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NOVEMBER 4, 2007: Thirty-First Sunday of the Year

Readings: 

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

No doubt, hearing today's gospel, some of us will reflect on what happened a few months ago when one of our presidential candidates mentioned that, if elected, he would dialogue with our country's "enemies." Talking with adversaries creates problems. Many contend it leads to our stepping down from the "high ground" and putting ourselves on the same level as our opposition.

That's why today's Lucan pericope is such an important part of our Christian belief and practice. Zacchaeus is worse than a common sinner; he's a traitor to his people. Most of the taxes he collects fund the Roman occupation which had oppressed the Israelites for almost 100 years. He's a co-conspirator with Israel's enemies.

Besides, he was awarded his job by bid, promising the Romans he'd deliver a certain amount of money for the specific area and people from whom he collected taxes. His "salary" consisted in what he could force, bribe, or blackmail out of people beyond what he owed the Romans. No wonder tax collectors traveled with Roman soldiers and other bodyguards protecting them. They were among the most despised people in the country. It's against this background that we must listen to Luke's narrative.

Jesus takes one step beyond talking to the enemy. "Zacchaeus," he says, "come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house." Though hard to believe, the prototype of goodness is about to lodge with the prototype of evil. What most good folk would interpret as a sell-out, Jesus interprets as a means of bringing salvation to a sinner.

Zacchaeus' reaction is completely unexpected. "He received him with joy . . ., stood there and said to the Lord, 'Behold, half my possessions I give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.'" Jesus' scandalous acceptance of a sinner results in a conversion no one could have anticipated.

Scripture scholars emphasize an aspect of this story which many of us overlook. "This man too," Jesus states, "is a descendant of Abraham." The historical Jesus was driven to proclaim the presence of God's kingdom to all the Chosen People, not just to those who belonged to the most prestigious tribes, or professed an "acceptable' form of Judaism. He challenged all Jews - all descendants of Abraham - to return to the roots of their faith.

That's why Jesus traveled with the "Twelve." No author of the Christian Scriptures regarded these 12 men as the first stage in Jesus' establishment of a hierarchical church structure. For the historical Jesus, this band of men symbolized his quest to include all of Abraham's descendants in his reform, no matter to which of the 12 tribes they belonged, no matter if they were saints or sinners, male or female. Each Jew could identify with one of Jacob's 12 sons. All were invited.

Jesus invites his followers to look at all God's creatures as God looks at them, just as our Wisdom author encourages his community to look at them. "For you (Yahweh) love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned."

This concept of unity also motivates the II Thessalonians author. Confronting a rumor that Jesus has already returned in the Parousia, the writer tells his readers not to worry. Whether they're present or absent when Jesus arrives, the important thing is that they are "worthy of his calling and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith . . . ."

I presume any Christian who today refuses to carry on Jesus' inclusive ministry will really be in trouble when Jesus does return, no matter when that event happens.