Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Wis ll:23-12:2; 2 Thess 1:11-2:2; Lk 19:1-10.]

I am old enough and have been around the monastery long enough to remember some of the rituals we used to observe in our refectory. The one in particular that I am thinking of is that, after we had come into the refectory and were seated at our place, we would have our hands folded on the table as we waited for the signal from the superior. Then, we would look to the right and to the left to see if our neighbors had everything that had been served. It was not permissible to ask for anything for yourself, so you were dependent on those next to you to see if the refectorian had forgotten anything. You returned the service to your neighbors, and knocked with a spoon on the table if they needed attention. This was one of the ritual practices that went out with renewal. People should be able to speak up for themselves, take responsibility for their own needs, be autonomous, etc. It was more efficient and simple just to get it for yourself. And so we moved into self-service. It is the modern way to eat. We have moved out of the middle ages.

Zacchaeus, in today's gospel, could almost be called a “modern man.” He is into efficiency and organization. As a tax collector, he has a lot of agents working for him. He has to pay the Romans up front for the taxes due, and then collect them from less-than willing subjects. But Luke says he was “very rich” which means he was very successful. He didn't let squeamish feelings stand between him and his profit. He could live with all the shame and ostracism coming from his decision to be a collaborator with the occupying powers and forsake his lineage and heritage as a Jew. He used the system to good advantage; was a good planner with foresight. He was practical. He could see the way Jesus was traveling and picked out a spot from which to see him. He was a self-made man.

This is the motto of modern person: who we are is what we make of ourselves. We are given the raw material, and then it is up to us to work it out as best we can. We are our own self projects. Ernest Becker calls this “causa sui.” But he says that this effort is really motivated by a fear of our own mortality. As the title of one of his books has it, it is The Denial of Death. Our life is an attempt to evade and escape what we know is unavoidable. Similarly, Herbert McCabe,O.P., has said that the root of sin is a fear that we are nothing; that if we were to look into our center there would be no one there and sin is the attempt to put something there. We cannot believe that we matter simply because we are. We construct a defensive wall against this fear and the fragility of our lives by efforts to find assurance, permanence, and security. We share in our culture's self-understanding as a self-contained and buffered entity, moved only by its own interior laws. Happiness and fulfillment must be wrested from the material available to our eyes and hands. This is the “house” we construct and live in. It is the set of assumptions, behaviors, and patterns that protect us from fear, loss, or failure. It is the way we imagine a salvation and life of our own making.

But I would like to return to that former ritual and its ability to let us focus on fundamental and “endangered” truths. With the daily repetition of the ritual, our bodies could relax enough to let a deeper truth break into awareness. The truth is that we cannot assure our lives by taking and demanding what we lack. We are needy and fragile beings who are more what we have received than “what we have made of ourselves.” It is almost impossible for us to realize and appreciate how much we have been unconscious beneficiaries of the goodness, kindness, generosity, and effort of others. This dependency extends to the past, to horizons of interrelationship, and to those who sit at our shoulders. That the gifts have come so gratuitously and with unobtrusive selflessness has often made them unnoticed. At the heart of our lives, we are needy, empty and dependent on the goodness of others to sustain us in life. We are not “buffered.” but porous and open-ended. And in this self-recognition, we recognize our mutual responsibility to sustain the life of others. We look to the right and to the left to see what is lacking for others. This is not a debility or diminishment, but it is “the name of Christ being glorified in you , and you in Him.” It is Christian hospitality, the Christ in us, coming to life in seeing the need of others.

When Jesus looks up at Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree and calls to him, I understand it as his calling Zacchaeus back to that original self he had as a child of Abraham. “Zacchaeus” means “pure, clean, innocent.” He called him by name and he called him back to the ground. His look was like the “absolute glance” of icons, in which the transcendent truth breaks through the disguises and deceptions. Zacchaeus was called by his name and his inner truth and joy sprang to life in him. When Jesus said “I must stay in your house today” he was articulating the divine imperative of the incarnation—of the Word coming to dwell with humanity, coming to stay in our house. To accept hospitality is to place oneself and the disposition and even the mercy of the host. It is to confess one's poverty and need. Jesus willingly entered into the house of Zacchaeus, into those walls of self-reliance and protection, to transform them from within. This is the Lord making us worthy of his calling. Little by little, he makes us aware of our sins, our deceptions, our lack of faith and trust. By confessing our poverty and need, by acknowledging that we cannot demand salvation, we become ready to receive it. Salvation will come to this house. It is a call and offer the Lord offers to our world and to each of us ready to offer hospitality to the Word and know the joy that the working of His glory can bring into our lives.

Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Mal. 14b-2: 2, 8-10; Thes. 2: 7b-13; Mt. 23: 1-12]

Because of the unity and simplicity of God and our fragmentation and complexity it is difficult, when not impossible, to express our call to holiness in a simple statement. At times we find ourselves making what seem to be contradictory statements. Perhaps the most common example is our effort to be both merciful and just. There are situations where being merciful to one person seems unfair to others. Conversely, there are situations where being just seems to involve being harsh, if not cruel. Being both merciful and just is a possibility for God. We struggle between the two and do the best we can.

This morning’s gospel is a warning against parading our religious practices before people. Yet earlier in the gospel Jesus has said that we should let our light shine before people so that they may see our good works and give glory to God. In a number of his letters St. Paul offers his own behavior as a model for his readers to imitate. This is a call to discernment that we need to always keep in our awareness. Our behavior may look the same, but are we seeking God’s glory, or are we using the practices of religion to gain glory for ourselves?

We may think that because Jesus is speaking about the scholars and leaders of the Jewish people his warnings do not apply to us. On the contrary, the temptation to vainglory is universal. So too is the call to holiness, and we both manifest and realize our call to holiness through our behavior. Through the example given by our behavior we can encourage one another to live a Christian life and we complete our desire to be faithful followers of Christ by behaving according to the teaching and example of Christ. However, through our behavior we can also be a burden to each other rather than support one another. We can be a scandal to other Christians and to non-believers by our speech about living according to the Gospel and behavior that contradicts what we say.

We should always act and speak in ways that will proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to those we meet; but in order to be effective witness to the gospel our actions and our speech need to be the expression of hearts that are sincerely seeking the glory of God. Yet when we look into our hearts we often find ourselves pulled in two directions. We want to work for the glory of God, but we also want the applause of others for what we do. We need not be discouraged because our motives are mixed. Purity of heart is our goal and the Holy Spirit will bring us to our goal in his time and in his way if we cooperate with him. For the present we need to humbly acknowledge the ways we fall short of purity of heart and look to Christ for mercy and forgiveness. This is what the Scribes and Pharisees refused to do. If we humble ourselves before Christ and before one another, Christ will exalt us with the only glory that is not vain. We will share in God’s own eternal glory. Encouraged by the word of God and strengthened with the body and blood of Christ we are able to continue with hope along the way to glory.

Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Wis 11:23-12:2; 2 Thess 1:11-2:2; Lk 19:1-10]

Today’s gospel is a memorable one for me. Through a series of hard-to-believe events I found myself on the 4th of July, 1993 at Conception Abbey. I was staying at their guest house, pondering whether to come back to the church after being away for about 25 years. I decided it was time and approached one of the priests and told him of my situation and my desire to return. I thought there would be a lot of paperwork, in triplicate, sent to the Vatican and then weeks or months of waiting for a decision. Instead he gave me a guide to an examination of conscience and told me to meet him in front of the abbey the next morning; he would hear my confession and I’d be back in! I cautioned him not to hear it right after eating so we met at 9:30. After about an hour he assigned me a penance and it was to read and meditate on this gospel. At the time I wasn’t sure what meditating was, so I decided to think about it instead.

What I thought about was that Zacchaeus, when he had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, had a radical change in what he thought it took to make him happy. I, too, was aware of undergoing a big change in what I thought it took to make me happy.

Over this weekend most of our retreatants have been studying Psalm 72: “To be near God is my happiness.” This is what Zacchaeus found out; this is what I found out. The longing for happiness—and the sorrow that comes from seeking it in all the wrong places—ultimately leads one to God. This is what Zacchaeus found out; this is what I found out.

In studying Psalm 72 we found different views of what makes for happiness. The secular view, in biblical times as well as today, is that happiness consists in having what one desires. Whether one desires varied pleasures, possessions, or status the important thing is to possess, to have under ones permanent control the object of one’s desires. Like Zacchaeus, the psalmist is first lured to this because he sees so many people appearing to be happy by pursuing this way. But then something happens…

We begin to realize that the secular objects of happiness do not last long. Because they don’t endure, they don’t make us happy; they just entertain us for a while. People in the media who seem to be happy with these things only fascinate us; we don’t really admire them. As St. Augustine said, they are not truly happy, but only bravely unhappy.

This describes Zacchaeus and me: we had been bravely unhappy. In the secular world it has never been politically correct to admit that pleasure, possessions, and status does not really make one happy. They just help us avoid awareness of something that would be terribly upsetting. The secular world tries to avoid crisis; the Christian obeys it.

There was the nagging idea that happiness was somehow connected to goodness. But good at what? Being a consumer?!

The happiness—the completion, the fulfillment—of humans necessarily depends on what humans are. And what we are is what we must be good at. We are creatures made in the image and likeness of God. His image is our freedom; his likeness is his goodness. We will be happy in the measure that we grow in and are transformed by the goodness of God. Happiness is a way of life ordered to loving, possessing, and enjoying what is supremely good for us.

What Psalm 72 and the story of Zacchaeus shows is a fundamental truth of life: Happiness is a gift of God. It is not achieved by one’s own unaided effort. Perfect happiness consists in the loving contemplation of God attainable only in the next life.

In our lives here on earth we have an imperfect happiness. Like Zacchaeus we live toward the perfect happiness by lives of virtue ordered to the kingdom of God. We can only do that—choose the distant good over the immediate pleasure—by a life of faith. That faith is in the conviction that “to be near God is my happiness.” The way to be near God is by love of Him and love of neighbor.

Happiness received is God’s love for us; happiness returned is our love for God; happiness passed on is our love for one another.

Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Mal 1:14b-2:2; 1 Thess 2:7b-9, 13; Mt 23:1-12]

Fr. AlbericReading the magazine Christian Century recently, I came upon an article written by an army chaplain currently ministering to our troops in Iraq. He quotes a decorated Vietnam war hero who once said to him in a confidential moment: “The military uniform is humanity’s badge of shame.”

The chaplain’s own experience in Iraq, it seems, has led him to take a somewhat more nuanced position, and he goes on to relate how, one night at a bible sharing with a group of soldiers, one of them asked him: “How can anyone be engaged in this war and be a faithful Christian?” The chaplain reflected a moment and then replied with these words: “Imagine you are a soldier positioned outside a Nazi Concentration Camp. You see a Nazi standing at the gate and a line of gaunt prisoners being led to the gas chamber. You have to make a choice. You can do nothing while the inmates are led to their death, or—you can shoot the guard and end the march to the ovens. In short, you are forced at this moment to decide who to love. Sometimes, this world that God created and which is also sinful, makes us choose whom to love. That’s it”.

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus tells us we should avoid being called “rabbi”—teacher; there is one who is teacher—all the rest are learners, and it appears he was critiquing the Scribes and Pharisees who, in the minds of most Christians, are “false teachers” par excellence. We often think of the Scribes and Pharisees as malicious people as if they taught what was false in order to deliberately mislead others. But it may be that, in the circumstances in which they found themselves, certain false beliefs appeared to them, to be true.

Likewise, in the case of the chaplain whose teaching we just heard. His words might have sounded quite convincing in the context in which he found himself: among soldiers on the eve of battle. Even so, it is my opinion that he shared as a private individual and not as a Christian minister this teaching that: sometimes we have to choose whom to love and whom not to love. Jesus nowhere teaches this. Love your enemiesJesus taught we are to love our neighbor as ourselves and that among our neighbors are our enemies, which teaching, it appears, leaves us no choice, absolutely no choice about whom we will love and whom we will not love, reserving to ourselves, in the case of the second group, the option of killing them. We are to love our enemies, even Hitler’s Nazis; even the Al Queda terrorists responsible for killing thousands of our loved ones on Sept 11.

After September 11, many people wondered out loud: “How does a human being become like Muhammad Atta, the ringleader of the infamous hijackers? How do you become the kind of person who gets up one morning,
Dresses himself, drives to the airport, checks his bags, boards a plane, and then methodically, brings about the violent death of thousands of innocent people. How does a man become like that?

I think you become Muhammad Atta gradually, by steps, and if you wish to avoid ever becoming Muhammad Atta, I would suggest that of all the steps involved, the one you want to take greatest care to avoid at any cost—is the very first step. And you had better be on your guard brothers and sisters, because in our confused and sinful world, there is someone standing very near you; someone basically thoughtful and well-intentioned, who is ready to assist you in taking that first fatal step: he might be an uncle; he might be a favorite teacher at school; he might even be a Christian chaplain.

Did you notice, in the story told by our chaplain that “the Nazi”; the one we’re permitted to “take out” with the chaplain’s blessing—did you notice the Nazi didn’t have a name? Did you notice the Nazi didn’t have a face? And did you notice that he was described by the chaplain not as a person; not as this or that particular Nazi, but simply, “a Nazi”, which word is indeterminate and actually connotes a group, and so this Nazi, also didn’t have a soul? Now what is your impression—is this “Nazi” we’re talking about a human being, seeing as he has no name, and no face, and no soul? But how did this Nazi ever become so utterly bereft of all human qualities?

The chaplain is inadvertently demonstrating for us, that process by which ordinary people like you and I become killers. The very first step to becoming a conscious and deliberate killer is to make the person you intend to kill a thing; a thing without a name, without a face and without a soul; something alien; something from another planet; so utterly strange that in your mind, you and he no longer share a common humanity. DachauA killer first makes his enemy an alien, and he feels okay about killing an alien. It’s not like killing a human being after all, and yet, the bible teaches very clearly that it is wrong for you to kill or in any way to harm an alien. Do you know why? The reason is fascinating: because, the bible explicitly says: “You were once aliens yourselves.” An alien—me? Yes, that’s what the bible says. You yourself—were once an alien.

Jesus chose to die on the cross rather than to secure justice through violence. Why? Why did Jesus make that choice? It is because at a mysterious moment long ago, in utter darkness, when the night was midway through its course, and the whole world was still, the Almighty Word of God leapt down from his throne in heaven and became an alien. God became an alien, and that’s why violence was really never an option for Jesus, because when Jesus who was the Love of God incarnate, looked at you and at me, he saw himself, an alien; and loving every one of us aliens in whom he saw himself, Jesus never could bring himself to kill or in any way harm a single one of us, even those of us who would eventually destroyed him.

But I’m beginning to sound like a teacher, and in light of this morning’s gospel, that makes me uneasy. And so, let me conclude by speculating what Jesus himself might do if he were cast as a character in the chaplain’s story. A Nazi is standing guard over a line of people being marched to the gas chamber. A soldier with a clear shot at him holds a loaded gun, and a chaplain, at his elbow has just said to the soldier: “My son, if in circumstances such as these you decided to kill that—”Nazi”, it would be okay.” Whereupon the soldier turning to the chaplain says: “Sir, I cannot kill him.” “Oh?”, says the man of God, “and why is that?” At which point, the soldier turning and looking directly into the chaplain’s eyes, reveals himself to be Jesus Christ the Lord, who goes on to say very, very tactfully, “Well, you see sir, it’s because—I know that man. That man . . . is me.”

Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Wis 11:23-12:2, 2 Thess. 1:11-2:2, Luke 19:1-10]

Fr. Stephen“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He ran to climb a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.” Zacchaeus had his shortcomings. He was like a frustrated child standing behind a wall of grownups at a parade. Small in stature, he was nonetheless a big time operator in the rich city of Jericho who knew how to get what he wanted and rose to the top of his profession as a chief tax collector. Now, he seizes the moment and rises again, this time up a tree, literally going out on a limb where he perches on one of the overhanging branches like a ripe fig ready to be plucked. “Rotten fruit,” some would say. But Jesus looked past the wrinkled outer skin and saw what Zacchaeus could become, good fruit, a righteous man. That is what his name actually means. For others his name was in direct contradiction with his life. They only saw the surface. Jesus saw the heart of Zacchaeus, where something new, fresh and pure was stirring.

Zacchaeus, come down quicklyFeelings ran high against this lowly tax collector, this collaborator with the Romans who lifted himself up above his own people. Do you remember photographs taken after the liberation of Paris during World War Two? There is one of a young French woman walking shamefully down the street with a baby in her arms. The child was fathered by a German soldier. The woman’s head is bowed and shaved to the bone. She is followed by a jeering crowd of neighbors, hatred drawn on every face.1 That is how Jews in the time of Jesus looked at tax collectors. They were collaborators with the enemy, helping to maintain the alien, pagan power of Rome. They made a living at the expense of their own countrymen. They were shunned on the streets, unwelcome in any respectable home, excluded from religious celebrations. No decent person would stop to talk with a tax collector as Jesus did.

People judged Zacchaeus by his past. But Jesus saw what Zacchaeus could become, just as Michelangelo could see the beauty of the Pieta in a rough, jagged block of marble. Graced by Jesus, the mercurial Simon bar Jona became Peter the rock; the persecutor Saul became Paul the apostle; the wealthy Francesco Bernardone became St. Francis of Assisi, lover of Lady poverty.

People looked down at Zacchaeus as a sinner, getting their daily exercise by jumping to condemnations. But Jesus looked up at Zacchaeus, and saw a child of Abraham ready to leap into the life of grace. Jesus said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, I must stay at your house today!” There was urgency in his words: “Come down quickly!” St. Benedict, in the Prologue of his rule for monks, writes, “While there is still time … let us run to do now what will profit us for all eternity.” Jesus urged Zacchaeus to seize the opportunity, to do quickly what would profit him for all eternity. And he did.

The Ladder, by St. John ClimacusOnce Satan asked three devils how they would tempt people to sin. The first said, “I will tell them there is no God, no heaven, no hell. It doesn’t matter what you do. Eat, drink and be merry.” Pleased, Satan replied, “Go, you will deceive many.” The second devil said, “I will tell people that God and heaven exists, but there is no hell, no purgatory. Do what you want and be happy ever after as well.” Satan smiled wickedly and sent him on his way. The third devil said, “I will tell them that God and devils exist. Heaven, purgatory and hell are real. The bible is inspired, and Christ is the Son of God. I will say they must make a choice between good and evil, between serving the Lord or serving you and being lost forever.” Satan frowned. He could hardly believe his burning ears. In his anger he was about to hurl this stupid fallen angel back into the fiery pit. But then the third tempter said, “Yes, they must make a choice, but I will tell them there is no hurry.” Suddenly, Satan’s eyes blazed with satisfaction. “Go,” he said, “your deception is the best of all.”

Zacchaeus lost no time. First he ran to the sycamore tree. Then, when Jesus called, he quickly came down, and as quickly changed his life. He did not delay his decision to love Jesus more than his own wealth. What a great contrast there is between this wealthy sinner in the city of Jericho who joyfully received the Lord and the rich young man who met Jesus on the road to Jericho, who had obeyed all the commandments, but went away sad because he loved riches more than Jesus. He did not seize the moment of grace to be a companion of Jesus when Jesus offered it to him.

Zacchaeus ran to follow Christ and salvation came to his whole house. The rich young man delayed, turned his back on Jesus and went away sad, taking his whole house with him. Their decisions affected the lives of families and descendants for years to come, maybe for centuries. Neither man knew that if he delayed it would be too late, because Jesus was passing through Jericho for the last time. He was on his way to be crucified in Jerusalem where two thieves would be perched on the branches of their trees on Calvary. One missed the opportunity to leap into grace. The other seized the moment and expressed his penitent love, saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Today you will be with me in paradise.

Like Zacchaeus we all have our shortcomings, our sins. May we also be like him by seizing the moment whenever grace is offered to us. “While there is still time … let us run to do now what will profit us for all eternity.” Later it might be too late.