Reconnecting With the Community of God
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
November 4, 2019

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) on November 3, 2019 at Our Lady of Wisdom University Parish at Texas State University in San Marcos, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Wisdom 11:22 – 12:2; Psalm 145; 2 Thessalonians 1:11 – 2:2; Luke 19:1-10.

Four-and-a-half months ago in the Gospel of Luke, we began to journey with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. This is our final week on the road! 

In our passage today, Jesus is near the town of Jericho. He is planning to pass quickly through the town, presumably with the roughly 120 people traveling with him. Word has apparently raced ahead that Jesus is approaching, because the people of Jericho have lined the streets to see him.

Of all these people, there is only one whom Luke speaks about – Zacchaeus. Today, let’s focus on Zacchaeus’ social and emotional isolation from everyone else in Jericho. He’s noticeably different from everyone else in the story. He’s wealthy. He’s quite short. He’s collaborating with the Roman occupiers and exploiting his neighbors. He’s even chosen to isolate himself while he’s in the crowd – up in a tree, hidden from view.

For the times when we’ve cut ourselves off from the love of God and the love of other people, we ask for God’s mercy. 

When I visualize this scene, one word comes to mind: isolation. Zacchaeus is in a crowd of people, yet he is separated from them. He’s watching a procession go by, but from a distance.  

Part of the human condition is dancing the line between forging our unique personal identity and belonging to a community of people. We all need our alone time to care for ourselves and to grow in relationship with God, but as Christians, we must also spend time in community in order to care for ourselves and grow in relationship with God. To quote my dear Paulist brother, Fr. Steven Bell, “Catholicism is a ‘WE’ thing, y’all!” Look at our hymns: it’s rare for us to sing songs with the words “I” and “me” in them; our songs usually use “we” and “us.” We believe that most of our experiences of God are mediated through our interactions with other people. It’s not just about “me and Jesus.”

And yet so many of us, like Zacchaeus, feel cut off from other people. Some of us avoid social interaction due to shame or depression. Some of us choose to spend extended periods of time alone. Others of us are unable or unwilling to share our emotions with others, or we may have only superficial contact with other people.

This past year at South By Southwest, I heard Professor Dawn Fallik of the University of Delaware give a fascinating talk on the research around loneliness. Researchers are finding that “Generation Z” – the people currently aged 18 to 22 – suffer from loneliness and isolation more than any previous generation. It’s not necessarily because of social media, however. American young adults are more likely to have grown up with “over-programmed” childhoods that left little time for learning how to make friends or how to deal with boredom. It is less likely that they played with the kids on their block, or that their neighbors ran over to ask for a cup of sugar. They were less likely to overhear their parents having long conversations with friends on the phone.

Fallik was joined by Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University who presented powerful, conclusive research from around the world about the health risks of social isolation. Social isolation has more detrimental effects on our health than smoking, consuming alcohol, getting divorced, being obese, or breathing polluted air. The less friends we have, the more likely we are to suffer from hypertension and inflammation. Most frightening of all, social isolation increases the risk of suicide. These statistics are true regardless of age, gender, culture, or initial health condition.

For the past several decades, we in the United States have promoted thousands of products and services that increase our autonomy, but a by-product is that we are isolating ourselves from one another. Don’t go to a grocery store or a restaurant: have the ingredients or the cooked meal delivered to your door. Why go to the movies, when you can wait a few weeks and see it on Netflix? We used to see friends in person, then we talked with them on the phone, then we exchanged voicemails, then we texted. Now we just trade emojis. We do this in part by promoting isolation as a value masquerading under other names, such as “independence.” In promoting isolation, I think we’re feeding into a phenomenon that makes it harder for us to flourish as human beings, taking us further away from God.

Are there people in your life who – like Zacchaeus – are isolated even while still present within the crowd? Let’s remember: there are many people who come to Church regularly who feel that they are not included… and there are many others who do not come to Church at all, because they do not feel welcome. Are you called to invite these people back into the community?

How are you yourself like Zacchaeus? How are you isolating yourself from other people? How are you isolating yourself from God? Are you waiting for an invitation to come down from your tree and join the community of disciples? And if you receive such an invitation, are you willing to accept it?

I know it’s been a tough semester for hanging out here, after the sewage problem and its aftermath. However, Wisdom is a great place to avoid feeling isolated. Whether you’re studying, taking a break, or looking to hang out, this is a good place to connect with people. No matter how much you feel that you’re the freak who doesn’t fit in – needing to climb a sycamore tree – I assure you that this is a place of welcome, a place where you can slowly unfurl your freak flag, and others will be fascinated to get to know you better.

If you’re one of the people who’s been hanging out at Wisdom for a while, I’d like to challenge you to get outside of your comfort zone: make sure that you’re regularly reaching out to newcomers, those just coming through the doors of Wisdom for one of the first times!

There’s a term for those of us who’d rather just hang out with the people we already know at church: “jacuzzi Christians.” We’re warm and comfortable inside, facing inward with the people we already know, not wanting to carry out the mission of Jesus Christ, which requires us turning around and getting out of the tub for at least a while!

No one deserves to live a lost and lonely life like the one Zacchaeus led before encountering Jesus. Jesus simply looked at Zacchaeus, said twelve words of invitation, and “Zacchaeus came down quickly and received him with joy.” 

The Church, the Body of Christ, is supposed to be a place that will welcome each of us into its embrace. However, we ourselves have been baptized into the Body of Christ. Therefore, we are each called to be Jesus for the Zacchaeuses in the world.