Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time: 10-30-16
Peace be with You,
Last weekend, in the Parable of the Pharisees and the Tax Collector, we saw that we can do what it is that God calls us to do, i.e. be forgiving, generous, etc., and still be far from who it is that we are called to be if we do it for the wrong reasons. That is, if we live the sort of life that the Bible calls us to in order to build ourselves up, both in our own minds and in the minds of others, then we have gone far from the path that we have been called down. We saw this in the life of the Pharisee, who was more interested in letting God and everyone else know how great he was instead of truly trying to cultivate a relationship with God. Instead, we saw that what is required to maintain a relationship with God is humility, as only humility gives us the correct perspective, i.e. that we are totally dependent upon God for all that we are and have. This weekend, we find an example of what can happen when we approach God with the right attitude in our hearts.
What is it that you desire? That you really want more than anything else? We experience a whole array of desires throughout our day; we get hungry and so desire to eat, we get tired and so desire to sleep, we see an advertisement for the latest smart phone and desire the means to appropriate it, our favorite sports team might be playing tonight and we desire to watch the game, we see a job opening up in the company we work for and we desire that promotion. The list could go on and on and on. Put simply we are creatures of desire; and this of itself is not bad; quite often those things we desire are natural and simply help us to survive as the desires for food and rest show. But in the end, there must be something that compels us to move forward, there must be one desire which trumps all the rest and which directs them. The question is, what is that desire?
Time and again in his works, St. Augustine holds out the proposition that the ultimate desire of all human beings is happiness. He writes: “Certainly, we all wish to live happily. There is no human being who would not assent to this statement almost before it is uttered” (The Way of Life of the Catholic Church, p. 4). I would suggest that this is no less the case today than it was 1600 years ago when Augustine penned these words. I very much found this to be the case when I had the privilege of serving as a Youth and Young Adult Minister. If you prompt the youth of today with the question of what it is that they want, more often than not, they will say straight out that they want to be happy. And this is a good thing! The Christian tradition holds that we were made to be happy, and that this in the end is the purpose of the Christian life, to obtain happiness. However, this tradition holds that, while it is perfectly natural and good to want to be happy, there is really only one way to truly be happy. Thus, contrary to popular belief, its teachings are meant to bring us to the happy life. The question is then, how is it that we can be happy?
In today’s gospel, we are introduced to a very interesting figure by the name of Zacchaeus. We are told that Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and as we saw last weekend, and as Zacchaeus himself seems to suggest in our gospel message for this weekend, the temptation was there for him to take advantage of his position, collecting more than the required amount to “line his pockets,” so to speak. This made him, like almost all tax collectors of the time, an object of derision, as we see affirmed in the story today (Luke 19:7). Why this temptation? If we take our assumption that we all ultimately desire to be happy, it must follow that Zacchaeus or anyone who gives into the temptation of abusing their position for personal gain, does so because they believe, however falsely, that doing so will bring them some sort of increased happiness. So we see that like the rest of us, Zacchaeus is liable to succumb to temptation now and again, and that he has his struggles in life, among these struggles, we are told is that he was “short in stature” (Luke 19:3). Yes, Zacchaeus’ claim to fame is that he was a short man. If you have heard the song sung of him by the popular children’s cartoon, Veggietales, we are told that “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he,” time and again, and in the video, we are prompted by signs in various languages asserting the same. Why all this emphasis on Zacchaeus’ status as a vertically challenged individual?
The Christian tradition holds that our one sole Object of happiness and our truest Good, is God, and apart from Him we cannot truly be happy. Moreover, as we see in our first reading for today from the Book of Wisdom, the Christian tradition holds that not only has God created all things, but he continually holds them up in existence by His immediate presence (Wisdom 11:24-12:1). If these teachings are true, it seems that we should have no trouble being happy, for we should be able to see our Object of happiness all around us, and take profound pleasure in that. Yet depression and suicide rates continue to increase in our world today and who among us doesn’t suffer from profound sadness or anxiety from time to time? What’s the problem? The problem is that, like Zacchaeus, we are all vertically challenged.
Take a look at the gospel reading again. Why is it that we are told that Zacchaeus was short in stature? The crowd that surrounded him prevented him from seeing Jesus, the object of his desire, and so it is with us all. Yes, our God, the Object of our happiness pervades our world in every living and breathing thing, and yet, we are so distracted by false objects of happiness that we entirely fail to recognize His presence, and thus fail to place our hopes in the One thing that can make us truly happy. This is why Zacchaeus is held up as an example for us today. The name Zacchaeus means “clean” or “pure” in Hebrew. Yes, for all his faults his very name suggests to us that this man was clean or pure, how can this be? Zacchaeus’ purity was in his desire. Yes, he fell down time and again, he fell short of what it is to live a truly human life, in short, he sinned, just as we all do. But this does not change the fact that ultimately, Zacchaeus had his one object of desire in his God. This is why he climbed up into that tree to see Jesus, he knew he had to get above the crowd and above the noise of the crowd around him if he was going to get a good look at God and encounter Him. In other words, Zacchaeus was motivated by faith, faith that regardless of what the crowd was saying, he needed to get to Jesus, and the supreme irony of the story, as we come to learn, is that Jesus was looking for him! Imagine yourself sitting in that tree. All you want is to get a glimpse of Jesus, just to lay your eyes on him for a second, and instead of passing by, he walks right over to you and tells you to come down so the two of you can go and grab dinner!
My friends, this is our story! We spend so much time and effort trying to find happiness and all along our God is looking for us to give us the very thing we yearn for more than anything else! It should not go unnoticed by us that this encounter takes place at a tree. It was a tree that Adam and Eve reached into and got us into the difficult situation we face (Genesis 3:1-24), and it was a tree that our Savior mounted to set us free from all that troubles us by reuniting us with God (John 3:14-15). We all have our individual trees to climb, our crosses to carry, and the message our God has for us today is that if we stay focused on Him, we can be sure that He will “bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith, that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, in accord with the grace of our God and Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12). The end of the Veggietales “Zacchaeus Song” tells us that Zacchaeus was a “happy little man” because he saw the Lord that day. He saw the Lord that day because he acted upon faith, ignoring the distractions of the world around him. Today, do not run from the challenges you face, but meet them head on with faith, knowing that our God will meet you there and give you the grace needed to overcome them. And in so doing, you allow faith to do the thing it is intended to do, to give you a real experience of that which you long for right here and now, true happiness.
Your servant in Christ,