31st Sunday of the Year – October 31, 1971 – Cathedral Parish, Portland, Me.
“Today salvation has came to this house.”
Salvation is one of those words we use a lot as Christians. We call Christ our “Savior.” There are signs that proclaim, “Jesus saves.” In our creed every Sunday, we confess that God has become man “for us and for our salvation.” But it’s also a word we use a lot without understanding it. So let us just ask today, what does “salvation” mean?
Well, what did it mean for Zacchaeus? The Gospel says he was a “tax-collector and a wealthy man.” The crowd thought he was a sinner, and in their terms he was, because there was a lot of crookedness about tax-collecting, and it involved a lot of contact with pagans, something Jews thought was bad. But Jesus does not react to Zacchaeus the way others did, by condemning him, by staying away from him. He spots him in the tree, calls to him, and even goes into his house to stay. Jesus welcomes this man, gives him his company, makes him welcome. And Zacchaeus is so moved by Jesus’ gentle welcome that he turns his life around, he gives half his money to the poor, he more than makes up for any crooked deals he has done to people. And this is what Jesus means when he says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
It is a. perfect picture of salvation. For God does not do what we do so often, sit back and condemn those we think are sinners, those especially who have done us wrong. In Jesus Christ, God calls to us, makes us welcome, gives us the blessing of his presence and company. That is the first and the most important thing about salvation: the good news that God does not condemn us, but loves and forgives us. No matter what we have been, no matter how poorly we may think of ourselves, no matter how hard it is to think of anyone loving us, still it is true that God accepts us and wants to stay with us. That is salvation: God loving: and forgiving us.
And the next part of salvation is our response. If we are not the sort of persons that don’t think they need salvation, that spend their time looking at other people’s faults, if we’re not that sort of person, then we can receive Jesus into our homes. We can accept God’s acceptance of us, and it can turn our lives around. We can understand ourselves differently, see where we’ve done wrong, see things about us and about other people we never saw before, and we can now start loving as we have not before, start doing good where before we only cheated and hurt people, start being as generous towards them as God has been towards us. That is the whole picture of salvation: God’s loving us and making us persons who also love as he loves.
Well, today we gather here in this house, and we gather so that Jesus again can say, “Today salvation has come to this house.” We are here for a meal, as Jesus was in Zacchaeus’s house for a meal, and we’re here so that we can again believe that God loves and forgives and welcomes us in Jesus. Let salvation come to this house and to our hearts today. Let us say “Amen” to God’s love to us, and let us say “Yes” to all the opportunities we will have to give to others what God has given to us.
31st Sunday of the Year-October 30, 1977–George Washington University
The Gospel we have just heard is one of the loveliest scenes in the Gospels. It shows many of the traces of Luke’s literary and theological skill, as a simple and very human encounter becomes the joyful reception of salvation.
It is, therefore, more than a pleasant story. We are not told much about Zacchaeus, only that he was short, rich, and a tax collector, the last, of course, being the first clue to the story. In previous weeks, we’ve already heard about Jesus and tax collectors. The occasion for Jesus’ telling the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son was the grumbling of his opponents that he “ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners.” Only last week, it was a tax collector to whom the Pharisee immodestly compared himself as he prayed, but who, Jesus said, went down from the Temple justified although all he could do was pray for the mercy of his God. And now we have another tax collector, another member of that despised group whose work involved them in daily contact with the Roman authorities and who were not generally considered able to get their posts or to fulfil them without corruption.
But it is to Zacchaeus and not to the professionally and publicly “religious,” that Jesus addresses himself, asking to stay at his house that day. Jesus’ coming to him is an instance of the great cry of the Benedictus, the God of Israel is visiting his people and redeeming them. And it is just this that is unintelligible: “He has gone,” they all began to grumble, “to a sinner’s house as a guest.” And the miracle of God’s free visiting is there accomplished, as Zacchaeus commits himself to the poor and to restore “fourfold” whatever he might have taken wrongly. And it is Jesus himself who now cries out, “Today salvation has come to this house, for this is what it means to be a son of Abraham.” Israel’s existence is discovered in welcoming Jesus and responding to his presence. The reign of God is at hand, and Zacchaeus repents and believes that Good News.
We have, then, in this story the Gospel in miniature. All man’s presuppositions and his most serious efforts are overturned in the simple initiative of Jesus. They are difficult to let go of, and we grumble at the extravagance of a free entrance of God’s love, disrupting our clear and precise sense of how God ought to act in order to be comprehensible to us. And the simple joy of Jesus in having searched out and saved one who was lost is an invitation to us to quiet our grumbling and, like the resentful older son in the parable, to enter into the world of God’s grace and share in his delight.
We are all there in that story in some way. We may be Zacchaeus, wondering what all the fuss is about, unwilling to get too close lest Jesus make unwelcome demands on us. And, if we are Zacchaeus, Jesus invites us down from the tree and to let him stay with us. Or we may be
among the grumblers, too sure of our own situation and of the unworthiness of others, uneasy at God’s liberality. And if we are among them, we hear, again, an invitation to let go of our petty certainties and to let God be a God of grace. It is again the ever-present Gospel and, from wherever we come, it speaks to us again.
The liturgy of the Roman Church includes a special Mass for the dedication of a Church, and for centuries this Gospel about Zacchaeus has been the Gospel-reading for it. In that rite, the liturgy is saying, Christ’s words are being fulfilled: “Today salvation has come to this house.” But those words, as appropriate and moving as they are for such an occasion, are not words especially for a building. They are words for a Church, of course, but above all for the Church as a community, which means that they are words describing this assembly this morning and announcing what really is going on here among us: “Today salvation is coming to this house.” It is the simple truth about this congregation and its Eucharist. Let us pray that in our faith and our repentance it may be fully realized among us.
31ST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – NOVEMBER 1, 1992- BLESSED SACRAMENT
Zacchaeus, the short man of the Gospel, was the chief tax-collector, then as now not one of the most loved men in a community, then even more an object of scorn because his occupation involved him in regular contact with the forces of occupation in his country and tempted him to unjust activities. But today he, like many others of the outcasts of the time, becomes the object of Jesus’ special care, is moved to conversion, and sees salvation descend on his house. He is the particular case of what the first reading speaks about: that God overlooks the sins of men that they may repent, that he hates nothing of what he has made, that he sustains it in existence in order to spare and forgive it. Zacchaeus is only the most recent example drawn to our attention of the infinite reach of God’s desire to save us men and women.
There is a simple joy in his story as we have heard it: yet another person has been rescued by the presence of Christ and his message and ministry of God’s mercy: “Today salvation has come to this house, for this is what it means to be a child of Abraham.” To every Zacchaeus in this Church, to everyone of us who has anything of Zacchaeus in him, Jesus comes again and invites himself to our houses in order to fill them with joy.
That spirit of joy is a spirit of love, of a love that is patient, with the patience of a God who loves all that he has made and wishes to see it all preserved in order to be able to give it joy. It is a spirit of joy and of patience that is unintelligible to those who complain about Jesus: “He has gone to a sinner’s house as a guest.” Well, that is what God has done in Christ: he has come into our house as a guest, so that he may welcome us as guests into his house of mercy and salvation.
It is worth reflecting on the fact that this spirit of joy and patience encounter incomprehension and opposition. Jesus represented and still represents something different in the world, an interruption of ordinary standards of conduct, a desire for communion and reconciliation where alienation and enmity are all too common, of patience and persistence where quick judgment and facile conclusion are more frequent, of love and salvation where hatred and rejection usually reign. Something different entered the world with Jesus.
That “something different” is supposed to be what the Church represents today, and by the Church I mean you and me: we are supposed to be in the world that different thing which Jesus was in his. It is a difference in our vision of the world and of human life that is grounded in the gift we have received of knowing how our God deals with all that he has created: that he loves it, and spares it, and saves it. Because we are, ourselves, precious in his sight, we can regard our world and all in it as precious in our sight, struggling to be as generous towards others as God has been towards us. “Love one another,” Jesus said, “as I have loved you.” And how does he love us? As he loved Zacchaeus: breaking beyond human expectations in an embrace many will find unintelligible.
That sense of what God is for us is supposed to determine how we live for others, how we live all dimensions of our lives. Something of the scandal this can represent is visible in the request that Cardinal Hickey has made that Catholics oppose both the new Maryland abortion law and the new District law that would restore the death penalty. That we should oppose one or the other of these two ordinances would surprise few, given that many opinion polls find that those who oppose abortion often favor the death penalty and vice-versa. To oppose both breaks the pattern, represents something different. In its own way each matter is an appeal for patience and mercy, for life, for reconciliation. Each case asks that we not hate something, someone, whom God has made and which is therefore precious in his sight. The Gospel here makes a plea, as Jesus did for Zacchaeus, that what other people think is disposable, whether it is an unborn child or a murderer, not be thrown away, but be spared for the sake of him who spared and spares us, who will not throw away anything, anyone, of what he has made.
“You spare all things, because they are yours, O Lord, lover of all who live,” exults the author of the Book of Wisdom. What a wonderful description of God: “Lover of all that lives.” We live because of God’s love, and God continues to love us even when the lives we live contradict his love; he continues to love so that we may live again. “I have come that they may have life,” said Jesus, “and may have it more abundantly.” That more abundant life is precisely what we celebrate and receive again each time we come to this Eucharist, and we cannot honestly and truly exult in the gift of the God who loves all who live unless we struggle in all we do, in all our decisions and actions, to become ourselves lovers of all who live. If there were more of us Christians who loved as God loves, patiently, forgivingly, hopefully, then that “something different” that Jesus was in his time would be present and visible and effective in our own world. We, who are the Church, are the ones who decide whether what Jesus represented for Zacchaeus, what in him scandalized his contemporaries, might continue to make a difference today, scandalizing some perhaps, but in our own ways being the people through whom it can be true here and now that “today salvation has come to your house.”
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 4, 2007 – Blessed Sacrament
St. Paul’s letters to his Churches often contain prayers for the people to whom he is writing, and we find one today near the beginning of the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, from which our second reading was taken. “We always pray for you,” he says, “that our God may make you worthy of his calling and powerfully bring to fulfilment every good purpose and every effort of faith.” I want to say a few things about this prayer and about what it tells us of our condition as Christians.
The prayer is, first, that God may make us worthy of his calling. The call of God has come first–Paul means God’s call to become a Christian, to enter into the reconciled life that Christ has made possible. The call for the Thessalonians would have been dramatically experienced; probably for every one to whom Paul was writing, it had taken the form of an adult conversion–a turning away from idols, as Paul put it in his first epistle to them, to serve the living God. Though perhaps less dramatic in our own cases, to take the call to be a Christian seriously still today requires a turning away from many cultural and social assumptions, expectations and goals. That you are here today I take to be a sign that you have heard the call and are taking it seriously.
That we be worthy of this calling is what Paul is praying for. Which means that it was not because we were already worthy of it that God called us. The initiative is all God’s: While we were still sinners Christ died for us, Paul says in the Epistle to the Romans. It is not as if we have loved God first; God has loved us first, St. John says in his First Epistle. That is why the origin and the ever–sure foundation of the Christian life is called “grace”: because it derives in its every part from the unmerited love of God.
Our Christian responsibility, then, is not a matter of anxious, slavish obedience to a set of commandments in order to earn a reward, to make ourselves worthy of God’s love. God’s love, God’s call, has anticipated us. He has not waited, he does not wait now, until we have made ourselves worthy of being loved. We have been loved by God–every one of us; we are loved by God, we are called by God–every one of us. God’s love has been poured forth into our hearts by the Holy Spirit he has given us. We, as we sit or stand here at this moment, we are the creatures of God’s love.
The Apostle’s prayer is that God make us worthy of that calling, of that love. Notice that, even now, as we think of our response to God’s love, that Paul emphasizes, not what we must do, but what God must do. As God’s call has all the initiative, so it is only God’s power that can make us worthy of that call. God’s love and power still have the primacy. Not, of course, that no effort is required of us–Paul speaks of purpose and effort on our part. But the living of a life worthy of God’s antecedent love is something that can be undertaken and brought to fulfilment only because God continues to enable it. Our willingness to lead a serious Christian life, one worthy of God’s love, is already a gift of God, and so is whatever measure of purpose and steadiness and fidelity marks the way we are living our lives. God wants us to co-operate in our own salvation, and a Christian life well-lived is the only proper response of gratitude and love-in-return for the great gift already received. His love prompts our love, makes it possible, sustains it, directs it, confirms it.
This little prayer, then, contains a great deal. It presupposes the heart of the Gospel–our having been redeemed by Christ and called into his Body, the Church. It urges a serious Christian life as an effort to show ourselves worthy of and properly grateful for that call. And it makes it all–from initial call to final fulfilment–the work of God’s love, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, forever and ever. Amen.