The Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Dear brothers and sisters,
Those who do not move along with the crowd are usually seen as outsiders. They are looked upon with contempt, with disgust, and with suspicion because they are seen to be subversive. In their unwillingness to do what everyone else is doing, they stand in contradiction to the crowd. Would that we had more such people today! Zacchaeus was such a man, a man who stood against the crowd in two particular ways.The first is by the manner of his life; he “was a tax collector and also a wealthy man” because he made his riches by taking money from those in the crowd (Luke 19:2). As such, well known though he was, he was despised by the people, which partly explains why they refused to allow him to move to the front of the crowd when he “was seeking to see who Jesus was” (Luke 19:3). This leads us to the second way he stood against the crowd: “he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus;” he did what others were unwilling to do (Luke 19:4).
Reflecting on this passage, Saint Augustine of Hippo noticed Zacchaeus fleeing from the crowd, which stood as an obstacle to Jesus:
The crowd gets in the way and prevents Jesus from being seen. The crowd boasts and crows when it is able to get back what it owns. It blocks the sight of the one who said as he hung upon the cross, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). [But Zacchaeus] ignored the crowd that was getting in his way.
How often do we ignore the crowd? Are we willing to run ahead of the crowd to see Jesus? When Zacchaeus ran ahead of the crowd, did he remember the words of Sirach, “Take no pleasure in crowds, even if they are small” (Sirach 18:32)? Did he remember the words of Exodus, “You shall not follow a multitude to do evil” (Exodus 23:2)?
How many times does the crowd lead us to evil? How many times are we silent in the face of evil because of the opinion of the crowd? Christians are not called to be part of the crowd, but are called to step away from it to lead those in the crowd in another direction; we are called to stand as lights in the darkness, to bring evil into the light so the crowd may abandon its wickedness. We are called to do this at home, at school, at work; we are called to do this everywhere, even in the voting booth.
Returning to Zacchaeus, there is something important in the kind of tree that he climbed; that it was a sycamore is no mere coincidence, but, rather, a sign of Divine Providence. Saint Augustine calls it “a tree of ‘silly fruit’” and Saint Bonaventure calls it a “foolish fig tree.” They call it this because, at its root, the word sycamore comes from two Greek words: syko, meaning fig tree, and moros, meaning foolish. It is the same word used in Genesis when Adam and Eve “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons” (Genesis 3:7); in their foolishness, they attempted to hide from God. We do the same, do we not? But not Zacchaeus; he wanted to see Jesus, to place himself in his sight, and made himself a fool in the eyes of the crowd. In doing so, he showed himself to be not only an inquisitive man, but also a man of courage. Do we have the same courageous curiosity when it comes to God?
In some way, Zacchaeus, a grown man and a man of some importance as a servant of the Emperor, knew that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (I Corinthians 1:25). The crowd surely mocked him, as it often mocks those who intentionally follow Jesus even today, but their mockery does not seem to have concerned Zacchaeus.
“What sort of minds do you people have, who worship a crucified God?,” asks the crowd. Our answer is simple:
They are certainly not your kind of mind. “The wisdom of this world is folly with God” (I Corinthians 3:19). No, we do not have your kind of mind. You call our minds foolish. Say what you like, but for our part, let us climb the sycamore tree and see Jesus. The reason you cannot see Jesus is that you are ashamed to climb the sycamore tree.
Are we willing to stand against the foolishness of this world? Are we willing to stand against the consumeristic greed that promises happiness, but never delivers it? Are we willing to stand against the individualistic self-absorption that only leads to a spiral of despairing isolation? Are we willing to stand against the senseless rage that does not diminish? Or are we, like Zacchaeus, willing to be foolish in the sight of the crowd to look upon the wisdom of God, to look upon Jesus himself, and to welcome him into the homes of our lives (cf. I Corinthians 1:24; Luke 19:5)?
Saint Augustine urges each of us to abandon the crowd and to imitate that repentant extortioner:
Let Zacchaeus grasp the sycamore tree, and let the humble person climb the cross. That is little enough, merely to climb it. We must not be ashamed of the cross of Christ, but we must fix it on our foreheads, where the seat of shame is. Above where all our blushes show is the place we must firmly fix that for which we should never blush. As for you, I rather think you make fun of the sycamore, and yet that is what has enabled me to see Jesus. You make fun of the sycamore, because you are just a person, but “the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”
If we wish to follow Jesus, if we wish him to change our lives and bring peace to our hearts, then we cannot blend in with the crowd; we must humbly stand out from the crowd and rise about it. “The person who wants to come to wisdom must condescend to faith in this foolishness” because “the foolishness of faith leads to the height of wisdom of Christ.” Let us, then, not be ashamed to be fools in the eyes of the crowd so that we might know that “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness” (Psalm 145:8). Amen.