Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Wisdom 11:22 – 12:2; Psalm 144(145): 1-2, 8-11, 13b-14; 2 Thessalonians 1:11 – 2:2; Luke 19:1-10
30 October 2022
In today’s gospel we hear the all too familiar story of Zaccheus – a story which is unique to Luke’s gospel. Zaccheus is a short chap. He is not too worried about what others think about him. He is prepared to climb a tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus. He is wealthy. He is a tax collector – that despised class of rich people. We readers of Luke’s gospel have already encountered another rich man from one of the leading families who had asked: “Good Master, what have I to do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus told him to keep the commandments. He said he already did that. So, Jesus told him to sell all he owned, give it to the poor, and come follow him. That was all a bit much to ask. He went away sad and the onlookers asked how anyone could be saved. Jesus told them that God could do things which are impossible for the rest of us.
So here is another rich person just wanting to catch a glimpse of Jesus. He has not come to ask questions. He is not seeking guidance or forgiveness. This time, none of the initiative is taken by the rich person. The initiative is completely in Jesus’ hands. Jesus spots Zaccheus in the tree and invites him down: “Zaccheus, come down. Hurry, because I must stay at your house today.” The onlookers once again are befuddled. Surely Jesus realises what a cad this fellow Zaccheus is. Zaccheus stands his ground.
For the last hundred years, scripture scholars have had a field day interpreting what Zaccheus then said. The lectionary gives us this translation: “Look, sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.” The problem and confusion have arisen because the key Greek verbs in the sentence are in the present tense, not the future tense nor the past tense. Scripture scholar Dennis Hamm tells us: “Most contemporary versions render the present tenses of didomi and apodidomi in a straightforward manner. The RSV is representative: ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any of anything, I restore it fourfold.’” Is Zaccheus defending himself by invoking his past record of giving to the poor and making restitution, thereby rendering himself righteous and worthy of Jesus’ hospitality? This would give us “a picture of Jesus coming to the defence of a maligned but surprisingly just toll collector”. Or is Zaccheus resolving to put things right in future in response to Jesus’ gratuitous invitation to hospitality? This gives us a picture of a sinner being converted from his sinfulness having been offered gratuitous hospitality by Jesus: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.”
Asking ‘Does Zaccheus Defend or Resolve?’, Dennis Hamm rightly concluded that this is a story of a convert spontaneously resolving to put life right having been invited by Jesus and then responding with hospitality. Zaccheus hurried down and welcomed Jesus joyfully. While Zaccheus and Jesus extend hospitality to each other inside the house, the crowd stays outside complaining. Outside the house, the crowd is not for changing. Inside the house, there is prospect of conversion and new life.
This week, the Vatican has published the latest working document for the Synod. Using a quote from the prophet Isaiah, the document is entitled: ‘Enlarge the space of your tent’. The document draws on the feedback from the 112 out of 114 episcopal conferences that provided feedback. It notes: “It is to a people living the experience of exile that the prophet addresses words that help us today to focus on what the Lord is calling us to through the experience of lived synodality: ‘Enlarge the space of your tent, spread out your tent cloths unsparingly, lengthen your ropes and make firm your pegs’ (Is 54:2).”
The document speaks of “two spiritual temptations facing the Church in responding to diversity and the tensions it generates”:
“The first is to remain trapped in conflict, such that our horizons shrink and we lose our sense of the whole, and fracture into sub-identities. It is an experience of Babel and not Pentecost, well recognizable in many features of our world. The second is to become spiritually detached and disinterested in the tensions involved, continuing to go our own way without involving ourselves with those close to us on the journey.”
The crowd outside the house in today’s gospel are the embodiment of both these spiritual temptations.
The Synod working document quotes the Episcopal Conference of England and Wales that submitted: “The call is to live better the tension of truth and mercy, as Jesus did. The dream is of a Church that more fully lives a Christological paradox: boldly proclaiming its authentic teaching while at the same time offering a witness of radical inclusion and acceptance through its pastoral and discerning accompaniment”.
This is precisely what Jesus did when he invited Zaccheus down out of the tree and when they offered hospitality to each other inside the house. By inviting the wealthy tax collector who was a notorious sinner, Jesus was not abandoning his authentic teaching but he was offering witness of radical inclusion and acceptance.
Quoting the Episcopal Conference of the USA, the drafters of the Synod document say that “Reports show how this demand for welcome challenges many local Churches”. The US bishops, who have often been seen to be divided amongst themselves, wrote: “People ask that the Church be a refuge for the wounded and broken, not an institution for the perfect. They want the Church to meet people wherever they are, to walk with them rather than judge them, and to build real relationships through caring and authenticity, not a purpose of superiority.”
In today’s gospel, Jesus transforms Zaccheus’ house into a refuge for the wounded and broken, foregoing any pretence that he would enter only those homes which were institutions for the perfect.
There are no bounds to Jesus’ hospitality. In offering that hospitality, we still need to remain true to what we hold. In offering that hospitality, we need to maintain the tent which is the Church in good order, fit for purpose. As the drafters of the Vatican document put it: the tent cloth needs to be spread out to “protect those who are still outside this space, but who feel called to enter it”. The ropes “must balance the tension needed to keep the tent from drooping”. “If the tent expands, the ropes must be stretched to maintain the right tension”. The pegs need to be firm so as to “anchor the structure to the ground and ensure its solidity, but remain capable of moving when the tent must be pitched elsewhere.”
We will only make a home for Zaccheus in our church if we first feel at home in his house. This will mean blocking out the noise from those who constantly complain: “Look, he has gone to stay at a sinner’s house.”
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA). He was appointed a peritus at the Fifth Plenary Council of the Australian Catholic Church.
 Hamm, D. “Luke 19:8 Once More: Does Zacchaeus Defend or Resolve?” Journal of Biblical Literature 107 (1988) 431–437 at p.431
 Ibid, p. 433
 Enlarge the Space of Your Tent, Working Document for the Continental Phase, p. 15, available at https://www.synod.va/content/dam/synod/common/phases/continental-stage/dcs/Documento-Tappa-Continentale-EN.pdf
 Ibid, p. 19
 Ibid, p. 22
 Ibid, p. 15