By Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, cssp
Homily for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time - on the Gospel
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The Rich Also Cry

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

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.

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