Deacon Cornellís Homily


Wisdom 11:22-12:2
2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2
Luke 19:1-10


October 30-31, 2010, Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

I once heard someone characterize the difference between Protestants and Catholics by saying that when Protestants have a different way of looking at faith, they start a new church; when Catholics differ, they start a new religious order. As you might know each religious order has a special charism or gift that is their hallmark: so the Dominicans are preachers, the Jesuits are educators as are my sister's order, the Sisters of the Divine Compassion, the Fransciscans espouse poverty, Missionaries of Charity provide care for the dying, and so on.

MIchael Bulson is a Deacon from the diocese of Salt Lake City Utah. In one of his published homilies he suggests (with his tongue in his cheek only a little), that he wants to start a new religious order called the Zacchaeans. Deacon Bulson suggests that the charism of the Zacchaeans would be zeal for Christ. Like their patron Zacchaeus the tax collector, this zeal would drive them to seek Jesus out, to endure crowds and obstacles to find him, to ignore taunts and insults, and they would not be afraid of being so foolish as to climb a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus. They would also be quick to offer half their wealth for the poor and to go overboard at fixing any error they might make.

Since we are focusing on the Bible this year in our parish faith formation, I thought I would look at this story with you today. This is a pretty familiar story to us and so it is easy to pass it by thinking we know exactly what it says to us. The commentators, however, are split on how to understand it. The majority of commentators explain it this way: Zacchaeus is a sinner who, after he encounters Jesus, undergoes a radical conversion. The other commentators see Zacchaeus as a righteous man from the start. I happen to think the text supports the less common interpretation.

So how do we approach a scripture passage to see if there is more than meets our initial understanding? One of my scripture teachers in formation suggests we trust the text. To do that we need to do some homework, since the language can mislead us, and looking at something written 2,000 years ago with a 21st century mindset can really mislead us. There are lots of resources we can use to do this homework.

Let's start with the Greek word that describes Zacchaeus (architelones). We heard it translated as tax collector but it is more properly translated chief toll collector. The land owners at the time had to pay taxes to Herod and they recouped these taxes by hiring toll collectors that were like customs officials. Often these toll collectors worked for a toll collector company that managed the tolls for a whole city or region. Zacchaeus runs a company that provides toll collection services for this region. So he had to collect enough money to pay the landowner what he contracted for, and then enough to pay his employees and make his own living. There is nothing in the text that said he did anything illegal or immoral in running his, apparently successful, business. The Pharisees, however, didn't look at his practices; they simply classified anyone who had anything to do with the Romans or their puppets (Herod) as sinners, outside the kingdom.

One hint as to how Luke saw this was that the name Zacchaeus in Hebrew means clean or pure. Also the verb we hear translated as "I shall give to the poor" in Greek is the present tense which is used commonly used to refer to iterative or customary behavior. So while Jesus has had to defend his associating with toll collectors back in Chapter 5 when he called Levi to be his disciple, now Zacchaeus stops the procession to his house to answer the Pharisees who are taunting him. He rebuts their accusations with the response that he regularly gives half of his wealth to the poor. And then overwhelmed by the presence of Jesus, he vows to go way beyond the Jewish law to repay anyone his workers may have defrauded. The law called for 120% restitution; Zacchaeus promises 400%.

Another powerful clue is where this story sits in Luke's Gospel. At the end of the last chapter (18) Luke relates the story of the rich young man who asks Jesus what he had to do to enter the kingdom. Jesus first tells him to follow the commandments. When the young man says he already did that, Jesus looks at him with love and tells him to sell everything and follow him. The young man walks away sad because he cannot give up his wealth. Jesus observes that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom. When the disciples ask who then can enter the kingdom, Jesus says that it is impossible for humans; only God makes it possible.

What do we hear when Jesus states that salvation has entered Zacchaeus' house/family? Is that just a vague concept? What if we take Jesus literally? Salvation is not a place or an idea or even a state of being; salvation is a person: Jesus is salvation. Jesus is God who makes it possible for even the rich to enter the kingdom. But as the contrast between the rich young man and Zacchaeus shows, we have to respond to God's love. So perhaps we have two stories of two rich and righteous men whose response to Jesus is quite different. One is too bogged down by his possessions to follow; the other responds with enthusiasm. Notice that Jesus does not challenge Zacchaeus to sell everything, perhaps because He knows that Zacchaeus is not owned by his wealth.

Suddenly this story changes from one of a man who we cannot identify with, a corporate sleaze who has gotten rich on the backs of others to one of a person just like us: we obey the commandments; we go to church; we're not sinners, for the most part. Now we have to pay attention because Jesus' actions tell us this is not enough. What is our response to encountering Christ, encountering salvation?

Christ has come to stay with us. How will we respond? Are we willing to make fools of ourselves for Christ? Are we willing to give half our wealth to help the poor? And just in case you think those are generic questions, are we willing to give some of our time to be an altar server, or to help with the art and environment for the parish? How about acting as an usher/greeter? Or serving on the Parish Pastoral Committee? Or spending a few evenings up at Cor Unum serving dinner with dignity? Or helping out with Generations of Faith or other aspects of our parish Faith Formation?

Ready to sign up as a Zacchaean? I'm heading out to look for a sycamore tree.

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