Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2019

“Had you hated anything, you would not have formed it”

Wisdom 11:24

I’m not someone who finds it easy to focus on today. It’s quite a common trait, I think, based on conversations I have had with other people over the years. When you are worried about someone you care about, or about a problem in your life, it is easy to ruminate and imagine all the possible ways in which it might develop – frequently for the worse. This can have the effect of magnifying the problem, making it seem intractable and leading to feelings of hopelessness or despair. When I was in hospital a few months ago, I had little choice in the end but to focus on the day at hand. Things had repeatedly gone wrong, and my energy had been sapped by pain, indignity, and frustration. But even there, I was sometimes bothered by my reflection on the past, as I ran things over in my mind.

We rarely enjoy the luxury of being entirely in the moment, living the day on its own terms. But occasionally, an event can come along which changes the course of our life – for better or worse. These are the days when life-changing decisions are made. Perhaps when we get a new job – in which case the decision might have been considered beforehand. Sometimes events come out of the blue without warning, as must have been the case on that terrible night in Grenfell Tower two years ago. It goes without saying that for a great many people that night, life changed forever. And those who lost their lives would not have had any idea, as they went to bed the evening before, that it would be for the last time.

We don’t know when these sorts of day will come until they arrive. But when they do, they seem to expand to fill our entire consciousness. Yesterday and tomorrow don’t seem to matter. A tax collector named Zacchaeus had just such a day when Jesus came to town.

This story is frequently held as one of the most popular passages in Luke’s Gospel. It doesn’t appear in any of the others – so a modern biblical scholar will tell you that this raises the possibility that the story was fabricated or embellished to make a particular point. But we need not concern ourselves with the historicity of the account: what matters for our purposes are the lessons it teaches us. A superficial reading of the passage leads us to the reasons why it is such a well-loved story: a small man who stood tall and became a follower of Jesus. But if we look more closely, we will see that this is not really the point. This is about repentance, and about the faith which leads to eternal life.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and passes through Jericho – where he is, as usual, followed by large crowds. Zacchaeus is a small man, we are told, yet is very keen to see Jesus – so he climbs a tree to ensure a good view. Now Zacchaeus, we are told, is a tax collector – and not only that, but a senior one, and a wealthy man. We are told these details to underline how unpopular he would have been with the people for exploiting them to line his own pockets, in league with the Roman occupiers. Of all the people Jesus could have spoken to, surely he would not have wanted to be associated with such a man? But Jesus is here precisely for those who are most in need of God’s mercy. So he calls Zacchaeus down, and Zacchaeus responds to Jesus, and as he does so his life is changed forever.

We can only speculate as to why Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. He must have been aware of his reputation as a teacher and a healer. If we look at the key themes Luke lays out in the gospel, we can see why this episode was included – a man who was morally unclean sought Jesus out because he represented a chance to change, to turn his life around, and to trust in God again. The crowd would have seen the man as a worthless sinner, one of the most prominent examples in the town. Indeed, Zacchaeus asserts his own material worth in what he says, underlining his lack of value in the eyes of the crowd. Yet Jesus looks into the heart of the lost man, and sees infinite worth. And so a door is opened for Zacchaeus to repent, as he responds to the Lord’s call. Notice the repetition of the word “today” in the passage, stressing the urgency of Jesus’ request to dine with the man, and the immediacy of the salvation which has come to him. For Luke, the moment of salvation is now, today, at this moment. God’s action in the world cannot be delayed: Jesus offers salvation here and now. The invitation is urgent: there is not time to think about yesterday or tomorrow. All that matters is the opportunity to respond to God’s call to repent, here and now.

Those of you who remember your Old Testament will recall that Jericho is the city taken by Joshua and the Israelite army in spite of their inferior numbers. You might also remember that the Old Testament story includes an encounter with Rahab, a harlot, in whose house the Israelite spies stayed while they were on reconnaissance. Because of her having saved their lives, the army of Israel spared her household when they took the city. The salvation which came to Rahab’s house because of her choice to recognise the Lord at work and respond to it, prefigures the coming of Jesus to the house of Zacchaeus and his choice to turn back to the Lord. Each of us has an opportunity today, to turn away from our sin, to meet with the Lord and to follow him. This moment, this encounter, today, has the potential to change our lives completely, if we will only let it. Although we might be conscious of our unworthiness, although we might be weighed down by the things we have done wrong, we can have confidence in the words of the book of Wisdom, that God “[loves] all that exists…for had [he] hated anything, [he] would not have formed it”.

This repentance is not easy. It is a costly endeavour – as Zacchaeus’ example of repayment of his ill-gotten gains demonstrates. It demands that we focus entirely on the moment, forgetting the problems of our past and our worries about the future, and that we place all our trust in Jesus. It is only when we recognise our total dependence on his grace that we will be free to follow him. This is why we need to come to church regularly – we acknowledge our need of his grace and our inability to follow him on our own merits. We need the sacraments to sustain us, and we need to experience the solidarity that comes from being part of Christ’s body.

So, let us come down from our high perches, and approach the throne of the Lamb with confidence, turning away from our former lives of sin and embracing the joy that flows from following Christ, who came for this moment, to offer salvation to you, today.