Zacchaeus and freedom from pornography

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31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: October 31, 2010
Wis 11:22–12:2; Ps 145; 2 Thess 1:11–2:2; Luke 19:1-10

I don’t think anyone would have dressed up as Zacchaeus for Halloween as their hero—if they had had Halloween in Jericho in the 1st century! Because Zacchaeus the tax collector was nobody’s hero.

Like the other tax collectors in the Holy Land in that century, he was seen as a traitor to his people because he was collecting taxes for the occupying Roman government; and he was seen as a sinner because of all the contact that he was regularly having with Gentiles. And, like many of the tax collectors of his time, he could use his position to extort payments from people to make himself rich; and it seems that that is what he was doing, for we read that he was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man. Zacchaeus was nobody’s hero.

But that’s not the only reason that people dress up as someone for Halloween, is it? They might have dressed up as Zacchaeus as a villain and to make fun of him. After all, he was short; and so we can imagine that someone might have made up a costume in which they put their shoes on their knees and waddle around on their knees, saying, “Hi, I’m Zacchaeus!” Maybe carrying big bags of money; maybe talking like Scrooge. And they could get a couple friends to dress like Roman soldiers and accompany the Zacchaeus figure—much taller than him—everywhere he went. If they could get away with it—since they never could refuse to pay the taxes he demanded of them—I’m sure they would have dressed like him as a villain. And everybody would have laughed. Because they knew that he was a short, pathetic, greedy little figure; who had power over them; but that nobody else wanted to be.

Except apparently Zacchaeus had wanted to be himself. Apparently he didn’t see who he actually was, who he had become. Now, we can presume he knew how unpopular he was; and we can presume he knew God’s commandments and he knew he was cutting himself off from God, and cutting himself off from his own people. Surely he knew all of this. But he must have thought it was worth it. He must have thought it was a worthwhile exchange, to get that wealth and that comfort, in exchange for that cost.

Because that’s how sin works. We think it is a worthwhile exchange; we think it’s worthwhile doing it; even though we know it’s wrong. Which means we then are not seeing truly what it makes us. And Zacchaeus could not have been seeing truly what it made him. But everybody else could see it.

But that day in Jericho something else was moving in Zacchaeus’ heart. We don’t know what it was that led up to that day. But somehow he heard that Jesus was passing through his town; and he wanted to see who Jesus was. Why? We don’t know. But something was moving; and so he wanted to see him. And so he was willing to make the effort, knowing that he would not be able to see through the crowd because he was short, to run ahead of the crowd, where Jesus would be going, and to climb up that sycamore tree, and to be able to see him. Grace, moving in Zacchaeus’ heart, put Zacchaeus up that sycamore tree.

And when Jesus did pass under that tree, and unexpectedly stopped, and looked up into Zacchaeus’ eyes, and looked at him with love, and spoke his name—grace again moved in Zacchaeus’ heart. And in Jesus’ eyes he saw mercy, and love, and probably a holiness and a power that he had never known before. And Jesus wanted to come and stay at Zacchaeus’ house. Certainly nothing like that had ever happened to him before.

We read that people began to grumble, saying, “He, Jesus, has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” And they were exactly right. And it seems that Zacchaeus knew they were right. The holy Son of God was coming to stay at his house—and, after all those years when he had not seen the truth, he probably at that moment saw the truth and realized: something had to change. And it had to change right now. And surely, like the Roman centurion, he had an inner reaction that could have said, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof” [Matt 8:8]; or St. Peter’s reaction, early on: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” [Luke 5:8] Zacchaeus saw the truth, as he saw himself and he saw Jesus; and he knew that, in order to welcome Jesus, he had to change.

He saw that it was not worth it, the sins he had been committing all those years. And so he turned away from his sin. In an instant, he was ready to change. As we do in confession,

  • he was ready to turn away from his sin—he would not do it anymore;
  • he was ready to remove from his life any of the gains he had gotten from his sin;
  • and he was ready to make amends in the lives of others, for any harm he had caused through his sin.

For all of this is what repentance means.

And Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house.” For Jesus loved Zacchaeus just the way he was; and he loved him too much to let him stay that way.

The model that we see in the story of Zacchaeus may well match up with something in each of our lives: something that each one of us may be, right now, in our own cases, matching up against the story of Zacchaeus. We may have persisted in some sin up till now. And yet some grace has been at work in our lives, so that we are here today. And Jesus has met us, is meeting us now; Jesus has met us in his word and, in a few minutes, he will meet us in Holy Communion. He will offer to come under our roof. And as we see ourselves and Jesus—both his love and his holiness—what do we need to change? What do we need to repent from, turn away from, in our lives, and make amends? Jesus changed Zacchaeus’ life that day. How will he change ours?

Now, in a moment, I am going to make a particular application, which not be the application that you need. So I hope that your own answer, whatever may be at work in your heart right now, you will remember—in case the application I move onto here is not for you.

The application that I want to make today is to pornography. Today is the first day of Protection from Pornography Week, and the diocese has asked us to say something about this.

Now you probably don’t hear much about this topic in homilies, do you? And yet we know that, through technology, today, unlike all earlier centuries of human life, pornography has come to surround and to saturate us in so many ways that is difficult to escape it. It surrounds us just as thoroughly as the crowd would have surrounded Zacchaeus. Almost half of Christians—half!—say that pornography is a major problem in the home. And yet so many have become desensitized to it, and accept it as if it were okay.

Back in the 300s, St. Ambrose said that Zacchaeus had to lift himself up above the common ignorance of the crowd in order to see Jesus. So, on this Halloween, let us remove the mask of this scourge and see it what it is in the lives of ourselves and those around us, including those that we love.

The Catechism teaches that the use of pornography is not a small thing but a “grave offense” against the sixth commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” and the ninth commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” [CCC 2354] It tells us that it is contrary to the chastity, the wholeness and purity that our Lord wants us to have [2337]. And it is contrary to the purity of vision—the things we look at physically with our eyes; the things we look at mentally with our imagination—that our Lord wants us to have [2520]. It is something that takes what should be special and private and intimate, only between a husband and wife in their own loving marriage, and it takes it out and puts it on display, where it never belongs [2354].

Now, just based on statistics, it is very likely that there are some present today who are exposing themselves to this scourge occasionally or regularly. Even children—for statistically the average age of first exposure to Internet pornography is 8 years old. Perhaps this is you. Perhaps you haven’t seen, as Zacchaeus didn’t see in his case, that exposing yourself to this makes you small and twisted; though anyone else looking on could tell you that. Or perhaps you do know it, perhaps you know that this is contrary to God’s commands; but up until now, like Zacchaeus, somehow you thought it was worth it; that, in spite of God’s commands, it somehow was doing something good for you.

But consider the truth. Pornography turns everyone into an object that others use for pleasure and for profit: it does this to those who appear in it, to those who sell it, and, yes, even to those who consume it [2354]. It distorts your vision of others; it destroys your satisfaction with your spouse or your future spouse. It turns you inward upon yourself, and fills you with a constant poison. If you use it, it is moving you toward addiction, and it may be moving you toward aggressive actions. And this is the truth.

But there is hope. This is a moment of grace for you. Jesus is looking you in the eye and calling you by name; like Zacchaeus, he is asking you to let go of this sin that you may have held onto; to be reconciled to God; to be reconciled to those around you; to remove this harm from your life; and to make amends. What can you do?

  • You can make the decision, right now, to change, and ask for the Lord’s help in doing so.
  • You can destroy any pornography that you possess, whether physically or electronically: destroy it, delete it today.
  • You can go to confession soon and regularly.
  • You change your habits, avoiding those times and ways in which you have accessed this up until now.
  • And if you need additional help beyond these steps—counseling, groups, things like that—that also is available.

The archdiocese has prepared this resource sheet entitled, “Join in the fight against pornography.” For anyone struggling with pornography, this can be a help. But actually it is for more than that: for anyone who wants to help, who wants to protect your family, who wants to take action in society, this sheet will give you resources that you can use. Copies of this sheet will be available as you leave Mass today on the table on your right.

Whether it be pornography or any other sin that you face in your life, remember: the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. Jesus loves you just the way you are; and he loves you too much to let you stay that way.

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