Sunday, November 3, 2013

Jesus Turns the World Upside Down Again--The Little Man in the Tree

  The Gospel text for today (Luke 19:1-10) is one of my favorites.  A man named  Zacchaeus, a wealthy man, short in stature and a tax collector has climbed a tree so that he could see Jesus.  Jesus invites him down and then invites himself to dinner at the home of this man, an action that shocked the crowd because this Zacchaeus was known to be a sinner.

   An explanation is in order here.  For us moderns, as much as we dislike taxes, it is possible to make an honest living working for the IRS or any state or city tax collecting agency.  This was not so at the time of Jesus.  Tax collectors (or publicans) were Jews who worked for the occupying Roman government.  They were responsible for collecting and sending to Rome any number of taxes on income, farm goods, road tolls, etc.  Most of them gouged and defrauded people, collecting more than Rome needed, and keeping the rest for themselves.  They were, understandably, a despised lot.

   One can imagine that in spite of having accumulated a great deal of wealth our man Zacchaeus was probably filled with a great deal of guilt and self-loathing. He know, too, that he is despised by his own people.  He has hope in his heart that Jesus can set him free from this, which is exactly what happens. Jesus comes into his home and he becomes a changed man, giving half of his possessions to the poor and returning fourfold all the money he has extorted.

   What does this story tell us?  If you are like me and Jesus invited himself into your home (which, by the way, he often does) you would probably like to tell Jesus all the wonderful things that you have done. After all I have preached over 400 parish missions, written a book, have served in some very poor parishes, etc., etc.  But I also know deep within me that I have faults and failings, sins and weaknesses.  This is the part of me that needs Jesus' mercy.  Quite often those of us that are practicing Catholics, or practitioners of any faith, are tempted to think that our good deeds and practices are what will save us.  Those who have strayed seriously from the path have little or any great deeds to present to the Lord.  What they often do have, like our tax collector, is a repentant heart that begs for the mercy and grace, that admits their need for Jesus, for mercy, for salvation.

   Interestingly enough Jesus never offers anything but mercy to thieves, prostitutes and tax collectors.  Only the self-righteous incur his wrath.  We all need to pray with the psalmist (Ps 50, 19), "A broken and contrite heart you will not spurn."  This does not mean that our good deeds don't matter, but rather that we do good deeds because we are grateful for Jesus love and mercy, not to obtain it.


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