Everyone beyond grade school age in this country knows the story of George Washington and his ax. On one side of the scene lies the felled cherry tree and an irate parent.
Exploring the Word
At this point, some of us might like a respite from Apocalypse. After all, it’s Advent now—isn’t this the season for Mary mild calmly awaiting her child? Only in carols and in the lore of culture, as it turns out.
Many of us, admittedly, live in the past or the future a good bit of the time. Past-dwellers can be divided into groups: the nostalgists who think the past is much too good to leave behind and those who rubberneck their personal histories with all the gruesome fascination of a car wreck.
Is it me, or is it the times? Apocalyptic writings used to seem so surreal and unbelievable that those parts of the Bible—say, Revelation, Daniel, Ezekiel, Malachi, and snippets of Paul and the gospels—just didn’t have a hearing in me. I dismissed those passages as morbid and fantastic, products of an age that didn’t have its act together and could only envision release from its chaos in terms of total annihilation.
Torture, mutilation, and execution are subjects most of us would prefer to avoid. Because we tend to stick to noble ideals in church—unconditional love, justice, peace, charity, morality, forgiveness—it is especially jarring to find a reading like this one from Maccabees assigned a public hearing.
How can you not like Zacchaeus? He’s such a classic nerdy guy, pathetically outcast in nearly every way possible. He’s a member of a despised profession, doubly hated for being so rich at everyone else’s expense. And he lacks such personal gravitas that he, an adult, is willing to shinny up a tree to get an eyeful of a passing celebrity.
My mother used to point to a man in church whom she’d known since they were both children. “He was such a pious boy,” my mother always said approvingly. “He’d be in that same third pew each morning earlier than any of us, and he’d stay later.
Some of the great cathedrals of the world took centuries to build. The architects who drew up the plans, the artists who contributed their craft, the patrons who put up the money, and the workers who quarried the stone and laid the foundation knew they would never worship in the building they were helping to construct.
How can any of us adequately say thanks for all that we’ve been given? We’d have to begin with the mother-of-all-thank-yous to God that we are here at all, that here is here, that creation was ever called into being.
The apostles ask Jesus for a favor that seems pious and fitting. Jesus has been exhorting them with teachings about what is expected of disciples—the renunciation of material wealth, unconditional forgiveness, mindfulness of the poor—and we can imagine these demands weigh heavily on those still quite attached to the world and its value system.