To Make a Long Story Short – A Meditation on the Gospel for the 31st Sunday of the Year

The Gospel today is of the familiar and endearing story of Zacchaeus, a man too short to see Jesus, who climbs a tree, encounters Jesus, and is changed. The danger with familiar stories is that they are familiar and we can miss remarkable qualities.  Perhaps it is well that we look afresh and search for the symbolic in the ordinary details.

1. Shortsighted Sinner – Zacchaeus was physically short, and so, could not see the Lord. But let me ask you, do you think that Luke has told us this merely to indicate his physical stature? Well, I’m a preacher and I’m counting on the fact that there is more at work here than a physical description. I suspect it is also a moral description. Zacchaeus cannot see the Lord because of the blindness sin brings. It is his moral stature that is the real cause of his inability to see the Lord. Consider some of the following texts from scripture that link sin to a kind of blindness:

  • My iniquities have overtaken me, till I cannot see. (Ps 40:12)
  • I will bring distress on the people  and they will walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD (Zeph 1:17)
  • They know not, nor do they discern; for God has shut their eyes; so that they cannot see, and their minds so that they cannot understand (Is 44:18)
  • Because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed within her the blood of the righteous, now they grope through the streets like men who are blind (Lam 4:13)
  • Unless one is born again by water and the Spirit, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. (John 3:5)
  • Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God. (Matt 5:8)

So sin brings blindness, an inability to see the Lord. Now Zacchaeus has fallen short through sin and hence he cannot see Jesus. “How has he sinned?” You might say. Well, he is the chief tax collector of Jericho. Tax collectors were wicked men, I tell you no lie. The Romans recruited the mobsters of that day to collect taxes. These were bad guys. They ruffed people up and extorted money from them. The Romans permitted them to charge beyond the tax as their “cut” of the deal. They were corrupt, they exploited the poor and schmoozed the powerful. These were men who were both feared and hated, and for good reason.  They were, to a man, wicked and unjust. Zacchaeus was not just any Tax Collector, he was Chief  Tax collector. He was a mafia boss, a Don, a “Godfather.” Got the picture? Zacchaeus isn’t just physically short. He’s the lowest of the low, he doesn’t measure up morally, he comes up short in terms of justice, he’s a financial giant, but a moral midget. Zacchaeus is a shrimp, well short of a full moral deck. That he cannot see the Lord is not just a physical problem, it is a moral one.

Now I am not picking on Zacchaeus. For the truth be told we are all Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus is us. You say, “Wait a minute, I’m not that bad.”  Maybe not but you’re not that good either. In fact we’re a lot closer to being like Zacchaeus that to being like Jesus. The fact that we are not yet ready to look on the face of the Lord is demonstrable by the fact that we’re still here. We’re not ready and not righteous enough to look upon the unveiled face of God.  How will Zacchaeus ever hope to see the Lord? How will we? Let’s read on.

2. Saving Sycamore– Zacchaeus climbs a tree to see Jesus. So must we. And the only tree that can really help us to see the Lord is the tree of the Cross. Zacchaeus has to cling to the wood of that old sycamore to climb it, and we too must cling to the wood of the old rugged cross. Only by the wood of cross and power of Jesus’ blood can we ever hope to climb high enough to see the Lord. There is an old Latin chant that says, Dulce lignum, dulce clavos, dulce pondus sustinet (sweet the wood, sweet the nails, sweet the weight (that is) sustained). So Zacchaeus foreshadows for us the righteous that comes from the cross by climbing a tree and being able to get a glimpse of Jesus.

3. Sanctifying Savior– Jesus stops by that tree, for we always meet Jesus at the cross. And there at that tree, that cross, he invites Zacchaeus into a saving and transformative relationship. It is not a surprise that Jesus invites himself for what amounts to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house. Though dinner is not mentioned here, it was  just a basic aspect of Jewish hospitality. But remember, it is Jesus who ultimately serves the meal. Consider these texts:

  • Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. (Rev 3:20)
  • And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:29).
  • As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther.  But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. (Luke 24:28-30)

Yes, Zacchaeus has now begun to see the Lord, and the Lord invites him into a Holy Communion, a relationship and a liturgy that will begin to transform him. And Zacchaeus is us. We too have begun to see the Lord through the power of the Cross to cast out our blindness and the Lord draws us to sacred Communion with him. The liturgy and Holy Communion are essential for this,  as the Lord invites himself to our house, that is to say, our soul and our parishes.

4. Started Surrender – Zacchaeus is experiencing the start of a transformative relationship. But this is just the start. Note that Zacchaeus promises to return four-fold the money he has extorted and also to give half his money to the poor. Now there’s an old song that says, “I surrender all….” but Zacchaeus isn’t quite there yet, and, probably most of us aren’t either. Eventually Zacchaeus will surrender all, and so will we. But in time. For now he needs to stay near the cross to see and continue to allow Jesus to have communion with him. One day all will be surrendered.

So here is the start for Zacchaeus and us. The best is yet to come. You might say, that the Gospel ends here to make a long story short 🙂

This sermon is recorded in mp3 here:

This song says, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea heard my desparing cry and from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, love lifted me!”

29 Replies to “To Make a Long Story Short – A Meditation on the Gospel for the 31st Sunday of the Year”

  1. Whenever this Gospel reading comes up I miss part of the homily because just hearing the name Zaccheus gives me an earworm –

    Zaccheus was a wee little man
    A wee little man was he!
    He climbed up in the sycamore tree
    For the Lord he wanted to see.
    And as the Savior passed that way
    He looked up in that tree.
    And He said:
    Zaccheus! You come down!
    For I’m going to your house today.
    I’m going to your house today.

    I suppose that’s collateral damage from the years I helped out in a preschool Sunday School class.

    1. We had this song on a cassette that my middle (handicapped) daughter play continuously for a couple of years. It wasn’t long before the whole house knew it. Now here we are 20 plus years later and whenever we are going to my oldest daughter’s house or her to ours, we call each other on the day of departure and sing just the refrain “I’m coming to you house today, we’re coming to your house today!”. Weird I know…but fun nonetheless!

  2. Could you provide any link to the background on the image? It’s intriguing and I’d love to read about the various layers of symbol in it.

    Thanks and keep up the good work as always.

  3. This is a side bar: Can you tell us who the artist is of the painting that accompanies this homily. I love this painting

  4. This was the Gospel reading for the first Mass I went to on my way back to the Church.

    And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.
    For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

  5. Thank you Father. I look forward to your Sunday homilies each week because I copy them and send them to my brother who is a Calvinist. He enjoys them too and maybe God will still make him a Catholic!

  6. I am a convert from fundamentalism, and one of the things I am grateful for from my upbringing is the hundreds and hundreds of theologically-sound hymns such as this one!! Would that more of them were in the Catholic church! I still listen to many and my spirit if fed.

    1. Yes, you are right. One of the great missed opportunities when the Mass went to english was that we did not draw more deeply from the fine hymns, many of which go back hundreds of years.

  7. Today’s reading for the 31st Sunday seems to be a message that no matter how great your sin is, God’s mercy and love are greater. Zacchaes, being a Chief tax-collecter was probally middle age or close to old age, and seen the evil of his ways, and wanted to convert. He desired to see God in Jesus: “When you seek me with all your heart, you will find me…(Jer. 29:13). Zacchaes was high in the Sycamore tree so all could witness his conversion, like the caterpillar wrapped in a cacoon which transforms itself into a beautiful winged butterfly or moth. Jesus’s first recorded words in the Bible are: Why did you search for me (when He was 12 yrs old, in the Temple)? Why do we all search for Him in Zacchaes example?
    The prophet Habakkuk says: “I will stand upon my watchtower and take up the post on the ramparts, keeping watch to see what he will say to me; (St. Bernard – sermon; LOH, vol IV, Pg 230-31.)” We too need to stand on our watchtower and watch to see what he will say to us.
    St. Jerome wrote: Return to me (commentary on Joel; LOH vol IV, Pg. 177-78).” “Return to me with all your heart and show a spirit of repentance with fasting, weeping and mourning. Return to the Lord your God, from whom you have been alienated by your sins. Do not despair of his mercy, no matter how great your sins, for great mercy will take away great sins. For the Lord is gracious, and merciful, and perfers the conversion of a sinner rather than his death. As David says: Have mercy on me, God, according to your great mercy, and in the depth of your compassion, blot out all my iniquities.”
    The Sycamore tree is significant because as Msgr. Pope says, it is the wood of that mean and rugged cross. The Sycamore tree also sheds its bark in large patches or sections. Synonymous to Zacchaes sheding his own sins through repentence. The sycamore tree is from the same genus as the Fig tree mentioned in the bible, they are related.
    Zacchaes sin had him in the dark. Dante in his Divine Comedy, in his first Canto in Inferno says: “Midway
    through the journey of our life – I found myself within a forest dark – For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” Dante found himself lost in the darkness of sin on Good Friday.
    When Jesus calls Zacchaes out of the tree, He shows his Divine Goodness, for it is written: “That ye may be the children of the Father which is in heaven: for he maketh the sun to rise of the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust; (Mt. 5:45)”
    Shakespear wrote about mercy: “It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed; it is blessed by Him that gives, and him that receives; it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown. His scepter shows the force of temporal power, the attribute to awe and majesty. But mercy is above the scept’ red sway; it is enthroned in the hearts of kings, it is an attribute to God himself; (Merchant of Venice – Portia to Shylock).”

  8. Wonderful homily Msgr. Pope. Brought back memories of my trip to the Holy Land last year and a sycamore tree I saw in Jericho.

  9. Thank you Father for explaining the scripture of today’s reading with Zacchaeus.

    As you said, “Eventually Zacchaeus will surrender all, and so will we. But in time,” I must have patience with myself and allow God to work His grace upon me even when I fall so many times.

    God bless!

  10. Here is some background on the artist of this painting for this homily. I’m going to try to get a cheap print.

    Portfolio Art Home
    Soichi Watanabe, 2008-2009 Artist in residence

    I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.

    A resident of Koshigaya City, Saitama, Japan, he was the 2008�09 OMSC artist in residence. Watanabe graduated in 1982 from the Ochanomizu Art School in Tokyo after having earned, a decade earlier, an economics degree from Tohoku Gakuin University in Sendai. He teaches at a private art school that he started in 1982. Watanabe�s oil paintings have been displayed in numerous solo exhibitions, including “The Encounter and the Hope” at Meiji Gakuin University, Tokyo, in 2000, “Prayer for Peace” at the Ein Karem Gallery, Tokyo, in 2006, and “The Prodigal Son Returns” at the Institute of Sacred Music, Yale University Divinity School, in 2009. He is a member of the Christian Art Association in Japan and the Asian Christian Art Association.

    “In retrospect I realize that [my works] are my own humble responses to God’s calling in my life. . . . The images are often given to me through the words of God, at worship services on Sundays, and during my daily devotion. I have the earnest hope that I will go on painting to praise the Lord,” writes Soichi Watanabe in his art book, Jesus Walking with Us (2004).”

  11. What an astounding and very profound homily. I’ve never seen the sycamore tree compared to the cross, but it is
    an astute analogy. The Cross of Christ is central to St. Paul’s teaching.” For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”(1 Corinthians 1:18)
    Amen and God Bless!

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  13. Eloquently written and much needed public response. We can never “understand” to the point of rationalizing God’s Word. Thank you brother Steve for standing soundly upon God’s Word and His blessed covenant of marriage. I am praying for Pat Robinson and those who respect his advice.

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