October 31, 2010
Come Down, Little Man!
This story actually happened to a priest in Samar. Back then the roads were not concrete and the bridges were made of wooden planks built on columns and beams from coconut lumber. The most convenient way for priests to move around was by motorcycle. On that particular day, this priest was a little distracted when he crossed the bridge, and he fell down the river. Luckily, the bridge was not too high and the river was only waist-high. And most importantly, nobody else was around. When people saw him with his motorcycle in the water, they were alarmed, and asked, “Father, what happened? Why are you down there?” The priest assured them, “Don’t worry! I just stopped by to wash my motorcycle.”
It is always said that climbing up is difficult, but coming down is scary and puts a lot of stress on the legs and joints. This is true in our life in this world. We struggle to go up the ladder of success. We invest a lot of our time, resources and efforts to reach the top. But nobody likes to come down – it is scary, painful and humiliating. No wonder we often hear of famous and powerful people who opted for drugs and even suicide just to escape the ignominy of failure and defeat. The priest in the river would not even admit that he fell off the bridge!
The story of Zacchaeus is a parable in action. He was a little man. But he was the chief tax collector. So he became rich and powerful. He was a great climber, not only of trees but also of the social ladder. All through his life, he has been struggling to reach the top, and in the process he lost the love and company of family and friends. He was the most hated and unhappy man in the city. When Jesus passed by and looked up at the sycamore tree, he did not see a rich and powerful man in Zacchaeus, but a lonely child struggling to stay on top, resisting in vain the pull of gravity. He was tired, unhappy and afraid.
Then he heard the most beautiful and consoling words from Jesus: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly for today I must stay at your house.” These words opened his eyes to the futility of struggling to stay on top. Unlike most people at the top, Zacchaeus was all too happy to come down, having realized there is more meaning and excitement in the life below, together with family and friends. Most especially, he was thrilled at the thought of Jesus staying at his house. In coming down, he found the comfort and peace of the love and mercy of Jesus.
The story of Zacchaeus contains some paradox. He climbed the tree for he “was seeking to see Jesus.” But in reality, it was Jesus who was looking for him. That is why Jesus said to him, “I must stay in your house today.” He deemed it necessary to stay at the house of a sinner precisely to seek and save the lost sheep. Secondly, he welcomed Jesus into his house, but it was actually Jesus who welcomed him back into the loving arms of God. And finally, when he promised to give half of his riches to the poor, it did not diminish his wealth but it opened his heart to receive the true and eternal riches of God’s kingdom – forgiveness, new life, true happiness and eternal salvation.
The realization of the magnitude of God’s graces filled Zacchaeus’ heart with immense joy and gratitude that led him to great generosity: “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor.” Zacchaeus gives us a beautiful example of the Christian virtues of humility, gratitude and generosity.
In all humility, Zacchaeus admitted his sins and shortcomings, and was truly sorry for them. And he promised restitution: “If I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” Instead of condemnation, Jesus showed mercy and compassion for him. And among the many people in the crowd, the Lord singled him out and called him by name. The love and forgiveness he received from Jesus made him extremely grateful and he welcomed him into his house with supreme delight and joy. And this gratitude led him to generosity: “Half of my possessions I shall give to the poor.”
These three virtues exemplified by Zacchaeus should be present in us every time we come together to celebrate the Mass. We begin with the Penitential Rite. This is our Lord calling us: “Come down quickly from that tree of pride and sin.” So we humble ourselves and ask God’s mercy and pardon. This act of humility makes us properly disposed for the sacred celebration “for God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble” (1Pet 5:5).
Furthermore, the Mass is God’s greatest gift to us – the saving and loving presence of Jesus. It is fittingly called Eucharist, a thanksgiving, for it is the best way to express our gratitude to God for all His gifts. Once, St. Teresa was overwhelmed with God’s Goodness, and asked the Lord, “How can I thank You?” Our Lord replied, “Attend one Mass.”
And the best way to respond to God’s generosity is also by our own, though limited, generosity. Like Zacchaeus, we should be able to generously share our blessings with those who are in need. That is why at the end of the Mass, the priest says, “The Mass is ended. Go in peace.” He sends us on a mission. What we have received in the Mass – God’s abundant love, forgiveness and generosity – we also ought to share with others. Having these three virtues then – humility, gratitude and generosity – we can hope to hear the same words of Jesus: “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Fr. Mike Lagrimas
St. Teresa Church
New York, NY 10002