Wisdom 11: 22-12:2; Luke 19: 1-10
Our society and culture thrives on success and if not on success, winning. We love to succeed and we love to win. No one wants to be a part of a losing team. Of course, at times we even push it to the limits where we will do what it takes to make it to the top. We see cheating in sports and we certainly know of success in the business world has often been on the backs of the people on the bottom. We have literally made success into a virtue that it has often been hard for us to critique it and see the impact it often has on our lives and the lives of others.
But it’s not just our thing. It seems as if it’s a part of our human nature to want to be on top, winners and successful. We even refer to it as climbing the ladder of success. We call it careerism and even clericalism in this Church sphere. But it’s not new. We see it with Zacchaeus in today’s gospel. We know, according to Luke, that he was the chief tax collector and he was a rich man. He was successful and we also know that he often did it while taking advantage of others along the way. He’s already pegged by the people as a cheat and extortioner. Zacchaeus is a climber and he does it well. Like us, he’s made it into a virtue and so it’s no wonder that he will do what he knows how to do well, he’ll climb to just catch a glimpse of Jesus as he passes through.
But the spiritual life isn’t like anything else. As much as we want to make success and winning into a virtue in our daily lives, it pretty much stands in opposition to our spiritual life and our relationship with God. In our spiritual life the virtues are much more about falling, about letting go, and about surrendering. If Zacchaeus is truly open to an encounter with this God that is passing through, then he’s going to have to fall from the tops of the tree and come down to meet the Lord face to face, falling into his love and mercy. But we don’t like to fall. We’ve probably all had those dreams where we find ourselves falling and it has a way of scaring us. It feels like our lives our out of control. It feels like fear and anxiety are taking over our lives. It feels like death in many ways and that makes us uncomfortable and it certainly doesn’t sound anything like success or winning, and it’s not and is at the same time. As Solomon, the writer of Wisdom tells us in the first reading today, this God, who is a lover of souls, has a way of always calling us forth to come home, a home deep within us that no longer is in need of success but rather connection, vulnerability, love, forgiveness. Where does Jesus want to meet Zacchaeus in today’s gospel. Ironically in his home. Today salvation has come to his home. He returns a changed man.
But there are still these grumblers we have to contend with in today’s gospel as well. We all know them because they are often us! They are the ones that have pegged Zacchaeus as a dirtbag. They know what he has done to them and others. They have him all figured out. But that stands as their greatest obstacle. The spirit of conversion is not only for Zacchaeus but for the grumblers. However, there is an openness that lacks in their lives to see Zacchaeus differently and so they’re certainly not going to see themselves differently either. If you don’t think you’re in need of conversion then it’s hard to be open to an encounter that’s going to change you. They have no ability to see their own sin or have quantified Zacchaeus as being worse then theirs. They have named success in their own way, as somehow being better than the other in a moral way. We may not achieve success in the way our culture and society has deemed it, but there is always a part of us that wants to see ourselves as on top, successful in our own way that also clouds us from seeing ourselves in need of conversion and our pride gets in the way, climbing our way to the top only to find ourselves at some point with the invitation to fall into the hands of love and mercy that invites us to this encounter as it was with Zacchaeus.
Like Wisdom tells us today, there remains that lover of souls that is always calling us to our true home, not necessarily just in the life to come, but at this very moment, a God that never gives us because of love. We may climb all we want, but at some point the branches that once sustained us can no longer hold the weight and we’ll find ourselves tumbling. That itself is an invitation from God, to embrace the virtues of the spiritual life now, surrendering, falling, letting go, and finding ourselves in this face to face encounter with the Lord of life. We can have it at this very moment when we embrace our need for forgiveness, climb over our pride, and allow ourselves to fall into love. When we do, like Zacchaeus, our lives are changed forever and so is the world around us.