We Can Be Heroes: A Homily

In Luke’s gospel the rich do not come off especially well. The rich young man is told to sell all that he owns and, unable to do so, he goes away very sad. In the Magnificat, Mary looks forward to the day when God will fill the poor with good things and send away the rich with empty hands. Jesus pronounces woes to the rich, he portrays them as fools, calls them callous, and in general finds them incapable of responding to the call of God. Remember the story from luke’s gospel about the two men who die, one named Lazarus is sent immediately to heaven. The other because he was rich and did not care for Lazarus is sent immediately to hell.

Even in today’s story the rich do not have an easy time of it. The crowd grumbles at the rich man Zacchaeus. He, a very wealthy man, is forced to run along side the crowd gathered to see Jesus. His wealth does not get him a luxury skybox but instead he’s forced to climb a rather small tree so he may see Jesus pass by. His wealth offers him no advantages and in the eyes of the crowd his wealth is a tremendous disadvantage. They roll their eyes at him.

It may seem we are faced with yet another gospel that forces us to ask the question: am I rich or not? I know when I hear these stories of wealthy people from Luke’s gospel I ask myself: do I fit into this category of the rich. Will I be put down while the lowly are lifted up?  I think the logic goes something like this: If I’m rich then this gospel applies to me. If I’m not rich I can sit by the wayside and watch the event unfold between Jesus and the rich men he puts down. The question of whether I’m rich or not is a very difficult question:

In one sense, if you have a roof over your head and fresh potable water running through your home you are already richer than many people on the globe. If you have wages over $2 a day you are already richer than many people on the planet. I live in a brand-new Jesuit community that would be the envy of many who like myself, go by the name of poor.

In a sense, when compared with the rest of the world, we in this church are all somewhat rich. And thus have a vested interest in the plight of the little man Zacchaeus. All of us might consider leaving behind half of our income. The pastor will be standing at the back of the church in case anyone feels moved to do so.

However this story about Zacchaeus is not about wealth and income, strictly. This is a story about a quest. Instead of thinking Bernie Madoff and Walls St. versus Main St. think Lord of the Rings, the Wizard of Oz, even The Catcher in the Rye, or the recent novel, the Road by Cormac McCarthy. This is a story of quest, so we should think about it in terms of other quest-like stories. We have a deeper connection with Zacchaeus than being rich. We are connected to him because we are all potential heroes. We are all heroes.

According to Jospeh Campbell, quest stories have a Hero, a journey, and an object of the quest.

The hero, who commonly resides in a “village,” is characterized by comfort and passivity, he receives a “call” to adventure from some sort of “herald.”  The hero, if he accepts this call, leaves the village and, crossing over the “threshold of adventure,” enters into a dark, forbidding forest (or its metaphorical equivalent.)  There he is tested and purified by terrifying dangers, monsters, villains (some of whom may look a lot like him); many of these he overcomes only through the assistance of unexpected “helpers”—wise old men, “earth mothers,” or beautiful maidens associated in some way with water.  If he survives these harrowing trials and succeeds in his quest—whatever it may be—he (or she) then has the option of returning to his native village with his “boon,” his prize.  If he does return, the village is magically revivified, born again, so that all its inhabitants come to share in the hero’s victory.  In a sense, therefore, the hero undergoes his quest so that we (the villagers) don’t have to; his sacrifice is on our behalf.

What, precisely, is the hero questing  for?  The answers to that question are as various as the “heroes” themselves.  But in terms of the original quest story, however, we can say that the hero seeks some way to redeem his society.  His village may be comfortable—in the same way that a personal neurosis or the grave itself may be said to be “comfortable”—but in other ways it is an awful place.  Commonly the hero’s home environment, as in the title of T.S. Eliot’s poem, is a Waste Land, an area where crops won’t grow and where people are stifled, blocked. The hero’s quest is therefore to make his community vital again; it is toward this goal that he willingly confronts the perils of the forest, the journey, the Road. The ultimate redemption of his village may in fact necessitate the death of the hero; in any event, he will surely “die” to his old way of life and will therefore seem to have died from the perspective of his fellow villagers.  Just as the sun rises and sets, just as spring follows winter and autumn follows summer, just as a woman passes through her predictable cycles of fertility and barrenness, just so the hero dies and is reborn, re-enacting thereby the ancient myth of the “dying and rising god” who, through his sacrifice, atones for the faults of his people and revitalizes the village from which he has sprung.

I hope this brief outline of quest stories helps us to better see the Good News of Jesus in this story of Zacchaeus.

In this story, we meet Zaccaeus after he has set out on his journey. But we are assured that his former way of life—chief tax collecter and wealthy man—was not a morally good one. Tax collecters were notorious for skimming off the top and they worked for the Roman occupying force. He was a very wealthy man, indicating just how much he had taken from his own countrymen. He came from a life of comfortable wealth. However, we don’t know exactly what caused him to go on this journey after Jesus. Something makes him curious about Jesus and he sets out on his journey—a very unlikely and humorous hero. Luke stacks the odds against him—he’s short, rich and everyone hates him.

HE crosses over the threshold of adventure and sets out on his journey to find Jesus. He has many obstacles to overcome—the crowd on the roadside is onerous and contentious. You can imagine them pushing and shoving one another. Then here comes the rich little man who cheats them out of their hard-earned wages. Even more reason to close ranks and not let the little guy jockey for position. They force him to become industrious. He could have gone home, but our little hero has heard the call and takes up his adventure into a tree.

His efforts don’t go unnoticed. He draws the attention of the wise man, the helper in our hero’s quest, walking down the road. Jesus, the wise man, helps our hero. Offers to come to his house, thus inviting the crowd to see Zacchaeus in a different light.

The crowd begins to grumble, offering another potential obstacle. Will our hero and his teacher abandon the adventure? No. They hang in there and go to dinner together at Zacchaeus’ house. Man obstacles are overcome.

What is the object of this quest of Zacchaeus? At first it seems to be Jesus? But like the typical quest story the real object is the redemption of Zacchaeus’ family and village. Jesus serves as the facilitator.

Like a typical hero, Zacchaeus has died to his former way of life. We see that he gives half of his earnings in an attempt to rectify the disparity between the rich and the poor in his village. And he gives back fourfold the money he has taken illegally from his fellow villagers. Things in the village are set right again on account of our hero taking up his quest and following through to the end.

What do you and I take away from this quest story?

The good news is that Jesus is the teacher, the sage, the wise person, the object of our quest who will show us the way to redemption—the way to set things right in our community and our family. We make restitution where needed. If we are among the jeering crowd, we offer forgiveness. We can be the heroes here in our village with the help and redemption offered by Jesus.

The good news is that we are all heros. We, here in this church, have all heard the call from Jesus to cross the threshold of adventure. We by virtue of being here today have set out on our path of redemption. The path that will restore order and goodness to our society. Perhaps we have many obstacles in our way: jeering crowds, shame, sin, the need for forgiveness. Perhaps we need to die to our former ways. Luckily for us, God overlooks our sins and our failings, as we learn in today’s first reading.  The good news is that on this our quest we are not alone. Jesus wants to come to our homes and eat with us. In fact he supplies us with the very food that is most helpful to our journey here in the eucharist.

Let us continue our prayer today, that our encounter with Jesus the wise teacher and guide will assist us in our quest for healing, reconciliation, and a just society. Let us leave here today as heros.

Jeff Johnson, S.J.


6 Responses to We Can Be Heroes: A Homily

  1. Patrick says:

    This is a disappointment, in my opinion.

    The move away from the fundamental meaning (now) of Zacchaeus’ life–Jesus Christ Himself–and towards a reductionist view of Christ as ‘teacher’, ‘sage’ or “facilitator” where “the real object is the redemption of Zacchaeus’ family and village” is inconsistent with the overall deepest meaning of the Christian life, as shown by the other readings and the Psalm, where Christ Himself is of utmost importance:

    “But you spare all things, because they are yours,
    O LORD and lover of souls, for your imperishable spirit is in all things!
    Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little,
    warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O LORD!”

    That Zacchaeus came to believe in Our Lord is what is of primary importance–all else (the alluded to ‘redemption’ included) is secondary, though not meaningless or bad. It is to praise His name itself, which can do since he now belongs to Our Lord, that is the real joy Zacchaeus discovered. Christ as a mere facilitator is a poor alternative to “the name of our Lord Jesus” being glorified in Zacchaeus.

  2. Xan Heibers says:

    Your post is the second time today that I have been impressed by a new take on this familiar Gospel. At the Mass I attended today, the priest emphasized Jesus’ call to Zacchaeus: “Come down immediately. I must stay at your house tonight.” Jesus does not wait for us to be prepared before entering our lives; his philosophy instead mimics the beginning of a game of hide-and-seek: “Ready or not, here I come.” I believe that, in both homilies, I am attracted to the same central message, that as faithful humans, we have a mission that will require a conscious and constant effort on our part. As you mentioned, we may have to die to our previous way of life in order to complete this “heroic mission.” In Fr. John Kavanaugh’s book, Following Christ in a Consumer Society, he says that because today’s culture is so deeply ingrained in our psyche, we often have difficulty giving up consumerism in order to follow Christ; yet that is what our faith requires we do. In your homily, you show that Zacchaeus had the heroic resolve necessary to choose Jesus in this way.

    My only qualm about your post is the avoidance of the Gospel’s obvious meaning. Luke spends so much effort praising poverty that, at the very least, “the need for charity” should be included in your list of potential obstacles during our quest. We may struggle with the change in lifestyle charity entails, but it is the core of our mission.

  3. Apac says:

    I like how you related the story to heroes, and how we can all be heroes. I think the best example of this would be the saints that we always pray too. They were just ordinary people like us, and did extraordinary things with there faith. I believe God is calling us all to do the same thing, and we don’t need to be so great we become saints, but we should show strength and courage in our faith like they did.
    I also agree with you that Luke and the other gospels do not portray the rich very well, however, I don’t think they really can relate to our lives. The gospels seem to all say that the rich are sinners, despite what they do, and that the only way for them to make God’s kingdom is to give up all that they own and follow Christ. My question is how does that apply today? I doubt anybody is willing to give up everything they have because they simply would be able to live. The best we can do it seems is to be good Christians, and donate money but not to the extent of what the bible tells us to. The gospels in my opinion make it seem as though because some people are fortunate, they have a disadvantage in a way.

  4. Dave says:

    What, precisely, is the hero questing for? The hero quests for the capacity to confront his Id.

    The hero seeks some way to redeem his scoiety. The hero seeks to Restore the State of Perfection.

    Suggest you look at a deeper translation of the hero’s journey and story structure at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html


  5. thereserita says:

    “What, precisely, is the hero questing for? The hero quests for the capacity to confront his Id.”

    All I can say is thank the good Lord that he didn’t teach like this while he was on earth or nobody would’ve had the slightest idea what he was talking about! Fortunately, he tended toward parables which those who have ears to hear can easily understand.

    It doesn’t seem like the Zaccheus story is all that complicated either:
    1. Jesus always starts with what he’s got so, when he saw Zaccheus’ interest, he pursued it.
    2. Zaccheus responded by conversion & demonstrated that conversion by deeds.
    3. That’s what every believer needs to be doing everyday. Trying to figure out how rich am I as compared to everyone else or how much do I have to give so as not be counted among those who are “put down” always reminds me of a teenager asking “how far can I go” when they’re out on a date. The fact that we’re asking shows our hearts aren’t in the right place.

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