November 3, 2013
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church,
This is the second week in a row we have a gospel about a tax collector
—remember last week we had the parable of the tax collector
in the temple, praying: “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.”
This week we have another tax collector who admits he’s a sinner.
Only this time, it isn’t a parable—it’s a true story from the life of Jesus.
Remember that tax collectors in Judea around the year 30AD
were usually Jews who were collaborating with the Romans.
And Caesar paid them by allowing them to keep
a certain percentage of the taxes they collected.
But these tax collectors were also notorious for collecting more tax
than was due, and keeping the excess for themselves.
So they were public sinners on two counts:
as traitors to the Jews, and as thieves.
And Zacchaeus must have been a particularly notorious sinner,
because his cheating had made him a “wealthy man.”
But look what happens when he encounters Jesus.
It says he was “seeking to see Jesus,”
but that he was so short that he couldn’t see over the crowd,
so he had to climb a tree to see Jesus.
Now, a being man of short stature myself,
I tend to see this not so much as a problem of being short,
but as a problem of the crowd being too tall, and getting in the way.
Today, you and I are also “seeking to see Jesus,”
along with millions of Christians around the world.
But all too often we can’t find him because the crowd gets in the way.
We get caught up in or distracted by the opinions of the people around us,
so that no matter what Jesus does
we can neither hear or see it clearly.
The crowd—our friends and family,
the media and public opinion in general—
become more important that seeing Christ,
much less listening to him, much less following him.
More than that, when the crowd moves, and we follow.
But Christians should be more like Zacchaeus:
we need to rise above the crowd to see Jesus as he is.
If all Christians did this life would be very different, especially in America.
I think in particular today of three terrible sins
that are destroying the foundations of our culture,
but that the society around us—“the crowd—
not only embraces but promotes:
and the corruption of marriage,
especially through so called “gay marriage.”
Everywhere we turn we’re told that these are not only “not bad”
but are actually “good.”
Everywhere, that is, except when we look past the crowd, to see Jesus.
Because even though Jesus loves all those people in the crowd,
we see that he still rejects all these evil things they embrace.
Because he sees those things for what they truly are:
things that are bad for us individually and for the crowd as a whole.
We hear the prophet say to God in today’s first reading:
“you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made….”
But the thing is, God did not “make” sin.
The book of Genesis tells us that in the beginning
God created life, not death.
It was man’s choice to reject God’s plan, to sin, and that led to death.
So God created life: He did make abortion.
And in the beginning God created marriage as
a total mutual self-gift between a male and female,
so wonderful that it could bring forth new life in children.
God created marriage,
but he did not make “same sex-” or “gay” “marriage.”
Today’s gospel tells us Zacchaeus
“climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus.”
But what tree do we climb to see Jesus over the crowd?
Genesis talks about 2 trees in the beginning of paradise:
the “tree of life” and the “tree of knowledge of good and evil.”
Adam and Even sinned by eating the forbidden fruit
of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil,”
but whatever happened to the “tree of life”?
In the New Testament,
in both the Acts of the Apostles and the Book of Revelation,
it tells us that “the tree of life” is another name for the Cross.
To climb up the tree then, for us,
means to climb or to share in the Cross of Christ:
especially to accept the life-giving graces that pour from the Cross.
And the first of those graces is the forgiveness of sins.
But to be forgiven, we must first repent.
And that’s the first thing Zacchaeus does when comes down from the tree:
“Behold,” he says, “half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor,
and if I have extorted anything from anyone
I shall repay it four times over.”
Notice he doesn’t say he’ll give back all his wealth,
but only “half,” which probably means
the money that he’d, in effect, stolen by overcharging taxes.
Many people nowadays are afraid to see and follow Christ because,
whether they admit it or not,
they know that much of what they have in their personal lives
comes from their acceptance of things that Christ rejects.
For example, some of us have friends who wouldn’t be our friends
if they knew we were pro-life or against “gay marriage.”
Some parents, are afraid of losing the affection of their “gay” sons
—or to lose the respect of their daughters who have “gay” friends.
Some women are afraid of being ostracized by their peers
if they don’t support abortion or contraception.
And how many men and women and boys and girls
would lose their boyfriend or girlfriend
if they suddenly decided to practice chastity?
To follow Christ then, means to give up anything related to sin,
including, if necessary,
any relationships that we can only keep alive by condoning sin.
We must not follow the crowd.
On the other hand, there are other Christians,
who don’t get caught up in following the crowd,
and constantly do look past the crowd to see Jesus clearly.
Sadly though, more and more of these folks find themselves
guilty of a different sin:
the sin of despair, or losing hope in Christ.
They see all their efforts to follow Christ and lead others to Christ
as useless and a failure because no matter what they do,
everyone around them, even their friends and family,
let the crowd come between them and Jesus,
or lead them away from Him.
And so these otherwise faithful Christians lose, or begin to lose, hope.
Frankly, we all fall into one of these sins from time to time, more or less
—either following the crowd or losing hope.
But I think today of one great Catholic
who had every reason to either follow the crowd or to give up hope, but never did:
the great St. Thomas More.
You all know his story.
He rose from the humble middle class in 15th and 16hth century England
to become a great scholar and lawyer,
and finally chancellor of England,
second only in power to King Henry VIII.
And yet he gave all that up because he would not go along
with the King’s efforts to divorce his wife and marry another
—instead he kept his eyes fixed on Christ
and followed Him and His Church
in support of marriage.
He lost everything, and was eventually imprisoned
and finally beheaded.
A man, like Zacchaeus,
who was willing to lose all for the sake of Christ.
Who rose above the crowd, as nearly all of his peers
sided with King Henry against Christ and His Church.
And yet, when we read St. Thomas’s writings during his imprisonment
we see not a shred of doubt or despair, but a man of hope.
Hope first that God might save him from the his troubles,
but also hope that God would use his suffering for some greater good.
And finally, hope that if he remained faithful to the end,
God would bring him to heaven;
as he told his executioner:
“You send me to God….
He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.”
Life is full of opportunities to choose between Christ and the crowd,
and to hope in Christ or to give up in despair.
This week we face opportunities for both as Virginians go to the polls
to elect our state and local leaders.
We have clear choices between
candidates who are strongly pro-life and pro-traditional marriage
and candidates who are strongly pro-abortion and pro-“gay marriage.”
We can choose to follow the crowd that tries to sell us the lie that
all the pro-life and pro-traditional marriage candidates
are a bunch of anti-women bigots and gay-bashers.
Or we can choose to follow Christ
and vote for those pro-life and pro-traditional marriage candidates,
because, like Christ, and like us,
they love all people—including “gays” and women—
but hate the sins that can destroy their lives,
and the culture as we know it.
And we can choose to give up to despair,
thinking our votes and other support are useless,
or we can hope in Christ and do everything
we can to elect those who follow him.
Last Sunday I asked you to join me in praying a novena to St. Thomas More.
I hope you will keep praying this novena, or begin to today,
because prayer is the most important thing we can do to in this situation.
And of course the greatest prayer is what we’re doing right now
—the Mass: Christ’s great prayer to His Father on the Cross.
As we enter now more deeply into the mystery of this Holy Mass,
this re-presentation of the sacrifice of the Cross,
let us now turn our eyes away from the crowd
and toward our merciful Lord Jesus on the Cross, the tree of life.
Let us forsake all that keeps us from him,
and climb up to him on the Cross, and remain with him there.
And as we eat the fruit of this tree of life, the bread of life,
may it keep us always close to him
filling us with true love for his children,
clear faith in his teaching,
and in steadfast hope in his mercy and power.
And as we leave here today,
let us be committed to do all in our power to share this love, faith and hope with all our neighbors in the great state of Virginia.