Tuesday, November 9, 2010

10-10-31: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 11:22-12:2 / Psalm 145 / 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2 / Luke 19:1-10
If I were to cast a movie of today’s gospel, I think I’d get Danny DeVito to play Zacchaeus – he’s short, nasty, and feisty enough to climb a tree. And he’s got the kind of face only a mother could love.

But it’s to Zacchaeus, of all people, that Jesus looks. There was no one in all of Jericho more despised than Zacchaeus, the tax collector who made his fortune off the suffering of others. And yet Jesus wants to stay in his house, he wants to eat and drink with him - the wretched scoundrel whom everyone talked about behind his back. You can just about hear them: “grumbling,” the gospel says. Traitor, thief, that miserable little squirt…

It’s just a coincidence (or is it) that this gospel falls on Halloween – but it couldn’t be more appropriate. Despite the warnings of British bishops of late, admonishing the faithful to avoid dressing up in Halloween costumes less the practice surreptitiously tempt a return to our pagan past, the observance of Halloween – All Hallows’ Eve, the Eve of All Saints – is an invitation to consider the astounding promise of the gospel: the genuine possibility of joy.

Halloween’s a paradox, it straddles two worlds. It’s fun, but scary. It’s make-believe, but all too real. It’s kids dressing up as vampires and monsters, playfully dallying with what they dread the most. Halloween happens at night when you can’t quite make out how ugly things might really be, whether life is a trick or a treat. But Halloween is a safe way to sneak a look at the dark side of life where monsters and vampires roam the earth frightening people to death. Dressing up, putting on a mask, so to speak, allows us to consider what life would be like as one of them. What we might discover in such an experiment is that behind the mask that instills fear and dread is the face of Zacchaeus, someone trapped in despair, isolated from human kindness, lonely and unloved. What’s so terrifying is the realization that the face behind the mask could be mine.

Halloween is about ghosts, disembodied spirits, souls who have lost their way, hovering in between the realms of life and death, unable to enjoy the one or rest in the other. Their misery turns bitter and they become ugly with rage, like werewolves. Their loneliness lashes out, jealous of the joyful, like bloodthirsty vampires. These lonely souls wonder if all of the sadness will ever end, if their broken hearts will ever heal. It’s into those souls that Jesus looks, as he looked into Zacchaeus, as he looks into us. Today’s gospel embodies Halloween, telling of the possibility of transformation. You don’t have to keep wearing that same costume, it says. You don’t have to play Zacchaeus forever. There’s a way out of the realm of sadness; misery can indeed be turned into joy.
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.

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