WISDOM 11:22-12-:2 | 2 THESSALONIANS 1:11-2:2 | LUKE 19:1-10
Today we hear a story about a short man who is (literally) up a tree. Zacchaeus is well known by the people of Jericho, and the many traders and 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 beautiful 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 because the major trade route of the Middle East passes through the Jordan Valley and Jericho. Zacchaeus is one of the tax collectors who taxed goods as they passed through on their way to markets throughout the empire.
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 restore 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, socialize with him. But in an instant everything changes. Jesus, the healer and holy man, has just called him by his name! He wants to go 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 absolution. “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 ourselves 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 merchants, 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.
SIRACH 35:12-14, 16-18 | 2 TIMOTHY 4:6-8, 16-18 | LUKE 18:9-14
We’re continuing our reflection on prayer this week. Last week’s gospel passage was a teaching about the efficacy of stamina in prayer – never give up. In this week’s passage, Jesus spun another parable exposing a serious blockage to prayer’s efficacy. It’s about two men praying in the temple.
One was an ultra-orthodox Pharisee. The literal meaning of the word Pharisee is: “one who is separated.” The members of this religious sect saw themselves as separate from the rest of humanity because of the depth of their commitment to the minutiae of the law. This Pharisee’s commitment was impressive. He fasted twice a week. Jewish law prescribed only one obligatory fast day, Yom Kippur. He gave tithes on everything he owned. The law prescribed tithing only produce. The Pharisee’s prayer that day consisted of reminding God how he stood apart from the rest of humanity. He even looked with disgust at the tax collector who was praying near him. “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.”
The tax collector’s prayer was very different. He “would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God be merciful to me a sinner.’” In fact, a more accurate translation of the tax collector’s prayer would be: “O God, be merciful to me THE sinner.”
The Pharisee’s prayer boasted of his elevated status among other Jews because he fasted more often and more intensely, and because he tithed more lavishly than the ordinary people. The Pharisee wore his religion on his sleeve, and he was damn proud of himself! He wasn’t praying. He was boasting.
In the eyes of his fellow Jews, the tax collector was judged as a national traitor because he collected taxes for the Roman occupiers. He most likely, as was all too common in Jesus’ day, extorted more than enough money to cover the tax to Rome. The extra money went into his pocket. Rome didn’t care as long as the taxes kept flowing in. His prayer came from a heart full of sorrow and contrition. He stood alone and naked before God – he was THE sinner. He gave no excuses. He simply stood before God in humility and sorrow.
The parable told us that the tax collector was justified; the Pharisee was not. In other words, the tax collector was healed – his spirit was redirected toward the divine life. The Pharisee left the temple bloated by his own self-importance and spiritual narcissism.
Jesus was teaching us that fruitful prayer must be honest prayer. We can not, and should not, ever compare our spiritual lives to others. When we pray, we need not hide anything from ourselves or God. When we pray openly and honestly, we expose our weaknesses, our strengths, our joys, our sorrows, our successes and our failures.
An open heart is the path to God, and God’s path to us. That’s what it means to be justified to take the life-long journey of spiritual healing.
EXODUS 17:8-13 | 2 TIMOTHY 3:14-4:2. | LUKE 18:1-8
We have another parable for our reflection today. Right up front, we’re given an interpretation. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” We then go on to hear of a widow who’s nagging a corrupt judge to render a just decision regarding her case. We have to remember that in Jesus’ day the Roman judges in Palestine were generally corrupt. Being a poor widow, she wouldn’t have the money to pay him off, so she nagged him so much, and with such intensity that, fearing for his safety, he rendered a just decision for her.
OK. When you’re praying FOR something, never give up. The parable is teaching us that God WILL answer your prayer. But don’t you find it strange how Jesus concluded this teaching? “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” I thought about this a lot. A memory came to me that I’d like to share with you.
My uncle never married and lived with his mother his entire life. He was alcoholic. My grandmother prayed for him every day. I know she did because she asked me to pray for him, too. She had tremendous faith. She went to Mass every day and often brought me to rosary and benediction in the afternoon. God was her rock, the solid foundation she stood on. Two weeks after she died at the age of 78, her son died. Did God answer her prayers?
I look at it this way. My grandmother was a pillar of strength. She prayed. She wept. She never gave up on God. Her faith in God kept her going and kept her strong. She was the pillar her son clung to for many years of his life though he would never had admitted it. She died a valiant woman. My uncle died a son who never lost his mother’s love. My uncle died healed and redeemed by that love.
God’s love is a mystery. When our faith compels us to pray for one another, to pray for peace, to pray for healing, we dip our hands into that mystery. We sign ourselves with it. That’s the faith the son of Man will search out. That’s the faith that redeems the world.
2 KINGS 5:14-17. |. 2 TIMOTHY 2:8-13 | LUKE 17:11-19
We often turn to this account of the ten lepers who were cured by Jesus. We read it on Thanksgiving Day as a reminder to be thankful for all God has given us. But that sentiment, though good and noble, only brushes the surface of its teaching. Let’s look at the passage closely.
Jesus was making his last journey to Jerusalem. He’ll be arrested there and executed. He and his disciples were making their way through Galilee, the northern most area of what today we call Israel, just west of the Golan Heights. Jesus grew up there in Nazareth. The group was heading south to Jerusalem in Judea and were going to make their way through unfriendly Samaria. The hatred between Jews and Samaritans could be attested to by a gauche custom that Jews had if they were unfortunate enough to pass through Samaritan territory. Upon leaving, they would take off their sandals and beat the unclean dust of Samaria from them so they wouldn’t pollute the pure soil of Israel with it.
The group was about to go through the town gate. They were most likely planning to buy provisions or, perhaps, to spend the night. They suddenly heard voices shouting out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us.” A group of lepers had spotted him. They may have had a camp outside the town since they were forbidden to enter. Even at this moment they were some fifty yards away and as was the custom.
Jesus shouted back at them. “Go. Show yourselves to the priests.” Only a priest, after examining a leper, had the authority to declare a person cured and therefore admitted back into society.
The group of lepers started to walk away, presumably going to the priests. As they walked away they were cured. The blotches and ulcers dried up leaving no trace of the disease. One of the lepers realized that he was cured and returned to Jesus to offer profound thanks. Jesus told the leper, “Stand up and go! Your faith has saved you.” The ten lepers were cured. One was saved. What’s going on here.
Luke’s gospel is interesting in that it stresses the theme of journey. After Mary was told that she was to be the mother of the Messiah she traveled to her cousin Elizabeth. Mary traveled again to Bethlehem where she gave birth to her child. She traveled with
Jesus and Joseph to Egypt when Herod was determined to kill her child. When he came to adulthood Jesus traveled the length and breadth of Judea, Galilee and Samaria. He also traveled to the areas we today call Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Along the way, he and his disciples stopped to have dinner with a variety of people, friends and foes alike. He taught along the way and healed people along the way. Some literally followed him, others followed him by changing their hearts. Some were cured.
These ten lepers were sent on a journey to present themselves to the priests. From there they would return to society. But one returned to Jesus before he went to the priests. This was a special person. He wasn’t a Jew. He was rejected by society because of his illness, and was rejected by the Jews because he was a Samaritan. He wasn’t just cured he was saved. He was saved when his journey brought him back to Jesus to give thanks.
Luke’s theme of journey, meeting Jesus along paths of life, is an important part of this account. This man’s journey had led him away from the comfort of society and family to the horrible isolation of leprosy. He knew Jesus was a healer and so he screamed out to him for help. But unlike the other nine he took another road. He took short journey back to Jesus. He knelt down and gave thanks.
This journey is oh so subtle, but so beautiful. To give thanks, efharisto in Greek, would have rung a bell in the ear of every first century Christian. This was a reference to the Eucharistic gathering of the Christian community. This social outcast, this man in need of healing, found his way home. He was saved. He recognized Jesus, reached out to him and was healed by him, and when he opened his heart in thanksgiving he became one with the great community of thanksgiving, the Eucharistic community.
We’re all parts of various communities. But one is especially life-giving, the Christian community. In our gatherings we meet Jesus in the teachings he delivers to us. We’re strengthened to continue our journey when he feeds us with himself, the bread of life. We’re healed and saved when, like the leper, we return over and over again to give thanks.
Today’s gospel passage begins with the disciples petitioning Jesus. “Increase our faith!” They’re saying this with their hands thrown up in the air in despair. Jesus had just told them that they must always forgive a brother who has wronged them. He put a number on it – seven times – even seven times in one day! The rabbis taught that a person would be perfect if they forgave a brother three times. Jesus doubled that number and added another one for good measure. He was serious about it. The ability to forgive was essential for his disciples. He followed up by noting a common practice.
When the master of the house sees his slaves coming in from the fields at the end of the day, he doesn’t ask them to sit at his table and have dinner with him. He expects them to begin making his dinner and then serving him and his family. They will eat later.
Jesus’ example understandably rubs us the wrong way. But his message behind the example needs to be heard, and should challenge us just as it challenged his disciples that day. We, too, should be throwing our hands up in the air crying, “Lord, increase our faith!”
Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Work. Work. Work.
Jesus is warning all of us that being a Christian is hard work. Living the life of a disciple is a challenge every day. There’s a teaching, there’s a parable meant for every single one of us. That’s why we read them over and over again every time we celebrate our Eucharist. Every time we hear them, we hear something new. We’re challenged in a new way.
I spend a good deal of time writing these reflections every week. My working to discover the deeper meaning of an event or a teaching isn’t a work of scholarly research. It’s my audience with Jesus. Sometimes he consoles me. Sometimes he heals me. Sometimes he challenges my faith. I struggle with him and his message before I share anything with you.
“When you have done all you were commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”
This last line of the gospel passage isn’t meant to be a guilt trip. It’s a plea not to give up. Every single day of our lives offer an opportunity to grow. We won’t be finished growing until we hear him say, “Come, you blessed of my Father; inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”