31st Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C
By Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB
Zacchaeus sure had everything going for him … money, power, influence … Whatever it took to sway people to his side, he had it … like the mysterious funds that flow every time there are elections in the Philippines, (and elsewhere), whether national or local (as indeed, we had, a few days ago).
Zacchaeus was a man in search. He sought money and found it – with a little help from what every notorious tax-collector in Jesus’ times would do – pad the receipts sort of, or its ancient equivalent. He sought the famous wonder-worker and almost did not find him … had he not exalted himself up on a sycamore tree. Zacchaeus sure is one man who knew how to get what he wanted. A man of means, he found out in no time the means to see the itinerant preacher and miracle-worker. But instead of the searcher finding, it became a case of the seeker being found. Instead of the exalted one remaining up on his perch, he was summarily brought down to the plane of reality. He who “lifted himself up” was told to “lower himself.” The sought for now seemed to seek for him: “Hurry down Zacchaeus, for I mean to stay in your house today.”
Zacchaeus was a man in search for surprises. Being up and about most days, seeking for new earnings, and a few more extra shekels here and there, he was a man about town. Jericho was the place to be, where business most certainly must have been good for a man like him. He must have been anxious to make a little more, and add a few more silver and gold coins to his ever growing stack.
But he who sought surprises was sought by the biggest surprise of all. Someone big knew him! Someone sought after by crowds was seeking for him! Standing unique above “the rest of humanity,” whom the Pharisee of last week’s Gospel loved to look patronizingly on, Jesus the wonder-worker did not seem to hate him like all the others. He seemed not only to know him, but also to actually like him!
There is something heartwarming and hope-inducing in today’s readings as to be almost like a refreshing oasis in a desert of hopelessness and meaninglessness. What is this desert like, you might ask? The first reading enumerates for us the utter insignificance of all we hold dear … 1) “the whole universe is as a grain in a balance ...” 2) “a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth …” But against this desert backdrop of utter insignificance is a picture of solicitous love that is unparalleled, unequaled, and untrammeled even by all the worldly things people all over the world search for. “For [He] loves all things that are, and loathes nothing that [He] has made.”
Yes … God loves even the sinful tax collector. Why, He even loves you and me … at times even worse than the hated Zacchaeus.
St. Paul knew this truth first hand, from personal experience. He was so convinced of this that his prayer today oozes with the moral certainty of faith. It is a faith that already claims what it seeks for: “We always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith.”
So that God may make us worthy of his calling … Yes, here we are face to face with a glaring truth of faith. God who made us can make us and mold us into becoming even more than we already are – “a little less than angels” (Ps 8). But God can and will do that only if we allow ourselves to be molded accordingly. God can and will do that in us only if we are willing to do what Zacchaeus did. After exalting himself, he got back to his senses and lowered himself at the invitation of the Lord. “Hurry down for I mean to stay in your house today.”
There’s nothing abnormal in wanting to be exalted. There is nothing unusual about being tempted to “dream after things too great” and seek after “marvels too great for us” (Ps ). Zacchaeus was a man in legitimate search … just like us all. We search for a better life. We seek for worldly promotion. We long to be acknowledged and recognized for our real or imagined talents. We want to go up higher in the rungs of earthly esteem from people, friend or foe alike.
Today’s liturgy has Good News for us who all nurture that dream. Yes, it is God’s dream, too. Yes … God wants us exalted. God wants to lift us up from whatever depths we find ourselves in. The acclamation before the gospel could not be clearer in this regard: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
The other passage that comes to mind as I write this reflection is the personal motto that I have chosen for my new foundation, a passage that has captured my attention for at least two decades by now. It speaks about a God who knows our hearts, and knows our innermost thoughts and desires, and who also knows what we, deep inside, really are capable of. I speak of a God who has great desires for each one of us, a God who calls us to greatness, a God who wants us to develop our innate dignity as “sons and daughter of God,” as “sharers in the glorious liberty of the children of God.” “Ascende superius” (Lk 14:10) … this is my personal watchword. “Come up to a higher place.”
I am overjoyed to note that Don Bosco Technical College in Mandaluyong City has asked permission from me to adopt it as the school’s motto, too, in replacement of what I, many years ago, have also suggested that the school adopt then in 1987 (Pro Deo et Patria). I told them that it wasn’t mine to start with, but God’s own. It is God’s dream for me and for them and for everyone born in this world. God wants our greatness. God calls us to soar higher than what we think we are capable of. God even primed us for greatness and holiness through grace – sanctifying grace and the gifts of the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.
Zacchaeus got it wrong initially. He thought it devolved upon him to pull himself up from his own bootstraps and clumber up a tree to see the Lord. He thought that by exalting himself, he would see the Lord. But he was, of course, dead wrong. The Lord sought for him, for the savior has come to save sinners, to cure not those who were well, but the sick, the suffering, the poor, and the lowly.
The Lord taught him a jarring lesson. “Hurry down, Zacchaeus.” Come down from your perch and I will show you the path to greatness. And that path to greatness can only happen through me – the way, the truth, and the life. That path to greatness is not something you give to yourself. No … it is given as gift from above, for “he who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Zacchaeus learned first hand who God is. This is the same God who deserves to hear from us the words that we heard today from the lectern: “I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God” (Responsorial Psalm). This is the same God who deserves to be told over and over again: “For you love all things that are … you spare all things because they are yours …”
Now, we know too, that our God is He who spares all, seeks all, and saves all in Christ Jesus our Lord. To Him, we pray today: “May the changing moods of the human heart and the limits which our failings impose on hope never blind us to you, source of every good” (Alternative Opening Prayer).
National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
Paranaque City, October 31, 2007 9:00 AM
N.B. What follows is an alternative reflection written three years earlier in Dundalk, MD
Reversals and paradoxes are a fixture in Scripture. We saw an example of this just last week, when we saw the great paradox of humble prayer that was answered, and the proud prayer that was no prayer at all, and therefore, remained unanswered. The tax collector, we are told, “went home justified,” while the Pharisee was left with an empty bag, along with his equally empty boast.
Today, the liturgy presents us with another interesting figure of a tax collector… No … a “chief tax collector,” in fact … a big shot of sorts (pun intended) – Zacchaeus, whose height was the opposite of his “weight” – in GOLD! (For the sake of my Philippine readers, I am tempted to compare Zacchaeus with some equally interesting personages among the top brass of our men in uniform, but I thought this was unfair to Zacchaeus). Zacchaeus, for all his wealth and stature (no pun intended, this time), was really a hated man. Seen as a servile figure acting at the behest of foreign rulers (the Romans), Zacchaeus was the opposite of what every true-blooded Jew at that time valued – freedom from any form of servitude to any foreign, especially, gentile rulers. He was despised for his work. He was hated for his servile, sycophantic attitude to the Romans.
But for all this, Zacchaeus did have some sterling qualities to match the silver that he amassed. Let us look a bit at this sterling quality that may be good for us to mull over and consider as good news to be lived.
In the final analysis, this liturgy is really not all about Zacchaeus. It has to do with God whom the first reading from Wisdom rightly extols as one who “has mercy on all,” who “spares all things,” but who at the same time “rebukes offenders” for them to “abandon their wickedness.” Liturgy is all about God manifesting His presence in the “work” (leitourgia) and worship of His people. It is all about the serendipities and surprises God works on His beloved people – surprises and wonders of His manifestation that makes humankind mutter, as we did in response to the first reading: “I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.”
Zacchaeus was witness to one such manifestation and surprise. What greater surprise could one ever expect than what Jesus did to him when he said: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” What greater favor could one ever have than this? The centurion, faced with a similar potential “surprise” visit from the Lord knew the staggering import of it all: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. Speak but the word and my son will be healed.”
There is some urgency and definitiveness in the tone of the Lord. Here comes one of the tax collector’s sterling qualities. He “ran ahead.” Not only that, he risked making a comic character of himself by climbing a sycamore tree “in order to see Jesus.” The Gospel says more … In gratitude and ill-concealed glee, he promised to “give half of [his] possessions to the poor,” and pledged to pay all those he had extorted “four times over.” His generosity blossomed over into the much valued hospitality.
He who was surprised by joy, and gifted with a “divine manifestation” could not but be overcome with gratitude. And he who overflows in gratitude also knows how to give “gratis” – to give freely, that is, to be generous, and to offer that greatest virtue valued by Jews when it comes to treating foreigners and guests - hospitality. Indeed, God could not be outdone in generosity. Zacchaeus searched for Jesus. Jesus found him and declared to his newfound brother: “I must stay in your house.”
We have come full circle. Again, the liturgy points to God, by way of the example of one of His creatures, Zacchaeus. The first reading speaks of God’s gracious and generous mercy, a mercy that is as bountiful as His justice. The second reading shows us the generosity and graciousness of one who, like Jesus, offered his life for the sake of others. Paul, a minister to the Thessalonians, was praying for his flock, that “the Lord may be glorified in [them].
But this same liturgy that celebrates and enacts God “descending” on us, His people in the grace of Word and Sacrament, also makes possible our own “ascending” to Him in praise and gracious worship. We are called to the same generosity with which Zacchaeus welcomed His illustrious and much-awaited visitor. But there is something more important here – something that refers to our being priests like Christ, by virtue of our baptism, by virtue of our membership and incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church. We are all called to respond to God’s Divine manifestation through ministry. We are all part of the missioning given to all the baptized, to serve the Lord in others, to do as Jesus did, to do as Paul did. This “visitation” from above is something we need to respond to much like Zacchaeus did. The Word, humbly listened to, occasions response, and gift received engenders a corresponding gracious generosity on the recipient’s part. Ministry is one such response – a response that has a tone of urgency in it (“I must stay at your house!), a response that is born of the missioning call from the Lord, a response that translates to concrete action. One is reminded by the synod of bishops declaration in 1971 that “action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us to be a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel, or in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”
There was a time ministry was thought of solely in terms of “priestly power,” that is, the so-called “potestas ordinis,” and the “potestas jurisdictionis.” Both were the monopoly of the priest “ordained for ministry.” With the rise of such a dichotomized and unbalanced understanding of Church as comprising the “clergy” and the “laity,” with the latter possessing no such “potestas” or power, ministry came to be equated only with priests and bishops.
Today’s liturgy would have us appropriate a far different vision of Church. The whole Church is called to mission and ministry. As God loves all and has mercy on all, God calls and entrusts all to the work of serving others. Jesus definitely found Zacchaeus at least worthy enough of a surprise visit. And that surprise manifestation of God right in his wealthy abode, despite the protestations of those who could not open themselves to the big surprises and reversals and divine paradoxes unfolding in their midst, produced in Zacchaeus a minister of hospitality and generosity to the poor.
Paul, the minister to the gentiles, was not talking of “potestas” (power) in his letter to the Thessalonians. He was acting ministerially to them even in the distance. He was praying for them. He was admonishing them. It was not so much power he was drawing from, as love, the same love with which he exhorted them not to be easily misled by false teachings.
Most of my readers both in America and the Philippines are lay people. Sadly, many of them still see me as a priest as one who has the sole power to pray, the power to bless, the power to intercede, the power to do things they could do by themselves. In their false understanding of what ministry is, they have forgotten that they themselves, as baptized Christians, who share the common priesthood of the baptized, are also called, first to be open to God’s surprises, and be part of those sent to preach, teach, and work for the good of others in justice and solidarity, and to help in the transformation of society. Many times, they tell me they do not know enough. Many times they say, they might make mistakes.
My friends, you would do well to dialogue with Zacchaeus today. He had every imaginable defect in a doctor’s and psychotherapist’s thesaurus. He was shrewd. He was servile to the Roman conquerors. He scrimped the last penny out of every unsuspecting Jew. Most of all, he was short. Short in stature … yes, but a giant in generosity.
You don’t have to have “potestas ordinis” and “potestas jurisdictionis” to minister to others. All you need is gracious openness to the God of surprises, and a great generosity to God and His people. “Come and hurry down! I must stay at your house today!”