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Sunday, 23 October 2016

Homily for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, By Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, CSSp



Wisdom 11:22-12:2, 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2, Luke 19:1-10

On the Gospel, The Rich Also Cry

Boris Becker was the world’s number one tennis star. At the height of his tennis career, he had won Wimbledon twice, once as the youngest player. He was rich and could afford all the material comfort and luxury he wanted. Yet he was an unhappy man. In spite of all his achievements, his life was so empty and meaningless that he contemplated suicide. “I had no inner peace,” he said. Becker is not alone in this feeling of emptiness. Many successful people who have ignored the inner life have felt that way. According to J. Oswald Sanders in his book Facing Loneliness, “The millionaire is usually a lonely man and the comedian is often more unhappy than his audience.” Jack Higgens, author of such successful novels as The Eagle Has Landed, 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.”


Who else would have known this than Zacchaeus in today’s gospel? As the chief tax collector of the city of Jericho, Zacchaeus would have been stinking rich by those days’ standards. The chief tax collector was not a worker on a fixed salary, he was the sole proprietor of a business enterprise. The Roman administration would levy a city the amount of money they expected the city to contribute in a year. The chief tax collector would pay that amount to the Roman authorities and then have the sole right and freedom to impose and collect taxes from the inhabitants of the city. He himself determined how much each person would pay. He would employ the actual tax collection agents to go round and take the taxes. Whatever money they collected over and above the lump sum he paid to the Roman administrator was his profit. Though the chief tax collector made a lot of money, he was hated in the city, not only because he overtaxed the people, but also because he was helping the pagan Romans to exploit his own people. He was regarded as a public sinner, as a traitor and as someone unclean before God. You can see that, although he was financially well to do, the chief tax collector lived a life of loneliness, alienated from his own people and alienated from God.

Zacchaeus was fascinated with Jesus, this poor Galilean who enjoyed the goodwill and the loyalty of the people. What was his secret? Zacchaeus would love to find out. But how could a wealthy man of his stature be seen in the crowd with the same people he has milked year after year to amass his wealth. He thought of a way to see Jesus without anybody seeing him. He would climb a tree and hide himself up there. This was something below him to do, for tree climbing was something for only boys and slaves. Someone in the crowd must have spotted him first. Can you imagine the shame and embarrassment he must have felt to be spotted up on that tree? The people must have jeered at him. But the jeering stopped as Jesus looked at Zacchaeus up there on the tree and spoke: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5). He hurried down the tree with a big smile on his face and the crowd made way for him as we went to hug Jesus and lead the way to his house.
At the dinner Jesus did not preach to Zacchaeus that he must repent or go to hell. But his non-judgmental and unconditional acceptance of the sinful Zacchaeus spoke more eloquently to his heart than the best sermon ever could. Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord in full view of everybody, “Look, 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” (verse 8). 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. Who needs all that money when you have found a meaningful life?

There are many Zacchaeus-men and women hiding on the tree under which we pass everyday. Jesus challenges us to look up and invite them to a meal. We must take the first step to reach out to them because many of them have been so intimidated by religious enthusiasts that they have resigned themselves to their fate. When we invite them with unconditional and non-judgmental love to share a meal with us or have a drink with us, we might be surprised to see that we are spreading the Good News of God’s love in a way that touches their hearts more than any amount of preaching can do.

On the Epistle, Hope: Between Despair and Presumption

Bible scholars who believe that the First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians were both written by Paul say that the second letter was written very soon after the first. The reason, they say, is that Paul had given a teaching in the first letter, which the Thessalonians misunderstood. He, therefore, needed to write a second one to correct the misunderstanding of the first. The teaching in question has to do with the second coming of Christ. This is a very important teaching of St. Paul, which many Christians today unfortunately still misunderstand just as the Thessalonians did.

There was a popular belief among the early Christians that some of them were still going to be alive when Christ would come back in glory. This belief was so widespread that we have evidence of it in all four gospels (Mt 16:28// Mk 9:1 // Lk 9:27 // Jn 21:23). It is likely that Paul spoke about this belief when he preached in Thessalonika. Years after Paul had left Thessalonika, a problem arose. Some of the first believers began to die. The Thessalonians were thrown into a crisis of faith. How come their first generation Christians were all dying off and the Christ still had not come? Some of them began to suggest that maybe the Second Coming had already taken place. Maybe the Coming of Christ was a spiritual reality that happened to the first believers, who were now dead, and that those of them still alive could, in fact, be the left behind people (2 Thess 2:1). Such believers would settle down to making the most of life in this world, since they have given up hope that the Lord was still coming to establish his reign of peace and justice on earth.

When Paul heard of the crisis of faith among the Thessalonians , he wrote them a letter. That was his first letter to the Thessalonians. In that letter he reassured the Thessalonians that the Coming of the Lord was at hand and would include both the living and the dead.

The Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thess 4:16-17)

Paul meant to rekindle in the hearts of the Thessalonians hope and expectation of the Lord's coming. But the graphic way in which he depicted the teaching led to an undesired consequence. If the Lord was coming soon to take his own people out of this world, why then should believers bother about making the world a better place? Why would someone plant a tree or build a house if Christ is coming tomorrow to take them out of this world? This kind of reasoning made some of the Thessalonians to stop working and spend their time watching the skies for signs of the Lord's appearing. Such people believed in the Lord's coming but they believed to an excessive degree. Paul had to write a second letter to the Thessalonians calling such people to moderation and reminding them of a command he had given them, "If any one will not work, let him not eat" (2 Thess 3:10).

There is a moral principle that says, "virtue stands in the middle." This means that for every sound doctrine, there are at least two possible errors, error by deficiency (not believing enough) and error by excess (believing too much).With regard to the doctrine of the Lord's coming, we see these two errors among the Christians in Thessalonika. Those who believed that the day of the Lord had already taken place did not believe enough in the future coming of the Lord. It led them to despair regarding their own salvation and to a materialistic lifestyle. Others who believed that the coming of the Lord was so literally imminent that they stopped working to improve themselves and the world around them erred by believing in excess. We call that presumption. Between the deficiency of despair and the excesses of presumption lies the golden mean of hope. The golden mean of hope enables us to believe in the coming of the Lord on a day we do not know while doing everything possible to improve our lives and those of our neighbours here in this world till the Lord comes whenever he chooses to come. Let us pray for true hope that overcomes both despair and presumption.

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