Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection on the Liturty
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
October 31, 2010

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!”