3 Nov 2013
“When [Jesus] reached the [tree], [He] looked up and said to [Zacchaeus], ‘Come down quickly for today I must stay at your house.’” (Luke 19:5) In the name …
Robert Redford is in a new movie called All Is Lost. It’s two hours long, he barely says a word, and he’s just about the only actor. One of the first grown-up movies I remember seeing as a kid some 40 years ago was Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid. It was at the old Strand Theater in Westfield, which doesn’t even exist any longer. Redford has been making movies for a long, long time. I read a recent interview with him and after so many years in the business he was asked about his legacy, and I really liked his answer. He told the reporter that he doesn’t think about his past career unless somebody else brings it up. In his words: “You move forward. And what impedes your forward movement is if you start to contemplate what came before.” Redford’s past is pretty impressive, but he’s more focused on what can still be done. He’s up for all kinds of awards because of All Is Lost, but he would never have tried such a role if he was locked into past roles like Butch Cassidy.
But on this particular Sunday another story of moving beyond the past almost forces itself into the sermon. For much of the recently completed baseball season, the WEEI sports radio station, the one that broadcasts the Red Sox games, has been referring to this season as the Road to Redemption. The team had an historic collapse at the end of the 2011 season. No team had ever fallen further at the end of a season than the Sox. And then they had just about its worst season ever in 2012. It was painful to watch all of this. But none of that was a hindrance this year. None of that past baggage prevented this year’s Red Sox from winning the most games in the American League and then the World Series this past Wednesday night. No team has even gone from such a poor win record one year to winning the World Series the next year before the 2013 Red Sox. The team redeemed itself by going out and playing hard every inning of every game. They didn’t let the past define them. They took seriously that whole idea of the Road to Redemption. And this idea of moving forward and not willing to be defined or burdened by the past is also part of the Zacchaeus story from today’s Gospel.
But let me first add another story. This one is about my father-in-law. He was born during the Depression in Scranton, and Scranton was especially hard hit by that economic collapse. I remember him often not complaining but saying that a person should be proud to be able to pay taxes. I remember being surprised by that comment because I had never heard it from anyone before my father-in-law and I don’t hear it a lot now either. But taxes meant to my father-in-law that you were doing well enough to help support the government and its work. This was a privileged responsibility in his eyes because he knew what it meant to be so poor that you didn’t have to pay. This is not a very common sentiment. But at least we’re paying out taxes to our own government, whether we’re proud to pay them or not. In Jesus’ day, however, taxes were paid to the Romans, and the Romans were the conquerors. The Romans were the occupiers. The Romans were the hated infidels. It wouldn’t be long after the time of Jesus that the Jewish people would rise up in military rebellion against these Roman overlords. It didn’t end well, but it says a lot when they faced unbeatable odds as they took on the most powerful nation of the ancient world rather than let the Roman Empire rule their land and their people uncontested. The Romans were despised.
Zacchaeus worked for the Roman Empire. He collected taxes from other Jews to pay the expenses of keeping the Romans in Israel. So like I said, I don’t hear many people repeating the words of my father-in-law and that’s about taxes to our own government. Can you imagine how much the people crowding around Jesus must have hated a tax collector for the Romans like Zacchaeus? On top of that, some of the people in the crowds following Jesus thought He was going to be their military Messiah, that He would lead Israel in victorious battle against the Romans. They were zealots. They were willing to fight and die to get the Romans out of the land promised to them by God. So just imagine how much they hated this tiny, little man by the name of Zacchaeus.
And imagine how excited they must have been when Jesus stops beneath the sycamore tree, looks up, and sees to the previously unseen Zacchaeus. Maybe they thought Jesus had him cornered like a treed animal. Maybe they thought Jesus was going to make an example of Zacchaeus. In Colonial America they used to tar and feather the Americans who served as the British tax collectors. Maybe something like that was on the minds of the people around Jesus. Instead, Jesus says to this terrified man, “Today I must stay at your house.” The crowd must have been dumbfounded. These are the kind of stories that made it into the Gospels. They stuck with people. They remembered how they felt when Jesus gave Zacchaeus another chance. They hated it. It upset them and made them angry.
But it got them to thinking too. It got them to wonder about Jesus’ insistence that no one’s present or future should be limited by their past. Whether the past is filled with accomplishment like Robert Redford or with failure like the Red Sox, Jesus reveals that He sees us for who we are now and what we hope to be. Zacchaeus was a good man who was hated anyway. He says, “IF I have extorted anything from anyone,” giving the distinct impression that he has not. He offers to give half of all his possessions to the poor. How many of the self-righteous around Jesus would do the same? But he was hated anyway. But not by Jesus. Jesus saw the good in him. Jesus saw what others would not let themselves see. And that has got to be liberating for any of us who have ever made mistakes, who have ever been judged unfairly, who have ever hoped to do more, to do better. For a lot of people they can’t let go of past burdens. They won’t forget or forgive themselves. But Jesus already has. This is the kind of Saviour we come here to spend time with, and this is the kind of person we are challenged to be as His followers. Let this be our prayer in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo