected in his height. But time and again, Zacchaeus proved them wrong. He became a successful man. He rose to the rank of chief tax collector. He made a lot of money. The gospel does not hesitate to tell us that he was a wealthy man.
Yet, despite all of these successes, Zacchaeus’ height continues to frustrate him, as it does today. He realizes that he will not be able to see Jesus in this crowd. So Zacchaeus runs ahead and climbs a sycamore tree for a higher perspective. And it works. He does see Jesus. But more importantly, Jesus sees him. Jesus calls him down out of the tree and stays with him in his house. This day, Zacchaeus becomes a disciple.
All of this happened because Zacchaeus was short. Had he been of normal height, he would have been one face of hundreds in the crowd. But because he needed to see and climbed the tree, he stood out. Jesus saw him and called him by name. Zacchaeus’ frustrating shortness was the very means of his salvation.
The story of Zacchaeus reminds us that God saves us not only through our talents and successes, but also through our inadequacies. There might be some part of our life that we wish were different. There might be some quality that we would like to change. But this gospel tells us that God’s power is perfectly capable of using such limitations to bless us.
You might wish that you had greater athletic ability so that you could make the team at school, but this gospel reminds you that God can use your lack of ability to push you in a different direction. God can call you to concentrate more on your studies which may lead to a successful career. God might link you to others who struggle as you do, people who can become lifelong friends. You might wish that you were less introverted, able to feel more at ease in social settings or to speak out in a public forum. But this gospel tells you that God can use your introversion to increase your compassion for people who are often overlooked or to enhance your ability to listen and thereby heal the hearts of others. You might wish that you were more compatible with your spouse, that you could come to decisions without so many arguments and disagreements. But today’s gospel reminds you that, if you are willing, God can use your differences to call you to a deeper appreciation of your spouse and a deeper ability to sacrifice for the sake of your marriage, so that your marriage, although not easy, can be honest and life giving.
Now don’t get me wrong. The usual way to happiness is by the generous use of our talents and abilities. But God’s power is not limited to our gifts. We, like Zacchaeus, may well discover that the part of our life we would really like to change is the very means by which God blesses us and brings us joy.
The Value of Inadequacies
October 27, 2019
We have almost no personal description of the people who meet Jesus during his public ministry. Occasionally we get a name: Martha or Bartimaeus. But we are not told what color hair Martha had or how old Bartimaeus was when he met Jesus. Today’s gospel is an exception to this pattern. It provides us with one clear personal characteristic of the tax collector, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was short—or as the lectionary delicately puts it, “short in stature.” Now it is very likely that Zacchaeus did not like being short. In the ancient world, as today, there simply is no advantage being smaller than other people. We can imagine that during Zacchaeus’ schooling and afterwards he had to endure a series of nicknames: peewee, runt, little man. A callus person could often make fun at Zacchaeus’ expense, like saying, “Hey Zach, how the weather down there?” It was not easy being short, and it is very likely that Zacchaeus simply saw his height as a disadvantage he would have to accept.
Now the beautiful thing about today’s gospel is that God uses the very thing that Zacchaeus sees as an inadequacy to lead him to Jesus. If Zacchaeus had been the same height as other people, he could have easily seen Jesus from the crowd. In the crowd, however, he would have been one of a hundred faces. But Zacchaeus was short in stature, so he climbed up the Sycamore tree in order to see Jesus. This made Zacchaeus uniquely visible to Jesus who saw him, stopped, called him, and announced that he must stay at Zacchaeus’ house. The very thing that Zacchaeus saw as a limitation was used by God to change Zacchaeus’ life, to make him a disciple of the Lord.
This gospel is telling us that God uses all the parts of our lives to love us and save us, even the parts that we wish were different. Perhaps you always wished you were a better athlete, more coordinated. But despite your best efforts you always ended up being the entertainment in gym class. This gospel tells us that God is able to show you how to invest the time and energy you would have spent on being a state champion in wrestling in other areas—in academics or the appreciation of beauty. Those investments will be a means of blessing time and again. Perhaps you still carry hurt because of favoritism in your family. You watched as your parents loved your brothers and sisters at your expense. Today’s gospel says that God is able and has perhaps already used that experience of favoritism to make you a better parent, to give you the will to make sure that all your children see themselves as equally loved and valued. Perhaps you always wished that you were better socially, that you could make small talk or to mix easily in groups. Today’s gospel says that God is able and may have already used your social awkwardness to connect you to someone on a deeper level, to help you find a friend or a spouse who knows and loves you not because of your glib language, but because they see your honesty in your heart. Those relationships can last a lifetime.
We all have parts of ourselves that we wish were different. Today’s gospel reminds that even those parts have value. Ask Zacchaeus. A limp, a scar, a fear of heights can all be used by God to deepen our lives and bring us to salvation.