|Fr James Martin SJ Homily- LGBT & Zacchaeus|
(Image: "Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Tree," by James Tissot.)
The real way that Jesus engaged with those on the margin as he would the LGBTQ Community.
Sunday's Gospel (Lk 19:1-11)
The Gospel of Luke tells us the beautiful story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus. Jesus is traveling through Jericho, a huge city. He’s on his way to Jerusalem, and it’s toward the end of his ministry, so he would have been well known in the area. As a result, he probably had a large crowd following him. In Jericho, there is a man named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region and so would have also been seen by the Jewish people as the “chief sinner.” Why? Because he would have been seen as colluding with the Roman authorities. So Zacchaeus was someone who was probably on the outs with everyone. Now, here I would like you to invite you to think of Zacchaeus as a symbol for those on the margins, specifically, the L.G.B.T. Catholic. Not because the L.G.B.T. people are more sinful than the rest of us—because we’re all sinners. But because they feel so marginalized. Think of the L.G.B.T. person as Zacchaeus.
Luke’s Gospel describes Zacchaeus as “short in stature.” How little “stature” L.G.B.T. people often feel that they have in the church! Luke also says that Zacchaeus could not see Jesus “on account of the crowd.” That was probably because of his height, but how often does the “crowd” get in the way of the person with “little stature,” the L.G.B.T. person, encountering Jesus? When are we in the church part of the “crowd” that doesn’t let L.G.B.T. people come close to God? So Zacchaeus climbs a tree, because, as Luke tells us, he wanted to see “who Jesus was.” And this is what the L.G.B.T. person wants: to see who Jesus is. But the crowd gets in the way. Imagine how embarrassing this must have been for Zacchaeus: not only climbing the tree like a child, but also putting on display his "short stature." Yet those on the margins often have to "go out on a limb" just to be able to do things that others take for granted.
Now here comes Jesus making his way through Jericho, probably with hundreds of people clamoring for his attention. And whom does he point to? One of the religious authorities? One of his disciples? No, to Zacchaeus! And what does he say to Zacchaeus? Does he shout, “Sinner!” Does he shout, “You terrible tax collector”? No! He says, “Hurry down for I must stay at your house today!” It’s a public sign of welcome to someone on the margins. And Zacchaeus comes down and receives Jesus “with joy.” Think of what it’s like for someone on the margins, who has felt excluded for so long, to feel welcome. It evokes joy!
Then comes my favorite line in the story: “All who saw it began to grumble!” Which is exactly what is happening today toward L.G.B.T. people. People grumble! Go online and you’ll see all the grumbling. An offer of mercy to someone on the margins always makes people angry. But Zacchaeus climbs down from the tree and, as the Gospels say, he “stood there.” The original Greek is much stronger, "statheis": he stood his ground. How often have L.G.B.T. people had to stand their ground in the face of opposition and prejudice in the church? How often do people with “little stature” have to do that? Then Zacchaeus says that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and repay anyone he has defrauded four times over. An encounter with Jesus leads to a conversion, as it does for everyone. And what do I mean by conversion? Not “conversion therapy.” No, the conversion that happens to Zacchaeus is the conversion that we’re all called to. In the Gospels, Jesus calls it "metanoia," a conversion of minds and hearts. For Zacchaeus, conversion meant giving to the poor.
By the way, some New Testament scholars think that this line could be as easily translated as “I am giving half of my possessions to the poor.” That is, he is already giving money to the poor. The one who was thought to be a sinner turns out to be more generous than anyone suspected. All this, Zacchaeus’s "metanoia," comes from an encounter with Jesus. Because Jesus’ approach was, more often than not, community first, conversion second. For John the Baptist the model was to convert first and then be welcomed into the community. This is an insight from the Scripture scholar Ben Meyer.
For Jesus, it’s community first, conversion second. Welcome and respect come first. This is how Jesus treats people who feel on the margins. He seeks them out before anyone else; he encounters them, and he treats them with respect, sensitivity and compassion. So when it comes to L.G.B.T. people and their families in our church, it seems that there are two places to stand. You can stand with the crowd, who grumble and who oppose mercy for those on the margins. Or you can stand with Zacchaeus, and, more important, with Jesus.