For this week’s homily, please play the video below:
For this week’s homily, please play the video below:
Our Old Testament readings for the next few days tell the story of Joshua, the successor of Moses. We think of him as a man of battles and wars, leading the Israelites in their conquest of Canaan and their possession of the Promised Land. “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down.”
We expect him as a warrior to be concerned with preparing troops for battle, getting weapons ready, strategizing for the battle, but Joshua begins his campaign by reminding the people what’s more important before all that: “Remember who you are.”
Gathering the Israelites before the Jordan River, Joshua orders the priests to bring before them the ark of the covenant, God’s pledge that they are his people, bring the jar of manna that reminds them that God sustains them. They are God’s people, not insignificant slaves. They’re God’s children, cared for, with rights and privileges and promises.
Only by remembering who they are will they be able to cross the Jordan and break down the walls of Jericho and take possession of the land.
Remember who you are.
If you follow Pope Francis– and many people are following him these days–you notice that since the pope has moved downstairs to the guest house in the Vatican he’s making the daily Eucharist there one of his most important sources for learning and teaching God’s word. Some of his best insights are found in his daily homilies at morning Mass.
These are not elaborate sermons but simple remarks that usually come as he reflects on the scripture readings or the feast that’s being celebrated. He’s reflecting on the “daily bread” God gives him, and all of us.
This morning we read the story of Zacchaeus, the tax-collector in Jericho, whom Jesus calls to salvation as he makes his way to Jerusalem. How many times we’ve heard his story from Luke’s gospel, yet I noticed today something I didn’t see before: Jesus doesn’t call Zacchaeus to follow him, as he told another tax-collector, Matthew.
Jesus doesn’t tell Zacchaeus to give up his job and go somewhere else. No, salvation comes to his house, Jesus says. As far as we know, when Jesus left, the chief tax-collector stayed in Jericho, doing what he was doing, probably still wealthy, but now a changed man.
Does salvation come to us too like that? Does it come to our house, where we live and for what we do? Does it make us see things differently? Does it help us do things more justly and lovingly? Does it enable us to be the presence of Jesus where we are?
We celebrate two days at the beginning of November that look beyond this world to the world to come: the Feast of All Saints and All Souls Day, November 1st and 2nd. The Feast of All Saints is not just a feast of canonized saints, like Mary the Mother of Jesus, Peter and Paul, Mother Teresa. It celebrates our belief that a great number– beyond counting according to St. John– are with God now. Each of us knows some good and faithful people who must be among them.
What about All Souls Day? I wonder if on that day we recognize there’s human weakness, as well as human goodness, in those God calls for judgment. They need God’s purifying mercy for their sins, their misuse of God’s gifts, their meanness, their lack of faith and hope and love. We know people like that too, maybe we can see ourselves in them.
The more important of these two November days is the Feast of All Saints, which proclaims the God’s mercy to be stronger than our sinfulness. It’s beyond what we expect. We hope and pray for it.
Our readings for this Sunday are about God’s mercy, a mercy that pursues us through this life and into the next. (Wisdom 11, 22-12,20) Our gospel story about the call of Zacchaeus is a special lesson in God’s mercy. Zacchaeus, the chief tax-collector in Jericho, is a wealthy man whom Jesus called down from a tree and then stayed in his house on his way to Jerusalem. (Luke 19, 1-10)
As Jericho’s chief-tax collector, Zacchaeus was an agent for Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and Perea in Jesus’ day. Archeologists are still uncovering ruins of a good many of Herod’s building projects in Galilee and elsewhere. He built on a grand scale and he built lavishly, to impress his allies, the Romans.
Of course, you need money for his kind of building, and that’s where tax-collectors come 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 near Nazareth and get what I need; I don’t care how you squeeze it out of them.” And the tax collectors went out and got him the money, and kept some for themselves.
You needed to be tough and relentless for the job. It had to leave you hard headed and hard hearted. People bitterly resented the tax collectors. Zacchaeus, chief tax collector in Jericho, led them all, and he was the one whom Jesus called down from a tree and stayed with on his way to Jerusalem.
The only words Jesus said to Zacchaeus, according to the gospel, are these: “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 or stern corrections. Jesus declares that salvation has come and they sit down for a feast. In this story you can hear echoes of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, also from Luke’s gospel.
Zacchaeus encountered the goodness and mercy of God in Jesus and it changed him. Goodness and mercy changes people. When we encounter the goodness and mercy of God we’re changed too.
We have to ask: Is God’s mercy a thing of the past, or limited only to this life? Will it also pursue us in death? Jesus will judge us at that moment. Will his judgment of us be like his judgment of Zacchaeus? When he calls us home, will he be merciful as he was to the tax-collector?
We see now in signs; we hear promises. Then we will see him face to face, and his goodness will change us, the sight of him will purify us.
God’s mercy pursues us, now in signs, then face to face. As we look upon the Bread come down from heaven at Mass we hear, “Behold, the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.” God’s mercy is proclaimed, as it was for Zacchaeus, at a supper.
31st Sunday C
We are going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land this Friday, about 40 of us from here at St. Mary’s parish in Colts Neck, NJ. We are going to the land where Jesus lived and died and rose again, to the place where our church was born over 2,000 years ago.
We’re going to pass through Jericho, the place mentioned in today’s gospel, where Zachaeus climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus. We’re going to visit Bethlehem where he was born and Nazareth where he grew up and the places where he ministered around the Lake of Galilee. We’re visiting Jerusalem where he was crucified and where you can see his tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
It’s a holy land for Christians, and it’s a holy land for Jews and Muslims as well. At present, it’s a land of contention, violence and wars over the land itself, the water, and the millions of refugees who have been displaced in the last century.
The principal parties at odds are Jews and the Palestinians, of course, but sometimes we forget that Christians are involved too. Not only are there Christian holy places there, but millions of Christians live in the Middle East who can trace their roots back to the time of Jesus. They’re in Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and other countries of that region; and many of them are leaving the region because the situation in which they find themselves.
In the last few weeks representatives of these Christians from the Middle East met in Rome at a synod to discuss their situation. It’s a matter of survival, they said. Christians may leave or may be forced out of the Middle East if the situation continues.
Leaders of our church are encouraging Christians throughout the world to support the church in the Middle East and to know what’s happening there. I would hope we will be able to do that as we are able on our visit.
We hope also that this visit will help us to know Jesus Christ and the stories about him better.
There’s been an explosion of knowledge in this part of the world in recent times as archeologists, historians and scholars explore the sites of the Holy Land and writings of the bible. We hope that this trip will help us know the bible better, and therefore know Jesus better too.
How can our visit help us know the bible better? Let me give you an example. After we arrive in Israel, we are going to Tiberias, a Jewish city on the Lake of Galilee where we’re staying for four days. There are many hotels there now, but in Jesus’ time, Tiberias was the capital of Galilee, where Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great and the ruler of Galilee, resided.
Herod was in power for almost all of Jesus’ lifetime, building his kingdom. Like his father, Herod was a great builder; archeologists are now uncovering the extent of his building, not only in Tiberias, but also in other sites in Galilee as well. He built on a grand scale. As a strong ally to the Romans he wanted to make sure when Roman visitors came they would be impressed by the places where he lived, his palaces, his public buildings, his style of life. He built lavishly.
Of course, you needed money for that kind of building; that’s where tax-collectors come in. There was no dialogue, no voting on tax collections between Herod and the people he ruled. He told his army of tax-collectors, “Here’s how much I need so you go out and get it. Go to the fishermen along the Sea of Galilee and the farmers near Nazareth and get what I need; I don’t care how you squeeze it out of them.” And they went out and got him his money, with a little kept for themselves.
You can imagine the anger and anguish this would cause. Of course, people wouldn’t complain to Herod directly. He was a vicious ruler who had John the Baptist’s head cut off, remember. He was a brutal man from a brutal family. No, people were wary of Herod, but they could be angry with tax-collectors, whom they generally despised.
What about the tax-collectors themselves? I’m sure they saw Herod’s policies as unbalanced and wrong. They would bemoan this vain man who pushed people too much. But what could they do? After all, he was the one who had John the Baptist’s head put on a platter. You didn’t disagree with Herod.
“Jesus looked up and said,’Zacchaeus, come down quickly,for today I must stay at your house.’ And he came down quickly and received him with joy.”
Far from dismissing the tax collectors and being angry with them, Jesus saw them as they were: people caught in a bad situation. Yes, they had their faults. But Jesus reached out to poor Zacchaeus and the rest of them.
Is that the way God looks at us? Often compromised, too weak to change things, sometimes hopelessly going along and getting things wrong, and regretting it. Still, God calls us from the place where we watch it all to come and share his life and friendship.
Think of Zacchaeus as you pass through Jericho.