Autumn has finally begun to show her face in the Big Apple. Spending the mornings at the Convent of the Sacred Heart where I minister as chaplain, I can view a great panorama of Central Park from the roof of the building. The red and yellow leaves shimmer with a wonderful muted light that only Autumn seems to be able to provide. Soon the leaves will blanket the ground – preparing the earth for its long winter’s sleep.
We’ve just paid homage to the arrival of Fall with three consecutive days of celebration: Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. But we continue reflecting on the sentiment of these three days for a month, until the beginning of our new Liturgical Year on the First Sunday of Advent. This week’s Gospel passage is in line with this Autumnal celebration. We’re thinking about life after death. This is introduced into the Liturgy through Luke’s account of a confrontation between Jesus and the Sadducees.
The Sadducees and the Pharisees were the two politi- cal/religious parties in Palestine at the time of Jesus. The Sadducees were the aristocratic ruling class, and were even more conservative than the Pharisees. They only acknowledged the first five books of the bible as truly revealed by God. They held that there was no resurrection of the dead, and that angels and spirits did not exist. They were in direct opposition to the Pharisees who were the more liberal political party. They accepted in its entirety what we call the Old Testament, and believed in the resurrection of the dead and the existence of angels and spirits. The two parties put aside their differences and united against Jesus.
In the passage today, the Sadducees attacked Jesus on his beliefs in the resurrection. In a question, they contrived a situation in which a man
died leaving his wife childless. They dug up an ancient and archaic Jewish law that obliged the brother of a deceased man to marry his brother’s wife in order to father an heir for him. They made the story extra ridiculous by saying that the man’s seven brothers married the woman but each died before they could produce an heir. Their question to Jesus was this: “In the resurrection whose wife will this woman be?”
Jesus’ answer was quit clear. At the resurrection there will be no marriage. We become like angels. We become the children of God. He went on to remind them of the scene from the book of Exodus when God spoke to Moses from the burning bush. Moses asked who was speaking to him. God said, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and God of Jacob.” Jesus went on to say that, “He is the God not of the dead but of the living, for to him all are alive.” In other words, death is not final. We live on.
The Church took this teaching of Jesus and linked it to a very popular pre-Christian, Gaelic celebration, Samhain (pronounced sow -in). The Church made it a three-day event: Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Samhain marked the day of the year when it was believed that the veil between the corporal world and the spiritual world was at its thinnest. It developed a spooky and fantastical side but, at its core, it celebrated the continuity of our lives in the material world and in the spiritual world on the other side of the veil.
The Church followed up by remembering all the Saints who have been crowned in heavenly glory. Then, in the feast of All Souls, it encourages us to remember our friends and relatives who have recently passed through the veil.
Reflecting on Mother Nature’s winter sleep, the Church invites us to celebrate the fullness of our lives, here, in the earthly kingdom and, when we pass over, in the spiritual kingdom of God. As this world retreats into winter hibernation, we ponder the day of our pass-over and resurrection.
Today we hear a story about a short man who is (literally) up a tree. Zacchaeus is well known by the wealthy people of Jericho, and the many merchants who pass through with their goods, because he’s the city’s tax collector. We’re told that he’s “a wealthy man,” which is a nice way of saying he’s an extortionist. Being a tax collector under the Roman occupation, he’s labeled a traitor and a thief, and is shunned by the city’s population.
Before we go on with the story, let’s get a better picture of this important town. Jericho lies about 15 miles northeast of Jerusalem. It’s an ancient city going back as far as 9,000 BC. It’s an oasis and enjoys the title, “the city of palms.” Because of its mild weather and beau- tiful springs, it attracts the rich and powerful. Herod has a summer palace there, and many
wealthy people from Jerusalem have villas there. It’s also important be- cause the major trade route of the Middle East passes through the Jor- dan Valley and Jericho. Zacchaeus is one of the tax collectors who taxed goods as they passed through on their way to markets throughout the em- pire.
Because Jericho is home to the rich and famous, celebrity seekers and the curious tend to mill along the roads entering and leaving the city. Beggars line the roads, too. Jesus, on his approach to Jericho that day, met a blind man who begged him to re- store his sight. “Jesus told him, ‘Have sight; your faith has saved you.’ He
immediately received his sight and followed Jesus, giving glory to God.” This new follower is among the crowd when Jesus enters the city and meets up with Zacchaeus.
Here’s the picture. Jesus of Nazareth, a well know personality in the Jewish world, has just entered the city after curing a blind man. There’s a noisy and sizable crowd following him. Zacchaeus sees the crowd approaching, and wants to get a glimpse of Jesus. But being too short to see over the crowd, and probably being elbowed by people who wanted to keep him away, Zacchaeus runs ahead and climbs a sycamore tree to get a good view of the healer from Nazareth. Lo and behold, when Jesus comes to the sycamore he stops. He looks up. Seeing little Zacchaeus hanging on to the branches, he says the most remarkable thing: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I
must stay in your home.”
People hate Zacchaeus. He’s lived a life of
corruption. He’s wealthy, but so what. He’s an outcast to his own people. Only his fellow outcasts, sinners and tax collectors, social- ize with him. But in an instant everything changes. Jesus, the healer and holy man, has just called him by his name! He wants to come to his home! From this moment on, Zacchaeus’ life will never be the same.
Immediately, the crowd begins to grumble because Jesus has invited himself to a sinner’s home, but little Zacchaeus stands up to them. Climbing down from the tree, he makes a public confession by announcing the amends he will make for his sins. “Behold, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I will repay it four-times over.” Without any hesitation Jesus gives him ab- solution. “Today, salvation has come to this house.” He then reasserts Zacchaeus into the community. He tells the crowd, “This man, too, is a descendant of Abraham.” Jesus follows this up with an important universal teaching. He announces to the crowd that, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
We mustn’t forget this teaching. Each of us, at one time or another, will find our- selves up a tree, in spiritual crisis. We might feel that we’re trapped in a life with no direction, no future. Asking God for help isn’t enough to change things. Sometimes we have to claim our part in creating the crisis, and we have to take aggressive steps to change. It’s never easy.
The blind man on the road to Jericho shouted out into the darkness that he wanted to see. Jesus heard him, recognized the depth of his faith, and announced his cure. Zacchaeus had extorted the mer- chants, and betrayed his people. The day Jesus came to town, his faith gave him the courage to publically confess his sins, and make amends to the community. By getting out on a limb, he was finally able to see Jesus. He took a chance, and Jesus entered his life that day.
The message for us is quite simple. Take a chance. Go out on a limb. It’s an important part of our spiritual lives. It can bring us healing. It can bring us a new life.
When it came to telling the truth, Jesus didn’t hold anything back. He was especially blunt with the religious leaders. For them, scrupulously following the rules and regulations of the law was the benchmark of true religion and what made a person righteous. Jesus often challenged their
teaching. Today’s parable is one of his most direct criticisms. Luke tells us that, “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteous- ness and despised everyone else.”
Right off the bat, Jesus focused the story on a particular group, the Pharisees, an ultraorthodox group that evolved from the scribes and sages and adhered to the strictest observance of the law. They reveled in their orthodoxy, and even took on themselves the name Pharisee, which means: “one who is separated.” They were haughty, and believed that, when it came to religion, they were better than most people.
In the parable Jesus juxtaposes a Pharisee and a tax collector. Remember that in the political climate of the day the tax collector was looked upon with loathing. Let’s face it, every- one hates paying taxes – and the tax collector would naturally carry the brunt of that hatred. But there’s more to the position of tax collector. Palestine was occupied by a foreign power,
Rome, and was taxed heavily. The tax collector was, by definition, a traitor be- cause he worked as an instrument of a foreign government to the detriment of his own people. Jesus begins the parable with a description of the Pharisee’s prayer.
He took a position in the temple where he could be easily seen by the people and spoke aloud. “O God, thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.” The picture I get from this one sentence is of a man looking over a crowd of worshipers with his nostrils flared as if smelling something quite disgusting. He’s haughty and filled with deepest disdain for the people he sees. His gaze rests on the hated tax collector. He immediately
voices a prayer thanking God that he isn’t like the tax collector. The Pharisee goes on to inform God of the depth of his commitment to the law. “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”
Jesus then focuses the parable on the tax collector who has found a private place to pray away from the people. He doesn’t dare look up to heaven. He bows his head, and begins to beat his breast as a sign of his sinfulness and repentance. He then quietly and simply pours out his heart. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
In this simple scene Jesus spins a teach- ing about the power of truth and the emptiness of self-delusion. The Pharisee proclaims himself the model of righteousness, bragging that he’s not dishonest, or greedy. He’s certainly not like this tax collector. How very true! In his prayer, the tax collector pours out his heart, honestly, and humbly con- fesses his frailty and struggles. He prays truthfully, and is rewarded. He returns home justified.
The Pharisee, on the other hand, is an empty shell of a person. He has abandoned his heart and soul. He doesn’t pray to God – he prays to the idol he has created. He worships himself and invites others to worship him. He did not go home justified. He went home more inflated and less alive.
Jesus ends the parable by warning us that “whoever exalts himself will be hum- bled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The parable is giving us a very simple teaching. When you or I honestly open up and, in painful humility, present our wounded and broken selves to God, God’s healing love rushes into our hearts. Will all our wounds disappear? Some will. Some won’t. Will we no longer be broken people? Maybe not! What will happen is much more important. God’s love of us will assist us in truly loving ourselves.
The Pharisee was in love with a false image of himself. That kind of idolatry doesn’t invite God’s healing love. Only our honest self- assessment, no matter how bad we may seem to ourselves, opens the floodgates of God’s healing love. When we accept ourselves for the broken and limited individuals we are, we can lay down our heads and rest peacefully in the knowledge that God loves who we are.