God gives us the grace to repent endlessly

For Catholics, this truth is also part of our Sunday Mass. Our Eucharistic prayer paraphrases the Roman centurion whose faith in Jesus allowed his servant to be healed without Jesus’ presence.

Oct 28, 2022

Reflecting on our Sunday Readings with the HERALD team

31st Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)
Readings: Wisdom 11:22 — 12:2;
2 Thessalonians 1:11 — 2:2;
Gospel: Luke 19:1-10

Sometimes, the stories from the Gospel make us smile, not just out of joy but out of humour as well. Jesus had a sense of humour as well as joy, and expressed it in some of His teachings. Then as now, appealing to people through humour, especially in pointing out the silliness of our anxieties and our self-seriousness, makes an effective way to reaching the heart.

Perhaps Luke understood this, too. This anecdote appeals to us in part because of a sense of absurdity and humorous contradictions. Zacchaeus was a wealthy man and a chief tax collector, both of which would make him powerful if not exactly popular. One would expect that combination to produce a stuffy, officious, and self-important personality — and perhaps someone of greater height. Instead, ironically, Zacchaeus turns out to be “short in stature,” so much so that he can’t even see people passing on the street.

Instead of pushing his way through and demanding his rightful place on the street, however, Zacchaeus does something one might expect of a child: he climbs a sycamore tree to get a better view. The sight of a wealthy, powerful, and decidedly short wealthy man struggling to pull himself up into a tree must have been quite a sight for the people whom Zacchaeus taxed for his riches. This never fails to make most of us smile, at least a little bit, and it probably made those who noticed it smile at the time, too.

But what happens with this good humour? Jesus sees Zacchaeus in the tree and greets him with love and friendship, telling him to “come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” At those words, Zacchaeus “received Him with joy” — as one might expect from a child who has climbed a tree to see his father arrive home from a long journey. At that point, Zacchaeus confesses his sins publicly and pledges to repent and redeem himself — because Jesus has chosen to come to his house.

Note well the order in which this occurred. As a tax collector — as chief tax collector — Zacchaeus would have been among the worst of the oppressors within the community of Israelites. Tax collectors got rich by overtaxing their fellow Judeans and keeping the difference. Small wonder that the crowd began grumbling that this miracle-working rabbi would choose to stay with Zacchaeus rather than offer a remonstration of him in public. Their unhappiness would not have been just that Zacchaeus was a sinner in the abstract, but that Zacchaeus had spent years sinning against them in reality. They hoped for retributive justice, not an offer of hail-fellow-well-met to their tormentor on the procession into Jericho.
And yet, justice is exactly what Jericho’s people received — through the mercy of Christ. Jesus enters into Zacchaeus’ house (or makes clear that’s what He intends), and Zacchaeus comprehends his sinful nature and repents of it. He promises to make good on the damage he’s done to his neighbours and act justly from that day forward, and Jesus declares him reconciled to the Lord. Only through Jesus’ insistence on coming into Zacchaeus’ house has both justice and mercy been delivered.

To put it simply: God does not love us because we repent, or when we repent. God loves us, and so gives us the grace to repent — endlessly.

For Catholics, this truth is also part of our Sunday Mass. Our Eucharistic prayer paraphrases the Roman centurion whose faith in Jesus allowed his servant to be healed without Jesus’ presence. “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof,” we pray, “but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” We are, in essence, praying for that Jericho moment, when Jesus says the word to Zacchaeus — that He wants to enter under the sinner’s roof — and only then is the sinner healed and able to properly repent and worship.

We all suffer from sin, from self-haughtiness and the blind illusion of self-sufficiency. We think we can live without the Lord and make our own way, but then we lose sight of our sins and the damage we cause to ourselves and others. The longer this goes, the less able we become to break out of that pattern. Only when we discard that false sense of pride and come to Christ like a child who would climb a tree in order to just get a passing glimpse of the Lord can we be open to His invitation. Even though we might look foolish, trying to climb the tree in the finery in which we draped ourselves as an empty affirmation of our self-assigned status, we can make the Lord smile on us and offer us mercy and joy — and allow ourselves to be instruments of His mercy and justice according to His will.

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