The God who reveals himself to us, in whom we believe and whom we worship, is a God of mercy. He is a God who created us out of love, and who reaches out to us in mercy in order to share with us the eternal and rich glories he has promised that the saints will inherit (cf. Eph 1:18). All the revelations of God that we have in the Scriptures and in Tradition bear witness to this: God in his mercy desires our salvation. Today’s readings from the Book of Wisdom and from the Gospel of St. Luke are all about God’s mercy and our salvation.
The Wisdom reading begins by extolling the greatness of God, who created all things for his glory and before whom the whole universe is like a grain of sand or a drop of morning dew. We might suppose, as non-believers do, that an all-powerful God would not care about us or what we do, but the reading assures us that this supposition is entirely false. Rather, God looks on us with mercy: “You have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.” The reading goes on to say: “Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little, warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O LORD!”
God’s gentle correction of a sinner who then abandons his wickedness is what we see in today’s Gospel account of the encounter between our Lord Jesus and the tax collector, Zacchaeus. God in his infinite mercy always desires to meet us and to let us taste and enjoy his goodness. If this does not happen, that is, if we fail to encounter his mercy and salvation, it is not the fault of God but our own fault. We have not responded to his invitation. Zacchaeus, however, despite the interference of the crowd, his physical limitations, and his own sinful past, strives to see Jesus. We read that he “was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way.”
St. Luke does not tell us what motivated Zacchaeus, but the fact that he risked humiliation and ridicule by climbing a tree indicates an unabashed and dogged determination to see the Lord. Jesus, who is God, “knows the secrets of the heart” (Ps 44:22). He knows the heart of Zacchaeus, and he knows his name, so he looks up and addresses him directly: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” Zacchaeus, who thought he was the one looking for Jesus, discovers that it was our Lord who had been looking for him first – as he never ceases to look for every one of us.
The tax collector’s difficulty in seeing Jesus was not merely physical. His small stature can be interpreted as an allegory of his sinful condition that dwarfed him. The humiliation he imposed on himself by climbing on a tree in order to see Jesus can interpreted as a sign of repentance, a willingness to leave sin behind, as well as the crowd, and seek higher things. When Jesus tells Zacchaeus to come down from the sycamore tree, it is as if he is telling Zacchaeus that he accepts his repentance and now invites him to salvation, which is a step no one can achieve alone. Jesus is the Savior, and he “has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
St. Augustine contrasts the sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbed with the Cross of Jesus Christ: “Climb the tree on which Jesus hung for you, and you will see Jesus” (Sermon 174.3). What does this mean? Jesus died on the tree of the Cross to atone for our sins and to bring us salvation. After Zacchaeus comes down from the ineffectual sycamore tree, he climbs the tree that Jesus desires: the tree of repentance and reparation. Formerly a swindler as a tax-collector, he promises to give half his property to the poor and to pay those he has cheated four times the amount – evidence of a radical and total conversion.
We do not have to look for a sycamore tree or any other sort of tree to climb in order to see Jesus. The tree we need is the one on which Jesus hung for our salvation, namely the tree of the Cross. Climbing the tree of the Cross is embracing the way of repentance and making reparation for sins so that we receive the salvation Jesus obtained for us. We need not only to repent but also to be willing to make reparation. Why reparation? Because God’s mercy calls for justice as well. Without justice there is no mercy. “In virtue of commutative justice, reparation for injustice committed requires the restitution of stolen goods to their owner: Jesus blesses Zacchaeus for his pledge: ‘If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.’ Those who, directly or indirectly, have taken possession of the goods of another, are obliged to make restitution of them, or to return the equivalent in kind or in money, if the goods have disappeared, as well as the profit or advantages their owner would have legitimately obtained from them” (CCC 2412).
Because of his repentance and willingness to make reparation, our Lord Jesus gives Zacchaeus what he did not have before, namely salvation. With joy he proclaims: “Today salvation has come to this house.”
What efforts am I making to meet the Lord when I die? How does my physical limitation or pursuit of human approval stop me from following the Lord? When did I realize that Jesus has always been looking for me?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 8. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.