THEME: ZACCHAEUS – CALLED BY NAME
READINGS: Wisdom 11:22-12:2/ 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2/ Luke 19:1-10
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
The main message of today is about God’s mercy and our repentance. However, because we reflected on this theme not long ago,1 let us reflect on another aspect of today’s gospel reading, namely, the fact that when Jesus saw Zacchaeus on the sycamore tree, He called him by name.
The name “Zacchaeus” means the “pure” or “righteous” one. However, prior to encountering Jesus Christ, Zacchaeus’ life and work were far from purity or righteousness. In the first place, Zacchaeus, as a chief tax collector, amassed wealth by “over-taxing” his fellow Jews. Secondly, his fellow Jews considered him unpatriotic, as he collected taxes for their oppressive “colonial masters”. Moreover, the Jews considered Zacchaeus and other tax collectors as sinful, because of their alliance with gentile “colonial masters” who did not believe in Yahweh.
Fortunately for Zacchaeus, his encounter with Jesus Christ led him back on the path to recover his true identity. Jesus forgave him and made him true to his name: the “pure” or “righteous” one. Zacchaeus would, then, give out half of his property to the poor and pay back fourfold anyone he had defrauded (cf. Luke 19:8).
Beloved, learning from the story of Zacchaeus, we need to examine whether we are living in accordance with our Christian names and identity. If we are not living in accordance with the meanings of our Christian names and identity, then, as the Lord did for Zacchaeus, He is calling us to live in accordance with the meanings of our names and identity.
My name is John, which means “God’s favour”. Therefore, Jesus is calling and leading me back to those favours of God I have lost through sin. Now, what is your name? What is the meaning of your name? Are you living up to the meaning of the name you bear? If your lifestyle is a deviation from the meaning of your name, then, as the Lord did for Zacchaeus, He is calling you to live in accordance with the meaning of your name.
This is also an opportunity to look at issue about taking Christian names at Baptism. Some African Christians, without making a distinction between biblical or saintly names (on the one hand) and European names that are not associated with saints (on the other hand), have dropped their baptismal names (e.g. Francis, Cecilia, Peter, Mary). The reason they give is that such names are those of their former colonial masters.
Such people seem to forget the fact that a name says something about one’s identity. For instance, the change in name of a married woman says something about her new status. Similarly, in some religions (e.g. Islam, Christianity, etc.), a new member is given a new name to signify the person’s new spiritual status. As Christians, we believe that our encounter with God gives us a new spiritual status, and this could be externalized by the Christian names given. This Christian practice could be traced to the Bible, e.g., Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel, Simon was called Peter and Saul, Paul. Thus, at baptism, when, through Christ and by the action of the Holy Spirit, we become adopted children of the Triune God, we are given new names to signify our new relationship with Him.
Why, then, will some drop their names which signify their new relationship with God? Instead of dropping our baptismal names, we should rather live up to what they signify: (a) our relationship with God, (b) the meaning of our names, and (c) the virtues and other good examples of the saints we have been named after.
Ironically, while some Africans have dropped an essential sign of their identification with Christ (namely their baptismal names) in reaction to “neo-colonization”, everything else about them shows that they are actually still colonized: their hair styles, the suit they wear in the scorching sun, their (imported) shoes – you name them. These are rather the non-essentials of Christian identity that they should drop and not their baptismal names!
This is, however, not to say that one cannot be baptized with African names like “Adom” (which is the Akan word for “grace”), “Nutifafa” (which is the Ewe word for “peace”), etc. These names are Christian virtues or values and, therefore, they are acceptable . However, names like Kojo, Adjoa, Kobina, Abena, etc. only identify the day of the week on which one was born. They say nothing about our relationship with Christ! Therefore, such names are not ideal for baptism. Moreover, the situation is even worse when some retain their local names that are associated with idols.
Beloved, as Zacchaeus was called, forgiven and made to live by the meaning of his name, so may we heed the call of Christ to enjoy God’s mercy. Finally, may the harmony between our names and our lives be an effective testimony of our genuine relationship with Christ. Amen!
1 See the homily entitled, “God’s Mercy Endures Forever” (i.e. homily of Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C).
By Very Rev. Fr. John Louis