Sunday, October 30, 2016

Zacchaeus and His ‘Holy Curiosity’

(Thirty-first Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 30, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 19: 1-10.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-first Sunday 2016]

They say that “curiosity” killed the cat.  Well, that may be true, but the fact is it saved Zacchaeus!

That’s clear from this gospel story we just heard from Luke 19.  The text indicates that, on the day Jesus came to Jericho, a lot of people—including Zacchaeus—were there to welcome him.  (Jesus’ reputation as a teacher, healer and exorcist obviously preceded him.)

But because Zacchaeus was what you might call “vertically-challenged” (i.e., short), he wasn’t able to see Jesus, as our Lord was passing by.  And I’m sure he didn’t dare open his mouth and ask the people in the crowd if they would let him move to the front—because he was afraid, among other things, of being punched in the face!  You see, Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector (which was bad enough, because it means that he worked for the Roman government, and got rich by overcharging his fellow Jews); but he was also the “chief” tax collector (which means, quite frankly, that he was probably the most hated man in town!).

Climbing a sycamore tree might have been a little dangerous, that’s true; but, for Zacchaeus—the chief tax collector of Jericho—trying to get permission to move to the front of the crowd that day would have been far more dangerous.

Now the text says that he climbed the tree because he (and here I quote) “was seeking to see who Jesus was.”  In other words, Zacchaeus was CURIOUS!  He had probably heard a number of stories about our Lord’s teachings, exorcisms and miracles, and he wondered, “Who is this man?”  “What’s he like?” “Is he really from God?” “Will he do something special for me?”

Zacchaeus had what I would call a “holy curiosity”.  There is, of course, an unholy type of curiosity that leads people to do things like gossip and access pornography on the internet.  But there’s also a good, holy kind of curiosity that seeks to know the truth: the truth about God; the truth about ourselves; the truth about life; the truth about eternity.  And it’s that kind of curiosity that Zacchaeus had.

By the way, when I was preparing this homily I decided to google the expression “holy curiosity” to see if anyone else had used it before, and, amazingly, I got all these hits about Albert Einstein!  That I did not expect!  But apparently one of Einstein’s famous quotes was, “The important thing is to never stop questioning.  Never lose a holy curiosity.”

Very good advice—from one of the smartest people ever to walk on planet earth.  Because of his “holy curiosity” Zacchaeus met Jesus, spent the day with Jesus—and had his life changed by Jesus!  He received forgiveness for his many sins and the grace of salvation.

And to make clear that he was a changed man, he resolved to make amends to all the people he had ripped off by paying them back four times over—which was much more than he was obligated to do.

Holy curiosity leads to great blessings from the Lord.  Zacchaeus would attest to that, I’m sure, as would St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who lived back in the 16th century.  Prior to his conversion and spiritual awakening, Ignatius was a soldier in the Spanish army.  He was also rather worldly.  But then he was seriously injured by a cannonball in the Battle of Pamplona in 1521 against the French, and during his long recovery he asked for some books to read on knighthood and chivalry.  He really enjoyed reading those types of books.  However the only ones available where he was convalescing were books about Jesus and the saints.  So he read them.  And as he did, something got stirred up inside of him: HOLY CURIOSITY.  He began to reflect on what it would be like to live a life totally committed to Jesus Christ—a life of radical discipleship like St. Dominic and St. Francis.  Thoughts would come to him such as, “Suppose I were to rival this saint in fasting, that one in endurance, that other in pilgrimages.”

Well, the good news is, he eventually found out!  His holy curiosity led him to renounce the world and follow Christ completely—and become a saint himself.  It also led him to start a men’s religious order that would eventually become the largest in the Church: the Jesuits (which, of course, is the order Pope Francis belongs to, as well as our parishioner Fr. Mike Rogers).

Holy curiosity is something that needs to be cultivated in each of us—not just in great religious leaders like St. Ignatius Loyola.  This came home to me a couple of weeks ago in our youth group.  Fr. Najim led the teenagers that night in a reflection on heaven (a subject that’s been on his mind a lot since his mother passed away several weeks ago).  He started off by rightly noting the fact that many Christians today have a pretty boring view of what heaven will be like—for example, some think that we’ll all be floating around on clouds for all eternity playing harps.  (Now I’m sure musicians like Margaret Day would find that exciting, but the rest of us not so much.) 

Then he asked the teens to share their ideas about heaven—some of which were very interesting.  He also, of course, talked about what the Bible says about eternal life.  We even examined the testimony of a man who had a near death experience and claims to have had a brief glimpse of the Lord’s eternal kingdom.

Now the reason I mention this youth group in today’s homily is because, as this discussion about heaven went on, I could sense a holy curiosity about God’s kingdom growing in the hearts of everyone present—including the adults who were there.  Consequently, I think everyone left that night with at least a little more enthusiasm for living the Gospel in the future, because it became clear to us that heaven is a place we really want to go to.

Just not in the near future!  None of us wants to rush it!

Holy curiosity is something that needs to be cultivated—from a young age.  Before I end my homily, I want to mention the fact that it makes my Italian blood boil at First Communion time every year when I encounter parents who don’t understand this—and who don’t care to understand this.  They jump through all the hoops (so to speak) to get their children prepared for the sacrament, but then—after the First Communion liturgy—they stop bringing their children to Mass on a regular basis.  

What a major league error!

In this messed up world of ours, those children are going to need a strong, personal relationship with Jesus Christ—a relationship that’s nourished by the sacraments.  But they need to start building that relationship NOW, not in 20 or 30 years!  And the thing is, most of them are open to it!  Most 7-year-olds that I’ve dealt with over the years (and there have been a lot of them!) have had an almost innate holy curiosity!  It’s like it’s natural to them at that age.  When I go, for example, into the second grade class at St. Pius X School to teach religion, those 7-year-olds always have questions.  Always!  They want to know about everything.  They have a holy curiosity—but in all too many cases their parents are doing next to nothing to satisfy it.

That’s a tragedy—and a sin.

Dear Lord, we thank you for this gift of holy curiosity: the gift which inspired Zacchaeus to climb that sycamore tree 2,000 years ago, and led to his conversion and salvation; the gift that motivated a young soldier named Ignatius to dream about being a saint, and then become one.  Help us to cultivate this important gift within ourselves, and, to the extent we can, within the members of our families, so that we too will be saved—and become saints.  Amen.