HOMILY – OCTOBER 30
Most of us are as wary of a letter from the I.R.S. as we are of having a patrol car pull up behind us in traffic. The I.R.S. has a well-earned reputation as a ruthless collection agency, at least depending on which political party or elite group you belong to. One I.R.S. director was forced to resign a few years ago because she was heading the agency when certain groups annoying to the party in power were clearly targeted for audits and penalties and general harassment. Such shenanigans were no surprise to most of us, who have unfortunately become quite cynical about the lack of ethics of those in government.
However, whatever loathing we might have for I.R.S. agents individually or collectively, it really can’t compare with the way tax collectors in Palestine in the time of Jesus were despised. Because they were Jews who were hired by the Roman occupation to extract money from their own people, they were already identified as traitors to the nation. They were assigned a certain amount of tax money that they were to squeeze out of a given geographical area. To encourage the cooperation of these tax collectors, the Empire let them keep anything over and above their target – kind of like C.S.A.! (Omigosh, did I really say that??!!) And because the Empire looked the other way at how much MORE the tax collectors made over and above their assigned amount, many of them became extremely wealthy – at the expense of their hapless countrymen, whom they could order to be thrown in prison if they didn’t cough up the arbitrary amount they were charged. So, the tax collectors were seen not only as traitors, but as thieving crooks of the absolute worst order.
I say all this because we all hear the story about Zacchaeus and tend to think of him as kind of a lovable character, since Jesus goes to have dinner at his house. Jesus notes that salvation has come to his house, and that he is a “descendant of Abraham.” Zacchaeus has a nobility and a place in the house and nation of Israel that not even his sins can take from him. But that’s not the way the people saw it, certainly not the way the Pharisees saw it. Zacchaeus was a public sinner, a traitor, a thief. He had made his very comfortable living on the backs of his own people, maybe even on the widows and the poor. He wasn’t a businessman involved in a successful private enterprise. He made HIS wealth not by earning it, but by TAKING it from others.
You might compare Zacchaeus to someone like Bernie Madoff, whose pyramid schemes collapsed several years ago as Bernie “made off” with the money of hundreds and hundreds of people, most of them retirees who had trusted him and depended on him to invest their money and to help them live securely in their golden years. Bernie’s in jail forever, while those he defrauded are broke, ruined. There’s really no way to bring about real justice in a horrible turn of events like that.
You could also compare Zacchaeus, in a way, to the sleazy pornographers who make billions off other people’s biological interest in and psychological addiction to what they produce and sell. These are among the human traffickers who, to make their billions, destroy the bodies, hearts, minds, consciences, and souls of those who work for them as well as those to whom they sell their products. The Internet has made their “product” accessible even to young children, destroying at an early age any hope they might have had to experience the beauty and joy of loving and committed intimate relationships.
So Zacchaeus was no saint. And the crowd was stunned that Jesus would go to have dinner with him at his house. What had HE done to deserve this attention? The answer is: Nothing, except sin. What have YOU done to deserve God’s mercy? The answer is: Nothing, except sin. Because we are fallen, because we have no moral stature, we have no claim on the Savior. Oh, we NEED a Savior, but most people aren’t interested enough to even climb a tree to find him. He provides forgiveness, he lavishes it on us although we are unworthy. He extends a hand to us, whether we are up a tree or down in the gutter. And he says, “Your sins are not the end of your story. No matter what you’ve done, there is hope for you.”
Most of us love to see public sinners, or especially those who have sinned against us personally, humbled and crushed into the dust. THAT, we imagine, is the justice of God. But the Book of Wisdom in the first reading hints that God’s justice tends to FAVOR us sinners. It notes that God rebukes “offenders little by little.” That’s not fast enough for us, unless we’re the offenders in question. But it does teach us that each of us, saint and sinner alike, is precious in God’s sight with a dignity that even sin cannot erase, because we were created in God’s love. No matter the exact circumstances of our conception: GOD is our Creator, our father and mother are PRO-creators. God tells us through the prophet Isaiah in his chapter 49, “Even if a mother could forget the baby nursing at her breasts, even if she could forget the child of her womb, I will NEVER forget you!” Jesus puts those words into flesh, and invites US SINNERS to carry on the message. Who is up a tree or in the gutter, to whom YOU can extend your heart and hand in mercy each day? Do it in God’s name. There are still ‘way too many people who associate God’s name, and God himself, with damnation more than with eternal life. Put some flesh on the Scriptures for them. Give them a boost. They might not have the moral stature to see it on their own.