I’m tempted to begin this homily by making a joke about short people, but I don’t want to stoop to their level.
That may be a bold way to start out, considering that I’m only 5’7” myself. You see, growing up as one who is perhaps shorter than your average American, I’ve had plenty of people in my life who I could look up to. Most of them, in fact. At one point, realizing that my dreams of becoming an NBA superstar had been dashed by my particular genetic sequence, I began making a list of advantages that short people have:
- You automatically get more leg room on airplanes.
- You don’t hit your head on so many things.
- … actually that’s about as far as I got.
Short people. You really gotta hand it to them. Because most of the time, they can’t reach it.
And that brings me to Zacchaeus. Yes, he’s short. This is one of the rare moments in Scripture that actually kind of humorous. And yet, it’s integral to the story. Because it reveals something of Zacchaeus’ disposition. At the start of this gospel passage, Jesus is no more than a person of curiosity to Zacchaeus.
Then he invites himself over to his house, and two things happen here:
- Zacchaeus is inconvenienced by Jesus
- Jesus bears witness to the crowds by showing mercy to a sinner
Jesus makes us uncomfortable sometimes. He doesn’t conform to social norms, and he doesn’t always come into our lives when it’s convenient for us.
And that is exactly the lesson that Zacchaeus learned in our gospel reading today. Zacchaeus’ life is interrupted by Jesus. He is inconvenienced by Jesus inviting himself over. And so we must ask ourselves the question: How does Jesus inconvenience us?
If we are going to be followers of Jesus, we are going to have to expect inconveniences as part of the cost of discipleship. Take, for example, holy days of obligation. We have one coming up on Tuesday: the Solemnity of All Saints. It’s one of only five holy days of obligation in the USA. And sometimes those holy days land on a Sunday, like this coming Christmas and Mary, Mother of God. That means that (besides Sundays) there are only three days in this coming liturgical year that we have to break out of our schedules and come to Mass.
And what happens when we allow ourselves to be inconvenienced? Jesus can change us, just like he did Zacchaeus. Not only does he change us, he changes those around us.
Consider what would happen if you told your boss, “I need to come in late to work or leave early this Tuesday so that I can practice my faith.” Would he/she object? Your boss is actually required by law to try to accommodate your religious practices. And what kind of message would that send your boss and colleagues? Perhaps that you take your faith seriously, like there are things in life more important than work.
What if you called the school and said, “My kids are going to miss first period today so that we can attend Mass.” Would the school object? Actually, they’re not allowed to—the state law requires schools to excuse absences for religious holidays. And I think it’s time that we, as Christians, exercise our right to religious freedom. What message would that send to our government leaders?
Yes, Zacchaeus is inconvenienced by Jesus. But upon closer inspection, Zacchaeus is not the only one inconvenienced. The first line of the text says that Jesus intended to pass thru the town. Zacchaeus’ house was not a planned stop on his journey, and yet Jesus allowed himself to be inconvenienced in order to care for this soul.
In seminary we study various spiritual masters and we become acquainted with the spiritualities of various religious orders: the Jesuits, the Carmelites, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, etc. And so one day a seminarian asked his bishop, “Bishop, we are not Jesuits, or Carmelites, so what, then, is the core spirituality of the diocesan priest?” The bishop answered without hesitation, “signing checks.” But after his witty remark, he added, “It’s a spirituality of being interrupted. The diocesan priest must always allow himself to be inconvenienced.”
The bishop was referring to the irregularity of the daily life of a priest. Oftentimes, even if the priest sets out to accomplish just one particular thing on a given day, he will find himself going to meetings, repairing something broken, planning a funeral, or visiting the sick. And at the end of the day, that one thing still didn’t get done. Perhaps you can relate. I think there’s a lesson for all disciples of Jesus there. Our lives are far from convenient—they are often a string of inconveniences. How do we see those inconveniences? As opportunities for God’s grace to shine forth in our lives, and touch other people? or as one more obstacle in the drudgery of daily life? The Christian who sees with the eyes of faith can see God working, even in the midst of inconveniences, and respond, just like Jesus did with Zacchaeus.
Jesus comes into our mess
Zacchaeus wasn’t prepared for Jesus to come visit his house. We can just imagine what a mess it might have been. How Zacchaeus felt that same sting of embarrassment as Jesus walked thru the door, unable to hide some of the less presentable parts of his life. But Jesus comes over anyway. He comes into the situation of the sinner, however uncomfortable it may be, and he stays with the sinner. He isn’t afraid of the awkwardness. He isn’t afraid to inconvenience someone by his presence. And the miracle is that the sinner, having the presence of Jesus in the center of the messiness of his life, is transformed.
What areas of our lives would we be embarrassed to let him see? Would we be ashamed?
We all experience feelings of guilt and shame sometimes. And there’s occasion here to make a distinction.
- guilt is the feeling you get when you’ve done something bad
- shame is the feeling that you are something bad.
One of them is helpful, the other is destructive. Guilt can drive us to conversion, to repentance. God gave us the ability to feel guilt for a reason—he wants us to know when we did something wrong and to turn back to him. In our first reading from the Book of Wisdom, it says,
Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little,
warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing,
that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you,
But shame is not what God intended for us. When he created the first man and woman, they were naked without shame. They knew they were good, because God made them that way. Again, in the first reading it says,
For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.
We are not meant to feel shame for who we are. Because the truth is that God made us, and we are good. Very good.
Zacchaeus was good too. Even though he was a sinner, Jesus saw through all of that. He saw the man who was created good. He saw through the guilt and the shame. He saw a beloved son of God.
And that’s the way he sees you and me. Jesus places himself at the center of our lives, in the middle of the mess. He speaks to us and says, “I love YOU. I love who I created, and I want the best for you. I’m asking you to turn away from sin because it’s not who you are. You are mine.”
Brothers and sisters, Jesus is calling out to us today. He wants to come over. In fact, he’s already present among us. And he wants to enter under your roof. If only we allow him in, we will be transformed.