The Tax Collector in the Tree

Looking  back, it’s hard to believe how long it’s been since I’ve posted.  But it seems I’ve developed arthritis in my hands and it’s very hard for me to type.  But I did preach this weekend so here’s my homily for the 31st Sunday of ordinary time.  I hope you enjoy it.  Meanwhile I’m looking into voice recognition software so I can type without using my hands.

“Before the LORD the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew upon the earth”.  But we have this all-powerful, all-knowing God who takes the time to care for each of us.  The Wisdom writer tells us that God overlooks our sins so we can repent.

 

Because, as we heard in the first reading, He loves all things that are and loathes nothing that He has made.  See, God doesn’t need me. He doesn’t need you. But He made us and so He loves us. If He didn’t love us, why would He have made us? “ His imperishable spirit is in all things.”

 

And, here’s the best part of the first reading, “You rebuke offenders little by little, warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O LORD!”

 

That’s why we come to mass every week.  God has prepared this handbook for us to remind us, to warn us, of the sins we are committing and to give us a chance to repent.  That’s a loving God. He doesn’t just give us the punishment we deserve, He gives us a way out. A “get out of jail free card” that we call the sacrament of reconciliation.

 

Then, at every mass God provides us with readings that rebuke us “little by little.”

 

Today’’s Gospel is a good example. 

Jesus in on the way to Jerusalem.  He passes through Jericho. Now Jericho isn’t just some backwater town.  It’s the oldest city in the world dating back to 8,000 BC. and it’s fairly big.  Luke tells us that there’s a man, Zacchaeus, who wants to see Jesus. Here’s the thing about Zacchaeus.  He’s a tax collector. And not just any tax collector, he’s the head tax collector. Tax collectors in Jesus’ day worked for the Romans.  They were basically enemies of the Jewish people. The way the system worked, the tax collector would come to your house and take whatever he could.  Then he would send what was actually owed on to Rome and keep the rest for himself. Tax collector didn’t have a lot of friends. And this guy wasn’t just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill tax collector, he was the head guy, a real favorite of the Romans.

 

Zacchaeus was also short.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that,  but he couldn’t get close to Jesus because he had no friends to help him and he couldn’t see over the crowd because he was vertically challenged.  So he had an idea. He ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore tree.  

 

The sycamore is a type of fig tree. It has large leaves.  In fact scholars believe the sycamore was the source for Adam and Eve’s fig leaves.  So, there’s a bit of historical significance to Zacchaeus hiding in this particular tree.  Adam and Eve hid themselves behind sycamore leaves and Zacchaeus hid in the sycamore tree.

 

So Zacchaeus is up in the tree and Jesus walks by.  He says “Zacchais, come down quickly for today I must stay at your house.”  Notice two things here.  First Jesus calls Zacchais by name.  Remember in the first reading from the book of Wisdom the writer tells us that to God, the whole universe is like a drop of dew.  Now, here’s Jesus recognizing Zacchaeus and calling him by name. He recognizes him just like He recognizes you and me. Don’t ever think that the Lord doesn’t take an interest in our lives.  He knows every single one of us and He knows everything we do.

 

Next, notice that Luke’s Gospel tells us at the very beginning of this passage that Jesus intended to pass through Jericho.  Now he’s telling Zacchaeus that He plans to spend the night. What’s up with that? Jesus sees this as a teaching moment. First then Zacchaeus says, “I’m going to give half of my possessions to the poor and, if I’ve cheated anyone (which we know he has) I’m going to pay them back fourfold.  It’s a win-win.  

 

Finally Jesus tells Zacchaeus, and the Pharisees, and you and me, “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 save what is lost.

 

It’s easy for us to feel like we’re not important or that God is so huge that he doesn’t have time for us.  But it’s just not true. God has a plan and we’re all part of it. We may not know or understand it, but it’s there.  Sometimes good things happen to us. Sometimes bad things happen to us. Sometimes we find ourselves asking, “Why me, Lord.”  Maybe a better question is “Why not me, Lord.”

The little tax collector, a man with no friends, became a lesson for millions of Christians.  You just never know how God is going to use us to benefit others.