Sunday, October 31, 2010

Time to climb a tree!

HOMILY FOR THE 31st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, October 31, 2010:
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A young turtle one day slowly began to climb a tree. After long hours of effort, he reached the top, jumped into the air waving his front legs, and crashed onto the ground with a hard knock on his shell. After recovering consciousness, he started to climb the tree again, jumped again, and again hit the ground heavily. The little turtle persisted again and again while two birds sitting at the edge of a branch, watched the turtle with sorrow. Finally, the female bird said to the male bird, ”Dear, I think it’s time to tell our son he is adopted.”

I don’t know about you, but as a child, you couldn’t get me out of trees. Our family home was on the edge of the woods and there were seemingly endless trees to choose from. Trees had a magnetic quality to them. I couldn’t be near one without resisting the urge to climb it. I loved nothing more than climbing up a tree as high as I could. It seemed like you could just keep going, and, if you got high enough, it almost felt like you could fly. Everything – the whole world – looked so different from high atop a tree. It gave a new perspective to everything. I don’t recall any feelings from my childhood that felt quite as free as climbing a tree. Somewhere along the line though, we hear an anti-tree message. We hear that it is dangerous, you might hurt yourself, the tree might break, you really shouldn’t be doing it! But the memories of those eternal moments of freedom high atop the branches swaying in the wind lingers.

We heard in our Gospel today, Zacchaeus “ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus.” What can this image teach us today? As the chief tax collector of the city of Jericho, Zacchaeus would have been one of the richest men in Israel. As chief tax collector, he moved in the highest circles, and he had power — lots of it. He was also a crook, a collaborator with the Roman enemy, and a target of hatred for his countrymen. He’d always thought of himself as successful. But suddenly, at the height of his career, it dawned on him that his life wasn’t working. There was a void at the core. He was regarded as a public sinner, as a traitor and as someone unclean before God. Although he was financially well to do, he lived of life of loneliness, alienated from his own people and alienated from God. There was no joy, and intuitively he understood that there would be no joy as long as he continued on the same path.

Picture this scene if you can. Here is perhaps one of the most feared men of his community, a noble image, someone who would be likely surrounded by an entourage, and now he is running like a child and climbing a tree to see who? To see this poor, relatively unknown preacher who was passing through town. And you know what? This new perspective, found high up in a tree, changed everything for him.

Jesus looked at Zacchaeus up there on the tree and spoke: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” He hurried down the tree with a big smile on his face and the crowd made way for him as he lead Jesus to his house. Take note that at dinner Jesus did not preach to Zacchaeus that he must repent or he would go to hell. Instead, Jesus’ non-judgmental and unconditional acceptance of Zacchaeus spoke more eloquently to his heart than the best sermon ever could. The effect? Zacchaeus stood up and said, “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.” 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. But he had realized one of the great truths of life - who needs all that money when you have found a meaningful life with Christ?

Zacchaeus learned what many people learn once they take the time to climb a tree and see things differently – the world wants to sell us a way of life that is ultimately empty – only Jesus can bring things that are truly meaningful into our lives. How many of us have our priorities in the wrong order? How many of us spend our days accumulating wealth, working endlessly to have a better job, a bigger position, one that offers more wealth, more power, more prestige. Only to discover at the end of the day that it is empty, that it does not bring any greater level of happiness or peace at all – in fact, it may be the very thing robbing us of quality relationships with family, friends and ultimately God. The successful author, Jack Higgens, 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.”

There are many Zacchaeuses around us everyday, we may also be at times a hidden Zacchaeus. Jesus challenges us to have the courage of Zacchaeus and climb that tree and see things differently, to gain a new perspective, a Christ perspective. There are figurative trees in front of us all the time, just waiting for a climb. There are the chances to gain a new perspective in our faith life with God, but how often we walk past because we fear that we might get hurt, that we might not be strong enough, that it might be dangerous? Every time we seek out the Sacrament of Reconciliation; every time we come to the Table of the Lord for the Eucharist – these are tree climbing moments. God offers us the chance to see things differently; to see them as He sees them; to make a change that will bring true happiness. We only have to embrace it; to climb; to be free.

Unlike many of us, Zacchaeus knew he had to change. So when he heard that Jesus was passing through town, he abandoned all dignity and climbed up a sycamore tree to make sure he’d see this holy man who just might be able to tell him how to find the joy that was missing in his life. The rest is history. Jesus looked up into his eyes and said, “Let me come to your house today.” Jesus came and Zacchaeus’ life was forever changed. He found the joy for which he’d so longed.

If we take the time to climb the tree that leads to a deeper faith, we just might find a greater freedom than we have ever known in life. The tree gave Zacchaeus the ability to see Jesus instead of the world that he knew; the world that clouded his sight. If we have the courage to take our lives of faith to this new perspective we too will hear Jesus say to us, “Today salvation has come to this house for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

May God give you peace!

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