Sunday, November 3, 2019

Salvation Comes to Our House

Last week, we heard a parable about a tax collector. In today's Gospel [Luke 19:1-10], we get to meet the real thing – in the person of Zacchaeus, who was not just any old tax collector, but a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man. Those extra details, being a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, presumably were mentioned to make him seem even less likable, just as his being short in stature, and his undignified behavior in running ahead and climbing a tree presumably were mentioned to highlight his apparent ridiculousness.

But even without any extra details, just knowing nothing else about Zacchaeus besides his being a tax collector, the audience for this episode would most likely have thought ill of him. After all, as a tax collector he worked either directly for the Romans or for their client, King Herod. But God had given the land of Israel in a permanent promise to his people forever. So to collaborate with the Romans would have seemed self-evidently sinful.

Sinner or not, Zacchaeus wanted to see who Jesus was. Just what Jesus meant to him at that stage we have no way of guessing. People have probably always wanted to see celebrities. And Jesus, with his reputation already well established as a successful healer and exorcist, was certainly a celebrity – probably the biggest attraction to pass through Jericho in a long time!

Zacchaeus, seeking to see who Jesus was, may have had no more than just a natural curiosity – just as any of us at any particular time may have any number of natural human motives for anything we do, including coming to church. But, whatever our motives, at least we are here. And so it was with Zacchaeus. Whatever his motives for seeking to see who Jesus was, at least they got him there.

And then Jesus himself took over: "Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house." Jesus didn’t mull over Zacchaeus’ motives, and he didn’t wait for a proper invitation. Nor did he exclude Zacchaeus because of political disagreement, like some contemporary religious culture warrior. He took advantage of the situation and boldly invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house – as he continues now boldly to invite himself into our lives in this house of his Church today.

Traditionally, this gospel was read at the Mass for the dedication of a church – a usage suggested, perhaps, by Jesus’ words: "Today salvation has come to this house." For that indeed is the purpose of a church – why churches are such special places, why we build them, why we dedicate them, and above all why we attend them.

And salvation did come to Zacchaeus’ house that day, when in response to Jesus’ initiative, Zacchaeus received him with joy, boldly turning his own life around, and demonstrating in the process both the genuineness of his conversion and also how serious a matter it really is for someone to become a follower of Jesus: "behold, half 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."

Today – and everyday – salvation comes to this house also, this church, our house,  to which we have come in order to see Jesus, and within which (however imperfect or mixed our motives may sometimes be) Jesus boldly invites himself to stay with us. As the Pope himself has found it necessary to remind us, the Eucharist "is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak" [Evangelii Gaudium 47]. 

Here, we too can experience the real change Zacchaeus experienced – doing what we would never otherwise have done, becoming what we would never otherwise have become, a community of forgiven sinners changed by our faith in the One who invites himself to stay with us here in this house today.

Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 3, 2019.

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