“The most hated man” – I’m still not sure what internet dark hole lead me to that headline.  I have to honor my beloved college students – having A.D.D. and in this day and age we live in with the information overload to the point that hand held device I carry around that started out as a phone but is now an ever-present distraction on seemingly every possible front–  I don’t know how I would’ve made it through freshman year with all these things, but, I digress.  Somehow, some site, some tweet, some post had the headline “The Most hated Man” and curiosity got to me.  Who’s the most hated man?  Was there some poll or vote that I missed?  Sadly, and uncharitably I have my own candidates – something that I hate to admit is a recurring thing on my examination of conscience when I go to confession.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the 31st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – October 30, 2022, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim

As that curiosity got the best of me and I clicked the article from Vanity Fair – imagining its going to be some notorious man from history or that its a controversial and provocative headline where they’re going to malign some public figure both to enrage and delight different crowds (and get more attention for their article).  I was surprised to have been proven completely wrong on those guesses.  In fact, I had never heard of the guy – Martin Shkreli which is weird for someone that has been named “the most hated man” – you would think they would have instant recognition.   But the opening paragraph was incredibly authoritative (not to mention cynical) as they said “Rarely is justice served in this horrible world of ours, so when Martin Shkreli, also known as America’s most punchable or “most hated” man, has a bad day, it is important to take notice.”

What first raised Martin to notorious heights of infamy was for being the mastermind of his pharmaceutical company that was found guilty of price-gouging life-saving medication for AIDS patients.  A pill that cost $17.50 to make the inflated 4,000 % to $750 a pill.  Not content with being able to unite a polarized and divided country in being universally infuriated over such a gross abuse, Martin seemed to relish his infamy.  First there were the incidents where he used his social media to publicly harass female journalists.  After that disturbing behavior, he then seemed to go above and beyond trying to tick off people.  Back in 2015, the Hip-Hop group, Wu Tang Clan had this unique idea of recording in secret one-of-a-kind album for auction that would not (and could not) be released till the year 2103.  They were trying to bring back the idea of having a “patron” for the arts – where someone would support creative individuals and then share the work freely.    This album took over 6 years to produce and the single copy was stored in Morocco when it went up for auction, and sold for an unprecedented $2 million becoming the most expensive work of music ever sold.  You guessed it, the winner was Martin who taunted fans by bragging that he owned it with the insult:   “I’ll probably never even hear it. I just thought it would be funny to keep it from people.”

I had never heard of Martin before this article and couldn’t name a single track from any of the WuTang Clan’s albums  but by the end of the article the author had me pretty disgusted (I won’t say I hate the guy, but you could definitely get me on board to agreeing he is a colossal jerk).

In a world where we’re constantly bombarded by awful news, why even bring attention to this man and this really awful story?  Because I think for most of us when we hear scripture, we’re used to it being narratives and stories that are familiar and somewhat benign to us.  We encounter this Gospel passage for example, hear this story about Zacchaeus who goes from being on the outside brought in.  Childrens Bible story books portray him as this poor lovable figure sitting in a tree.  We can get so used to Jesus seeming to take it to those who are religious and imagine they are always wrong, they are always mis reading the situations and being hypocrites and judgmental and are not giving people a chance.  And so this Gospel can gets filed as a lesson in being nice and not judgmental.  Which isn’t the case at all.

Zacchaeus would’ve been, if not the winner, on the list of contenders for “the Most Hated Man” of his day and time.    He wasn’t just a tax collector, he was a chief tax collector.  Being a tax collector was bad enough.  These were Jewish men who had decided to collaborate with the Romans, who were an enemy, dictatorial, occupying force to the Jews. These Jewish men decided to collect these exorbitant fees.  The Jews who to this day celebrate the Passover as their freedom from Egyptian slavery through signs and wonders by God and being led by His servant, Moses had basically been re-enslaved by the Romans.  The tax collectors, their very sons and brothers were in on it.  Zacchaeus wasn’t just one of those guys, he was the chief tax collector and St. Luke tells us was “also a wealthy man.”  This means he had done such a good job collecting taxes on his own, that he had been promoted by the Romans to oversee a whole bunch of other guys doing the same thing.  His riches came from being able to not just profit from raising the rates of the money collected from his own, but skimming off those he supervised.

So now we get a better sense of things.  He’s not just climbing a tree because he can’t see because he’s stature (which makes me wonder was St. Luke throwing shade at the guy by saying Zacchaeus was short, as if Luke was still trying to work through his own issues of anger & forgiveness)  Zacchaeus is climbing the tree because he doesn’t want to be near the crowd knowing how many people hated him and would love to get their hands on him.  Or maybe he’s afraid that the crowds would point out to Jesus all the atrocious and evil things the guy had done – publicly mocking and shaming him.  He hadn’t just made mistakes, or committed sins out of weakness, succumbing to temptation.  He was fully invested in them.  There are good, valid, understandable reasons for him being despised and hated by everyone.

Well almost everyone.

Jesus looked up and said Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.

We don’t know what motivated Zacchaeus to be there that day. There surely had been enough word on the street about all that Jesus’ had said and done to draw crowds everywhere He went, particularly at this stage of His ministry as He’s about to enter Jerusalem to face His Passion, and His Death.  So we don’t know for sure why Zacchaeus is there.  And if we were in downtown Jericho as one of the townspeople, more than likely we would have our own theories, most of which not imaging anything positive.

But God asks us to see things from His perspective.

Think back to the first reading, from the Book of Wisdom.  The Sacred Author of that text reflecting on who God is tells us “you love all things that are  and loathe nothing that you have made;  for what you hated, you would not have fashioned…”  Jesus, being fully God, can’t join in the crowds hatred for this man – or even the man’s hatred for himself.  Because that’s not who God is.

It hit me as I was reflecting on these readings that a week ago, what did we hear at Mass?  Do you remember last Sunday’s Gospel?  It was a parable – where Jesus was telling a story about two men who were praying in the temple. One who was a religious man, who was doing all the right things like fasting, praying, and tithing regularly the other was quite the opposite.  The Pharisee unfortunately was blinded by all he was doing and is so proud of himself that he ends up praising himself rather than God.  The other one Jesus described as “would not raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’”

What if this “other one” wasn’t simply a fictitious character in Jesus’ parable who was described as a “tax collector” but Zacchaeus himself?   That the man in the parable who couldn’t raise his eyes to heaven would turn out to be Zacchaeus looking down from a tree?  So Jesus looks up.  Jesus looks up at him.  He sees him.  He always has.  He knows him – not for all the evil things he’s done but as one fashioned and made by His divine hands with potential, with a divine assignment.  Jesus knows he’s not living that life right now.  And He knows Zacchaeus hates that about himself, hates what his life has become, and what he has become.   In all of that, he’s probably heard the Romans call him a useful traitor, a collaborator; He’s probably heard the crowd call him, a lot of things, insults…   How long has it been since his given name – Zacchaeus has been uttered?  Or that it’s been said with absolute love, complete love?

Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.  Zacchaeus is seen, known and called.

But what’s essential isn’t that this is just a one and done experience.  Its not like Jesus is simply loving him and saying “we’re all good and you can go back to what you’re doing” and to everyone around him “leave him alone.”  Zacchaeus recognizes that in encountering Jesus, everything has to change, life can’t continue as it has before.  And probably didn’t want it too.  Which is what moves him to make these acts of restoration and reparation.  He needed to be reminded of who he was – fashioned by God; He needed to be told it wasn’t too late for him; He needed to hear – even there and then at that point in his life and career, he still had a chance to turn away from all the sin and brokenness that had become the norm and comfortable and to be forgiven and healed and made whole into a new creation – restored and enveloped in joy by Jesus.

These readings come as we enter a unique time in the Church calendar.  Tuesday we celebrate All Saints Day and Wednesday All Souls Day; and then the next few weeks the Gospel readings on Sunday start to focus on what we call “the Last things” – death – judgment – heaven, hell and purgatory… The word of God, coupled by the turning of the seasons with the beauty of autumn reflect creation transitioning from life to death…  It seems that all around us, the Lord is gently but obviously trying to remind us that this life here on earth is not all there is.   That this life of ours is unique, fragile and precious.  That’s not meant to cause fear – but rather honest reflection.  Where am I in my walk with the Lord?  Am I living in a way that as St. Paul put it to the Thessalonians is “worthy of his calling?”

The good news is in our hearing this, we still have time.  The good news, is that Jesus sees us, and looks up at us with His gaze of love.   The good news is that Jesus knows and calls each of us with that voice of love to follow Him, to experience salvation.  The good news is that all the things that can distract us from those realities, the things about ourselves that we are ashamed of, embarrassed, the things that we despise – yes even the things that we hate – Jesus wants us to stop the hiding, stop the deflecting.  To bring them to Him as we go to Confession – and experience ourselves the truth that His love is greater than any and every one of those things.    Zacchaeus did, and goes from being some villain who would’ve been despised and forgotten to recorded in scriptures for his conversion.

For that, this most hated man gives us an example that is worthy of following.