Sunday, November 3, 2013

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time--Zacchaeus & the Ranch (Lk 19: 1-10)

For those of you who have read this blog, you know that I am affiliated with a remarkable place called Renewal Ranch.  The Ranch is a facility whose purpose is to help men recover from their addictions to alcohol and drugs by teaching them how to realign their lives to Christ.  This Sunday's gospel reminds me of the men of the Ranch.  Let me explain.

The story of Zacchaeus from the Gospel of St. Luke is well known.  (cf Lk 19: 1-10)  Zacchaeus was a resident of Jericho.  Not only was he a resident, he was the chief tax collector of the city.  This made him in the mind of his fellow citizens the chief thief among the band of thieves known as tax collectors.  He was despised because he collaborated with the Romans who employed him in the exploitation of his own people.

As a tax collector, Zacchaeus would have pursued his career with great zest.  A tax collector typically paid Rome a fee for a certain territory.  In return for the payment, Rome guaranteed that this territory would belong exclusively to the collector.  The collector had the option of hiring others and would divide the territory among them.  The collectors could be ruthless.  Typically, tax collectors would not only gather the taxes as set forth by Rome, but assess an amount greater than what was required by Roman law.  Thus, the collector set his own commission and he was always generous with himself.

In plying his trade, Zacchaeus would have had no mercy.  If he went to collect taxes from a widow who would not or could not pay, he would put her out of her house.  If a man could pay the tax as levied by Rome, but not the excess demanded by the tax collector, he would take a mortgage out on the home and evict it's occupants.

However, there was a price to pay if someone decided to collect taxes for Rome.  The collector was forced to give up the practice of his religion.  Since he was viewed as unclean by Jewish standards and law, he was refused access to the temple.  This would have been a sore spot to Zacchaeus because, as we see in the story, he did have a good heart.  It was just buried beneath years of accumulated greed.

But Zacchaeus was not a happy man.  How do we know that?  Zacchaeus had heard much about Jesus. Jericho must have been abuzz about the approach of Jesus to the city.  Jericho was akin to the Las Vegas of today and many people were there vacationing meaning that there were large crowds present.   .Instinctively, Zacchaeus must have known that Jesus brought words filled with messages of hope and peace. Of all things that Zacchaeus possessed, the one thing that was missing was peace.

Now, Zacchaeus was a short man.  When word of Jesus reached Jericho, people began forming on the streets to see him.  Zacchaeus, like so many others of his city, wanted to get a look at this young rabbi of whom much was being said.  When Zacchaeus arrived at the point where Jesus would be passing by, he found that the crowds had already gathered.  Because of his stature, Zacchaeus could not see. Disappointed, he looked around for a better vantage point and spotted a sycamore tree.  Quickly he scaled the tree to gain a good vantage point from which to spot Jesus.

Because the tax chief was so hated and despised by his fellow citizens, they must have looked at him up in that tree and laughed and mocked him, causing some sort of commotion.  As Jesus made His way through the crowds, He certainly saw this raucous and looked up and spotted the little tax collector in the tree.  To Zacchaeus' surprise, Jesus spoke to him.

"Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today."

One can only imagine Zacchaeus' amazement.  The very man for whom he had climbed the tree to see had actually spoken to him.  And not only that, but this Jesus said that He was coming to his house!  This, despite the obvious disdain the crowds were showing him.

Undaunted, Zacchaeus couldn't come down from the tree fast enough.  He greeted Jesus with great joy and escorted the Lord to his house.

However, not all was well.  The people who witnessed this scene all began to talk among themselves.  They were shocked and scandalized; not an unusual thing for Jesus to experience in light of some of His actions. How could Jesus, a renowned rabbi, actually enter under the roof of this notorious sinner?  It is easy to think that many of them stopped following and listening to Him from that day forward.

Meanwhile, Zacchaeus and Jesus went to the tax collector's home. Little is known of the conversation between Zacchaeus and the Lord.  However, what is recorded, says volumes.

Zacchaeus, at some point during His stay, said to Jesus, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any on of anything, I restore it fourfold."  (Lk 19: 8)  This was quite a statement.  Zacchaeus, in the presence of the Lord, stands, apparently without prompting, and declares that he is giving half of his considerable wealth to the poor.  Not only that, but the little man tells Jesus that if there is anyone whom he has defrauded in his life, he will repay fourfold.  Under Jewish law, this was the most stringent standard of restitution.  It was not demanded.  However, Zacchaeus, because of his love of Jesus, declares that he will do far more than the law demands.

Jesus, moved by the sincerity of Zacchaeus, replies, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he is also a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."  (Lk 19: 9)

Now, those of you who do know about the Ranch may be asking yourself, "What in the world does this story have to do with the men of the Ranch?"

Zacchaeus can be seen as the men of the ranch.  They often have lived lives as men who will get anything they can get in any way they can get it to feed their addictions.  Many have had encounters with the law because they have reverted to stealing and even violence to get what they needed to keep their addiction going.  They walked in darkness, thinking that they were in the light lured there by Satan, the Father of Lies, who told them that it was fine for them to do what they needed to do to satisfy themselves because if they would not take care of themselves, then who would!

Zacchaeus rationalized his mode of existence.  He surely told himself that what he was doing was just fine because through his hard work and cleverness he was taking care of himself.  Besides, he must have told himself, I am acting in a lawful way as prescribed by the Romans.  It is those deadbeats who refuse to pay who are in the wrong.  Rationalization was Satan's weapon with Zacchaeus just as it is with those who become entangled in addictions.

But even in the deepest moments of addiction, the men of the ranch still felt that there was something more to this life.  There was something more than the next drink, the next fix.  Most had no clue whatsoever what that might be, but deep down, they felt a calling, an urging to step toward the light of living in a way that was healthy and stable.

Zacchaeus felt the same way.  Even though he was prosperous, he knew that there was something more to life than making a tidy profit to feed his own desires.  He knew that there was a way of life that promised a sense of peace and gratitude for the things already acquired and a zeal for sharing with others less fortunate what he already had.

The Renewal Ranch is like that tree that Zacchaeus perched himself in to catch a glimpse of Jesus.  It gives men who have been knocked down by life and the choices they have made a vantage point for seeing more clearly what is important.  They yearn for some real substance in their lives, substance that will lead them out of the dark slavery to addiction and the destructive force it becomes not only in their lives but also in the lives of all with whom they live and work.  But what is more important than this is the fact that, just as in the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus comes looking for the men of the Ranch before they go looking for Him.

And that really is the point of the whole story.  Zacchaeus felt the tug of Christ wanting to see him.  Jesus is the one who invited him down from the tree and it is Christ Who invites those men locked in the prison of addiction to the Ranch in order to encounter Him in their darkness.  In the gospel, Jesus comes to Zacchaeus' house at Jesus' invitation!  The same can be said for the Ranch.  The men may seek out the Ranch, however, long before they began their search, the invitation from Christ to come the Ranch has been extended.  The love of God always precedes our every action.  We do not first approach Him.  He approaches us and always in love.

Thus, the men of the Ranch come before Christ, seeking to surrender their every possession, to gain an eternal life, that unlike their possessions, will not diminish.  Just as Zacchaeus surrendered to the mercy and love of Jesus, the men of the Ranch surrender their addictions and addictive behavior to the Savior and, in the process, they, to can hear the words of Christ, "Today, salvation has come to this house...For the Son of man came to seek and save the lost."