Christ Makes Us Want to Be Better
This week in the reading from the Gospel according to Luke we hear the wonderful story of Zacchaeus, the rich man who collected taxes (or tolls) on behalf of the Roman government. It always seems that there is something charming and delightful about this story. This man who is described as short in stature climbs a tree in order to see Jesus pass by. The Gospel says that he wanted to see who Jesus was. It appears that the sight of Zacchaeus in a tree made Jesus laugh. I think that is what Luke is saying when he writes that Jesus “received him with joy” when he came down. Jesus couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of the little man who climbed a tree to see him; Jesus wants to spend some time with Zacchaeus, and he invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home. What a delightful meeting! I sometimes imagine that everyone else started laughing with Jesus at the sight of the little man up in a tree.
Clearly, Zacchaeus was not the most loved and admired person in the town, however. The Gospel tells us “they began to grumble” when they heard that Jesus was going to stay at his home. That doesn’t sound good. The Gospel commentator, John Pilch, tells us that it is almost never incorrect to translate “rich” in the Gospel as “greedy.” We might think of Jesus words: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich (greedy) man to enter the kingdom of God.” Little Zacchaeus seems to have a big reputation — nothing like the “big hat, no cattle” syndrome we may hear of in Texas. Zacchaeus is a little man with a lot of money.
There is something in the presence of Jesus, however, that brings about a big change in Zacchaeus’ heart. Maybe, like the Grinch, with his little heart that begins to grow bigger, Zacchaeus, when walking in the company of such a big and merciful love, can’t help but grow in stature himself. There is something irresistible about being in the presence of goodness and love. He pledges to give away half of all he owns and pay back 400% of anything he has extorted from others. Wow, that’s big — more than anyone would have expected. Zacchaeus is full of surprises.
I am reminded of that wonderful scene in the movie As Good As It Gets. Melvin Udall, played by Jack Nicholson, says to Carol Connelly, played by Helen Hunt, “I’ve got a really great compliment for you, and it’s true.” Carol says, “I’m so afraid you’re about to say something awful.” After he says something really awkward, she says, “I don’t quite get how that’s a compliment for me.” And Melvin says, “You make me want to be a better man.” Carol responds, “That’s maybe the best compliment of my life.”
Isn’t that about the best compliment any of us could ever want to hear? I think that’s what being in the presence of Jesus was like for Zacchaeus. It made him a bigger and better man. Isn’t that what we should also feel when we are in the presence of the Body of Christ in this community of St. Francis of Assisi? Jesus makes us all want to be better. Let’s pray for that this week — that we might all become better because we are a part of this community, members of the Body of Christ for each other. May we be fed at the table around which we gather to “see who we are and become what we eat.”
How Shall We Pray?
Jesus’ parable gives us some guidance in how we should pray in the form of a story about two men. This image paints the picture. Our prayer is to be in humility, praising God, and recognizing our complete dependence on God’s mercy. In Pope Francis’ words, we are to be among the sheep, to smell like the sheep, and to recognize that we are all sinners depending on God’s mercy.
While I am on pilgrimage and praying for all of us, I suggest these two websites for further reflection on this Sunday’s readings.
The Unjust Judge and the Persistent Widow
I am one of the pilgrims on the Pilgrimage of Art and Faith. I am praying for our St. Francis community and all those we love as we visit sacred places. For your reflection for this Sunday, please see the homily I discovered about today’s unjust judges and persistent widows. We pray unceasingly and persistently!
Only One? Where Are the Others?
We know the story well. Ten lepers, persons who were outsiders and marginalized, all ask for healing. All are healed. Only one comes back to Jesus to express gratitude.
What happens to the others? I wonder! They just seem to walk off after receiving the same gift of healing. It’s a miracle; they are healed and they are free to go about their business.
How often do we take for granted the blessings we have been given? It’s not so much that we aren’t thankful. We just forget to stop and express our gratitude, to recognize and praise the source of all goodness, and to act differently because we know we have been healed.
So what does gratitude look like today? God continuously pours grace into our lives. We are regularly healed in numerous ways. Are we paying attention? Are we responding? What change in attitude comes to us?
The attitude of gratitude usually means that we are attentive to the ways that we can help to heal the wounds of others. We want our own healing to be an impetus to assist the healings of others. Can we see Jesus in every excluded person, in persons who are hungry, thirsty, or naked? Can we see Jesus present even in those who are blessed by God but who have turned away from the practice of their faith? Can we see Jesus in the imprisoned, the persecuted, refugees, the unemployed—all who encounter discrimination! Will we be like the “only one” or like the nine others? Finding the Lord, seeking connectedness in worship and study and service, diving deeper and growing in maturity in our relationship with Jesus—these are the attitudes of gratitude.
Jesus intentionally and consistently sought the company of people who for one reason or another were forced to live on the fringe of society. These were the special objects of his attention.
We have modern day lepers, persons who suffer from “skin” that makes us feel dis-ease, to feel fearful or ill at ease. Our labels of persons continue to divide us, and they are more than skin deep. Demonstrations and riots abound. Borders are closed. Refugees die at sea. Healing is needed. And then the words of Scripture remind us that the one who expressed gratitude to Jesus was, in fact, the enemy, the hated one, the other.
How will we respond? Will everyone be welcome? What “foreigners” among us will we embrace? What healing will we ask for this weekend as we gather at the table of thanksgiving, the Eucharist?
Increase Our Faith
Is quantity really an issue when it comes to faith? Or is it the quality of the faith? Jesus makes the apostles think, and his challenge is great. Jesus likens faith to a mustard seed—in its smallness and in its power. Jesus promised that faith the size of a mustard seed, one mustard seed, could move mountains. With God all things are possible!
Do you know people with incredibly strong faith who have moved mountains? Who are they? What have they accomplished? Can your faith help you to do the kinds of things they did? How does faith help us overcome obstacles?
Faith in God provides a vision of hope, a vision of strength, a vision of power, even in smallness. Faith is a gift to be asked for and then acted on. The Gospel connects the power of even a little faith with Jesus’ call to willing and obedient service to God. “Thy will be done” are the four words we pray in the company of our community of faith before we receive Jesus in the Eucharist. The Eucharist gives us the power to be sent forth, to do incredible things in sharing our faith openly and whole-heartedly!
This weekend, as we celebrate the feast of our patron, St. Francis of Assisi, we too ask for an increase in our faith! We ask that the seeds planted in our church community 36 years ago continue to grow and move mountains. May all be possible, as we ask for faithfulness in being attentive to God’s will in our lives and then ACTING on it. Happy Feast Day, everyone!
The Rich Man and Lazarus
Heaven or hell? Have’s and have-not’s! The story of the rich man clothed in purple and the beggar, Lazarus! Have you ever been amazed at which one actually has a name in this story? Surprised?
The story of the rich man and Lazarus invites us to reflect on some harsh realities in life today. What was your first reaction to hearing the Gospel story? With whom did you identify? Why? And now, think about what it would be like to be the other character.
When I read or hear this Gospel, I think of so many who are brought to our doors, to the end of the table—those who need assistance even to get there. And what is our response? To offer scraps? To identify with the poor, the sick, the victims of injustice? To understand the plight of the sex-trafficked woman, the homeless and mentally ill? To work for change, for conversion of attitudes that make us indifferent to the plight of our brothers and sisters? To be advocates? To be change agents?
The reading from Amos warns us about our attitudes that say “we deserve” our blessings. When we truly realize that everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God, we can begin to live with all women and men as our brothers and sisters. And we can know, perhaps for the first time, that we are simply neighbors who never met.
Everything Belongs to God
Do I really believe that everything I have belongs to God? What are the implications of realizing that what belongs to me, belongs to God first?
I, like many of you, am an adult orphan. My parents are both enjoying eternal life with God. For me, the most powerful lesson in understanding that everything belongs to God comes at the end of every funeral Mass, when we raise the bowl of incense in blessing the earthly remains and entrust the soul of our loved one into God’s hands. We rejoice with profound gratitude for the time on earth that we had. And we also lovingly give back to God what was on loan to us. Everything belongs to God!
We are stewards of what God has given us. God owns it; we use it. So how do we use those God-given talents we enjoy? How do we use the time that we have on earth, before we return it back to God?
Sometimes, I think that I am most generous in volunteering service hours at church and in spending time at church at Mass. I pray for others and I take good care of my family. I think I am being exemplary in my understanding of what it means to give time and talent. Additionally, when that basket gets passed around at the Offering of Gifts (that is what it is called), I put “something” in.
The rest of my talents, my time and my money are mine to do with as I please? Not exactly. Everything belongs to God! So God should be taken into consideration in everything I do.
And so I pray: Dear God, you provide for all that I need. Let me be free of my need to call them my gifts, my time and my talent. May I be generous in serving all, in giving generously and may I be blessed with the realization that what I have and what I am will always be enough with you as the center of my life. Let me live in gratitude for all of your gifts to me.
A Caress of Love—Mercy Lived
What is “lost” in your life? And what are we to do about what is lost in our lives? Jesus teaches us using three images—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. All three speak to us of God’s boundless love and bountiful mercy. Most especially these stories tell us that no matter how far away from God we may find ourselves, God is always waiting for us, ready to welcome us. God loves each one of us as if we were the only person on earth.
When we truly, deeply experience God’s love in this way, knowing our own brokenness and admitting that we too are often lost, we learn what kind of mercy we are called to express to others. When you reflect on what is lost in your life, think of the shepherd finding the one in a hundred, the woman who persists in finding the lost coin, and the father who is filled with compassion and runs to meet his wayward son, regaling him with the finest clothing and the finest party. Imagine yourself in the stories and befriend the feelings that arise.
Who are the people in my life that I am called to welcome back, to caress with love and compassion? How persistent can I be in looking for that which is lost? And how can I celebrate not only the “finding of the lost” in my own life, but also my own being found by God again. God looks for us constantly! Where and when can we be found?
The Cost of Discipleship
Discipleship calls us to continually refocus our lives and our thoughts on Jesus and on the Gospel. What does it mean for us to be disciples? What did it mean to you when you were seven years old and received Holy Communion for the first time? What did it mean when you were confirmed? When you left your parents’ home? When you got married? At the birth of your first child? When you lost something very valuable to you? What was that “cost of discipleship?”
Jesus’ words in this Sunday’s Gospel are very direct and strong: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” and “Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” These are hard imperatives. But if we love as Jesus teaches us to love, we know that love makes us willing to sacrifice anything and everything for the sake of another. We sacrifice because we love. Love changes everything and we can bear almost any kind of burden, any kind of cross. When we reflect on the Paschal Mystery in our lives, we come to realize that suffering and death to old ways of thinking and being, do lead to Easter glory, to Resurrection!
When we are passionately and intentionally focused on following Jesus, we know that we must be faithful to the process—to continuous calls to bear burdens and to renounce possessions or the things that possess us! How does following Jesus shape our daily life, values, decisions and goals?
As you prepare to enter into the liturgy this weekend, tell Jesus what it means for you to take up your cross and follow him. And be sure to LISTEN as Jesus responds to you.
It’s Hard to be Humble
“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.” Do you remember those lyrics to Mac Davis’ 1980 song? For some strange reason, that song came to my mind as I read the Gospel for this weekend. It might be because, in recent weeks, I’ve noticed how much effort there is to be “first,” to be at the top. There’s no end to competition in sales, in sports, in politics. We desperately need this Gospel to remind us that in Jesus’ invitation to the banquet, there is a complete reversal of what we consider to be the best ranking.
Admittedly, it is hard for some of us to be humble. And others put themselves down and deny their giftedness. That might be a kind of “false humility.” So exactly what is the humility that Jesus desires? I think the call is to not think of ourselves greater or lesser than anyone else. Can we stand in a balance, knowing ourselves honestly, assuming equality with all others? Matthew Kelly reminds us that our sole responsibility is to become the best version of ourselves that God intended for us to be. The tricky, thorny part is what GOD intended for us to be!
Jesus in both words and actions tells us that all are welcome at the table. All are invited to sit at the table. My imagination tells me that in Jesus’ time, tables would be circular. In a circle, there is no real place of honor. In Jesus’ way of thinking, all are included in sharing their gifts—diverse and rich! To be different does not mean deficient. In God’s eyes, all are equal. We are all beloved children of a loving God.
Imagine yourself this weekend having Jesus come to you and invite you to meet the poor, the homeless, the illiterate, the jobless, the person of a different race or faith tradition. Listen to them speak to you. And pay attention to your response. Try to not talk back… just listen contemplatively.