The Risk of Faith

Homily for the Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.

For most people, the idea of running as something fun and enjoyable is about as absurd as the idea of going to the dentist as something fun and enjoyable. It takes an act of faith, then, for most people to endure the weeks and months of getting in shape. It takes trust that the pain will eventually pay off and that the experience will eventually become endurable and even enjoyable.

This is true for a lot of things in life. If you’ve never done something before, especially if it sounds unpleasant, it takes an act of faith to do it. A good coach, a good parent, a good priest tries to elicit this act of faith. “Keep putting in the miles; it gets easier. Keep trying the spinach; you may learn to like it. Keeping praying; you’ll eventually hear God’s voice.”

Faith isn’t just important when it comes to religious matters; it’s important for trying anything we don’t have immediate experience of. If we limited ourselves to doing only those things we already have experience of, our lives would be cramped and confining, instead of wide and liberating. On the other hand, it also takes an act of faith not to try something which we think will be good or pleasurable when someone tells us that it’s bad or will ultimately hurt us.

Faith, then, involves taking a risk. It involves trusting someone’s testimony about something we don’t have immediate experience of. Whether we realize it or not, faith, even if it isn’t religious faith, is something fundamentally important to our lives. Not everything can be tested before we do it; not everything can be verified before we try it. Even the scientist, who might claim to believe only things which can be proven, has to make an act of faith that the outside world which he or she is experimenting on actually exists. There is no way to prove, with absolute certainty, that the outside world exists. It could, after all, be a carefully constructed illusion, as crazy as that might sound. Even the scientific method, therefore, presupposes an act of faith.

In our gospel today, even before he saw Jesus’ face or heard his voice, Zacchaeus made an act of faith. Although he had never seen Jesus, Zacchaeus must have heard about Him. And this testimony was enough to elicit an act of faith; it was enough for Zacchaeus to take a risk: to climb the sycamore tree and see what this Jesus guy was all about. And the risk paid off. Jesus stopped on his journey, looked up, saw Zacchaeus, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” And this was enough; these simple words of instruction and invitation were enough to affect Zacchaeus’ conversion. Jesus didn’t have to tell him to give his wealth to the poor or to make restitution for his sins of extortion and theft; Jesus’ gaze, His presence, and His simple words of instruction and invitation, were enough to bring about this dramatic change in Zacchaeus’ mind and heart.

And the same can be true for us as well. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had the chance to encounter some truly holy people in life. These are the kind of people who seem to glow with an otherworldly energy. The gaze, the presence, the simple words of such people are often enough to bring me to tears; their very being affects a change in the depths of my soul. Perhaps you’ve encountered people like that as well. But even if you haven’t, that’s okay, because we don’t need to go searching for that one-in-a-million person who is a living saint. To have this kind of life-changing encounter, we need only turn to Jesus, who is still present among us. We don’t have to seek far and wide, for our Lord came, and still comes, “to seek and to save what was lost.” We don’t need to climb a tree to see Jesus, for we can see Jesus at Mass in the Holy Eucharist. We don’t need to be transported to the past to hear His voice, for His words speak to us today in Sacred Scripture.

But like it did for Zacchaeus, it takes an act of faith for us to see Jesus and hear His voice. Zacchaeus could have been doing other things, but he took the time and the risk to climb a tree. This was time that he couldn’t take back; once used up, it was gone forever. He could have been making more money, or enjoying what he could buy with his money, but he chose to do something else. And this investment of time paid off, for he found by it what no money can buy: the joy of knowing Jesus and being saved by Him. We also have a myriad of other things we can be doing besides taking the time to see Jesus and hear His voice. To take that time is to take a risk—the risk of losing out on making more money or enjoying what we can buy with our money. But not to take that time is to take an even great risk, for it is to risk a life deprived of the joy of knowing Jesus and being saved by Him.

For many people today, the idea of going to Mass and praying to God as something fun and enjoyable is absurd as the idea of running as something fun and enjoyable. Just like it does with running, or trying any number of things in life, it takes an act of faith to commit ourselves to spending time with Jesus, trusting that the time and energy we invest in this will eventually pay off. May we, like Zacchaeus, take that risk. The risk may come with earthly costs, but it promises heavenly rewards. Amen.