Sunday, October 30, 2016

"THE SON OF MAN HAS COME TO SEEK AND SAVE WHAT WAS LOST."


Oct. 30th, 2016: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.  Wis. 11:22-12:2; Lk. 19:1-10.
AIM: To proclaim Jesus= offer of hope to the hopeless and salvation to the lost.
 
In 1985 the German tennis player Boris Becker set the tennis world on its ear by coming out of nowhere, at age seventeen, to win the Wimbledon tennis tournament. He won it again in 1986 and 1989. By age twenty-one Becker was a rich man, with a tax residence in Monaco and access to just about any luxury he desired. Yet he was unhappy, his life so empty that he contemplated suicide. AI had no inner peace,@ Becker said later. Many successful people who have ignored their inner life feel that way. J. Oswald Sanders, author of the book, Facing Loneliness, writes: AThe millionaire is usually a lonely man, and the comedian is often more unhappy than his audience.@ Jack Higgins, author of the novel The Eagle has Landed and other best-sellers, was asked what he would like to have known as a boy. His answer: AThat it=s lonely at the top.@
The central figure in the gospel reading we have just heard has reached the top. But he is lonely and unhappy. As chief tax collector in Jericho, Zacchaeus was filthy rich by the standards of those days. He was not the kind of tax collector we think of: a salaried public official. He was the sole proprietor of a business enterprise. He had a contract with the hated Roman government of occupation to pay them each year a fixed amount in taxes. How he got the money was of little concern to the authorities. He squeezed his fellow citizens for all they were worth, pocketing whatever he could in the process. No wonder he was hated: first for his greed and strong-arm tactics; second for collaborating with the pagan Romans. For all his wealth, Zacchaeus was a lonely man: alienated from his own people and alienated too from God.
Zacchaeus had heard about Jesus, the wandering rabbi who enjoyed such tremendous popularity. What was his secret, Zacchaeus wondered? If only he could see Jesus, perhaps speak with him. But how could Zacchaeus mingle with the crowd gathered to welcome Jesus? These were the people he had milked year after year to amass his wealth. He hit on an ingenious idea. He would climb a tree. With everyone straining to see Jesus, no one would notice him. And he would have a good view. 
Someone does notice Zacchaeus, however. Then as now, climbing trees was for boys C certainly not something anyone could imagine a millionaire doing. How they must have jeered to see this hated rip-off artist up in a tree. It is not difficult to imagine Zacchaeus=s shame and embarrassment at being seen. The jeering stops, however, as Jesus looks up at the tree and calls out: AZacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.@ Zacchaeus was accustomed to being ostracized, especially by religious people. Yet here was a religious teacher actually saying he wanted to dine at Zacchaeus=s house. With a big smile on his face he hurries down. The crowd makes way for him as he goes to greet Jesus and lead the way to his house. 
Once there Jesus does not preach to Zacchaeus that he must repent or else go to hell. Jesus= non-judgmental and unconditional acceptance of Zacchaeus speaks more powerfully than even the most eloquent sermon. In full view of everyone at the table Zacchaeus stands up and says: AHalf 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.@ By giving half of his wealth to the poor and using the other half to repay the victims of his greed Zacchaeus= wealth was just about gone. Who needs money, however, when you have found a meaningful life? 
Where had this greedy, grasping man suddenly got such generosity? He got it from the One who had called out to him in love rather than in condemnation, and who even then was sitting at his table as an honored guest; the One who loved Zacchaeus when he had done nothing to deserve love; and who in this way had made it possible for Zacchaeus to love others in return, out of gratitude. 
What better example could we have of the creative, healing power of love? What better demonstration that love is never lost when it is shared, but that it is increased? Love is contagious. It grows when we give it away. What clearer illustration could we have of the central truth of the gospel: that God=s love for us is always a free gift, never a reward?
The good, respectable religious people of Jericho are scandalized by the whole affair. AHe has gone to stay at the house of a sinner,@ they protest in tones of shocked indignation. What for them was a scandal is for us good news. Jesus is the one who Ahas come to seek out and to save what was lost.@ 
Those words are a statement of who Jesus is. Then, now, for all time, Jesus Christ is the one who does not look at what we have been, or even at what we are.  Instead Jesus looks at what, deep in our hearts, we would still like to be. He is the one who has come to search out and to save people without hope, the most abandoned, those most deeply entangled, like Zacchaeus, in webs of selfishness, self-indulgence, and greed.
AToday salvation has come to this house,@ Jesus told Zacchaeus. He is saying the same to us, right now. This is our great today. This is our hour of salvation. Jesus is here, calling us, inviting us to his holy table. He is reaching out to us in active, accepting love, though we have done little or nothing to deserve such love. He is here for no other purpose than to seek out and save people who, without him, are floundering, without hope, and lost.
Zacchaeus Awelcomed Jesus with joy,@ Luke tells us. We can share that joy. Because of Jesus Christ, and his love for us, life is not aimless, not without meaning. Our sins, our failures, our compromises are not the last word about us. The last word belongs to the One who tells us that he has come Ato seek and to save what is lost.@ No matter what others think of us. No matter what we may sometimes think of ourselves. There is One to whom we are infinitely precious. He is Jesus Christ: Son of man and Son too of God C our brother, our lover, our best friend; but also our Savior, and our God!