Homily of the 31th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
HOMILY: OVERCOMING OBSTACLES TO MEET JESUS
As a matter of coincidence, the gospel reading of today happens to be the gospel reading at the concluding Mass of the World Youth Day in Krakow Poland, on July 31st, 2016. The coincidence stretched beyond the reading to the reality of the day.
In the gospel, Jesus moved amidst a great crowd wherein a certain little man by the name Zaccheus had a number of obstacles to overcome in order to meet Jesus. At Krakow, about a million and half young people from 187 countries around the the world had gathered for the World Youth Day with the great expectation of meeting His Holiness face-to-face! The challenges of these young fellows to be the very ones to be able to hold the hands of the Holy Father, to have him embrace them and touch their foreheads must have been great considering the teeming crowd. However, this disadvantageous coincidence became an advantage for the full appreciation of the Pope’s homily on that day.
In his homily, the Holy Father observed three major obstacles that the man Zaccheus had to overcome in order to meet Jesus. These he said were: firstly, Smallness of Stature, secondly, the Paralysis of Shame and thirdly, the Grumbling of the Crowd around him!
Before going into the Pope’s explanations, perhaps there is need to take a moment to look at the person of Zaccheus in order to have a good understanding of his obstacles. The known facts about Zaccheus according to Luke, the only source of this narrative are: 1. He was a Chief tax collector. 2. He was a wealthy man. 3. He was small in stature which made it impossible for him to see Jesus amidst the crowd.
Being a tax collector classified one as a sinner in the time of Jesus. This is because the Jews saw the tax collectors, not just as outsiders, but worse than that, given that they joined their Greek Lords in oppressing the land by increment of stipulated tax rates. They were also held guilty of idolatry for allegiance to people of false gods, and for mingling and banding with them. This explains the reaction of the Pharisee of Luke 18 when he saw a tax collector in the temple as seen in the gospel of last Sunday. While being a tax collector might have disadvantaged Zaccheus before the Jews, being a wealthy man seems to place him in opposition to Jesus (or at least Luke the Evangelist) owing to the many parables and stories of Luke on “how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 18:24-25). What would have been favourable to Zaccheus was his size owing to the fact that Jesus recommends being like children as a means to be great in heaven, except that even that statement had nothing to do with physical size! So Zaccheus was disadvantaged all round!
But the one thing that made the whole difference in this narrative is the fact that Zaccheus, amidst all these disadvantages could muster a longing to catch a glimpse of Jesus. A longing so dire that he was set, by means improvised out of his great longing, to overcome all the obstacles preventing him from seeing Jesus.
Speaking to the young people in Krakow, Pope Francis noted that sometimes the low esteem arising from awareness of one’s littleness could impede advancement towards Jesus. Many biblical exegetes link the physical disadvantage of Zaccheus to a spiritual dwarfism. This situation is what the pope called on the young people to overcome, bearing in mind that notwithstanding our littleness, we are children of the Almighty God who does not belittle us but cheers us on and seeks us out.
On the second obstacle which is paralysis of shame, the Holy Father encouraged the young people to swallow their pride like Zaccheus and seek the Lord even when it appears ridiculous. Owing to his little stature, climbing the sycamore was indeed ridiculous and demeaning to a man of wealth, but all that didn’t stop Zaccheus from climbing the tree and hurrying down from the tree when Jesus called.
On the third obstacle constituted by the Grumbling Crowd, the Holy Father considered the terrible situation facing Zaccheus, surrounded by a crowd that totally detested him. He was lost in their midst! He was better not observed as many would have gladly push him down. Amidst all that was their open grumbling even when Jesus promised to visit him.
In the words of Pope Francis: “the crowd judged Zacchaeus; they looked him over, up and down. But Jesus did otherwise: he gazed up at him (v. 5). Jesus looks beyond the faults and sees the person.” He therefore urged the youths and indeed all, to look beyond the crowd to the person of Jesus.
Summing up the wonderful words of the Holy father, let us observe the actions of Jesus. When Jesus reached where Zaccheus was perching, in vs. 5 “Jesus looked up”. Looking up at that point shows Jesus was aware of the very position of Zaccheus. He must have known all his efforts and he must have noticed his leap of faith which saw him beyond his poor stature to rise above everyone else on the able arms of grace represented by the boulders of the sycamore.
Again Jesus called him by name, “Zaccheus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house”. This shows that though there are many, Jesus knows each one by name. His readiness to go at once to the house of Zaccheus shows his readiness to come into the life of any who would let him. Indeed, the words of Jesus at the end, “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost”, shows that it was not Zaccheus who was seeking for Jesus but Jesus who was seeking for Zaccheus! Zaccheus only made himself visible by climbing the Sycamore, while Jesus moved in his direction seeking for him.
The climax of the story was when the two actually met. Luke takes time to present the words of a true penitent, as seen in the Prodigal Son (15:18-19), The Pharisee and the Publican (18:13), and here with Zaccheus. First in his presentation is true acknowledgement of one’s sinfulness, second is the sinner’s deep feeling of unworthiness and third is asking for mercy and a strong resolve for reparation. Zaccheus promised Jesus four times reparation for all his wrong deals and in turn Jesus offered salvation to his household.
The whole story presents the following questions to all Christians: 1. Are you aware of your spiritual stature and other lacks in your life, even physical and material?
2. Are you willing to swallow your pride, get up from your poor state and seek for those gracious means offered by God to be in his presence?
3. Are you ready to renounce your old ways and rather follow his own way to salvation? Jesus is ready to come into your own house even today, never be the one keeping him out.
May the words of this gospel bring salvation to your own household, amen.
-Fr. Precious Ezeh