Sunday Homily – 31st Sunday C
1 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2
We find ourselves today in the city of Jericho, an oasis city in the Jordan valley, known as the ‘City of Palms’. We smell its famous balsam trees which perfume the air for miles around. We gaze at its equally famous rose gardens which attract so many visitors. In the middle of all this beauty there occurs that deeply significant meeting between Jesus and a little man called ‘Zacchaeus’.
Now Zacchaeus is a tax collector, indeed a chief tax collector, for the occupying foreign power, the Romans. For that very reason, he is despised by his fellow Jews. For making so much money at their expense through collaborating in cheating and swindling them, he is loathed and hated like no other person in town. Although Zacchaeus is now a wealthy man, he is not a happy one. Lately, he has become quite fed up with being hated and despised by everyone, and with feeling so isolated, lonely and lost. Lately, he has started searching for some turn-around in his life, some way to change his occupation and his lifestyle.
When one day he hears the news that Jesus of Nazareth is on a walkabout in the neighbourhood, and that he is heading in his direction, he knows that he simply has to meet this Jesus – to get the comfort and hope, the love and forgiveness, the brand-new start which he so desperately needs.
But getting to meet Jesus is anything but easy. First, there is the risk of going into that crowd, many of whom will surely take their chance to jostle, push, and even kick him. When he does join the crowd, he finds he cannot see over the tall people hemming him in on every side. So, he hits on a brainwave. He races ahead and climbs a tree, with a short trunk and wide branches. Just right for a short, overweight person like him to look out for Jesus!
He has not long to wait. To his surprise, Jesus looks up from under the tree, smiles, and says with a touch of humour and presumption: ‘Zacchaeus, get down. Hurry up. I’ve got to stay at your house today.’ Zacchaeus is bubbling with joy and excitement as he walks his guest to his home, and welcomes him at the front door: ‘It’s just so wonderful to meet this Jesus,’ Zacchaeus keeps telling himself, ‘I just can’t believe my luck.’
Meanwhile, the crowd that would willingly strangle Zacchaeus if they could get their hands on him, cannot believe what they are seeing: ‘This Jesus,’ they complain, ‘has gone to stay at a sinner’s house.’ Their cutting words, however, are a moment of truth for Zacchaeus, There and then, in the presence of Jesus, who has been so kind, so friendly, so accepting, so understanding, Zacchaeus stands his ground: ‘Look, sir, he says, ‘I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times the amount.’ His turn-around, his change of heart, could hardly be more spontaneous, more sincere, or more complete. Jesus acknowledges this when he replies: ‘I have come to seek out and save what was lost. Today salvation, today wholeness, has come to this house.’ Yet once more, as happens again and again in the gospels, it is contact with Jesus, that triggers conversion, that changes mind, heart, and lifestyle.
Brothers and Sisters! There is just so much enlightenment and comfort for you and me too in this touching incident. We see Jesus for what he was and what he remains – ‘the friend of sinners’, and therefore our friend. Our understanding, compassionate, and forgiving friend! Our friend who is there when others fail or desert us! The one who is present when others are absent! The one who calls us by name and invites us to his table! The one who helps and heals when others criticize and condemn! The one who never gives up on us and never despairs of us! The one who waits patiently for us to change our lives, and who allows us time to do so! The one, in short, who loves us with an everlasting love, an everlasting forgiving love, an everlasting healing love, and an everlasting transforming love! The one whom we are meeting today in our holy communion with him and one another!
Just like Zacchaeus, then, let us welcome this great person Jesus and his ‘amazing grace’ into our homes and lives, knowing and trusting what an amazing and lasting difference he will make!
So, from the bottom of our needy and yearning hearts, let us pray as never before: ‘Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul (i.e., I myself) will be healed.’
Brian Gleeson is a Passionist priest, and a member of the Passionist community in Endeavour Hills, Melbourne.