R. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 31st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, November 3, 2019:
One day, a young turtle slowly began to climb a tree. After great effort, he reached the top, jumped into the air waving his front legs, and promptly fell crashing to the ground with a hard knock. He brushed himself off, climbed the tree again, reached the top, and again hit the ground with a thud. The little turtle persisted again and again while two birds watched with sorrow. Finally, one bird said to the other, ”Honey, I think it’s time to tell our son he’s adopted.”
I don’t know about you, but as a child, I loved climbing trees. I grew up on the edge of the woods so there were seemingly endless trees to choose from. Trees had a magnetic quality to them. I couldn’t be near one without resisting the urge to climb it. I loved nothing more than climbing up a tree as high as I could. It seemed like you could just keep going, and, if you got high enough, it almost felt like you could fly. Everything – the whole world – looked so different from high atop a tree. It gave a new perspective to everything. I don’t recall feelings from my childhood that felt quite as free as climbing a tree. Somewhere along the line though, we hear an anti-tree message. We hear that it is dangerous, that you might hurt yourself, the tree might break, you really shouldn’t be doing it! But the memories of those eternal moments of freedom high atop the branches swaying in the wind lingers.
We heard in our Gospel today, Zacchaeus “ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus.” What can this image teach us today? Zacchaeus was the he chief tax collector in Jericho, and so was one of the richest men in Israel. As chief tax collector, he moved in the highest circles, and he had power — and lots of it. He was also a crook, a collaborator with the Roman enemy, and a target of hatred for his countrymen. He’d always thought of himself as successful. But suddenly, at the height of his career, it dawned on him that his life wasn’t working. There was a void at the core. He was regarded as a public sinner, as a traitor and as someone unclean before God. Although he was financially well to do, he lived of life of loneliness, alienated from his own people and from God. There was no joy, and intuitively he understood that there would be no joy as long as he continued on the same path.
Picture this scene if you can. Here is perhaps one of the most feared men of his community, someone who would be likely surrounded by an entourage, and now he is running like a child and climbing a tree to see this poor, relatively unknown preacher who was passing through town. And you know what? This new perspective, found high up in a tree, was liberating for Zacchaeus and it changed everything for him.
Jesus looked up at Zacchaeus in the tree, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” He hurried down the tree with a big smile on his face and the crowd made way for him as he led Jesus to his house. Take note that at dinner Jesus did not preach to Zacchaeus that he must repent or he would go to hell. Jesus did not issue an edict of Zacchaeus’ sins that he must correct before Jesus would speak to him. Instead, Jesus showed him a non-judgmental and unconditional mercy, love and acceptance that spoke more eloquently to his heart than the best sermon ever could. The effect? Zacchaeus stood up and said, “Half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” By giving half of his wealth to the poor and using the other half to repay fourfold all those he had defrauded, Zacchaeus’ wealth would be all but gone. But he had realized one of the great truths of life – all of the money in the world can’t buy you happiness; all the power in the world can’t give you the meaning that comes from a life with Christ.
Zacchaeus learned what many people learn once they take the time to stop, climb a tree and see things differently – the world wants to sell us a way of life that is ultimately empty – only Jesus can bring things that are truly meaningful into our lives. How many of us have our priorities in the wrong order? How many of us spend our days accumulating wealth, working endlessly to have a better job, a bigger position, one that offers more money, more power, more prestige. Only to discover at the end of the day that it is empty, that it does not bring any greater level of happiness or peace at all – in fact, it may be the very thing robbing us of quality relationships with family, friends and ultimately God. The author Jack Higgens, was asked what he would like to have known as a boy. His answer: “That when you get to the top, there’s nothing there.”
Jesus challenges us today to have the courage of Zacchaeus and climb a tree to see things differently, to gain a new perspective, a Christ perspective. And He promises us that if we do that, we too will be liberated and set free from all that ties us down, that binds our lives and relationships, that keep us from the happiness He promises.
There are figurative trees in front of us all the time, just waiting for a climb. There are the chances to gain a new perspective in our faith life with God, but how often we walk past because we fear that we might get hurt, that we might not be strong enough, that it might be dangerous. Every time we seek out the Sacrament of Reconciliation; every time we come to the Table of the Lord for the Eucharist – these are tree climbing moments. God offers us here the chance to see things differently; to see them as He sees them; to make a change that will bring true happiness. We only have to embrace it; to climb; to be free.
If we take the time to climb the tree that leads to a deeper faith, we just might find a greater freedom than we have ever known in life. The tree gave Zacchaeus the ability to see Jesus instead of the world that he knew; the world that clouded his sight. If we have the courage to take our lives of faith to this new perspective we too will hear Jesus say to us, “Today salvation has come to this house for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” So, my friends, let us go climb a tree!
May the Lord give you peace!