Sunday, November 03, 2019

Homeward Bound

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: YouTube Simon & Garfunkel 

My dear friends, have you ever suffered from homesickness? Do you know what it feels like? Perhaps there are some of us here who are feeling it even now. As you know, homesickness is what happens to people living away from home for an extended period of time. Foreign students, for example, or migrant workers. Or even those who move into a new estate, or join a new parish. Those who find themselves in a strange environment, surrounded by unfamiliar people. In such situations, it’s understandable to feel like a fish out of water. It’s natural even to feel sad. To miss the familiar comforts of home.

And yet, uncomfortable though it may be, homesickness is not always a bad thing. Of course, if I am working or studying in a foreign country, I should try to get over my homesickness quickly, in order to concentrate on what I have to do. But isn’t it a good thing for me to feel homesick from time to time? To not allow myself to get too comfortable in the new place? To miss the family and friends, the spouse and children, whom I may have left behind? Isn’t homesickness a useful reminder to me of where I truly belong, of where I eventually need to return?

I mention this, because I wonder if it may not be something like what Zacchaeus is going through in the gospel. We’re told that he is one of the senior tax collectors and a wealthy man. Actually, he may even be the head or commissioner of the tax office. And yet, when this important government official finds his access to Jesus blocked, he runs ahead and climbs a tree just to get a better view. Surely such conduct is unbecoming of someone in his position. Can you imagine one of our Members of Parliament doing this? Why does Zacchaeus do it? What makes him so anxious to see Jesus?

I’m not sure, my dear friends. But perhaps it’s because, rich and important though he may be, Zacchaeus is feeling spiritually homesick. Perhaps there is a part of him that longs for a different way of life. A life sustained no longer by compromise, and corruption, and collusion with foreign powers. A life less comfortable perhaps, but more authentic. A life rooted in his own God-given desires for love and acceptance, for truth and justice and peace. Could this be why Zacchaeus is so generous? Even to the extent of offering to give half his property to the poor, and repaying those he may have cheated four times over? Could it be that Zacchaeus is willing to do all this, just so that he can return home to God?

In the first reading, we are told that, little by little, God mercifully corrects those who offend. Or, in other words, God brings back those who have strayed away from home. How does God do this? What does this little by little conversion look like? Could it be that what we see in the gospel are precisely the external signs of this gradual interior process? Could it be that even before Jesus spots Zacchaeus up in the tree, God had already reached into the tax collector’s heart, and disturbed his comfortable life? Could it be that, for Zacchaeus, the discomfort of homesickness is really the first step on the road home?

If this is true, then what does it mean for me? I who spend so much time trying to make my own life as comfortable as possible? Of course, there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with being comfortable. But isn’t it possible for me to become so comfortable in this world, as to forget that my true home lies in God? Isn’t it possible for me to become so used to the poverty and injustice, the pain and conflict that I see in the world around me, that I no longer feel disturbed by it, much less yearn for something different?

And when I allow myself to become comfortable and complacent in this way, am I not doing precisely what St Paul tells the Thessalonians not to do, at the end of the second reading? Am I not living as though the Day of the Lord has already arrived? As though I have already reached my final destination? As though there is nothing left to work towards?

And yet, at the end of the gospel, Jesus takes care to remind his listeners that the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost. Which of us can deny that this work is not yet complete? Which of us can deny that we ourselves – pious Catholics though we may be – still have quite a distance to travel to reach our heavenly goal? Which of us can deny that there are still many people around us who, comfortable though they may be, still suffer terribly from homesickness? And which of us can deny that, if we do not notice any of this, it’s only because we have allowed ourselves to become far too comfortable, even as we remain far away from home.

Sisters and brothers, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to feel homesick from time to time. Sometimes, as it was for Zacchaeus, homesickness may even be a great blessing. What will you do to beg and better receive this blessing from God today?

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