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THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY ORDINARY TIME 2019

Today’s Gospel speaks of a man called Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector for the Romans. Because of his profession, two things become immediately obvious for anyone living at that time. First, he is hated and distrusted by his fellow Jews. He is seen as a traitor, one who would put wealth ahead of his civic and religious duties. Secondly, Zacchaeus is very rich. Everyone would assume that his wealth comes from the exploitation of the Jews. The tax collectors made their illustrious livings by requiring the people to pay more taxes than Rome demanded and then skimming off the excess for themselves.
Up until today’s interaction with Jesus, Zacchaeus was unconcerned about his lifestyle, other than becoming wealthier. The desire for more is a sickness that the rich possess. They are like a glutton who is never satisfied. There are no lengths such a person will not go to amass more and more. And for Zacchaeus, his wealth came for the overcharging of taxes ill-gotten gains to the distress of the people who eked out a living on a few coins.
And or what purpose? More properties with olive orchards? More gilding on the family chariot? More prized spices from the Orient? Stuffed peacock (a delicacy) twice a week instead of once a month? More gold earrings and rings for the wife? When there is money, anything desired becomes possible.
Even with all that he could purchase, Zacchaeus was still searching. Perhaps he was looking for someone to give him the answers to why he could never feel satisfied. That is why he followed the crowd as it surged after Jesus. He became so enamored to see a person that the throng of people desired to be with that he climbed a sycamore tree for a better look. He forgot that those who made up the crowd were the ones that he had cheated over and over again.
There he is out on a limb. He has run out options. He has no means to save himself. He cannot go forward as the branches will not support his weight. He cannot climb down from the tree as the crowd is waiting below. They have treed a tax collector.
How many people in the crowd have gone hungry for days on end as Zacchaeus dined sumptuously? How many have watched their child die of starvation so that he could add another pair of matched horses to his stable? How many of the crowd wear rags so that his wife can display her new gold ring for the Festival?
Not often do these poor can even the score with a tax collector. Far too often, such a man, when he finds himself in trouble, just buys his way out of the problem. The application of enough money can fix anything. However, maybe this the day when doling out money no longer works. Maybe this is the day that the crowd gets their pound of flesh in retribution for his hoarded pounds of gold.
And so, up a tree is where Zacchaeus first meets Jesus. Jesus, however, offers him a solution. Amazingly, he asks to eat at Zacchaeus’ home, to eat with the rich sinner, a traitor to the Jews. The crowd responds with, “How can Jesus eat with him when we starve? Will Zacchaeus repay Jesus handsomely with gold from his treasure for saving his life?” The crowd is appalled when Jesus does not take their side. This man needs to be stoned not pampered.
To the crowd, It might seem that Jesus was letting the man escape his deserved fate. However, Jesus has other motives, spiritual motives for eating with Zacchaeus. Jesus is bringing Zacchaeus to the brink of conversion, the realization that repentance is what will him get off the tree limb about to break. Zacchaeus only needs to take that next step, a step of faith.
While Jesus asks for Zacchaeus to open his home, what Jesus is really requesting is that Zacchaeus to open his heart to the Lord. In that way, Jesus may come into him and free him from his worldly desires and seek the real wealth of salvation. Zacchaeus climbs down from the tree and with a leap of faith, is saved from his sins. Jesus gives him mercy because Zacchaeus offers much of his fortune to the poor and those he cheated.
As with many other occasions in the Gospels, Jesus inserting into his teachings of the need for Social Justice. How we direct our lives describes our faith. Far too often, we live as if our wealth has more valuable than food, clothing or shelter for the needy. If we got in that direction, then we are inching our way out on a limb where only Jesus can save us. If we can be like Zacchaeus and seek out Jesus, by opening our hearts to him, we will discover his mercy.
Again, and again throughout the Gospels, Jesus offers salvation to the sinner, not concerned about the sin but the plea for forgiveness. The same type of forgiveness holds true for us as well. It takes several steps of hope and courage after recognizing one’s sin to want to change. It takes the steps of faith to seek out Jesus and believe that he will save us. And the result of opening our hearts is that Jesus will fill us with his love. We who were once lost to sin; Jesus has found us and will take us to his home.

THIRTIETH SUNDAY 2019

Two men approach the Lord in the Temple and begin to pray. One is a religious man who spends his days reading the Law of Moses and interpreting what is necessary to conform to the Law. The Jews would identify him as a respected, righteous man who knows and lives according to the letter of the Law.
The second man is responsible for collecting taxes for the Roman government. By being a tax collector, he has a taint of unacceptability so that his countrymen avoid associating with him. The Jews would identify this man as a collaborator with the hated Romans. He would also have a reputation of a cheat, demanding more in payment than the actual tax.
There is a significant difference in the apparent religious quality of these men. The Pharisee is a person who many admire for his observance of the Law. A financially well-off man who could spend his days only in the study of the Scriptures without any regrets. The expectations of his prayer would demonstrate a deep devotion to God.
The tax collector, too, would be wealthy because of the money he defrauded from the Jews. He would be ostracized since he consistently was robbing the public of their income. Therefore, the Jews would find him unworthy of receiving forgiveness.
Jesus then turns the expectations of the pious and impious upside-down in this parable. The Pharisee’s prayer, after a brief acknowledgment of God, quickly turns to give himself much credit for his religious accomplishments. The Pharisee describes how he scrupulously performs the religious rites as proscribed by the Law. He identifies himself as a worthy person that the Lord should look upon with favor upon since he is pure of heart. The Pharisee considers his quality of prayer as much better than others, especially the cheating tax collector standing next to him, who is a truly sinful man.
The tax collector approaches his prayer in a much different manner. He admits he is a sinful man as he has been increasing the taxes he charges to line his pocket. The tax collector, trembling, and fearful confesses his sins. He begs forgiveness even though he recognizes he should receive no mercy because of his sinful acts.
Even their posture demonstrates a difference in respect for the Lord. The Pharisee proudly stands in the middle of the Temple as if he has the right to be in the presence of God. He places himself prominently before God, raising his head to heaven, believes he is a worthy man. The tax collector stands off to the side and in supplication, beats his breast begging for mercy. In humility, this man’s head is cast downward to the ground, lest God punishes him as deserves.
In understanding what Jesus was teaching in this parable, one can easily appreciate the haughtiness of the Pharisee as not an appropriate way to come before the Lord in prayer. The self-righteous Pharisee has little concern about any punishment from God since his sins are not comparable to the rest of humanity. His prayer focuses on himself, “I have done this. I am better than them,” all the while thinking his actions are independent of God. His prayers are like a stinking, stagnant cloud that clings to him just like his sins.
The tax collector knows he sinned, and that God knows those sins. There is no false front to this man. He does not justify the reasons for his sinful acts. His prayer becomes pleasing to God because he bows with deep humiliation, not as an equal, begging from the heart for forgiveness. This man’s prayers the rise to God like fragrant incense as the Lord absolves his sins.
As we well know, no person leads a sinless life. No one can separate him or herself from the rest of humanity by having no sin. In admitting and asking for forgiveness requires one to be humble before God. If one is incapable of such a pious act, then the person is exulting him or herself as equal before God. On the judgment day, these will then discover humility. Those who seek redemption for their transgressions from God will become holy purified by the Lord as they enter heaven.
Which role do we assume in prayer, the Pharisee, or the tax collector? If we are honest with ourselves, we sometimes portray the attitude of the Pharisee as well as the tax collector.
Do we see ourselves as being superior to others because we identify their sins but ignore ours? Do we exude the appearance of being a good Christian person in our actions of worship but then turn our faces away from those who are not quite as “pure” like us?
Pray to the Lord that we become more like the tax collector in prayer, who recognizes he completely dependent on the mercy of God?
Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, forgive me a sinner.

 

TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY ORDINARY TIME 2019

It only through prayer that we communicate with God. There is no post office box to send him a letter using either by slow mail or e-mail. We can’t call him on the phone. We can’t skype him. There is only prayer.
Once we recognize that the only way to connect with the Lord is by prayer, we then need to consider the frequency of our prayer. Prayer is one of those tasks that should not be far from our thoughts throughout the day. “Pray constantly” is a phrase that seems outlandish, as if we had the time to do that but at the same time, it makes total sense. Without prayer, we lose the desire to love God and those for whom we pray.
Thus, our prayer must be persistent to the Lord. While he knows our needs, we cannot expect the Lord provides for us if we do not express our desires. In his wisdom, he will respond to our prayers by always acting in our best interests. For that reason, prayers are not frequently answered as we think they should be. When we have an emotional tie to a prayer, it seems that there can be only one possible solution and do not understand why God has not responded favorably to our plea. In our desire or agony, we do not think about the big picture. It is at that time we need to have faith in the Lord that he will, as he always does, take care of us.
Another point that often frustrates us is the time interval between when we pray and the response time in the way that God answers our prayer. At times, it may seem that when God’s reply is delayed that he is ignoring us. While we don't know the reason, God sometimes wants us to be persistent in our prayer, asking repeatedly. Perhaps he is teaching us the virtue of patience. In our world today, we want immediate results which then keeps us from savoring what we receive. In learning patience through prayer, we discover whether we desire the subject of our prayer or if it is a passing fantasy that is replaced by some other desire. If we move on to another subject after a few times at prayer, then how justified is our request? Persistence in prayer shows the depth of our desire.
Prayerful persistence is symbolically expressed in the first reading today when Moses’ supplication to God for the Hebrew’s victory. When Moses kept his hands raised, the Hebrew army advanced on the Amalek army. Even when Moses grew tired and it became necessary for Aaron and Hur to support his arms, God aided the Hebrews. This reading from Exodus confirms that we do not need to go it alone in our prayer. Asking for assistance, when we need support in our prayer, gives us strength not to become discouraged as we await God’s response to our plea.
Another point to consider about the speed at which God responds is the strength of our faith. There is a distinct connection between the intensity of our desire and the strength of our faith. If we pray and a reply is not forthcoming what is our reaction? Do we give up on our longing or only increase the fervor of the prayer? If after on a short interval, we stop praying, maybe we don’t believe in the mighty power of God. Perseverance in prayer, as with the widow in today’s parable, emphasizes that our faith cannot in God’s merciful acts be shaken. We should never lose heart in our prayer for God provides in a manner that best answer our needs.
Persistence is part of the reason why the widow in the Gospel today was able to cause the corrupt judge to decide in her favor. The widow does stop in her relentless pursuit of a just judgment. The judge, after not receiving a moment peace, finally relents just to be done with her. It is important to recognize that the purpose of our ongoing prayer is not to wear down God to receive what we want. When he answers our prayer, God has considered the options and intervenes for us appropriately as the loving caring Father that he is. Our relentless pray is our confirmation that we believe he will be just.
Another significant point about prayer is the reason why we pray. We pray about a multitude of items that we are sure that God has the same level of concern for and will intercede to save us any emotional distress. To consider that God’s interest in our welfare should be directed to winning the lottery, our favorite team winning this week’s game or retribution against an enemy is erroneous. If we want to experience a transformation in any aspect of our lives, then our prayers should be direct to praying for a change of heart.
Praying for world success can be self-defeating. Winning the lottery sounds enticing; to have so much money that attaining one’s heart’s desire is appealing. However, would that wealth prove to be a physical and spiritual benefit? Many who win a large amount of money find themselves have more desperate lives than when they were poor. Maybe it was the devil and not God who enables one to buy the winning ticket.
Since God loves all his children equally, therefore, he has no reason to favor one sports team over another. Whether a team wins or loses does not depend on the number of Hail Mary’s or Our Father’s offered. God’s compassion is with those who suffer from injustice, not a Hail Mary pass in the last second to win the game. God’s graces will rest on his children who have faith in him, not those sports figures who superstitiously make the Sign of the Cross before coming to bat. God’s mercy will be upon those who seek his justice in prayer.
Far too often today, societal justice is equated with seeking punishment for those who express hatred or has a different opinion. Many groups these days use disparaging identifiers of others as racists, sexist, or homophobic to label people with whom they disagree. It is not uncommon for these “righteous” groups to pray that God “punishes or gets even” with anyone who acts or thinks differently. God’s justice is based on love, not hate. In desiring a change to occur in attitudes one needs to first pray for themselves to be more Christlike and not moralistic. When we have a greater understanding of our antagonists’ issues, then we begin to discover how God correct injustice.
The judge, in the Gospel, describes himself as unmoved by God or any person in his judgments. Bribery is the primary factor that influences his court decisions. The judge will rule in favor of one with the largest bribe. The widow, who can offer no bribe, only asks for justice. Eventually, the judge acceded to her demand as her vocalizations is raising a question of the validity of his judgments. In this way the widow is like God, she unmasks injustice until justice is given, even if it is reluctantly given. The judge’s heart is not changed, but his desire to give the appearance of justice is a step towards righteousness. If this judge who has no pity or piety can be persuaded to change his mind, then how much greater is God's justice who always gives us what we truly need.
What then are our reasons for a lifetime of prayer? Praying to maintain our connection with God to seek to do his will is worthy of our constant prayer. Praying for a change in the hearts of all human beings so that God’s justice will prevail is worthy of our constant prayer. Constant prayer enables our hearts to become the heart of God for then we will be like Jesus never relinquishing our desire to love for every person and the pursuit justice for those in need.

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