31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – October 30, 2022
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Wisdom 11:22-12:2; Psalm 145:1-2, 8-11, 13-14; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10
Pop quiz: does anyone remember their homework from last week? “Bueller?” Last week I gave out the very difficult homework of beginning to ask, “Jesus, help me to see you. Help me to see you as you are. Help me to see myself as you see me. Help me to see.” Because that was the question we were asking last week: How do we see? How do you see the world around you, your life, the meaning of it all? Because how you see is going to determine how you respond. And the great challenge Jesus gives us is, “Repent! Metanoiate! Change your way of thinking. Begin to see in a new way!” This is what St. Paul is getting at when he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world [don’t wrap yourself around the thinking, the vision of this world], but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
So this story of Zacchaeus, very famous story of Zacchaeus—I think this story really helps us to begin to apply this to our real life, to recognize in our own lives what Jesus is getting at. And so I want to approach this Gospel today by asking three questions. First, what is Zacchaeus’ problem? Second, what is so life-changing about his encounter with Jesus? (Because, I don’t know if you were paying attention, but it seems like something pretty life-changing happened to him, even though it seems like nothing happened.) And third, what is the response he gives?
What Is Zacchaeus’ Problem?
So, what is Zacchaeus’ problem? Well, as the story goes, he’s the chief tax collector (so like we mentioned last week, he’s skimming money off the top of already exorbitant taxes). And he’s good at it, because the next thing we’re told is that he’s wealthy; so he’s been ripping off people for a while. And then we’re told that he can’t see Jesus, he’s “short.” Ok. So what’s really going on? Three big things: one, he can’t see, there is something blocking his vision, the “lenses” that he sees through don’t allow him to see. So like we were talking about last week: this guy has a problem seeing, he sees through the wrong lenses. And so the second thing is that we know his vision problem is much more than his physical sight because his attention is focused almost entirely on money: he is willing even to defraud his own people in order to make a buck. The way that he sees, the lenses he has on determine his response, and his response is that all his attention, the central focus of his life is money. Money, career success—that’s his idol. And then third, summing all of this up, we’re told he is short. And that’s not just a comment about his physical height. It’s a comment on his character. He is “short” morally, spiritually. The fruit of living the way he does? Building himself up? He has found himself “short.” Here is Zacchaeus, successful and accomplished in his career; through the lenses of the world he, a big deal; wealthy—and yet left “short.”
So that’s the first question for us: can we recognize that in ourselves? Can we recognize the ways we look at the world through a particular set of lenses, and that those lenses lead us to respond to life in a particular way? I think about how hard people work, the hours and hours and hours people put in at their job, then come home and put in hours and hours and hours with their kids’ schedules and sports and endless activities. And why do we do this? Because that’s what everyone else does, what we think we need to do. We live life through the lenses the world gives to us. But take a moment, examine those lenses. Why do you work so hard? You work so hard, run yourselves ragged, never take a day off—even Sunday is just another work day. And then one day you’ll die. And (and this is going to sound a little downer)—all the work you did won’t really matter: someone will take over your job and either mess up everything you did, or do it better. To top it off, in the eyes of the world, you have (mathematically speaking) essentially a zero percent chance of changing the world, really affecting culture. This is how the world looks through the lenses the world gives to us—it’s bleak! And so what does the world propose you do about it? Well, try to “achieve” something, be “successful” at whatever it is you do, make some money, enjoy life while you can, maybe even get some glory in it.
And what’s the result of that? We’re left “short,” unfulfilled, lost. So we watch some more TV. Zacchaeus’ problem is our problem. Do you recognize that in yourself? Really, this is critically important. Everything has to start here. Everything. It goes back to the homework: “Jesus, help me to see myself clearly.” I know self-reflection is hard. But if you just want to tune out of the rest of the homily and do some of this soul searching now, please do that.
What Is So Life-Changing About Zacchaeus’ Encounter With Jesus?
Ok. So, finding himself in this position, recognizing the predicament he finds himself in, the problem of his life—Zacchaeus’ interest is sparked in Jesus. He climbs a tree, hoping to get a glimpse of him. Once again, “climbing up,” elevating himself up. But Jesus takes that spark.
The second question is: what is so life-changing about his encounter with Jesus? As he is walking by, “he reached the place, [and he] looked up and said, ‘Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.’” … That’s it. That’s it?? What even happened?? A lot, but it’s all quite subtle.
First and foremost, Jesus reaches the place. Jesus arrives where Zacchaeus is at. Not, “Jesus summoned Zacchaeus to himself.” Nope. Jesus arrived. Jesus met him. Jesus enters into his life. And then secondly, Jesus looks at him, he sees him. And not just, “He saw the weirdo sitting in a tree,” no. Jesus saw him, recognized him, saw the truth of him. And even more than that, he allowed Zacchaeus to see himself in the same way: loved, chosen, preferred, beloved. And thirdly, he invites Zacchaeus out of the tree, and invites himself into Zacchaeus’ house. All of this is what the Great Tradition calls gratia prima—the primacy of grace: God always takes the initiative. We don’t have to climb the mountains and trees to find him, he’s moving toward us. Gratia prima … but Zacchaeus can still tell Jesus to take a hike! But no, he quickly comes down from his life in the tree, and receives him with joy! And just like that, everything changes. That quickly, his life is forever changed.
C.S. Lewis has this beautiful image of our life being a house. And most of us are quite content with letting Jesus into the front parlor of the house for about an hour a week…but we don’t want him living in the house, much less being the master of the house! So we entertain him in the very nice parlor we have set up, and don’t let him into the other rooms of our house. Not Zacchaeus! Zacchaeus joyfully invites the Lord into every part of his house, he invites Jesus in as the Lord of every part of his life. That—that is the life-changing encounter he has. Jesus breaks into his life, gratia prima, but it is Zacchaeus’ free response that seals the deal.
In our own lives—again, that’s the question: can we recognize that in our own lives? Jesus doesn’t stand in heaven tapping his foot, hoping we get our act together. He abandons heaven, comes low to meet us. That’s what we’re going to celebrate at Christmas here in a few short months: he breaks in, gratia prima. And he sees us, he sees you. And he doesn’t see you as broken, problematic, handful. No: loved, chosen, preferred, beloved. And then he invites himself into your house. But will you let him in? And not just into the front parlor for one hour a week. The whole house? As the new master, the new Lord of your house?
How Does Zacchaeus Respond?
And so that leaves the third and final question: how did Zacchaeus respond? From that life-changing encounter, how did Zacchaeus concretely respond? Well, we’re told that he says, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” What is this? What do we call this? Surrender. Zacchaeus surrenders everything in his life, most especially the very thing that had driven his life to the point of ruin, the very thing that the world told him his life was all about. His life consisted in his career and his wealth. But in his encounter with Jesus, by allowing Jesus into his house … he discovered the absolutely upside down way that Jesus works—or, the upside down vision he had of the world and his life. And he surrenders his life into the hands of another.
There is a song that sums it up well. The lyrics say, “What fortune lies beyond the stars? / Those dazzling heights too vast to climb / I got so high to fall so far / …I bought the world and sold my heart / … But I found Heaven as love swept low / …You traded Heaven to have me again. / …I found my life / When I laid it down / … I touch the sky / When my knees hit the ground. / …Reaching out I surrender” (Hillsong UNITED, Touch the Sky) Beautiful. Perfectly said. Zacchaeus had spent his whole life reaching for fortune and fame, higher than the stars. And he was doing great! But what he was looking for, the truth of his heart, the fullness he was looking for, the love his heart yearned for … it was sweeping low to find him, it was trading heaven to reach him. And when Zacchaeus recognized that? He surrendered. And he surrendered most especially in the way most holding him back! Getting rid of all of that money.
Can we recognize this in our own lives? Can we respond like this in our own lives? Can we surrender our lives to Christ?
It always confuses me when people are so in awe of me being a priest. They are shocked that I would give up my life to be a priest. “You could have done so much with you life! Do you ever regret it? Do you wish you could have been a doctor, gotten married, and had a family?” It’s like here in the parish, I’m the anomaly! I’m the only one who has made sacrifices! People ask me, the number one question people ask me—after “how old are you?”—the number one question people ask me is, “What happened to you that made you want to be a priest?” And it’s the same thing as Zacchaeus: there I was, going after all of my own plans, really just going after what the world told me I should go after—and Jesus broke in, gratia prima, and invited himself into my house. And my only regret, my biggest regret, is that I did not take him up on that invitation sooner, all of those times I tell him still that some rooms of my house are off-limits. And so I am constantly praying, begging to surrender my life completely. There is that beautiful part of the ordination ritual where I lay down on the floor, the great symbol of dying to the world, laying my life down. I found my life when I laid it down. I want to continue to find my life by laying it down. I don’t want to play the world’s game anymore.
Do people come up to you and ask you, “What made you want to be a Catholic? What made you want to follow Christ?” Some of you, maybe. But for most of us, probably not. Are people shocked when they meet you? Do people ask you if you regret being a Catholic, following Christ, abandoning your plans to follow Christ’s instead? What would your life look like if you allowed Jesus into every room of your house? Every part of your life?
The Rescue, and Our Response
As you’re going to become very aware over the next several weeks, we’re in the midst of our Stewardship renewal. And I know that the word “Stewardship” has become a not-so-subtle way of talking about money. But truly…truly that’s not what it is. Stewardship is nothing other than the concrete response of surrendering our lives to Christ. Stewardship looks like a lot of different things. I mean, that’s literally the definition: a grateful response, recognizing everything God has done for us, and giving our entire life back in return. “Stewardship renewal” shouldn’t be something we need to talk about, not really. It should just be a word to describe what we’re already doing in response to everything Jesus has done for us. It should’t be something we roll our eyes at because we think that it’s just about money. It should be a great reminder of our concrete surrender to Him.
Heaven sweeps low looking for us, searching us out. “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save [to rescue] what was lost” (Luke 19:10). Love comes looking for us. And when he sees us (skewed vision, climbing trees looking for happiness, left short)—he breaks in to save us, to rescue us. And we should surrender in joy. Find your life by laying it down.
In this Eucharist today, recognize how when our knees touch the ground, when we symbolically lay our lives down, the heavens come down, heaven and earth meet, here—and we find our life, Christ himself, on this altar.
“Lord God, in the simplicity of my heart, I have joyfully offered you everything.” (1 Chronicles 29:17)