In today's first reading, we hear about the Jews' response to a period of great temptation. The pagan king Antiochus Epiphanes had issued a decree that his whole kingdom must be united. Each ethnic group was to abandon its religion and customs and adopt the Gentiles' way of life.
Many Jews chose to conform to the world around them. They figured that an alliance with the Gentiles would keep the peace and make life a bit easier. Perhaps they were thinking that they could make more money or climb up the ladder of success in business or politics. They quickly allowed the Gentiles to build a Greek gymnasium and apparently proceeded to engage in the gymnasium's physical, social, and educational programs. They abandoned the covenant they had made with God, covered up the sign of that covenant, namely, the mark of circumcision, and defiled themselves with unclean foods.
Their conformity didn't stop there. The king erected a pagan idol on the altar of the Jerusalem Temple, and many of the Jews offered sacrifices to false gods, both in Jerusalem and in outlying areas. They even destroyed any scrolls of God's Law they could get their hands on. They clearly didn't want to be reminded of their sins. They were simply too comfortable in the world.
Other Jews, however, took a much different path. They firmly refused to break God's Law, no matter how tempting the Gentiles' offers were. They clung to the covenant, knowing that they were God's beloved family and trusting that no matter what happened, God would take care of them. The world and its attractions held no appeal to them. They declined to worship idols, eat unclean food, or deny their identity. They were ready to die for their faith, and they did, bravely and even gladly.
Like the Jews of old, we have a choice. The world around us is tempting with its lure of money and possessions and power. Voices whisper on every side, telling us that if we just conform, things will go well in our lives. But conforming to the world and worshiping modern idols means rejecting God and His law. It means denying who we are as God's children and turning our backs on our loving Father. Like our ancestors in faith, then, we must be ready to surrender our very selves rather than embrace the immorality of the world and fall into sin, and we should pray for the grace to do that bravely and even gladly.
Tuesday – Zacchaeus
Imagine for a few minutes that you are Zacchaeus in today's Gospel. You've heard that a miracle worker named Jesus is about to pass through your town. You normally don't care much about that sort of thing. Prophets seem to be a dime a dozen. But something about Jesus intrigues you. He doesn't seem to be just any old prophet. You decide that you'll try to take a closer look.
Now, since you're the chief tax collector in Jericho, you're definitely not the most popular fellow in town. In fact, the other Jews can't stand the sight of you, and they shoot you plenty of dirty looks as you slink through the crowd. You spend most of your time both ignoring them and trying to see over them. You're not very tall, and at this rate, you're not even going to catch a glimpse of Jesus.
You look around and catch sight of a nearby sycamore tree. Perfect! You scramble up into the branches and arrange your garments, rather proud of yourself. Your neighbors stare at you with a combination of disgust and amusement, but you don't really care. Now you will be able to see Jesus.
You watch Him curiously as He approaches, talking to various members of the crowd and blessing some of them. Then He stops directly under your tree, looks up, and calmly says, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”
You nearly fall out of your tree.
After you regain your balance, you scramble down. To your great surprise, you discover that your heart is filled with joy. You don't understand it, but you can't help it. You smile widely at Jesus, and He smiles back. Something deep inside you has changed, and you know that you will never be the same again.
You hear the crowd around you grumbling about Jesus going to stay with a sinner. Yes, you know that you were a sinner, and you realize that you will never be perfect. But you are willing to make things right. You turn to Jesus and proclaim, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” And you mean it.
Jesus' smile grows even wider. He gently places His hand on your shoulder and speaks to the crowd: “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
Your neighbors stare at you as you lead Jesus to your home, welcome Him, and begin to prepare for a wonderful evening. You've never felt so loved in your life. Who would ever have thought that this would happen to you? You smile to yourself. Jesus did; that's who.
Wednesday – Steadfast
“My steps have been steadfast in Your paths, my feet have not faltered.”
Thus does the Psalmist address God in today's Psalm. Can we honestly say the same? Do we embrace God's plan for our lives? Do we remain in His paths? Do we follow His moral law? Do we trust Him to care for us and for our loved ones? Do we persevere in faith, hope, and love?
Or do our feet falter? Do we slip and slide into sin? Do we turn aside from the way God wants us to live and follow our own paths? Do we trip over the things of this world and fall flat on our faces? Do we doubt? Do we let fear overwhelm us? Do we fail to love?
Let us pray for the grace to always proclaim with the Psalmist, “My steps have been steadfast in Your paths, my feet have not faltered.”