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.”

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[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.

When the end is the beginning

33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

I love this time of the year. Of course I mean autumn. Yes, the growing season’s grand finale rarely disappoints, especially here in the Northeastern part of the United States where the relatively subdued trees and shrubs of summer break out in a neon-jacked riot of color. Autumn represents the colossal success of nature—a job well done. As if to say, “There, you see? This is what I’ve been working on all year.”

Autumn is a time to reflect on what we’ve been working on all year, too. In the waning and waxing hours between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, it is good to pause and think deeply about our personal growth, both intellectual and spiritual. We can ponder our little epiphanies, our joys, our sorrows, our victories and our failures, and the endings and beginnings which represent all of the above. Autumn is also a time to look forward, to make plans for the coming winter, and to renew our annual vow that this year we will keep things simple and really enjoy Christmas.

There’s another reason I love this time of year. Ecclesially (churchy business) speaking, we are drawing to the end of current year’s liturgical calendar. My fellow liturgy nerds, can I have an Amen? This weekend is the second to the last week of Year B—the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time—and next Sunday we reach the pinnacle of Ordinary Time with the Feast of Christ the King.

I loved Year B, spending time in the desert with Mark’s gospel, reflecting on Jesus’ identity and mission, why he died, what his passion meant then and what it means for us today. But I also love the gospel of Luke, which we will read in Year C (beginning January 10, 2016). I am excited to delve into the gospel writer’s emphasis on the hope, inclusivity and liberation of all people as revealed through Jesus’ life and message.

Every liturgical year starts with Advent and Christmas. In two weeks we will experience the advent (pun intended) of Year C. This is a season of anticipation, of preparation and patient waiting, of readiness and expectation of the events which have been promised. Christians prepare their hearts not only to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but to anticipate his second coming, which is the subject of weekend’s gospel [Mk 13:24-32].

The season of Advent goes by quickly. And if you aren’t attentive, the four weeks dissolve into one another. Before you know it, it’s Christmas day, or more likely, it’s the day after Christmas, and you sit there in your messy home, deflated, exhausted, and wondering what the heck just happened. How did you allow the artificial chaos of the holiday season to interfere with your plans to celebrate a real Christmas?

Endings and beginnings—the turning of seasons, a new Gospel, and a promise to do things differently this Christmas—tie into this weekend’s gospel. Yet, unlike the second coming foretold by Jesus we know exactly when the liturgical year ends and when the celebration of Jesus’ birth will be.

Jesus says “Learn a lesson from the fig tree.” [Mk 13:28a]. Mark wants his community to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ forewarning of the Temple’s destruction [13:1-2], an idea that was incomprehensible to the disciples, given the Temple’s prominence. Mark wants his community to hear Jesus’ instruction to attend to the signs [13:8], and to be ready for the coming persecution because they themselves lived in a time of rising chaos. Mark encourages his readers to pay attention, to be steady, focused and fearless, and to attend to Jesus’ teaching because when the time comes—like the emerging buds on the fig tree—it will be too late for pruning and tending. To follow Jesus—to be a disciple—is a journey of service, of humility and sacrifice for the sake of others. Mark provides hope for his readers; he assures them that their sacrifice will lead to redemption, just like Jesus’ did.

Our lives provide never-ending opportunities to be people of hope, and to perfect the message of which our life speaks, as if to say, “There, you see? This is what I’ve been working on all year!” Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. wrote, “At the end of the church year, therefore, as at the end of our life, our vision ought to be of new heavens and a new earth, of new bodies and souls as innocent and good as the Spirit of God who indwells.” [1] In the next few weeks we will be presented with an opportunity to recraft our vision for the coming year and begin again.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., Biblical Meditations for Ordinary Time-Weeks 23-34, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, NJ 1984. p 386