The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time||October 31, 2004|
To begin our reflection today on the scriptures, I invite you to take a few moments to listen more deeply and carefully to that first lesson so that we might begin to get a deep sense of how utterly different God is.
God is above us. Beyond us. Totally different from us. We cannot think anything about God that is really true, because God just doesn't fit any of our categories.
The author of the Book of Wisdom is trying to help us to sense this, to be in awe of God.
He proclaims to God, "You are able to show your power at any moment, and who can resist the strength of your arm? For the entire world lies before you as a grain of sand, just enough to tip the scale. It's like a drop of morning dew falling on the ground." God is the creator of the whole universe.
I read an article this past week about the amazing advances that we have made in trying to understand the scope of the universe. With the Hubble telescope scientists are able to peer out into the universe almost to the very beginning where the first planets and stars began. Just within the small frame through which they look, they can see thousands of galaxies. When we look up on a bright night in the summertime and we see those millions and millions of stars, we are in awe, but there are thousands of galaxies throughout the whole of universe. It is way beyond what we can almost even imagine. The author of the Wisdom is telling us that God, because of God's power, looks upon all of that as if it were a grain of sand or a drop of dew on the grass.
But then what's even more amazing: "Because you are almighty you have the power to create, because of that you are merciful." Power we usually think of as crushing things or people. With God, power is mercy, and "you give your children time to repent." This God who created all of this, our author tells us: "You love everything that exists and you hate nothing that you have made. Had you hated everything you would not have formed it."
So our God is a God who has created this whole universe for us to experience and to rejoice in only because of love. The creative power of God's love has caused all of this to be, has caused each one of us to exist and continues to support our existence.
Without God, we would be nothing, we would disappear. There would be nothing. But it is God's constant creative love that supports us, continues to enable us to exist even for a second. If God ever stopped loving us we would not be.
As we think about this transcendent, indescribable God, I ask you to turn to the Gospel and look at Jesus. In this Gospel today, Jesus is demonstrating to us how God is the God of mercy, the God of constant, unbreakable love. Remember Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God. So when we look at Jesus we're seeing God within our midst.
It's so easy, I think, for us to miss the full impact of what happened there at Jericho those 2,000 years ago, because we don't have quite the same sense of how utterly despised a tax collector like Zacchaeus would be. A public sinner, he was working for the occupation army, and he was taking money from his own people, turning it over to the Romans. Furthermore Zacchaeus, Luke tells us, was actually a supervisor among the tax collectors. That means he was able to parcel out the jobs to others, and they would always give him a kick-back. So he was a person who defrauded, who cheated and who became very wealthy. Because he also carried on commerce with the Romans, with the pagans, with the outsiders, he was "unclean." He could not even participate in the temple worship. He was a sinner, despised and hated.
Remember what happened: Jesus is traveling with a crowd of people, and Zacchaeus is trying to see Jesus. Zacchaeus climbs a tree. As Jesus comes down the road, he looks up, sees Zacchaeus in the tree and says, "Come down. I have to stay at your house. You're going to be my host." It was a special honor -- in that culture especially -- to have someone in your house. So the people began to complain, grumble, murmur against Jesus: "He's going to the house of a sinner." Can you imagine that? Going to the house of a sinner, a public sinner who should be rejected?
But Jesus reflects so clearly the scripture "because you are almighty, you are merciful." God's mercy is without limits. God's mercy reaches out to the one who is most lost, to the one who is most alienated, to the one who is rejected, to the public sinner. Jesus will not exclude anyone. He welcomes the sinner, reaches out to the sinner with that infinite, unbreakable love of God. For every being. For every person.
As we try to get a full understanding of what happened that day, consider that we, probably, would have been among the crowd complaining, because we're not quite so quick to forgive, to reach out, to draw in, to include everybody no matter our idea of them.
But God's mercy is without limits. God's love is without limits.
Besides trying to get that sense of God's goodness, of God's love that goes with God's power, it's also important, I think, to look at this incident and discover how it happened. It's a story of an extraordinary conversion. It starts because Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus. Now he is a public sinner; he feels rejected, alienated, excluded from the community, but still he wants to see Jesus. So he makes an extraordinary effort. He almost acts like a little child; he runs and climbs the tree opening himself to ridicule and laughter. I'm sure that people thought that was pretty funny -- this wealthy, rich man climbing a tree. But he was willing to do it, because he wanted to see Jesus, to know Jesus.
Of course, as it turns out, Jesus has been looking for him. Jesus immediately looks up and says, "Come down, I'm going to come to your house today." He shows Zacchaeus this unbounded love. The man who is rejected by everybody else is welcomed by Jesus. The love of Jesus pours forth upon him. It is in that moment, I think, when Zacchaeus experiences that unbounded love of Jesus for him that he becomes aware of his own pettiness, his own sinfulness and his own unworthiness.
In the presence of such love, any one of us would be aware of our selfishnes, how we promote ourselves or how we look down on others . As you become aware of this and experience the love of God being poured forth, at that moment, you are healed. That is why Zacchaeus could say, "I'll give half of what I own, I'll give it away. I no longer hold that wealth for myself, I'll give it away. If I cheated anybody I'll pay them back four times as much." So Jesus can say to him, "Look, Zacchaeus, you are a true descendant of Abraham and Sarah. You are a faithful member of God's people because you're living up to the covenant. Giving away your wealth. Sharing it with others. Repaying four times whatever you got by cheating. That's what the Law required and you've done it. Magnificent. You are healed. You are whole. You are a true son of Abraham and Sarah."
As we reflect on this, I hope we begin to understand that God's love is present in our world right now, that Jesus is in our midst, that if we seek Jesus, Jesus will welcome us just as he welcomed Zacchaeus. Think about the ways in which we might try to see Jesus.
I remember the last time I went to Haiti, I went to the prison and saw the prisoners there. I hadn't thought of it ahead of time, but, in a sense, I was seeking Jesus, because Jesus said in the passage from Matthew, "When I'm in prison you came to visit me." I had that profound experience of Jesus being present right there. I'm sure it will happen again this week. When you go to seek Jesus in prisoners or among the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the sick, you see Jesus in all of those people and all of those places.
I have no doubt that you will come to know Jesus' love being poured forth upon you as Jesus finds you seeking him. His love will pour forth upon you, heal you, change you, make you whole, make you a person who loves even as Jesus loves.
We need so much this kind of healing love in our community and in our country, especially. As this election campaign has gone on, it seems clear that we have become more and more a divided people. There is much hostility over the different issues, over the candidates. It seems so clear, at least I've experienced this, that sometimes you take a position on one side of an issue and the people who are on the other side do not just disagree with you, they are hostile. That is a tragedy that has happened We are being divided.
Instead of seeking Jesus in one another and then coming to know his love, being made whole by that love, we're being driven apart. So perhaps this week, especially, we must try to seek Jesus in one another, even in those with whom we disagree, even in those with whom we have had some feelings of hostility. We must see Jesus in them also, and Jesus will be there and welcome us and heal us.
That way, we could begin to build true unity within our whole nation. As we grow in that spirit as one people, we could begin to seek Jesus in people in other parts of the world. We could look upon the people of Iraq not as enemies but as people in whom Jesus lives and find Jesus there if we seek Jesus. It could happen anywhere if we begin to look with the eyes of the author of the book of Wisdom to see the presence of God and God's constant creating love in every person, in every part of the universe. Except for God's love, nothing would be here.
God's love is present in the entire universe, in our entire world and in every person. When we seek God in that way God will come to us. Heal us and change us.
I hope that as we reflect on these lessons today we will see this as an opportunity for every one of us to undergo a profound conversion as Zacchaeus did so that God will say to us, not just that we are a son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah, but that we are sons and daughters of God, a brother and sister to Jesus who lives within us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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