Christ the King Catholic Church
A young boy was in a serious accident and for many days the doctors doubted if he would survive. After a few days his teacher from school went to visit him in the hospital and she was shocked by what she saw. He was broken and bruised and burned. He was in and out of consciousness. Her first impulse was to run away, but instead she sat down by his bed and told him, "Tommy, I'm here to teach you about nouns and verbs. That's what we're studying in class now and I don't want you to fall behind." And so, for the next hour, she talked to him about proper nouns and common nouns. She talked about verbs and verb tenses.
The next day she was stopped by a nurse who asked her what it was that she was doing. The teacher was alarmed, but then the nurse explained, "We were so worried about him, but after your visit yesterday everything changed. It's as if he has decided to live.
A long time later after he had recovered, the boy himself admitted that he had given up. He sensed from the doctors and nurses and from his parents that he had been so badly injured, that his situation was hopeless - until the visit of his teacher. Everything changed with that visit because in the words of the young boy, "They wouldn't send a teacher to talk about nouns and verbs to a dying boy, would they?"
A wonderful story. It teaches us the power of hope.
And this is exactly what Jesus did for Zacchaeus on that street in Jericho. Zacchaeus was a hopeless case - or so it seemed. Everyone had given up on him. He had a lot of strikes against him. He was a tax collector. He was the chief tax collector and he was the chief tax collector of Jericho. Tax collectors, at the time of Jesus, were hated.
First, they worked for the Romans. Palestine was an occupied nation and the taxes that were collected went to Rome. The Romans hired local people to collect the taxes. These were people who were knew how much money their neighbors and relatives had. Anyone who became a tax collector was looked upon as a traitor and
traitors are never popular. Being a tax collector could make a person rich, but it would also make him an outcast. To make matters worse, tax collectors didn't receive a set salary. They were given a quota by the Romans and anything they could collect over that quota was their salary. They could, in effect, set their own salary and many tax collectors became very rich by exacting money from their fellow countrymen.
They were hated and they were the butt of jokes. They were protected by the Romans, but isolated and outcasts in their own communities. Tax collectors didn't have much of a social life. And to make matters worse, Zacchaeus is not only a tax collector and a chief tax collector, but also a tax collector in Jericho. Jericho was a flourishing trade center that was one of the wealthiest cities in Palestine. And so, Zacchaeus was not only rich; he was really, really rich and he was not only alone, he was really, really alone.
In this context we can understand how shocking Jesus' encounter with Zacchaeus was for the people of Jericho. Jesus seeks Zacchaeus out and invites himself to Zacchaeus' house. Zacchaeus is overjoyed. It had probably been years since the good china had been used in his house. Zacchaeus' isolation is broken by this traveling rabbi who, unlike everyone else, does not see him as a lost cause.
It's interesting that Jesus doesn't head to the local synagogue for a meet and greet with the religious leaders of Jericho. He doesn't head to that place where the local politicians gather. He comes to Jericho to meet a man perched in a tree who just happens to be the most hated person in Jericho. Written off by everyone else, Zacchaeus is the focus of Jesus' attention.
And when Zacchaeus encounters Jesus, we see another side of the man. And it is Jesus who brings out this other side of Zacchaeus. No one else had ever seen anything good in Zacchaeus. And as a result of that, he had gone deeper and deeper into his selfishness and sin. But then Jesus comes along and sees him another way. Jesus sees Zacchaeus as God sees him.
Remember the words from today's first reading from the Book of Wisdom. God is praised because he loves everything that he has created. He loathes nothing that he has made. He spares all things because they belong to him.
Jesus brings this good news to Zacchaeus. Jesus looks beyond all the bad that everyone else saw in him and sees the good that everyone else had overlooked. That good was, admittedly, covered by a whole lot of bad, but Jesus looked deeply enough to see the good and he affirmed that good - and the result of that affirmation was a completely changed man.
The religious leaders and the people of Jericho had all roundly condemned Zacchaeus and that condemnation did nothing to change him. Jesus changed Zacchaeus and the change that Jesus brings about in Zacchaeus is profound.
According to Jewish law, if a person stole from another person and then repented, he had to return what he had stolen plus twenty percent. If a man was caught stealing and taken to court, he had to return what he had stolen plus fifty percent.
Zacchaeus stands before Jesus and says that he will share half of what he has with the poor and if he had defrauded anyone, he promises to give back what he had stolen plus four times the amount!
Jesus' unconditional love for Zacchaeus has opened up a storehouse of goodness that was always present in him, but that no one else could reach. There was goodness in Zacchaeus, as there is in every person- in each ofus. Jesus affirmed that goodness and it burst forth in a radical way that went far beyond what the law required.
In today's Gospel Jesus gives us an example - an example of how we are to see people. We can be very judgmental. I know that I certainly can be. We can easily see the bad in people and ignore or fail to see, let alone look for, the good in others.
The point of today's scriptures is that this is not God's way. Jesus invites us to see people in a new way. The late Catholic psychiatrist, Conrad Baars, spent his professional life researching the power of unconditional love to change and heal people.
This week a friend of mine is marking fifteen years of freedom from drugs. After decades of misusing drugs, with all the devastation that brought to her life and to the life of her family, she met a sponsor who believed in her and helped her, eventually, to believe in herself. That woman has now dedicated her life to raising
a grandchild who has autism and, by her unconditional and unwavering love for him has brought about in him what experts had said was impossible. This woman, by any standard, could be "Grandmother of the Year."
There are no hopeless cases in God's eyes. Saint Luke's Gospel is sometimes called the "Gospel of the Outcasts," because Jesus continually goes in search of those who have been forgotten or written off by others.
If we would ask Pope Francis which Gospel is his favorite, my hunch is that Luke would be that Gospel. In Jesus' example we see what Pope Francis calls the 'ministry of accompaniment' in which we meet people, not where we think they should be, where they are and walk with them to a better place, just as Jesus did. Pope Francis tells us that as a Church we must go to the periphery of society and encounter people there, just as Jesus did.
There are no hopeless cases in God's eyes. The little boy who had been in the accident figured you wouldn't send a teacher to talk about nouns and verbs to a kid who was dying. God would not have sent his beloved Son to us as our Savior if we were hopeless, would he?
This is not only good news for all of us here in church this morning, it should also be good news for all those whom we will meet in this coming week. May God give us eyes to see all whom we will meet as God sees them and may we love them as God loves them for God loathes nothing of what he has created.