Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

When I was in the second grade, my family spent a Sunday afternoon at a huge city park in Manila. Imagine the national mall in Washington DC on a bright summer day. We were a fairly large group, including three or four families, cousins, with about two dozen children under age fifteen. Several grown-ups were present as well, both parents of each family, and a couple sets of grandparents. We were a noticeably loud bunch and a potential nightmare in the making. We arrived at the park in the early afternoon, staked out home base close to convenient facilities, ate a quick lunch, and let loose into the park. We played around national landmarks, talking loudly, being silly, taunting each other, stopping to read bronze markers, gawking at abstract sculptures, and watching people walk by. We were not aware of emergency procedures. The grown-ups in theory kept tabs of where everyone was. If we were told to stay together, I don’t recall. The park was huge and people were everywhere. As the evening lights slowly came on, the stage was being set for every parent’s nightmare of losing a child. That said, I soon noticed I was separated from the group.

It dawned on me all of a sudden. I had been previously involved in the goofing around, the loud talking, and the gawking. But as this one particular landmark caught my attention, a scale topographical model of the country complete with mountains, rivers, and volcanoes, I was fascinated. I quite enjoyed geography. I could identify countries on a map, and I had memorized many national capitals. When I noticed that no one was calling out my name or picking me up by the ear, I froze and my heart was filled with fear. I did not recognize any faces I saw, nor any voices I heard. Suddenly, I panicked. By now the sun had set and I didn’t know which way was home base. So, I started walking as fast as I could. I walked the entire park two or three times hoping to see a familiar face, hoping someone would recognize me. I soon realized I was getting nowhere fast. I found a police officer and shared my tale of woe. He took me to the station, then announced on the public address system that I had been separated from my family and where I might be found. Then we returned to the station for what felt like a long time.

Then my mom came walking around the corner with one of my brothers in tow. She hadn’t even heard the public announcement. But I had been found. Suddenly I was willing to admit it was my fault all along. Suddenly I was willing to admit any faults anyone wanted to blame me for. Nothing else mattered. I was home free. I don’t recall what mom said or did when she found me. At that point I didn’t care. I was whole again. I was found. I was home. I have since tried not to get lost ever again.

Getting lost might not qualify as a traumatic childhood experience. But we all know what it’s like to be comfortable, secure, and safe in the company of family and friends. And no matter how we experience separation, rejection, alienation, or loss, a reunion with a loved one or the experience of being found and restored to those we love, is so powerful as to wash away all feelings of fear, guilt, anger, animosity, or revenge. At the moment we are found, all we are ever able to think of is the tremendous joy of the moment and resolve to never ever let go again.

Jesus teaches us that God is a Father who cares immensely about us. The book of Wisdom tells us that despite the ultimate insignificance of the entire universe and everything in it in the eyes of God, each of us is loved immensely by a gracious and merciful God, to the extent that God seeks restoration and reunion even with those who have voluntarily strayed and have gotten lost through their own rejection of him, by their own evil deeds and selfish choices. God seeks the welfare of his lost children, that they be restored to himself, that they once again know safety and security in his Fatherly embrace.

Today we hear how Jesus reached out to one such individual, one whom polite society regarded as beyond salvation, a tax collector, a public sinner, despised by his own people, regarded with contempt by those who employed him. And to the horror of many onlookers, Jesus called Zacchaeus by name, acknowledged his presence, and desired to share his company. Regardless of our state in life, our many past mistakes, and our countless evil deeds, God’s concern for us does not change. And in Jesus, God calls us by name, acknowledges our presence, and desires to share our company. God invites us to be found. God calls us to come home. How we respond to that invitation is a choice we make in freedom.

If we allow God to find us, if we allow God to welcome us home, we cannot help but be radically changed, and we will be transformed. But this transformation, this radical change, is not meant to take away our freedom. We are still technically free to reject God, free to walk away, free to get lost again. That is a choice we still possess. Jesus knew Zacchaeus’ response was genuine and sincere. The tax collector accepted God’s invitation to be found, and salvation was restored to his house. We, too, are invited to a change in our own attitudes, thinking, and behaviors, especially those that set us at odds with God’s goodness. It is the work of a lifetime; it rarely happens all at once. But God is constantly reaching out to us, to find us, and bring us home. It is Jesus’ stated mission – to seek and save what was lost. If you know what it is to love another you have an inkling what the loss of that love might be like. If you have known the experience of God’s love, you will know when you are lost. But even more importantly, do you want to be found?

Rolo B Castillo © 2022