Scrutinized by People, But Admired by God
- Jon Pedley lived the life of a swinging millionaire until an alcohol-fueled car accident in 2002 left him comatose and on the verge of death. Miraculously, he survived, and soon experienced a profound change of heart. The UK millionaire—who indulged in alcohol, womanizing, and other vices—later found God and was inspired by the charity work of his friend in Uganda.
He decided to emulate his friend, and literally gave it all away in 2010 as he sold his $1.5 million farmhouse and businesses. Pedley then used the proceeds to move to a mud hut in Uganda and start a charity for local orphans. The charity wasn’t only for the local children, either—British children with a troubled past were also sent there to help the locals and ultimately help themselves. For Pedley, it was a cathartic release from his once-decadent lifestyle—he remarked that “I’ve never been more sure about anything in my life” when asked if he really wanted to go through with it.
- Yevgeny Pushenko had a good thing going for him back in the 1990s. The Soviet Union had just broken up and people were free to pursue their dreams. For Pushenko, that freedom enabled him to construct a clothing factory in his hometown of Vladivostok. Soon, business was booming and he had 50 factory workers at one point. However, Pushenko felt empty. Until then, he had not really practiced his faith as an Orthodox Christian, which was suppressed for so long by the authorities.
It wouldn’t be long before he met his friends over vodka (of course) and handed them the keys to his factory. His shocked friends found out the reason from his parents the next day: He wanted to be a monk and do a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For three years, Pushenko walked 15,000 kilometers (9,320 mi) through several countries until he finally reached his destination. Pushenko endured many trials during his journey, from battling extreme weather to fending off suspicious authorities, but remarked that his faith kept him going. After he had finished his pilgrimage, Pushenko renamed himself Athanassios and retired to Mt. Athos in Greece, where he has since resided at a monastery.
- I remember reading the wonderful book, “The Monk who sold the Ferrari” by Robin Sharma. The inspiring tale provides a step-by-step approach to living with greater courage, balance, abundance, and joy. A wonderfully crafted fable, The book tells the extraordinary story of Julian Mantle, a lawyer forced to confront the spiritual crisis of his out-of-balance life. He sells everything and goes in search of God and wisdom.
Our eyes immediately notice the black spot or a spray of mud on a white canvas. In a strange automatism, our eyes are immediately attracted by the particular that spoils. It happens a defect, a shortcoming, a disability that becomes ideas for nicknames, allusions and jokes, sometimes innocent, others sarcastic.
The gaze of a person is cruel: it focuses especially on the stains, the limitations, on the deteriorating aspects. Is it so with God’s eyes? If yes, it spells trouble for everyone because “the heavens are not clean in his eyes, how much less who is vile and corrupt, who drinks evil as if it were water” (Job 15:15-16).
Should we be afraid of the sight of God? God is looking at you! We recall this warning often used by educators and catechists of the past as a deterrent to prevent wrongdoing. That triangle with the eye of God at the center who stared, instilled reverence and awe in us.
The thought that may have often come to us is that we would have made of this God“a policeman”. Is it correct—even if to get good behaviors—to present God this way? Is his gaze that of the investigator who seeks the motives to condemn or the tender embrace of the Father that includes, excuses, captures often only that which is nice and loveable in his children?
The answer to these questions concerns us.
With just three more Sundays to go in this liturgical year, today the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C, the Church reminds us that to the Lord and our God, the whole world is like a grain of dust. That is to say, tiny compared to his greatness. In spite of this, He loves all that exists and comes to dwell with us sinners. No matter how weak, sinful, or stubborn we are, the fact remains that Jesus our Lord is in our midst and is ever ready to ensure and secure our salvation just as he said to Zacchaeus today: “Today salvation has come to this house…” Because he is in our midst, Jesus keeps coming to us every day in other to seek us out. However, he says to us: “I stand at the door of your heart knocking, if you open I will come in and eat and dine with you” (Rev 3, 20).
In today’s First Reading, the book of Wisdom eulogizes the mercy of God which extends to all his creatures irrespective of their state and status. Hence, in spite of our weaknesses and sins, God continues to be merciful as Wisdom puts it: “Yet you are merciful to all because you can do all things and over look men’s sins so that they can repent”. In order words, our merciful God gives us the opportunity to retrace our steps. This explains the reason he does not punish sinners immediately. This is the nature of God’s mercy! As a father who would not despise his own child, so will God not despise his creatures because he values each one of us. Even when we offend him, Wisdom says: “Little by little, therefore, you correct those who offend, and you admonish and remind them how they have sinned…”
In the Second Reading, Paul prays for us to persevere in good deed and faith in Christ. He equally encourages us to continue without being carried away by false rumours of the Lord’s imminent coming. In order words, in as much as the Lord will come to be in our midst in fulfillment of his promise to us, we must go ahead living our lives. We must not just sit down with our arms “akimbo” Rather, we have to get ourselves busy with good deeds so that when he eventually comes, he will meet us in the right position.
Gospel: I am convinced that there is an inherent thirst (deepest desire) in every person to go beyond the here and now. This thirst can be satiated only in an experience of God. By virtue of the mystery of incarnation, the fulfilment of the thirst has been made possible in Jesus. The outcome of this satiation is salvation, which is marked by purification/healing, renunciation, justification. The signs of salvation are many: a deepening of faith; a sense of purpose and meaning (hope) in life; and an eagerness to share this hope with others in charity. And salvation is not just a one time event, but a process of continued experience. This journey is marked by some dimensions which are discernable in most gospel stories of people’s encounter with Jesus (see for instance, Mt 2:1-11; Lk 5:1-15; Lk 24:13-35; Jn 1:35-42; Jn 4:1-42; Jn 5:1-9; Jn 9:1-38). In the light of the gospel story of today I would like to explore, even if in a hurried manner, some of the dimensions of the encounter with God in Jesus. Perhaps Zacchaeus in our gospel today, could say the same thing too that “no one who meets Jesus remains the same”, because he really experienced it. There was really a change happening in his life.
And the Good News for us today is that the story of Zacchaeus is not only a story in the past, or in the time of Jesus. The story of Zacchaeus is also our story, right here, right now. This gospel is an invitation for us to celebrate God’s love, to experience God’s mercy and to renew our commitment to Christ and his message. To respond to this invitation though we need to make ourselves available for God. We need to open the door of our hearts for God to come in. We need to empty ourselves for God’s grace to fill in.
So how should we respond to this invitation? We can do it in three ways:
First, is to make an effort to see Jesus- to meet Jesus in a more real and personal way even if it looks ridiculous in the eyes of the world. Zacchaeus climbed up a tree not primarily to get the attention of Jesus, but to see him personally. This is also our challenge today. There are many things or situations that block our way from seeing Jesus.
I have heard people saying that as they got up from bed before, they would offer a short prayer of thanksgiving to God for the gift of life, but now instead of praying, the first thing they’d do is to check Facebook or Twitter, Whatsapp, Viber, their email, etc. These are just some of the things that block our way from seeing Jesus in our lives- the kind of things that give us false assurances, false securities, false hopes- that once accumulated leaving us more empty than before. We need to overcome all these things and then we will be able to see Jesus in persons- maybe through someone who is grieving and needing a listening ear, maybe through some families who couldn’t pay their rent, maybe a friend whose spouse is in the hospital. Zacchaeus made an effort to climb up a tree to see Jesus from the vantage point of view. This could also mean ‘prayer’ or lifting up of ourselves before God. Prayer always helps us not only to see the real situation or mess we are in, but to get out of it.
The second is to accept who we really are and as sinners before God. Again, we can learn from Zacchaeus. He was short in stature and he couldn’t do anything about it, but he could do something with it. It is a task for us to do today, because our time is characterized by ‘IMAGES’, perfect image, perfect body, Next top model, someone with an X-Factor, or someone who’s got talent or someone with ‘the voice’. What about if we don’t have those aspects in our lives? Zacchaeus couldn’t do anything about his being short in stature, but he did something with it– that might have helped him to climb the tree quicker.
Another thing we can learn from Zacchaeus is that he didn’t let the people’s perception on him block his way nor stop him to see Jesus. As a tax-collector, he really couldn’t avoid the common perception that he was a cheat, a traitor for the Jews, an extortionist if you like. Let them think about him that way, but that didn’t stop him going to Jesus, to acknowledge his being a ‘cheat’ if you like before Jesus and to do something about it. This is a good thing about accepting who we truly are because through this we can also what we are capable of- that we are capable of doing good, noble and honest things not only for ourselves but for others.
Third is to listen to Jesus’ words ‘Come down and I will have dinner at your house.’ This is a call for us to make a place for Jesus in our homes, in our lives, in our hearts. This means we let God be in the picture of our life. This means we look for God for the answers the questions in life we have, not to google it. If Christ is alive in us, real conversion occurs, and all other things we have, would pale in comparison or even fade into the background. Zacchaeus had realized this that ‘he stood his ground and said to the Lord, ‘Look, sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.’ Wow, what a resolve! It just goes to show that if we experienced real conversion and real relationship with Christ, things, possessions, fame, or popularity wouldn’t matter anymore.
Let us ask ourselves: What effort are we taking to celebrate God’s love, to experience God’s mercy and to renew our commitment to Christ and his message? Zacchaeus did it by making an effort to see Jesus, by being true to himself before him and by welcoming Jesus into his home-his life.
“There are no mistakes in life, only lessons. There is no such thing as a negative experience, only opportunities to grow, learn and advance along the road of transformation and newness of life in Christ.”
“Only GOD can turn
a mess into a message
a test into a testimony
a trial into triumph
a victim into victory
a problem into prayer.”
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.