31st Sunday Year C

November 3, 2013


I am afraid of heights. I fell from a tree once in my life, while doing  - you know – that childhood classic Batman stunt! (I will spare you the details!) But for one afraid of heights, I think I have done a mean feat climbing 14 Philippine mountains, one of them for more than 12 times!

I am a small man, too, by any standard, including by current Philippine standards where children of people not any taller than me, end up being a lot taller than their progenies. (Did we do the Star margarine challenge right? Or we just didn’t have Cherifer “tangkad sagad” back then?)

Today, I take comfort from the story of Zacchaeus. No … I don’t mean to gloat over his height (or the lack of it!). I meant, I take comfort from Zacchaeus, not because he was just as small as me, but because he was endowed with a big heart. He was willing to go out very literally, on a limb, because he had a great desire to see, to know, to be blessed, even from afar.

Many people there are who prefer not to see, not to know, and not to be blessed by a possible serendipitous surprise of a lifetime. Simon and Garfunkel (at least before they walked out on each other’s lives) crooned about them many moons and suns ago … people looking without seeing; people hearing without listening … The Lord had better words to describe them … “they preferred the darkness rather than light.”

I am still reeling from a memorable participation at the recent Philippine Conference on New Evangelization as one of the speakers. I spoke about a Zacchaeus-like story. I talked about “growing strong in broken places,” a title I borrowed from Paula Ripple who wrote a book back in the early 80s about the same topic. I talked about my younger me back in the 70s wounding a hapless mango sapling. I tied a knot in its young trunk, when it was not more than 2 feet high, a young tree trying to find its rightful place under the sun.

It was trying to rise above the other plants and shrubs, to touch and see the life-giving warmth and rays of the sun, and become part of the grove that surrounded the public school where I taught Catechism. It was trying to do a Zacchaeus, running, huffing and puffing, and trying to rise above the crowd, for he had a desire to see, to experience what the rest of the pressing crowds were all excited about.

But the great surprise happened. People in search do find, as the Lord promised: “Seek, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” It turned out the Lord was far more in search for him, than he was for the Lord. “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for I today I must stay at your house.”

I would like to tell the world today of this great wonder, this great surprise. It is not so much the fact that we are out in search, as the Lord being out to extend his compassion and mercy and forgiveness and salvation. Christian life is not so much about us calling on God, but about God calling us, beckoning us to climb down from our perches and being surprised by joy, by life, by everything that has to do with life in its fullness.

The Lord has called the mango sapling to life. But I, sinful and selfish that I was, had decided one morning to destroy it, by wounding it gravely. But many years later, when I got back to the place after my ordination, I saw the tree, fully grown, sturdy and stable and mighty and proud. I felt for the wound. It was still there – a humongous scar that became the star of its total being. It had grown strong at its broken place.

The tree now stands for me an eloquent witness of what we just heard in the first reading: “But your spared all things because they are yours, O Lord and lover of souls, for your imperishable spirit is in all things!”

A tree was trying to live, trying to rise above its natural limitations and join the rest of God’s handiwork, and find its place under the sun of God’s compassion and mercy. Like Zacchaeus, broken and sinful as he was, just like you and me, was trying to see, to behold, to touch the glint of mercy in the Lord’s eyes.

Zacchaeus got it. The Lord, who never intended to go to Jericho, ended up staying for a while to do an errand of mercy. God was in search of sinners. God still is. And he is in search of me and you up till now.

But there is one thing I need to do. Zacchaeus shows me the way. I must run. I must rise. I must climb up the tree and embrace it wounds and all, warts and all – including the tree I just wounded horribly. Scarred trees are beautiful, even as according to Fr. Guido Arguelles, scarred people are found beautiful by God, in Christ, who himself was superscarred!

I need to see. I need to hear and listen. I need to look and really behold – the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!

My former student and mentee, Ronan, together with his own current students now in High School, took up a challenge I posed to them while preparing for the Conference on New Evangelization. I told him my story. I asked them to write their take on the story. And they came up with a short film entitled ANG KWENTO NI BUHOL (THE STORY OF KNOT).

I may be broken, but I am not beaten. I may be short, but I am not shit in God’s eyes. I may be powerless, but I am not forgotten. “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”