Gospel for the Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time (3 November 2019)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
By Niels Larsen Stevns - Own work (photo: Gunnar Bach Pedersen)
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:1-10 – NRSV)
The story of Zacchaeus is unique to Luke. It is interesting to note the number of parables and stories that are unique to Luke apart from this one:
• Most of chapters 1 & 2;
• The cure of the demoniac in the synagogue in Capernaum (4:31-37. See also Matthew 7:28-29 – “His teaching made a deep impression on the people ...”);
• The son of the widow of Nain restored to life (7:11-17);
• The woman who was a sinner (7:36-50);
• The saying, “Anyone who is not against you is for you” (9:50);
• The inhospitable Samaritan village (9:51-56);
• The parable of the good Samaritan (10:29-37);
• The story of Martha and Mary (10:38-42);
• The story of the persistent friend calling in the middle of the night (10:38-42);
• The rich farmer who wanted to build bigger barns (12:13-21);
• The healing of the crippled woman on the Sabbath (13:10-17);
• The healing of the dropsical man on the Sabbath (14:1-6. See also Matthew 12:9-14 – cure of the man with the withered hand also in the synagogue);
• On choosing places at table (14:7-11. See also Matthew 23:12: “Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled ...”);
• On choosing guests to be invited (14:12-14);
• On renouncing possessions (14:28-33);
• The parable of the lost drachma (15:8-10);
• The parable of the lost son (15:11-32);
• The parable of the crafty steward (16:1-8);
• The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31);
• The story of the ten lepers (17:11-19);
• The parable of the unscrupulous judge and the persistent widow (18:1-8);
• The parable of the Pharisee and the publican (18:9-14);
• The story of Zacchaeus (19:1-10);
• The story of Jesus’ lament for Jerusalem (19:39-44);
Luke also has his own unique take, for example, on the call of the disciples (5:1-11), the beatitudes (6:20-23) which he combines with a series of curses (6:24-26), the extended attack on the lawyers and the Pharisees (11:37-54) and on being ready for the master’s return (12:35-48).
The use of the verb dierchomai (go through), reminds us that Jesus is travelling to Jerusalem – a crucial theme in Luke. It begins in 9:51: “He set his face towards Jerusalem”. The journey narrative continues through to 19:27. Jerusalem is “the city of destiny” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 824).
“It is .... Luke’s way of concretizing the exodos of Jesus and all that that is supposed to mean in these writings .... It is a major part of the Lucan geographical perspective .... and contributes in an important way to his theology as a whole. The artificial expansion of the inherited tradition about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is a device which serves this christological (and theological) purpose. Coming on the heels of the mention of Jesus’ exodos, his ‘being taken up’ (9:51) calls for movement to Jerusalem (see 13:33, 35b; cf. 19:38) and creates the stage for the dramatic point of that ‘departure’.
“It is an important part of the Gospel in the way that it affects Jesus’ followers, since he goes up to Jerusalem accompanied by disciples. They will become the authenticated witnesses of all that he has taught and all that he has done. The travel account, therefore, becomes a special device used by Luke for the further training of these Galilean witnesses. If Jesus moves to the city of destiny according to what has been determined, he nevertheless equips his followers for the mission of proclaiming him and his message of salvation after his death and resurrection to ‘the end of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). The travel account becomes, then, a collection of teachings for the young missionary church, in which instruction of disciples alternates with debates with opponents.” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 825-826).
tax collector: This group of despised people occurs at least thirteen times in Luke’s Gospel. Each mention is favourable to them:
1:12 – “Even tax collectors came to be baptized ....”;
5:27-32 – four times in this passage telling of the call of Levi;
7:29-30 – “(And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves)”;
7:34 – “you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”;
15:1 – “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him”;
18:9-14 – three times in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector;
19:2 – “A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich”.
trying to see who Jesus was ...... climbed a sycamore tree to see him: Zacchaeus is very keen to “see” Jesus. Luke ends this story with the statement from Jesus: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost”. Yes, Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus, but Jesus was seeking Zacchaeus. This is a theme deep within the history of the Jews – see Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.)
must stay: Impersonal verb that appears a number of times in Luke. It implies the fulfilling of God’s will already partially revealed in the Scriptures. In more contemporary language, we might speak of an existential must. That is, because Jesus is who he is, all this must follow. See for example: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (2:49); “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” (4:43); “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (9:22); “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing” (13:16); “Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (13:33); “As the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation” (17:25); “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” (21:9); “For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled’. They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords’. He replied, ‘It is enough’.” (22:37); “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again” (24:7); “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (24:26); These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (24:44-49). The same impersonal verb is used often in Acts. (See Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 285.)
today: It is difficult to pass over this word as if it had no special significance. In fact, in Luke’s Gospel it does have special significance. Time is critical. Consider the following. Later in this passage we hear Jesus say: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Other occurrences include the following: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (2:11); “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21); “Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen strange things today” (5:26); “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” (13:32-35).
happy to welcome him: The Greek word here translated as “happy”, is chairōn from chairō meaning “rejoice”. It was used by the Angel in greeting Mary at the annunciation: “You will have joy (chara) and gladness, and many will rejoice (charēsontai) at his birth” (1:14. See also 2:10; 6:23; 8:13; 10:17 & 20. Many scholars see in these references an echoing of the messianic prophecy of Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!” (Zechariah 9:9).
All who saw it began to grumble: We would not be surprised if Luke had said the scribes and the Pharisees began to grumble – see 5:30; 7:34, 39; 15:2. But “all who saw it began to grumble”? In other word, even the disciples grumbled? We must assume that this acceptance of the rich tax collector by Jesus and his proclaiming, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham”, was very difficult for the onlookers to accept – all of them! It drives home one of Luke’s key themes, also stated here by Jesus: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” – see also 5:32.
In today’s Gospel – Luke 19:1-10 – we have the story of Zacchaeus. Not only is this man a collaborator with the Romans – he collects taxes from his own people for them – he has become rich by doing that. Yet Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, I must stay at your house today”. No wonder “all who saw it began to grumble”. We must assume that “all” includes the apostles.
A key to understanding this story can be found in those words of Jesus: “I must”. This expression is used frequently in Luke’s Gospel. For example, at the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus says to his parents: “‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’” (2:49); at the end of the Gospel, Jesus says to the disciples: “‘Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled’” (24:44). Because Jesus is who he is, certain things must follow. He is the servant of the Kingdom, that state of being in which God reigns. The angel had prophesied to Mary: “‘He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end’” (1:32-33). The devil had tempted Jesus with other kingdoms – see 4:5. Had he submitted to the devil’s temptation he would have been unfaithful to the must that is crucial to his very existence. “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God” (4:43). As the faithful embodiment of that must, Jesus will bring about the Kingdom of God. This is Good News! If he were to refuse the must, Jesus could not bring about the Kingdom of God. That would indeed be bad news!
The must at the heart of Jesus’ existence is in fact a must that all of existence shares and is called to embody. Pope Francis reminds us of the consequences of refusing the must: “(The earth) now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will” (Opening words of Laudato Si‘, May 2015). A central task for the human family – individually and communally – is to discover and submit to the truth of that must, whether it be manifest in one’s own existence or in the existence of other people or in the existence of the environment.
This is a liberating must. Our wellbeing – and the wellbeing of our home, the earth – depends on how well we discern and submit to the truth of that must. Nor does this must require us to be fatalistic or passive. On the contrary, it gives a very specific context to the way we think about and pursue freedom, responsibility and accountability. Freedom is not license to do as we like. It is rather our ability to be what we must be and do what must do.
Where do you find the must in your daily life?