31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – November 3, 2019
St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS
Wisdom 11:22 – 12:2; Psalm 145:1-2, 8-11, 13-14; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10
The lectionary (the collection of scriptures we read from at mass) is a tricky thing. The kids in school asked me the other day if we read through the whole Bible at mass, and the answer is, “No, we don’t.” To be honest, we skip a lot of it. This passage we have today from the Gospel of St. Luke is very familiar, we all have heard the story of Zacchaeus. But because of how the lectionary selects readings, we miss some very important passages, specifically what comes before the story of Zacchaeus, and so we miss the point that the Gospel is trying to make. The story of Zacchaeus is the second part of a comparison that the Gospel of Luke is trying to make.
The chapter before (18:18-30) talks about the Rich Ruler who comes up to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus tells him to follow the commandments. And when the Ruler says that he does, Jesus tell him to do one more thing: “sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). And then he goes away sad. He can’t do it. He is too attached to his riches.
Zacchaeus is meant to be compared and contrasted to this Rich Ruler. Zacchaeus too is a “rich ruler,” he is the chief tax collector. But unlike the Rich Ruler, Zacchaeus does not follow the commandments; Zacchaeus is a known sinner. And worse than that, he is a Jew that has pretty much sold-out to the Roman government in order to collect taxes from his countrymen. The implication is that Zacchaeus is a bad man, despised by his countrymen, who doesn’t follow the commandments. And yet—and yet Zacchaeus becomes the one who receives “salvation” (19:10).
When we contrast these two figures, we start to realize just how counterintuitive Jesus’ mission is. That last line from our Gospel is the summary of Jesus’ mission: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost” (19:10). Jesus does not come for those who are really pious and follow the rules really well—like the Rich Ruler. Jesus comes to seek-out and save the lost—like Zacchaeus.
Here’s the point: we don’t need to try to prove how good and pious we are, we need to recognize that we are sinners, that we are lost, and that we are in need of someone that can save us, that can “find” us.
Because let’s face it, that’s the issue. We are really bad at admitting that we are sinners, that we are lost, that we need help. My favorite confession of all time—and I say this because it wasn’t even a confession—but my favorite confession of all time went like this: “Bless me father for I have sinned, it has been about ten years since my last confession, and…well…nothing.” And even after asking questions, they were dead set on that: “No, I don’t think I have any sins.” Or there is the classic example of being lost, and the guy won’t ask for directions. Or you are in the hardware store, and you don’t exactly know where stuff is, and someone comes up and asks, “Can I help you find something?” And stubbornly you respond, “No. I’m fine.” The priest can’t forgive sins if you don’t admit you have them; you can’t get directions if you don’t admit you are lost; people can’t help you if you deny the fact that you need help. And so what happens when these are our attitudes with God? What happens when we don’t need sins forgiven? What happens when we don’t admit that spiritually we are in need of direction? What happens when we deny that we need help? What happens is that we become like the Rich Ruler: we may follow all of the rules and be very pious, but we are closed to the call of Jesus Christ. We may keep following the rules, we may keep coming to mass, we may be very pious. But we are left with a kind of sadness just like the Rich Ruler, because we seem to be missing something.
Zacchaeus is held-up as the example! Why? Zacchaeus is the example of one that knows that he is a sinner, he knows that he is lost, he knows he needs help. Zacchaeus was not ashamed to admit that he was a sinner.
Me and one of my friends have this thing where, when we talk about anything that is really bogging us down, or something we’re struggling with, or just difficulties in life in general—at the end of it we say, “But it’s fine! I’m fine!” We’re making light of the situation. But a lot of times I hear this from people not making light of their situation, but denying the reality of their situation all together. People are ashamed to admit they are a sinner. And so instead they just smile and say, “It’s fine. I’m fine.” This shame can prevent us from seeking the Lord out. But Zacchaeus was so attracted to Jesus, so attracted by his presence, that not even his shame could hold him back.
And when Zacchaeus opened up his life to Jesus, then everything changed. Zacchaeus experienced something more. Zacchaeus didn’t have to prove how pious he was, he didn’t have to give Jesus a resumé of how well he had followed the rules—he couldn’t, he wasn’t. But what Zacchaeus could do was admit that he was a sinner, admit he was lost, admit he needed Jesus. And because of that, salvation came to his house.