Today I Must Stay at Your House

31st Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Oh Zacchaeus! Who doesn’t love the story of the diminutive, status seeking, tree climbing tax collector [Luke 19:1-10], the greedy and sinful man whose curiosity about Jesus led to the cleansing of his name, his reconciliation with those he had cheated, and his restoration to the house of Abraham, and thereby to the household of God.

At its core, this is a story of salvation and communal reconciliation. In church-speak, salvation is preceded by conversion which follows a radical change of heart. In Zacchaeus’ case, his transformation began when he responded to Jesus’ command to “come down quickly” and found himself on the same ground as the people he had made a career of cheating.

The story of Zacchaeus is beloved because it is good news for all of us; at first blush it affirms that the sinner is not forever lost. But it also speaks to the joy of being identified by our name instead of by our sins. It invites us to enjoy the relief that comes from shedding social pretenses and in finding acceptance for who we are. It affirms our deepest desire, which is to belong, and to be home in community.

The meaning of the name Zacchaeus is “clean[1] but the occupation he chose was anything but. He was a tax collector, and not just any tax collector. Zacchaeus was the “chief, rich tax collector, the sinner supreme”[2] who likely enjoyed multiple streams of income working as a contracted government collections agent overseeing and amassing dishonest wealth from the equally fraudulent collections of those in his employ.

Still, Zaccheus wasn’t so far removed from the goings on in his town that he hadn’t heard about this man named Jesus who would soon be passing through. His curiosity was piqued and he determined to see for himself “who Jesus was” [Luke 19:3].

Bobbing and weaving in and out of the crowd that gathered along the roadside, the diminutive Zaccheus tried to catch a glimpse of Jesus, but the crowd was standing in his way. Being a clever man, Zacchaeus ran ahead of them and climbed up into a sycamore, a fruit-bearing tree. There, standing above everyone else where he was most comfortable, he had a clear view.

It’s a comedic, pathetic, and prophetic image: a man of power scrambling up a tree, peering between fig-laden branches to see what everyone else could plainly see. But then Jesus looked up and saw Zacchaeus there in his isolation, and he called him down—by name—plucked him like one of the ripe figs hanging from the sycamore’s branches.

“Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

The crowd was appalled. They grumbled. Not only did Jesus call on Zacchaeus, he announced he “must” stay at his house. Of all the choices Jesus could have made, it was this guy, the most despised man and the greatest sinner in town who Jesus decided to stay with.

But the crowds were always appalled weren’t they? Aren’t we still? Christians have a notoriously hard time doing more than waxing poetic about Jesus’ habit of socializing, dining, and preferring the company of sinners.

Let’s be clear, Jesus always goes to the house of the sinner. Sinners may be lost, but at least their eyes are open. The same can’t be said about the righteous.

All Jesus said was, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house” and Zacchaeus’ eyes were opened.

And Jesus, by going to Zacchaeus, calling him by name, and remaining with him, recognized him for what he truly was—a child of God who got lost along the way.

Sigh. Aren’t we all?

Like Zacchaeus, you and I share a compelling need to be made “clean” and to be restored to right relationship with our families, friends, neighbors, the communities in which we live and work, and, with our Creator.

But true reconciliation requires humility and a willingness to meet one another on equal ground. We need to listen. In our homes, our churches, our communities, and in our country, and surely in the months to come we must devote ourselves to the difficult work of reconciliation, and be willing to see Jesus and hear him say, “__________, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

______________________________

[1] Robert J. Karris, O.F.M, The Gospel According to Luke, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Brown, Raymond Edward, Roland Edmund Murphy, and Joseph A. Fitzmyer (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990) 675-721, here 711.

[2] John O’Hanlon, “The story of Zacchaeus and the Lukan ethic,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no. 12 (July 1981) 2-26, here 9.

#SoBlessed #TheWrongPrayer #HaveMercyOnMeASinner

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Late one night last week when driving home from a local restaurant with my husband I noticed a push cart near the corner of the street where we live. It was the type of cart that many apartment dwellers use to do their shopping. This cart appeared to be loaded to the top with laundry bags. I craned my neck as we turned the corner; in the shadow of the street light I made out the shape of woman standing beside the cart.

I live in what might be called urban suburbia; our town, an incorporated city, is situated just 8 miles west of Times Square. Like city-dwellers we can set our clocks by the screech of city buses stopping for passengers; we barely take notice of wailing emergency vehicles and find comfort in the train whistles. We can walk a short distance to the deli, cafes and restaurants, boutiques, houses of worship, the theater, even the grocery store. Some city folk might not agree with the “urban” descriptor, but I know better, having lived in suburbia most of my life: this is city life.

My part of town is a poster child for how successful mixed housing works. Our neighbors live in flats over stores, apartment buildings and townhomes. Turn-of-the-century mansions, pre-war homes both grand and modest nestle together on narrow lots on the same block. We are a blend of socio-economic-religious diversity and it is beautiful thing to behold.

But I’ve never seen a person who was obviously experiencing homelessness standing on the corner of my street.

We pulled into our driveway, got out of the car, opened the door to our house and went inside. I thought to myself, “What should I do, what is the appropriate thing to do?” Then, as I contemplated walking outside perhaps to talk to the woman I lost my nerve. I have poor night vision and thought I might be mistaken. Maybe I didn’t see what I thought I saw; and how would I handle the awkward moment when I offered a sandwich to a neighbor who was simply waiting for the bus? #SoManyExcuses.

Early the next morning I looked outside to see the woman and her cart still there, only this time someone was talking with her. I stepped back in the house to grab something to bring her, but when I returned she was gone.

That same day I read a New York Times op-ed written by David Brooks, a journalist I respect greatly. The article, entitled, “The Power of a Dinner Table” concerned some friends of Brooks who host Thursday night dinners for some of their son’s classmates—kids who don’t have enough to eat. As Brooks reveals, this family’s loving and generous hospitality fills more than hungry stomachs. The table guests, he says, “have endured the ordeals of modern poverty: homelessness, hunger, abuse, sexual assault. Almost all have seen death firsthand.” Brooks writes from his place at the table, where for the past two years he has joined the couple and their guests at these dinners. #MakeRoom

And then I read the readings for this weekend, the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time. The text from Sirach assures us that God hears our cries, judges fairly and without favoritism, and in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus directs a parable to those who believe themselves to be #SoBlessed.

Jesus is so clever. He knows his listeners. If they don’t recognize themselves in the Pharisee whose prayer is to thank God he is not like the despised one who stands off in the distance beating his heart and asking for mercy, they will take the higher, even more hypocritical seat of judgement that looks down on everyone. Thanks be to God we are not like that Pharisee or the toll collector! Suddenly this parable is about the prayer of three people, and we don’t get the irony. And so it goes. Who then will judge us?

To judge another is about as natural a human behavior as can be had. We compare our progress against one another in nearly every capacity of life. Taller, shorter, thinner, fatter, stingy, generous, educated, ignorant, poor, rich, too rich, greedy, lucky, unlucky, lazy, persistent, worthy, unworthy, good Catholic, bad Catholic, true Christian, false Christian, sinner, and saint.

Honestly, is there anything that we don’t judge? To be fair, constructive comparisons and judgments often help us set goals to better ourselves. And that’s a healthy approach. But, when we judge in order to pat ourselves on the back or puff up our own sense of superiority that’s a whole different ballgame. That’s not prayer. That’s self-exaltation.  And that’s not Godly.

Oh Lord, I am glad I am a respectable citizen, and a churchgoer, I thank you that I am not like those who look down on the poor and the needy. Don’t forget that dollar I dropped in a cup last week. #TheWrongPrayer

I did not judge or look down on the woman standing on the corner of my street with what I presume was everything she owned. I did not count my blessings or mumble something lame like “there but for the grace of God go I.” But my sin was what I did not do, and that was to delay showing her the mercy that God was urging me to show her. And then it was too late. #NeverAgain #HaveMercyOnMeASinner

Help Wanted: Prayer warrior. No need to apply. Start today.

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Has there been a time when the need for prayer has been more urgent? Actually, yes, there have been worse times than this, and for millions of people living around the world, what many of us might call the “worst of times” is nothing compared to their “every-damn-day times.” And that, I believe, is a very good starting point for reflecting on the readings for the 29th Sunday of ordinary time, year C.

From the first reading to the last we witness endurance in prayer, patience, and action. There’s Moses, whose unceasing prayer empowered the Israelites to defeat their enemy [EX 17:8-13]; the psalmist expresses confidence in God’s constant care and protection [PS 121]; Timothy receives instruction to lead his community with persistence and patience [2 Tim 3:14-4:2], and we learn from the parable of the persistent widow and the dishonest judge that justice is served to those who persevere [LK 18:1-8].

In the past week I have read and reread and researched and notated and meditated on these passages. And every day, like many of you, I have read articles online and in print, one after the other, and in the evening my husband and I watch news hours that report on the glut of injustice and the growing anxiety of our world’s citizens. There is a sense of helplessness arising that threatens to turn to violence at any moment.

Like a drum keeping time the words, wisdom, wisdom, beat with the pulse in my ears. I place my hand over my heart and feel, kindness, kindness. Even the cycle of my breath drives me to repeat the Tonglen, the prayer found in Tibetan Buddhism: I inhale the pain of the world, I exhale compassion.

I hear the widow’s cry for justice, I am using both my love of Scripture and the teachings of Jesus Christ to do my part in the world, I am assured of my creator’s protection along this obstacle strewn path on which we all travel, and I am trying mightily like Moses to keep my hands lifted in prayer.

But like some of you, I grow weary.

This holy path, our sacred journey, our wilderness wandering leads us past scenes of oppression that we are duty-bound to correct. Most recently our attention is given to the rejection of vile attitudes, lewd comments, and physical assault that demean and damage women. We reject this with the same fervor that we reject racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism, antisemitism, and all prejudicial ideologies that derive energy from hatred. We do so because human oppression is an insult to the divine image in which we are created; we do so because when we actively correct wrongs perpetrated against one another we reflect the life-giving nature of God.

Pray. Pray harder. Pray for wisdom, guidance, stamina, courage, and patience.

As long as Moses held up his hands in prayer, the Israelites were successful in fending off their enemy. The widow’s persistence resulted in her attainment of what was rightfully hers. And Jesus assured his disciples that not only will God respond to the prayers of the chosen ones, God will do so without delay.

But our prayers are not answered without delay; at least they don’t seem to be. Maybe in God’s time they are, but we humans have been waiting a long time for justice to be served here on earth. How much longer must we persevere, Lord?

And that’s the thing. Both of these readings raise theological difficulties. Why must we ask God repeatedly for help, why can’t God just fix what is wrong? After all, all things are possible, we are told. What kind of God requires unrelenting requests for help?

The cry of the psalmist is our own, “I lift up my eyes toward the mountains; whence shall help come to me?” [PS 121]

In response to a recent story posted online about the harrowing plight of refuge children displaced by incessant bombing in Aleppo many readers commented that they were sending prayers to the affected children. Within seconds someone said, “Save your breath. Prayer is useless.” Similar comments expressing contempt both for prayer and for those who believe in God soon followed.

Prayer doesn’t work that way; God is not a magician and we are not babies who hold out our hands and pout until we get what we want. Frankly, to suggest that God doesn’t exist because the messes humans create are not magically cleaned up by God is a sign of immature faith and stunted spiritual development.

The answer to prayer is not its immediate fulfillment but more of a clarification of what we are seeking, and a strengthening of our resolve to take action. Jack Shea writes, “God suffuses the hearts of those who pray with justice, and then with empowered hearts they bring this justice into the affairs of earth.”[1]

Prayer guides our growth into full humanness and spiritual maturity and gives us the courage and the strength to bring about a more just world. Prayer is life-giving!

Whatever form our prayer takes, let’s attend to the action God’s response compels us to take. Let’s keep our arms raised at all times and enlist the help of one another lest we grow weary with the effort.

“Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, and that from infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. [2 Tim 3:14-15]  

______________________________________

[1] John Shea. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: The Relentless Widow. Year C edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. 2006. Page 291