31st Sunday C: Mercy Goes Everywhere

Audio homily here:

Luke’s gospel talks about God’s mercy, not in definitions but in stories. Today at Mass it’s the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho. He was a wealthy man who climbed a tree to see Jesus as he was passing by through his town, and Jesus called him and stayed with him in his house on his way to Jerusalem. In many ways, his story is an interesting lesson that shows how God’s mercy works. It works everywhere. (Luke 19, 1-10)

Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector in Jericho, which means he was an agent for Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Perea in Jesus’ day. Archeologists have uncovered the ruins of many of Herod’s building projects in Galilee and elsewhere, and it’s evident he built on a grand scale and built lavishly, to impress his allies the Romans.

You needed money for this kind of building, of course, and that’s where tax-collectors came in. There was no dialogue or voting on government spending then. Herod told his army of tax-collectors, “Here’s how much I need; you go out and get it. Go to the fishermen along the Sea of Galilee and the farmers around Nazareth and the shepherds in the Jordan Valley and the merchants in Jericho and get what I need; I don’t care how you get it out of them.”

And so the tax collectors went out and got the money, keeping some for themselves too. That was the way the system worked. You needed to be tough and relentless for that job, and it had to leave you hard headed and hard hearted. An unsavory profession. People thoroughly resented them. They wanted nothing to do with them.

Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho, was the one whom Jesus called and the one he stayed with on his way to Jerusalem. God wanted to do something for him.

The only thing Jesus says in the tax collector’s house, a place into which others wouldn’t go, is: “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” No thunderous warnings, no stern corrections. Salvation has come and they sit down for a feast. You can hear in the story echoes of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, also from Luke’s gospel.

It’s interesting to note, too, that Jesus doesn’t call Zacchaeus to follow him, as he told another tax-collector, Matthew. He doesn’t tell him to give up his job and get out of that dirty, complicated situation. No, as far as we can tell Zacchaeus was still chief tax-collector in Jericho after Jesus left, still taking orders from Herod Antipas, still part of a sinful world. But that’s where Zacchaeus will experience salvation, even there.

That might be one of the interesting lessons about God’s mercy. It works in the real world and in real life. God’s mercy works in the difficult, complicated situations that people experience in life. It’s not always easy to get away from life as it is. Yes, surely Zacchaeus was a changed man from his meeting with Jesus. God reached out to him, God came to his house, God called him to change, and he did. “Behold, I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone, I’ll return it fourfold.” He was changed by his experience of the mercy of God.

We hope we are too.

3 thoughts on “31st Sunday C: Mercy Goes Everywhere

  1. jim

    Sometimes God’s mercy finds us, rather than us achieving it on our own.
    Zacchaeus was just noisy, he just wanted to see this new rabbi
    they were all talking about…. he even abandoned his tax collecting
    desk to check out this man, but he could not see him because of the crowd.
    I can still remember the 100th birthday of the Brooklyn Bridge and
    2 million people had gathered all the way up the East River Drive, and on
    both shores: Brooklyn and Manhattan….I was walking to the subway with
    another priest with thousands and thousands , and I said ” It anyone starts
    running we will all be crushed by this crowd, ” and no one did. And all was
    peaceful, and mercy abounded for one another, and less then 10 crimes were committed in the entire city of New York…for all were celebrating life,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s