As we near the conclusion of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, today’s readings draw us once more into the marvel of God’s mercy. The Book of Wisdom introduces the topic with a reflection on how the Lord looks upon his creation. From the Lord’s perspective, the whole universe is comparable to a grain of sand or a drop of water. And yet he does not disregard what he has made; he “loves all things that are.” As the “Lord and lover of souls,” he has a special love for man. “You have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook the sins of men that they may repent.” Here the reading reveals that the Lord’s mercy is not weakness but evidence of his power and his love. “Overlooking sin” does not mean pretending that sin is not serious. God takes sin very seriously. He loves us too much to simply let us suffer sin’s destructive effects. He “rebukes offenders little by little”; he “warns them and reminds them of the sins they are committing.” The Lord does all this because of his great mercy – and his great hope that we will abandon sin and return to him in faith.
What the Book of Wisdom describes in theory is put into practice in the delightful story of Zacchaeus. Jesus came to Jericho “to search out and save what was lost” – and the one whom he searched out and saved was one of the vilest, most hated men in the whole town, the chief tax collector. Here was a corrupt man who had grown rich by betraying and defrauding his own people. Everyone knew he was a sinner. Jesus knew it too – but instead of condemning him as everyone else did, he looked at him with eyes of mercy, called him by name, and expressed a desire to stay at his house. The whole episode fills us with renewed hope. Jesus really does love sinners!
Of course, Zacchaeus also shows an eagerness to meet the Lord, or at least to see him. His being a sinner does not prevent him from acting on a “mustard seed” of faith. There are many people in the crowd who would like to catch a glimpse of Jesus, but Zacchaeus takes an extra step. When he encounters an obstacle, he figures out a way around it; he looks ahead, runs up the road and climbs a tree. Perhaps what moved him was largely natural curiosity, like when Moses was attracted by the burning bush, but curiosity is better than complacency, not making an effort. The Book of Revelation says that it is better to be hot or cold than to be lukewarm (cf. Rv. 3:15-16). The others in the crowd were mainly lukewarm. Even though they were standing around, they never really met the Lord. In fact, when he favored Zacchaeus, they began to form a judgment against him.
In a sense, the objection of the people is correct: “He has gone to a sinner’s house.” Jesus’ love for this sinner looks to them like approval of the man’s sins, and so they oppose it. What is in fact an act of mercy strikes them as an injustice. Only Zacchaeus, whose heart has been touched by mercy, knows the truth of what has happened, and so he quickly speaks out. He “stands his ground,” not to defend himself but to defend the effect of mercy. He declares that he is now a changed man.
To prove the sincerity of his conversion, Zacchaeus gives half of his belongings to the poor, and is willing make a four-fold restitution to anyone whom he has cheated. Jesus does not tell him to do this. Zacchaeus freely decides to do it. He is happy to do it. Because of the gift he has received in overflowing measure, he feels it is not enough simply to restore the balance of justice. He is overflowing with joy and gratitude, like the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. Unlike the rich young man who went away sad, Zacchaeus is delighted to be able to give his money to the poor.
We can learn much from Zacchaeus for our own spiritual life. We learn that we must make an effort if we really want to meet Jesus. That effort includes a willingness to stand out, even look foolish. To go against the prevailing opinion of the day is like climbing a tree. It is not morally wrong, but it is socially wrong. For us to make progress in following Jesus, we cannot be attached to what people think of us. And we have to be willing to make radical changes in our lives, in response to the mercy we have received.
Conversion is a miracle of mercy. It is God’s work, joyfully accepted by the sinner who meets and welcomes Jesus. In today’s second reading, St. Paul emphasizes what Zacchaeus has discovered, that God is the one who changes us. God himself “makes us worthy of his call”; on our own we are unworthy. God “fulfills by his power every honest intention and work of faith.” In a few days, as we celebrate All Saints Day, we will glimpse how far this powerful work of God is meant to go: to the point of our complete transformation in glory forever. We do not need to fear the coming day of the Lord. Rather, we look forward to it; we run toward it, with the eager anticipation of Zacchaeus, so that the mercy of God will come and reign in us completely. “In this way the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you and you in him, in accord with the gracious gift of our God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Like Zacchaeus, am I willing to make an effort to meet the Lord? What are the radical changes I need to address in my life? When do I allow prevailing opinions to affect my thoughts and actions?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 12, no. 8. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.