Homily: Life is Short

You know, the size of the universe is astounding. One of the nearest stars, called Alpha Centauri, is more than four light-years away from us. That means it is as far away as a beam of light can travel in over four years time. Even the moon, on autumn nights so close it seems we can almost touch it, is well over 200 thousand miles away. That is more than eight times around our earth!

So how does the first reading describe the whole universe? Before God, according to the Book of Wisdom, the whole universe is just a speck of grain or a drop of morning dew. Certainly God’s view of things is way different from ours!

But the real surprising thing is that even though the universe is so small in God’s eyes, we count for a lot. To express this he author of Wisdom has a brand new title for God: lover of souls. It is the kind of love that never lets us go but keeps working on us to steer us on the road to eternal life.

The gospel for this Sunday gives us a fine example of God’s love at work in someone’s heart. Luke begins the account by telling us that Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town. So Jericho might have been just one more spot on the Lord’s itinerary as he made his way to Jerusalem. But then Luke directs our attention to a man named Zacchaeus.

Our first impression of this Zacchaeus is less than favorable. We are told that he’s a tax collector and also a wealthy man. It appears he has these two strikes again him right from the start. After all Luke has already told us about another rich man who could not look up form his possessions long enough to notice poor old Lazarus sitting outside on the road. (Luke 16:19-31).

But then comes a surprise. This Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus and he goes to quite a bit of trouble to do it. He can’t see over the heads of the crowd in front of him so he runs ahead and climbs a tree. Luke even notes that it was a sycamore tree. You see this tree lining many of the streets in Wilkinsburg and Edgewood. They are those large trees with the greenish looking bark and the big bumps all over them. They’re used all the time for street decoration. Did this tree become famous because of what happened that day?

Imagine the look on this man’s face when Jesus stops to look up at him! Then he hears Jesus inviting him to come down from that tree as fast as he can. Jesus wants to stay at his house. All the people standing around seem to have missed an opportunity here. They grumble that Jesus goes to stay at the house of a sinner. What if they had asked Jesus to come to their houses too? Then all of them might have changed as much as Zacchaeus did.

And Zacchaeus really does change! Whatever his physical stature, he now stands spiritually tall. He announces that he is giving half his belongings to the poor and is prepared to repay “four times over” anyone he cheated in the past. It’s clear that wealth and possessions can’t stand in the way of the spiritual progress of this Zacchaeus. He climbed up that tree wealthy in the things of this world; he came down from that tree wealthy in the things of heaven. For Zacchaeus that tree became a tree of life.

If the author of Wisdom, our first reading today, had been in Jericho that day he would have said the transformation in Zacchaeus was just the sort of thing he was talking about when he called God “lover of souls.” And Paul might have remarked that it was just the sort of thing he meant when he told the people in Thessalonica he was always praying that God may “bring to fulfillment every good purpose.” (Timothy Schehr, Atheneaum of Ohio, Cincinnati, OH)

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus long journey to Jerusalem is almost over when He enters Jericho. He’s been modeling for us our own journey of faith, When he meets Zachaeus he reminds us that it will not be possible to go with Jesus all the way to cross and to resurrection without total generosity.

In the previous chapter of Luke, the rich ruler couldn’t abandon his wealth in order to follow Jesus (18:18). By contrast, Zachaeus is happy to share half of his possessions with the poor. The wealthy ruler appears to be religious and observant, whereas Zachaeus has been collecting taxes for the hated Roman occupiers of his country. Nevertheless, he is the one who is looking for Jesus and he is the one with whom Jesus wishes to be associated.

Much has been made of the fact that Zachaeus was “short of stature,” so that he had to climb a sycamore tree in order to see and be seen by Jesus. Today we would say that he was a little man with a big heart!

Life Implications

The gospel tells us that Zachaeus was a rich man. We assume, therefore, that he was not like most of us. We would be very surprised if someone would call us rich. But we are indeed wealthy in many significant ways–in talent, in opportunities, in friendships. And, as I pointed out a few weeks ago, we are supremely wealthy in comparison with most of the people in the rest of the world.

So we need to ask ourselves whether we are as generous in using our own gifts as Zachaeus was. Do we think that much about the poor? Do we realize that the “poor” are often people who need a kind word or a friendly smile?

This gospel story reminds us also that we must be very careful not

to judge others because of their appearance. We are told that those who accompanied Jesus began to grumble when he chose to be a guest of this marginal Jew, who seemed to be collaborating with the Romans. As a matter of fact, however, this was one of those jobs that someone had to do. The real world is not as neat as we might like it to be. The point is that Zachaeus ‘redeemed’ his unsavory work by the generosity that he brought to it.

It should also be noted that Zachaeus did not live in the world with world the false sense that he didn’t need anybody else to make his life meaningful. He knew that somehow his life was incomplete without Jesus. And he did not allow his short stature to become an excuse for not seeking Jesus.

Nor did Jesus consider his ‘inadequacy’ to be an obstacle. Jesus wants to be a guest in all our houses. Our desire to welcome him will easily cancel any feelings of unworthiness that may hold us back.

Zachaeus had to make a conscious effort to climb that sycamore tree and he may even have exposed himself to ridicule. We too must actually seek out Jesus and not be afraid to be laughed at by those who do not think that seeking God is important. Our faith tells us that this is the way of wisdom and therefore the proverbial ‘last laugh’ will be ours in the happiness of final union with our loving God. (Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.)

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