Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Son Of Man Has Come To Seek And To Save What Was Lost.

Today’s First Reading is taken from the Second Book of Maccabees (6:18-31):

There was an elderly and highly respected teacher of the Law by the name of Eleazar, whose mouth was being forced open to make him eat pork. But he preferred an honorable death rather than a life of disgrace. So he spit out the meat and went willingly to the place of torture, showing how people should have courage to refuse unclean food, even if it costs them their lives.

Those in charge of the sacrifice had been friends of Eleazar for a long time, and because of this friendship they told him privately to bring meat that was lawful for him to eat. He need only pretend to eat the pork, they said, and in this way he would not be put to death. But Eleazar made a decision worthy of his gray hair and advanced age. All his life he had lived in perfect obedience to God's holy laws, so he replied:

Kill me, here and now. Such deception is not worthy of a man of my years. Many young people would think that I had denied my faith after I was ninety years old. If I pretended to eat this meat, just to live a little while longer, it would bring shame and disgrace on me and lead many young people astray. For the present I might be able to escape what you could do to me, but whether I live or die, I cannot escape Almighty God. If I die bravely now, it will show that I deserved my long life. It will also set a good example of the way young people should be willing and glad to die for our sacred and respected laws.

As soon as he said these things, he went off to be tortured, and the very people who had treated him kindly a few minutes before, now turned against him, because they thought he had spoken like a madman. When he had been beaten almost to the point of death, he groaned and said:

The Lord possesses all holy knowledge. He knows I could have escaped these terrible sufferings and death, yet he also knows that I gladly suffer these things, because I fear him.

So Eleazar died. But his courageous death was remembered as a glorious example, not only by young people, but by the entire nation as well.


Eleazar, the learned and wise scribe, had the courage to refuse to eat pork, a meat forbidden by the Law. He also declined his friends’ suggestion that he merely pretend to eat the meat in order to save his own life. Today, he is venerated as a hero by Jews and Christians alike, a hero who died in the name of virtue. Although Eleazar lived and died more than two thousand years ago, the question remains today: Am I prepared to defend the beliefs, values and virtues of my religion? Am I willing to suffer and die in witness to my faith?

I can easy write “Of course I am!” as the next line of this reflection. But I am sitting at the computer desk, not standing as a prisoner before soldiers who will bring my life to a sudden and painful end if I don’t renounce my faith. Maybe it was easier to believe with certainty and to be willing to give one’s life for the faith in the days of the martyrs. Maybe the graces of faith and courage to endure martyrdom come only to those who are faced with that challenge, not to us who speculate about it.

There are some friends and family members of every generation from my grandparents’ to my own who have seen combat in every conflict this nation has been involved in during the 20th century. All of them had buddies who were tortured; some of them experienced torture themselves. All of them attested that someone who was tortured would never tell the truth, but instead, tell “credible untruths” with two purposes: to deceive the enemy and even more critically, to stay alive. What about myself? I’d like to think that I would tell an untruth to put an end to the torture and preserve my life, in a military situation, but that’s easier to say sitting here at my computer desk than if I was in a prison camp. In a situation like Eleazar’s, would I be able what he did, offer his life rather than denounce his faith? To tell the truth, I cannot answer that question. I can only hope and pray that I, and each of you, would say yes to witness, even if witness meant martyrdom.

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Today’s Gospel is taken from Luke (19:1-10):

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.”


The story of Zacchaeus is unique to Luke, as are the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. Luke seems to have an eye for what is lost, and he even sees tax collectors in a good light (3:12; 7:29; 15:1; 18:10). But the situation here is ambiguous, since Luke typically portrays wealthy folk in a bad light. How will Zacchaeus be categorized, since he is both a tax collector and a wealthy man?

In fact, Zacchaeus was a “chief tax collector”, the epitome of revenue agents. They were despised by their own people, since the taxes they were collecting were going to the forces of occupation, the Romans. But there was something about Zacchaeus that remained open to grace. Jesus responded immediately: “Today I must stay at your house … today salvation has come to this house”, Jesus said. The word “today” is an important word in Luke’s vocabulary, as it must have been when Jesus spoke. How, then, does Jesus seem to be satisfied with Zacchaeus’ pledge for tomorrow? "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." In the Greek, these verbs are in the present tense, but many scholars, including the translators of this version, the New Revised Standard Version, see the meaning as future. The present tense would show the tax collector as boastful, which would certainly not impressed Jesus positively. Moreover, it would be hard to understand the crowd’s hostility to the tax collector if he had already mended his ways. It seems clear that Zacchaeus was not talking about what he was already doing, but about what he was going to do.

Why did Jesus accept his pledge? The point is that he was able to see his face, and his heart, which is impossible for us. The full message is not given by the words a person uses, but the person’s entire demeanor. Jesus saw that he was lost, and he also saw that he was open to being found again.

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

I wonder if some of those who witnessed the scourging of Christ by the Romans remembered Eleazar.

The sycamore in Israel is a species of fig: ficus sycamorus. There is a picture on internet of one aged 3040 years in Netanya: it was already old at the time of Christ! You can easily imagine Zacchaeus climbing a tree like that. They are celebrated for being able to regenerate, come what may. Their figs made them as important as olives in the traditional diet.

The blind man and Zacchaeus are both aware that they cannot see. Zacchaeus also knows that, as a Roman tax collector, he is by definition unworthy. They are contrasted with the rich aristocrat. He probably had no difficulty seeing Jesus - but did he really SEE WHO HE WAS, like the blind man or Zacchaeus? Also, he probably viewed his wealth as a divine seal of approval, whereas Zacchaeus could easily see his own wealth was an obstacle to worthiness. The rich aristocrat's assumptions are a more dangerous handicap than blindness or short stature!