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.