Tag Archives: Reconciliation

Hurry Down!


Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” Luke 19: 1-10.

The full readings for today can be found here.

 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.

In the name of the living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

          Good morning, good morning. It is always a great pleasure to be with you, to be among my friends in my second church home.

          One of my favorite stories in our Anglican tradition is about a young man in England. His mother died of consumption, which we now call tuberculosis, and at age 11 he went to sea with his father. He worked on merchant ships and was later pressed into service with the Royal Navy, and thereafter became involved in the slave trade, acting as a first mate aboard a slave ship and later as an investor in the slave trade. Years later, he became a priest and an abolitionist and was forced to confront what he had done. He apologized for “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” His name, of course, was John Newton and he wrote one of our most famous hymns, Amazing Grace. I love the story of John Newton because it illustrates that we’re never too far gone for God’s love and mercy to break our hearts and change our lives.

          Speaking of that, this is the second week in a row that we’ve had a story about tax collectors. We get the feeling that Luke is trying to tell us something. You’ll remember that last week we studied the story of the proud Pharisee and the tax collector who begged for God’s mercy.

          It might help us to understand just why tax collectors were viewed as such a loathsome bunch of people. It went deeper than simply saying nobody likes to pay taxes, although it almost certainly included that. First, under the Roman system, tax collectors were paid very poorly. The only way one could make a living at that profession was to charge more than the taxes that were actually owed. Yes, acting as collector almost required that one would engage in fraud and oppression. Further, we remember that the Jewish people were under a Roman occupation. Anyone who collected taxes for the Roman was viewed as a collaborator.

          Now, the other thing we know about the man called Zaccheaus is that he was rich, which means that he was good at the job of collaboration with the Romans. To be a wealthy tax collector almost certainly meant that he was involved in corruption, extortion and embezzlement. And Zaccheaus wasn’t just any tax collector, he was the chief tax collector.

          So, there’s a certain irony already hidden in this story, because the name Zacchaeus means “the clean one” or “righteous.” But at first blush, he doesn’t seem all that righteous at all. But Luke loves to turn our expectations on their head, just like his rabbi Jesus did.

          Now we know two other things about Zacchaeus.  We know he was a little man, and thus was compelled to climb into a sycamore tree to see Jesus.  We also know that he was looking for Jesus, that he was seeking Jesus.  In fact, he runs ahead so that he can see the Lord.

          Now, climbing into a tree tells us something else about the man called Zacchaeus.  Very few grown men can climb into a tree and maintain their sense of dignity.  Thus we know that Zacchaeus was willing to humble himself in order to see this man called Jesus. Perhaps that’s because his past had separated Zacchaeus from both his community and from God. I suspect it took a good deal of courage to climb into that tree. I suspect it took a good deal more to come down and face Jesus.

          But we get the feeling that just as eagerly as Zacchaeus was looking for Jesus, Jesus was looking for Zaccheaus as well.  Scripture tells us that Jesus looked up and saw him. Now the Greek word there is anablepo, which often implies looking up to heaven. But when Jesus looks up, he finds the face of a man who needs the love of God in his life.  Jesus calls out to him, telling him to climb down and invited himself to Zaccheaus’ home.
Although Zaccheaus has been living a terribly sinful life, Jesus accepts him as he is, embracing this little man, this tax collection, unconditionally.  Perhaps it’s that acceptance that brings about the change in Zaccheaus. Love can do that sort of thing.

          The response of the crowd to Jesus’ acceptance is predictable. Once again, people are grumbling about the company that Jesus keeps. He just seems to delight in spending his time with sinners and tax collectors. I’m reminded of something that Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said. He said “God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are really quite low.” And that’s why we call these gospels “good news.”

          In that world, at that time, no self-respecting Jew would have spent any time with, let alone spent the night with, a tax collector. And yet this man Jesus was eager to do just that, offering Zaccheaus acceptance and rejecting the notion that he was an outsider, that he was unclean. Jesus liberates Zaccheaus from his past and from his shame. And in the final analysis, it’s not just Zaccheaus’ house where Jesus stays; he takes up residence in his soul.

          One of the overarching theme’s of Luke’s Gospel is the welcome that Jesus offers to sinners. We see that in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the woman of the city who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, and the story of the prodigal son. Our capacity to sin can never outrun God’s capacity to love us and forgive us. That’s worth repeating: our capacity to sin can never outrun God’s capacity to love and forgive. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Now we get to the linchpin of the story, and it’s an interesting and curious thing. This may be a moment of Zaccheaus’ conversion. Our text provides, “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.” But there are several good Greek scholars who think a better translation is something called the present progressive tense. In other words, they think it should read, “Lord, I always give half of my wealth to the poor, and whenever I discover any fraud or discrepancy I always make a fourfold restitution.” In other words, rather than a sinner who promises he will repent, that reading presents Zacchaeus as a saint whose righteousness was known only to Jesus.

In one sense, it really doesn’t matter whether Jesus saw the goodness that was already there in Zaccheaus (a righteousness that no one else could see) or whether he saw a capacity for goodness to which the crowd was blind. Either way, Jesus recognizes Zaccheaus for what he really is: a son of Abraham, a beloved child of God.

            That, I think, leads us to the real challenge of this Gospel. Can we see the hidden goodness in God’s children? Can we see the capacity to repent? In this season of stewardship, can we learn to be good stewards of the people God has put into our lives? Just as we do with our money, can we use the gifts of the people that God brings to us for the kingdom? Can we encourage them to become their best selves, to live like sons and daughters of Abraham, to live into the image of God into which they were created? Can we call them down out of the trees in which they are observers, and invite them to join into the life of the kingdom? Or are we willing to crawl down out of the tree where we safely watch Jesus pass by, and invite the Son of Man into our homes? I invite you to hurry down, because He wants to stay with you. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2016

Loving God

“He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep….After this, he said to him, ‘Follow me.'”  John 21:  17-19.

In the name of the Living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

When I was a young man, back in Odessa, Texas, someone gave me a copy of the album Jesus Christ Superstar and it had a profound impact on my spiritual life for several years thereafter.  I was amazed that these stories that I had grown up with all my life could be told in a way that was, well, relevant.  I can still recall many of the songs well, but especially Yvonne Elliman singing the ballad “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”  I think for many of us today that statement remains haunting, or at least it should haunt us:  how well do we know how to love God?

For lots of us, our relationship with God looks a good deal more like that of Jacob.  We know the story of Jacob well, the trickster who stole his brother’s birthright, only to find himself on the business end of a fraud as he sought to marry Leah.  And in the Old Testament lesson we find Jacob on the eve of meeting his brother for the first time after having betrayed him.  And that night, at Peniel,  Jacob spent a sleepless night wrestling with God.

I suspect many of us have spent a night like that, struggling with and against the Almighty Lord of All Creation.  And like Jacob, many of us have been injured in the process.  But that evening, Jacob ended up with two gifts:  he got a blessing; and he got a new name.  Scripture tells us “Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans,and have prevailed.’”  And in a very real sense, the name Israel or Struggles With God, describes the entire history of the people of Israel as told in the Old and New Testament.

The people of Israel are always struggling with God, from the story of the Fall in the garden through to the last prayer or promise of Revelations that “Surely he is coming soon.” The New Testament records that as the Gentiles were baptized into the promises of Israel, the Church continued to wrestle with God’s will. Like Abraham advocating for Sodom, we have all tried to dicker with God, to bargain with the Almighty.  And like Peter standing in the courtyard in the glow of a charcoal fire, we have all denied him.  The simple truth is we don’t know how to love him.

And yet, although we struggle to love, it constantly eludes us, though we know how important it is.  St. Paul reminds us that without love even if we could speak in angelic tongues it would amount to a senseless clanging gong.  Paul says that without love, even our acts of mercy and our faith are meaningless.

How many of us have been impatient with God?  We don’t know how to love him.  When confronted with one of the Lord’s stubborn children, how many of us have failed in our kindness?  We don’t know how to love God.  How many of us feel that we have not gotten our due, that we are not adequately regarded or our work has gone unrecognized?  How many of us have deceived ourselves into thinking that we are doing God’s will when we are chasing after our own goals?  We do not understand how to love God.  Because Paul tells us “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”  We don’t know how to love him.

I think part of the problem is that we want to understand God.  We are so frail, and so very proud.  We have convinced ourselves that we will love God once we know what He is up to.  Once we understand Him, then we can love Him.  Somehow, I need to understand the Almighty, who knows where the snow is kept in the summer, who knows the number of the ever-dwindling hairs on my head.  Once he makes himself clear to me, then I will love him.  But anyone who has ever raised a teenager knows that real love is not dependent on understanding.  In our frailty, in our brokenness, we will never understand the depth of His love or his wisdom.  Our understanding is inherently flawed.  But as our brother St. Thomas said, “Love takes up where knowledge leaves off.”

We turn, then to the Gospel reading, where we find Jesus on the beach with Peter, who personifies the bumbling, painful difficulty of loving God. After the crucifixion and after Jesus has appeared to the disciples twice, Peter determines that there is only one way to address these deeply spiritual and terribly confusing events: he’s going fishing, going back to work.  And we’ve all been there:  these events are simply too intense, and Peter wants something to feel normal again.

So, there they are, on the beach, and Jesus seeks out Peter with a very specific purpose.  John’s Gospel sets this story in the context of a charcoal fire, and we can almost smell that fire burning on the beach.  Earlier, in the 18th  Chapter of John’s Gospel, Peter had denied Jesus three times as the smoke from a charcoal fire filled the air.  It’s interesting that Jesus refers to him as “Simon,” as though he’s inviting Peter to return to the beginning of their relationship and start with a clean slate.  I think that’s exactly what Jesus had in mind.

Christ asks Peter three times to confirm his love, echoing Peter’s earlier three-fold denial.  We can almost hear the pain in Peter’s voice as he assures Jesus, “Lord, you know I love you.”  That pain arises from a clear recollection of his earlier failures, his earlier inability to love God fearlessly.

You see, John’s Gospel teaches us that this is not the sort of love we encounter in our modern culture:  this is not about rainbows and kittens and smiley faces.  This is the kind of love that will break your heart. But in this moment of radical redemption, Simon Peter’s prior deprivation and failure will be transfigured into a feast.

Jesus shows Peter the way forward, telling him “Feed my sheep.”  If we want to understand how to love, this passage is terribly important.  How does a good shepherd tend to his sheep?  He takes them to where the grass is deep and green, and keeps them away from the wolves.  Our care for the people of God arises from one simple and yet terribly difficult source: we do this for the love of God.

John Henry Newman once noted that love contains all of the virtues, all of the graces. He said “Love is the material (so to speak) out of which all graces are made, the quality of mind which is the fruit of regeneration, and in which the Spirit dwells, according to St. John’s words, ‘he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God and God in him.'”  It was love, and love alone, that worked the regeneration of Peter.

John’s Gospel teaches us that God does not love us because we are a holy people; rather, we are a holy people because God loves us.  And because He loves us, and because we were made in his image, we have the capacity for love.  Our love for each other constitutes a defining characteristic of the faith: Jesus said “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’” Love is the uniform we wear, by which the world will know we follow Christ.

 It is my hope, no it is my prayer for us all that we Feed His Sheep with the love that “bears all things,believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  Amen.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis