Tuesday, June 2, 2009

11-4-2007: 31st Ordinary Time (C)

Wisdom 11:22-12:2/Psalm 145/2 Thessalonians 1:11-23/Luke 19:1-10
It’s strange how often the gospel focuses on the bad guy. It’s a hallmark of good writing, fiction or not, that gives to the antagonist of the story a depth of character that refuses to let us dismiss him as just plain evil - he’s more important than that. Truth is, we’re all pretty complicated characters and full of surprises – even to ourselves.

I wonder if they called him Zach for short – or just shortie because of his stature? Probably they used the Aramaic equivalent of that little squirt with a few expletives thrown in that we can’t repeat here. No doubt the most despised man in Jericho, Zacchaeus made his fortune off the suffering of others. Zacchaeus was the Jew turned government-tax-collector, the Jew who had long before ceased to observe the rules and rituals of his religion. He was a man without a country, a man without religion; worst of all, Zacchaeus was a man without friends. Despite wealth and comfort, his shortness in stature mirrored his miserable life. Climbing the sycamore tree that day, to catch a glimpse of the preacher from Galilee entering Jericho, was Zacchaeus' last chance at some semblance of joy.

It’s hard for us to appreciate the scandal Jesus engendered when he chose to spend the night at Zacchaeus’ house. While our translation has the crowd grumbling, another has it murmuring, which connotes a deeper dissatisfaction, a conspiratorial undertone of sorts, as if a taboo had been broken, a violation incurred that was irreparable. What could have caused Jesus to breach that taboo and risk all for a traitorous Jew, a public sinner?

Perhaps it was the utter sadness he saw in Zacchaeus’ eyes, even from behind the leaves of the sycamore from where he was looking down; or maybe it was Zacchaeus’ tears that fell to the dusty ground that first caught Jesus’ attention. A sadness born of an aching loneliness which would have weighed heavily on Zacchaeus – no wonder he was so small of stature.

In the opening scene of the Oscar winning film Crash, the viewer sees two drivers screaming at each other after a minor accident. A cop is observing them from his car, and we hear his voice-over: “In LA nobody touches you behind the metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much we crash into each other just to feel something.”

Zacchaeus had crashed into people his whole life, receiving their hatred as a substitute for any human affection. But when Jesus calls him by name, and eats and sleeps in his home that particular night, Zacchaeus’ whole life turned around.

Biblical scholars don’t consider this a miracle story, but perhaps they should. Although Zacchaeus neither became an observant Jew, nor quit his government job -- and although he didn’t sprout a few inches overnight -- joy entered his miserable heart that day and transformed a paucity of spirit into magnanimous generosity. More miraculous is the fact that we all possess this power. The power to touch another life with even a modicum of mercy can heal the deepest wound and create consequences immeasurable in goodness and infinite in scope.

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