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Posted by on Oct 31, 2010

Who is Zacchaeus in Our Lives Today?

The Gospel reading for today, the 31st Sunday of Ordinary time, Cycle C, is the story of the tax collector, Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus lived in Jericho. He was despised by the people of the community because he was a tax collector. Being a tax collector in those days meant that he was free to extort as much as he could get from the people and had only to send a portion of it to the authorities at higher levels of government (ie, Jerusalem and Rome). He was the chief tax collector, taking money from all the tax collectors under his supervision and from his own work as well. The gospel notes that he was a wealthy man.

Now Zacchaeus was curious about Jesus and when he heard that Jesus would be passing through town, he went out with the crowd to see him. We do the same today when celebrities come through our own towns. However, Zacchaeus had a problem. He was a short man and there were lots of people in front of him. So he climbed a tree to get a better view.

Jesus saw him in the tree, stopped and called him by name to come down, saying that he (Jesus) would dine at the home of Zacchaeus that night. The people were horrified and scandalized. They asked if Jesus really could know who Zacchaeus was, that he was a terrible sinner? But Zacchaeus was touched by the healing love of Jesus in that moment and volunteered that he would return fourfold all that he had stolen and give half of his possessions to the poor. Jesus told all “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” (Lk 19:1-10)

This story got me to thinking. Who is Zacchaeus in our lives today?

It’s easy to point the finger of blame at celebrities who are promiscuous or who drink too much or who use illicit drugs. It’s easy to look at politicians who misuse their power. It’s easy to say that those who provide or seek abortions are great sinners. It’s easy to scapegoat people whose sexual orientation does not match our own.  It’s easy to gloat when a minister is caught in some sin he or she has denounced from the pulpit.

But I don’t think that’s the lesson we need to draw from this account. We need to look at ourselves and see the areas in which we fail. We need to ask ourselves who we cheat, from whom do we steal, whose hearts do we break? To some extent each of us is Zacchaeus.

Then I suggest we go a step further. Who are the people in our lives whom we blame for what is wrong in society? Who are the people we would choose to block from access to the goods of life? To whom would we deny education, health care, food, clothing, shelter?

Do we blame undocumented immigrants and seek to exclude them and their children from the goods and services they need to live full, healthy lives? Do we suggest that the children of the undocumented who are born here should not be citizens by birth, thereby denying them the protection of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution? Do we look down on the laid off teacher, the unwed mother,  or the disabled worker who receive unemployment, food stamps and Medicaid? Do we insist that people who can’t afford health insurance should just not get sick and/or need preventive care services? Do we say that only the well-to-do should be able to stay home with their young children and that mothers in poorer families should have to put their children in day care for long periods of time and work at minimum wage or less trying to earn enough to cover rent, food and childcare? Do we assume that all children of minority groups are probably gang members? Do we expect that the poor are somehow less intelligent and deserve to live in poverty?

I suggest that perhaps Zacchaeus takes many forms in the United States today. Some people we treat as if they were public sinners (Zacchaeus) because they are less fortunate or have made poor decisions in their lives. Somehow we are inclined to believe that those for whom all is going well are holy and specially rewarded by God for their good lives and that the opposite is true for those in difficult circumstances. Some of us are Zacchaeus in our world because of choices we have made that hurt others.

The good news is that Jesus came to bring salvation to us all, in whatever way we may personally be Zacchaeus and to whomever we treat with scorn or exclude as if he or she were Zacchaeus.  And why does Jesus come to bring this salvation? Because “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost” and because the Lord will “overlook people’s sins that they may repent.” (Wis 11:23)

Good news indeed. May we be open to receive that salvation ourselves and to support others whom we might otherwise push aside as unworthy of the grace and blessings of the Lord.

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Posted by on Dec 4, 2008

De Vita: Toward a Christian Philosophy of Life

De Vita: Toward a Christian Philosophy of Life

Madonna by Ralph & Shelly Neibuhr

Latin Baby by Ralph & Shelly Neibuhr


In an interview on National Public Radio yesterday, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee offered a very intelligent and fluent presentation of the pro-life position. While being interviewed about his new book, Do the Right Thing, he stated clearly and succinctly that life has to be seen as sacred and valued and that humans cannot be wantonly discarded when they are inconvenient or an economic liability. The big danger, as Mr. Huckabee pointed out, is that if we teach our children that certain marginal people are disposable, we ourselves may become disposable once we are old and infirm.

One of the listeners emailed a questioned about the consistency of an anti-abortion position and one in favor of capital punishment. Mr. Huckabee allowed that there might come a point when the case could be made to eliminate the death penalty. Even as he praised those who participated in candle light vigils outside the Governor’s mansion protesting the execution of criminals, Mr. Huckabee said that the taking of such lives occurred not at the whim of an individual mother but after an exhaustive judicial process. He made the point that some crimes are so severe and the danger to society is so great that killing people is the one definite way to make sure that such people will never commit this crime again. He added that the death penalty is a deterrent that benefits society.

His presentation was very sincere, yet there was something that made me uneasy about it. Is re-criminalizing abortion truly a pro-life position? Abortion still occurred when it was illegal. Making it illegal once again will not stop the practice. Philosophically, a true pro-life position requires supports and incentives for the care and nurturing of all – at every stage of life. An acceptance of abortion can represent a coarsening of the public’s view of unborn children and human life.  An acceptance or a toleration of abortion is seen by many as leading to a debasement of the human fetus and of motherhood itself.

Nevertheless, if we criminalize abortion, we won’t stop it. We can “enjoy” taking the moral high ground, but I think that this is an illusion. What happens when women do not have safe and legal access to abortion? The mother and child relationship becomes socialized without the benefit of the social and economic supports necessary to lead a life of worth and dignity.

If we accept the view that birth control is also immoral, we are holding to an idealized view that sex only occurs in marriage and that in natural family planning, reason and ovulation always win out over human passion.

Although well intentioned – that great pavement on the road to perdition – the movement to re-criminalize abortion does not represent a well integrated philosophy of the dignity and worth of life. Criminalization could very well return us to a public policy that moves us away from a humanistic and Christian philosophy of life.

Morally, one can advocate an idealized Christian lifestyle focused on virginity, abstinence, and separate beds for married couples, but pastoral applications of moral theology have always been more about actual living – and dealing with the messiness of life.

Perhaps, what we are really wrestling with is the notion of what it is to be inhuman. Interrupting an otherwise healthy pregnancy without a very compelling reason still appears to have a lot of support as being an inhuman activity. Then again, the notion of placing a woman at risk of death because she does not share our beliefs or because she perceives she has no other choices also appears to have widespread support as something that is inhuman.

Can you have a secular policy that permits abortion and even physician assisted suicide? It is hardly a Christian position. Then again, perhaps the Christian witness is better seen in public policy that makes these choices less necessary and less desirable. If we insist that public policy has to be Christian in a post-Christian civilization, we may be doing something that is not really very Christian – we may be claiming (against the teaching of St. Paul) – that the law can save us.

(Image taken from Shelly Niebuhr’s home page:

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