By: Fr. James Gross
There’s a popular saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” But thank goodness that God pays close attention to the “small stuff.” We see a demonstration of this in the wonderful encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus in today’s Gospel.
I contend that there are two equally important characters besides Jesus in this Gospel: Zacchaeus and “the crowd.” Now how, you may be asking, can a crowd be considered a character? Consider the following points and I think you’ll see what I mean.
Zacchaeus hears that Jesus is passing through his town of Jericho. But since the Lord has already been carrying out his public ministry for quite some time, the size of the group accompanying him is large and his reputation precedes him. This huge mass of humanity stands between Zacchaeus and Jesus. All of us as individuals have a “crowd” standing in our way, insofar as there’s an obstacle preventing us from seeing and speaking with the Lord Jesus. Have we allowed the noise of the world and far less important activities to fill our ears? Have we placed our trust in voices in the media who deride the Christian life and give an example contrary to the Gospel? What if we were to turn them off, or somehow get around them? Would we not immediately experience greater confidence in God’s mercy and greater peace of mind?
So Zacchaeus gets a clever idea. He sees a sycamore tree right along the Lord’s path, and decides to climb it to get closer to him. Perhaps it looked ridiculous for a grown man to do such a thing, but at that moment, Zacchaeus did not care at all about what his actions looked like to anyone else. His getting a better vantage point is very logical. NASCAR would never televise a race unless most of the cameras were mounted high above the track. The perspective one gets of the position of each car is far better than if one were to watch the whole race at road level.
Biblical scholars have compared this sycamore tree to the past life of Zacchaeus. A tree appears strong and sturdy, but it is more vulnerable than it looks. A strong windstorm can topple it. The blows of an ax can bring it down. Worms and diseases can ravage it from within. So it was for Zacchaeus’s life and career. He appeared well-to-do and secure. But his wealth came through corruption. His short stature was something that could not be helped, but Zacchaeus was morally small. Habitually he had refused to swim against the tide of greed. For years he thought more about doing what was profitable than doing what was right. And in some mysterious way, the voice of his conscience finally broke through. Zacchaeus saw what seemed like a rich life to be an empty shell, and it was time to get a new start.
The surprise comes in Jesus’ eagerness and boldness in inviting himself to Zacchaeus’s home. The worst Zacchaeus could do was to say no. But Jesus knew that this man was hungering for the chance to wipe his slate clean and give his life a new purpose. All he needed was a little push in that direction.
Here the crowd rises up again. “Why is Jesus going to the house of a sinner? There’d be plenty of decent people he could visit in Jericho! Why is he wasting his time with that lousy tax collector?” Zacchaeus can definitely feel the hostility of the crowd. But he doesn’t say, “Listen, Jesus, they’re right about me. You might as well not even bother.” Instead he gives proof of his commitment to conversion. “Whatever I need to fix in my dealings with the community, I’m willing here and now to make it right.” In his promise to pay back four-fold what he may have stolen, Zacchaeus reminds us of a precept in the Law of Moses, in which those found guilty of theft would as restitution have to give to the victim four times as much as they had stolen. And this attitude causes Jesus to make one of the grandest, most beautiful statements we’ve ever heard from him. “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Maybe we think that we are too small and insignificant to show up on God’s radar screen. The Word of God tells us to reject this lie. The author of the Book of Wisdom proclaims in our first reading that, although God made the universe and all it contains, He shows great mercy to each and every person who depends upon it. One could say that we need to become small by humbling ourselves, rebuking our sins, and drawing upon God’s grace, if God is to do great things in our lives.
I had the great joy of spending some time Friday and Saturday at an event in Bismarck called the Thirst Conference. Thousands of people, young and old alike, have taken over the Bismarck Civic Center for a wonderful program of Mass, prayer, and talks, with confessions available and many vendors on hand selling Catholic goods. The very name “Thirst” suggests that the participants don’t see themselves as flawless human beings. They have tasted the love of Jesus and the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit, and they are thirsting for more. Some of the folks there have more in common with Zacchaeus than we may think. But we didn’t see each other through the lens of our past. We saw each other in the present tense, endeavoring to love one another as Christ loves us.
Consider for a moment how it felt when the scene of our Lord’s gracious gesture unfolded in this Gospel. You were glad to hear Jesus being so warm and understanding in his dealings with Zacchaeus. You’d like to receive the same treatment if you were in his shoes, and you think you’re worthy of it. What makes us conclude that someone else may not be good enough? What’s more valuable: our own pride, or an immortal soul? Please don’t be like the crowd from today’s Gospel when Zacchaeus walks through our doors. When the Lord declares that “salvation has come to his house,” this is not reserved only to Zacchaeus or the privileged few. This gift is meant for everyone, great or small.
By: Fr. James Gross
“Two people went up to the Temple area to pray.” We think we know this story backwards and forwards. The good guy is rewarded, and the bad guy gets his comeuppance. That’s about all there is to it. But far more is going on than meets the eye. As so often happens in the teachings of Jesus, each of us here and now resembles one of these two men. Only by examining them will we understand what the Lord is asking of us.
First of all, neither man represents his entire class. We know well that stereotypes only communicate part of the story, and that life is never so cut and dried. Secondly, neither man was lying as he spoke his prayer: the Pharisee really was benevolent and the tax collector really was a crook. But only one of the two came home justified. A quick character study will shed some light on this.
For the Jews of this time, tax collectors were social pariahs. For one thing, they were a visible reminder of the Roman Empire’s oppressive reign over Israel. Secondly, many tax collectors employed unethical means. Corrupt tax collectors often charged an amount higher than the tax burden for a given household so that they could tuck away the leftovers, propelling them into fat city. If anyone offered resistance, the tax collector could threaten swift action by some of the fiercest soldiers on the planet.
One day, his conscience getting the better of him, the tax collector sees the error of his ways. All he can muster in pleading his case is one sentence: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” To the tax collector, God’s holiness is a burning flame which inclines him to keep his distance from the altar and keep his head down. His actions are reminiscent of what happened at Mount Sinai. When God displayed His glory on the mountaintop, the Israelites told Moses, “You go up there for us. God’s majesty is a sight so great to bear that we’re not even approaching this mountain, lest we die.” (I’d like to claim that is the same reason we Catholics love to sit in the back pews, but I have my doubts about that.)
When a man prays alone, he does not pose or pretend: his whole heart is revealed. See how valuable one single act of humility can be! Jesus hated the tax collector’s lifestyle, but he loved that he had a soul open to God. The Pharisee was like a cold hilltop on which no flowers grew, but the tax collector was a valley that could hold the flowing stream of God’s mercy. His was the prayer that pierced the clouds.
A number of us at St. Anthony’s are conducting a study of the book Consoling the Heart of Jesus by Fr. Michael Gaitley. I’d like to share something from that program that was called to my mind by the tax collector in today’s Gospel. Fr. Gaitley quotes several saints and spiritual writers as saying that the love of the Sacred Heart of Christ is as a raging fire that longs to consume our sins, if only we come to him. Here are a couple of examples of revelations Jesus gave to them: “I am love! My heart can no longer contain its devouring flames. I love souls so dearly…my heart is burning with desire to attract souls to itself in order to forgive them.” And another: “When you give me your sins, you give me the joy of being your Savior!” A part of us may want to stay away from the Lord, mistakenly thinking that we are too far gone, and are beyond redemption. What an amazing thought that our very sins, when cast into the furnace of Jesus’ heart, actually give him rest and joy!
It is perplexing, though, that the Pharisee in this parable turns from a hero into a villain. Pharisees were a subset of Jews who invested much time and effort into observing the Law of Moses. They were the “reliable” ones—the people who did what needed doing. And among them, the man in this Gospel is exemplary, the Billy Graham of the Pharisees. (Kids, ask your parents after Mass to tell you about Billy Graham) I think of the Pharisee at prayer, not with his hands piously folded, but holding a clipboard and a pen. “God says we should keep the Commandments and stay out of trouble? Check. We should give 10% of what we make? Check. We should fast? I’ll do you one better; I’ll fast twice a week because there’s some deadbeat out there who isn’t doing his share.”
For all his zeal and productivity, the Pharisee hides an internal spiritual illness. He has fallen into a trap. No matter what mask he wears, he cannot conceal himself from God, who sees what’s in the depths of our hearts. Let’s look at what specifically is going on.
Obviously humility is lacking. The heart that is not humble cannot arrive at solidarity with one’s fellow man through prayer, but instead tends toward disdain and condemnation. Only with the illusion of one’s own innocence could the Pharisee scornfully shake his finger at the world. There is also the problem of pride. “I” was the Pharisee’s favorite word in every sentence he uttered. He regarded God as a corporation in which he’d earned so many shares of stock that the boss eventually had to offer him a seat on the Board of Directors. And this leads to the deepest symptom of all.
This particular Pharisee broadcast an aura of composure, stability, and excellence. But deep down, he was sad and insecure. The man did not know that he was loved! In his eyes, God was vengeful, ruthless, exacting. The man felt he had to claw his way up and justify his station: one false move would get him thrown out on his ear, and the door would close and lock behind him.
Let me ask you; who is God to you? And who are you in His eyes? Are you someone whom He rejoiced to create, and in whom He takes delight? Do you know that you are loved? Will you let Christ’s love enter in to the most hidden recesses of your house?
As Catholics we learn early on that our faith would be an empty exercise without the cross. Jesus’ paschal mystery (his suffering, death, and resurrection) unleashed a never-ending fountain of mercy for sinners. Think of how many contexts in His Church that God communicates His mercy to us: the baptismal font, the altar of sacrifice, the confessional, the Word of God proclaimed, His praises lifted up in song, the cup of cold water given to a brother or sister in need. And what about the Jubilee Year of mercy that we are finishing, and the way this observance has brought the mercy of God to the forefront?
So, if the humble are the ones to be exalted, how do we square this with the words of St. Paul today? In today’s second reading, he sounds a little haughty. “Look at what I’ve done! I’ve finished the race; I’ve kept the faith.” But from start to finish in his writings, Jesus was the first name on Paul’s lips. Jesus received the credit for every good work Paul was able to perform. Consider the following passage with which I will close today, from one of his letters to the Church in Corinth, and decide if an arrogant man could write this and mean it: “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.”
By: Fr. James Gross
The story is told that Andrew Jackson’s boyhood friends just couldn’t understand how he became a famous general and then the President of the United States. They knew of other men who had greater talent but never succeeded. One of Jackson’s friends said, “Why, Jim Taylor, who lived right down the road from Jackson, was not only smarter but he could throw (that is, defeat) Andy three times out of four in a wrestling match.” Another friend asked, “How did there happen to be a fourth time? Didn’t they usually say three times and you’re out?” “Sure, they were supposed to, but not Andy. He would never admit he was beat—in the slang of the time, he would never stay ‘throwed.’ Jim Taylor would get tired, and on the fourth try Andrew Jackson would throw him and be the winner. The thing that counts is not how many times you get ‘throwed,’ but whether you are willing to stay beaten.”
Jesus gives us a wonderfully simple parable today to which we can easily relate. It features two principal figures; a widow, and the judge in the small town where she lives. I find it interesting that both characters have their flaws. Neither one is simply a villain or hero, but displays a mix of both. Jesus masterfully works this complexity into relatively few words.
The widow, a weak and defenseless member of society, petitions for the judge to hear her case against her opponent. The widow is irascible and possibly inclined to commit an act of violence. The judge’s comical phrase “lest she finally come and strike me” is a literal translation of the original Greek. It’s not just an exaggeration that worked its way in somewhere along the line. We wouldn’t be surprised if the lady started swinging her handbag and pummeling the guy over the head.
We don’t know the nature of the widow’s complaint, or for that matter, if she is even in the right. All we see is the corruption of the judge, who would rather not trifle with her. Citizens like her cannot line his pockets or propel him to a higher position. He has had enough of her and ends up giving the woman a hearing out of self-preservation, rather than in order to do his job well. Although his attitude is begrudging, justice is eventually served.
Discouragement can erode our devotion or make it purely mechanical, thereby robbing it of its joyful spirit. To this temptation, today’s parable responds that prayer is never in vain. One of the early Church fathers, Origen of Alexandria, shared this insight: “…the people of God fight more with tongue and voice than with hands and weapons: it is in raising prayers to God that one’s enemies will be routed.” Examples abound in Scripture of how God fought on behalf of the people of Israel, whether bringing down the walls of the city of Jericho or granting victory to Gideon’s army in the Book of Judges by plunging his more numerous opponents into confusion.
Think of the so-called “velvet revolution” that took place in Eastern Europe during the late 1980’s. It occurred long enough ago that many of our young people here don’t remember it. One by one, former Soviet-bloc nations recaptured their independence, and their armies were peaceful protests fueled by a power so often suppressed—the power of prayer. Our World Youth Day pilgrimage to Poland this summer reminded us of the spiritual character of those historic events. The enormous crowds that met with Pope St. John Paul II during his pastoral visits declared that God has mapped out their destiny, not some nebulous Communist party. If ever there is an example of perseverance at work in our world, it was in the men and women that poured into the city squares of Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Riga, and Warsaw.
I’m going to close with some reflections from Blessed John Henry Newman, a British churchman of the 19th century. He said, “But, you ask, what are acts of faith? These are some of them. Going often to prayer is an act of faith…trying to be attentive to your prayers is an act of faith. Behaving in the house of God otherwise than you would in an ordinary place is an act of faith.
“These are acts of faith, because they are acts that you would accomplish if you saw and understood that God is present, though your eyes and ears neither see nor hear him. But ‘happy are they who have not seen, and have believed!’ To be sure, if we act thus, we shall little by little, and with the grace of God, be clothed with the spirit of His holy reverence. And we shall show in our way of speaking and acting, as in our religious behavior and daily conduct, that we respect and love him—not by constraint and weary effort, but spontaneously and naturally.” We may not know specifically what we are going to receive, but we know that God always delights in the prayers of His children.
By: Fr. James Gross
Several different kinds of suffering arise from an illness. The most obvious is the physical suffering of certain symptoms, the things doctors prescribe medicines to counteract. But there are other, very distinct, forms of suffering. For example, there may be an emotional toll from not being able to enjoy the same quality of life as before. There may be loneliness due to the isolation of home confinement, or decreased contact with friends. Or there could be a social suffering in cases where the community attaches a stigma or shame to the disease one has. This is what the ten lepers experienced in today’s gospel. Once their illness was evident, they were cast out from their homes and towns into a colony, presumably never to mingle with the healthy townsfolk again until they died. Because leprosy was considered to be very contagious, according to law, these ten had to loudly announce “UNCLEAN” to any passersby who might be unaware that they were lepers. It was a thoroughly miserable existence.
You may be protesting, “Wait a minute! In such a primitive society there was very poor cleanliness or personal hygiene compared to today. Plus, their medical knowledge was so limited. For crying out loud, 200 years ago many doctors used bloodletting as a remedy! Leprosy has been all but eradicated in the U.S. Isn’t what you’re talking about ancient history?” Well, those things are all true, but I’d argue that many illnesses contain a stigma even to this day.
Disease is bad enough as it is, and especially when it strikes those who are young. All of us know people who are battling various cancers, and the month of October highlights the fight against breast cancer with the color pink, for example, on NFL players’ uniforms. No reasonable person would say of them, “They got sick because of some reckless or deviant behavior.” On the contrary, their friends are organizing benefits and fundraisers to help their families. But certainly, there are diseases nowadays about which even those who don’t think of themselves as judgmental will say, “If you have X, it’s because you have done Y.” And when someone is characterized and marginalized that way—banished to their own colony, if you will—who is there to deliver the compassion of Christ and his spiritual healing?
We need to highlight a couple of things about Jesus’ response to the ten men with leprosy. First of all, Our Lord did not flee from them or chase them away. Some of his disciples may have thought, “What are you waiting for? Tell these guys to take a hike!” But we see no shrinking back in fear. No disease or stigma thereof has power over him, and so there’s no room for fear.
Secondly, it may surprise us that Jesus simply tells them to show themselves to the priests. A healing occurs, but where are the outstretched hands or chanting of Hebrew prayers? No such external rituals are forthcoming. Christ gave this instruction because only the village’s religious authority, verifying that the men were disease-free, could publicly reinstate them in their homes, places of worship, and workplaces. The men could not make such a declaration themselves. In his abundant mercy, Jesus both healed their leprosy and gave them their lives back.
The final part of the story tells us that only one of the ten seeks out the Lord afterward to thank him. One might expect the foreigner, the Samaritan, to be self-absorbed and absent-minded, but he ends up being the grateful one! Here is the connection to our first reading. Naaman was a big shot general in the Syrian army. He contracted leprosy, and assuming that his days were numbered, was in desperate straits. An Israelite servant-girl in Naaman’s retinue said, “If only Naaman would go to my home country and see a wonder-worker there named Elisha, he would find help.” Thinking “what do I have to lose,” Naaman made the trip to Elisha, who instructed Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan River.
That’s where the reading picks up today, but Naaman was not a happy camper. He complained that Syria had beautiful rivers in which he could bathe. Compared to them, the Jordan River was a lousy, muddy, tiny creek! His advisors replied, “Listen; if Elisha had asked you to do something difficult or arduous, you’d have put on your macho man hat and hopped to it. What do you have to lose if you try what he suggested?” Grumbling “yeah, you’re right,” Naaman plunged into the waters and was cured. It was only proper then, he thought, to make a grandiose gesture of his appreciation by offering expensive gifts to the prophet Elisha, and to declare his trust in the God of Israel.
Most of us here may be thinking, “What does any of this have to do with me? Except for the usual aches and pains and maybe some other things, I’m doing fine physically.” St. Luke presents the ten lepers to represent all of us insofar as we are afflicted by sin. Every one of us needs healing from Jesus as badly as they did. We live in a culture that is not serious about personal sin. Certain things are declared anathema, like tobacco usage or air and water pollution. But how many moral factors, where the salvation of our souls is at stake, become mocked? Our culture swallows whole the devil’s lies that many kinds of sin are not real and therefore not poisonous, and is tempted to respond to the Church’s teaching with conceit. Modern culture is quick to echo the lyrics of the old Kenny Loggins song: “I’m alright; don’t nobody worry about me…won’t you just let me be.”
Well, if I’m not in a state of grace, I am not alright: it doesn’t matter what I say. A salve one applies to a wound produces a burning discomfort, but eventually takes the ailment away. In the same manner, confessing our mortal and venial sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation can be difficult. It smarts. But the pain is temporary, and we walk out of the confessional lightened of the load of guilt and renewed in the Holy Spirit.
Today the Lord invites us to look to the Samaritan man as a model of prayer. He begins with a humble petition for Jesus to have pity on him. Within that declaration is both a sorrow for his sins and a request for healing, knowing well that he cannot supply the cure for either one by himself. Once he is healed, he doesn’t pretend that nothing important happened, but immediately expresses his gratitude personally to Jesus. Think of how much healing God can bring to the world in His Church, and yet how little of it happens, for no better reason than that His children refuse to admit it when they are sick.