Sunday Gospel Reflection for 31st Sunday of the Year, October 30th Written by Fr Brian Maher OMI
The story of Jesus stopping to call the ‘small’ Zacchaeus from the tree in order to dine with him is one of the most likeable stories in the Gospels. It is often used in children’s liturgies because of its drama and pictorial qualities.
For children it can be a pleasant and edifying parable about forgiveness and repentance.
But for us adults, who seek to walk with Jesus the roads and trails of Israel as he walked them, we must be open to the very real challenges he placed before his listeners. We must do this because, by association, Jesus lays the same challenges before us today.
Could you imagine Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis sitting down together to a State Dinner in Moscow at this time?
Outrageous, you say. Impossible to even contemplate.
And yet, what Jesus did when he stopped and invited himself to dine with Zacchaeus, the chief Tax Collector of Jericho, was just as outrageous to those listening to him.
So why would he purposely do such an outrageous thing?
Join me in reflecting on this Sunday’s Gospel.
I well remember, at about the age of seven, a wonderful Presentation Sister, as she prepared us for our First Confession, holding up a series of cartoon images of the Zacchaeus story, and being really fascinated by this ‘small’ man who climbed a tree in order to see Jesus. I mean, as a young boy, climbing trees was what we always wanted to do (and were usually forbidden by fussy parents!), so any adult who climbed trees, for any reason, was a hero!
The story of Zacchaeus, found only in the Gospel of Luke, is one of those really memorable interactions of Jesus with people. There is humour in the idea of Zacchaeus scurrying up a tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus, and drama in Jesus stopping and calling him down. Then, of course come forgiveness and repentance, the messages of the story.
It can be read as a simple parable, slightly amusing but with a clear message, and it is perfectly OK to do that – for children…
…But for adults, who seek to walk the streets and trails of Israel with the man who walked those streets and trails two thousand years ago, we must allow ourselves to enter into his world and listen to him as those first listeners did. Doing that reveals a very adult story with a very adult meaning; a meaning which both intrigues me and leaves me slightly troubled.
Imagine this if you can:
The Vatican makes a grand announcement that Pope Francis has accepted an invitation from Vladimir Putin to make a State visit to Russia and while there to attend a formal State Dinner with him in Moscow. Imagine the outrage around the world. Imagine the headlines, ‘breaking news’ reports, and editorials. How could a person of influence in world politics agree to be pictured with a man who had invaded another country, bringing death and destruction to a peaceful nation? Why would the Pope allow himself to be used to give prestige and credibility to a tyrant?
The outrage would be huge and justified. Presidents, Prime Ministers and Heads of State around the world would outrightly condemn the visit, calling on the United Nations to formally sanction the Vatican for what it did. The sanction would, of course, be vetoed by Russia and China and get nowhere, but the damage to the Pope and the Church would last a long time.
If you struggle to imagine the above scenario, finding it too incredible to even contemplate, then you also will struggle with the image in today’s Gospel of Jesus calling Zacchaeus from his tree and going to dine with him. For the people of Jericho, what Jesus did when he stopped under that tree was just as outrageous as Pope Francis accepting an invitation to visit Russia at this time.
In Jericho, the story of what Jesus did would spread like wildfire through the city: Jesus, the prophet and healer, some said even the Messiah, had singled out probably the most hated man in Jericho, (a senior Tax Collector), and had actually invited himself to dine with him, in his house, with his entire family! The Pharisees, teachers of the Law, and every good living Jew in the city would be outraged and furious. They would denounce him and mutter among themselves that something needed to be done to stop this desecration of their Religion. It was unthinkable that a man claiming to be of God, and speaking about the expected coming of the Kingdom of God, would collude with traitors openly working for the tyrant Roman Emperor, who himself claimed to be a God!
If Jesus wanted to create a stir in Jericho, or shock and horrify the population of that city, he could not have chosen a better way to do it. He acted publicly and in a calculated way, calling the traitor Zacchaeus, not to sanction or condemn him as he should do, but to invite himself to dinner with him.
Did Jesus know what he was doing? Of course he did!
If this is a parable and not an actual incident in the life of Jesus then its meaning is significant. But if it is, as it is written by Luke, a memory of a real event in Jesus’ life, then it becomes critical for us to ask ourselves why would Jesus, a practising Jew himself, who attended the synagogue every Sabbath, do such a thing?
Was Jesus just wanting to highlight God’s forgiveness? I don’t think so. The incident is too big and too public to be just that. Jesus, before many of his healings said, “your sins are forgiven…” Anyway, the story is clear that Zacchaeus was in the tree because he was “curious” to see Jesus and not because he sought forgiveness. His conversion and repentance came later, after Jesus had called him and gone to dine with him.
Once again, as I have said in many of these reflections, I can’t escape the thought that Jesus’ real and urgent concern is about the Kingdom of God he is proclaiming. It is almost as if he is shocking those present into realising that the coming Kingdom of God is not what they imagine it to be. It will not be a ‘holy huddle’ for Jews or an ‘inclusive club’ for the Chosen People . All will be welcome – even hated senior tax collectors, who aren’t even asking for forgiveness!
Jesus is putting before his hearers a new, strange and very upsetting image of the Kingdom of God.
Will God REALLY invite himself to dine with anyone and everyone? Sinners, traitors, prostitutes, thieves, the destitute, outcasts?
Is it a Kingdom where our enemies can be called to sit and dine with us?
Can it really be a Kingdom where sinners, traitors and outcasts are not only accepted but actually sought out and brought in as equals.
Jesus’ call to Zacchaeus was indeed outrageous and shocking (remember the image of the Pope dining with Putin!).
Yet he did call Zacchaeus, the sinner and traitor, and he did go to dine with him and his family, and he did say quite openly that he “came to seek out the lost.”
In 2013 Pope Francis published his first document called “The Joy of the Gospel.” When published it caused quite a stir. In it he said the following, all direct quotes:
“The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded.” (EG 23)
“The Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.” (EG 44)
“(The Church)… must not become a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed cluster made up of a chosen few. ” (EG 28)
Isn’t this, in 2023, almost exactly what Jesus was saying to all those present in Jericho, when he stopped and called ‘small’ Zaccheaus from the comfort of his tree?
The Kingdom of God we pray for every time we say the Lord’s Prayer is just as outrageous today as it was then. There are implications to what Pope Francis said in 2013 which are uncomfortable and challenging. To some they might even seem outrageous.
We are called, just as Jesus called his hearers in Jericho two thousand years ago, to witness to, and work for, the coming of God’s Kingdom – not OUR Kingdom but God’s Kingdom – even if we find it uncomfortable, challenging and even at times outrageous.
|Gospel Reading Sunday October 30th||Luke 19:1-10 ©|
Salvation comes to the house of Zacchaeus
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