Last week we heard the story of a tax collector who did not even dare to raise his eyes to heaven. He beat his breast, and cried God be merciful to me a sinner. Today we pass to the next Chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, and we hear the story of another tax collector. This one had no need to look up to heaven, for he was already above the head of Jesus, looking down at him from his sycamore tree. Before this one had time to say anything at all himself, he heard the words of Jesus: Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, for today I must stay at your house.
The two stories beautifully complement one another, and they show us two different aspects of divine mercy. In the first, the tax collector comes before God as a beggar, with nothing to offer but his wretchedness, his misery, his desperate need. He knows perfectly well that he is a sinner, that his life is shameful, a disgrace, and worthy of condemnation. And in this he stands for each one of us here, without any exception. We are all sinners, and our prayer will never cease to be Lord have mercy. Last week we heard Jesus tell us that this sinner went home more at rights with God than the Pharisee, who was outwardly virtuous, and respectable. The publican received divine mercy, because he manifested the essential, fundamental virtue of humility. The Pharisee was incapable of receiving mercy, because he was proud, and thought he did not need it.
The story of Zacchaeus shows us divine mercy in its effects. Merely to revoke a due punishment cannot be enough, if it were to leave unchanged that situation which sin brings about: estrangement from God; alienation; interior disorder; separation from the source of life and of all that is good. But if divine mercy is allowed to do its work, then all that is reversed: a change is brought about - even a transformation - and a sinner is turned into a Saint. Zacchaeus is defined in today’s story as a sinner: he’s an exploiter, an oppressor, a thief, a cheat, a traitor to his own people, a blasphemer against his God. But touched by the grace of Christ, he is converted, saved, redeemed, justified, sanctified. And now the invitation is extended to this terrible sinner, that he become entirely conformed to Jesus. If he accepts it, he can as a result become a deeply good man: generous, self sacrificing, compassionate, forgiving, loving, holy. And of course this is very much both for God’s glory, and for his own good: for his happiness, peace, joy, and fulfilment even on earth - not of course without suffering - and supremely for his eternal welfare in heaven.
We don’t know the subsequent history of Zacchaeus, but we might imagine two scenarios. In the first, his encounter with Jesus becomes the defining moment of his whole life. Zaccheaus remains faithful to his promise, and to his attachment to Jesus. Very quickly he comes to realise that he has to give up tax collecting entirely. He does so, and at the time of Pentecost joins himself to the Apostles, is baptised, and hands over all his remaining property for distribution to the poor. Active in evangelisation, he endures much persecution, and eventually suffers martyrdom for Christ. Now forever he rejoices in heavenly glory, a Saint of the Church, and powerful to intercede for us sinners still here on earth. Or: Zacchaeus is deeply moved by his encounter with Jesus, but he fails to follow through his impulsive offer. When Jesus goes to his passion, Zacchaeus loses his nerve. He decides to hang onto his money, and career, after all, and he maintains his good relations with the occupying Romans, even as their tyranny grows more and more harsh. On his death bed Zaccheaus repents, and begs for mercy. He does receive mercy, because God is very good, and will always welcome a repentant sinner. But in the first scenario, Zacchaeus by the grace of God receives more mercy, and in the second, by his own fault, less.
So it is that St. Paul in today’s second reading tells the Thessalonians that he prays continually for them: that God will make them worthy of their vocation. This is a marvellous thought. Of course none of us is worthy of being called by Jesus. But, like Zacchaeus, we have been called. We who have been baptised and confirmed are thereby sealed as those who have been singled out, touched, called by Jesus. This call never ceases; and in fact it extends in principle to everyone, excluding no one at all. The arms of Jesus remain stretched ever wide in invitation, in welcome, in the offer of mercy. But St. Paul prays ceaselessly, that we be worthy of our call. It’s an urgent summons not to be indifferent, not to be lukewarm! The grace we have received is not small, not cheap, not to be under-estimated. On the contrary! It impels us always to ever deeper conversion. We are invited, ever and again, to break with habits of sin that tend to push Jesus back out of our life. We have to let go, ever and again, of the paltry comforts and possessions that prevent us holding firmly on to the one thing necessary in our life.
If we think this is all beyond us, St. Paul is full of reassurance. God, he says, “by his power, can fulfil your every good resolve and work of faith”. Yes, it is to be our own work, and effort, and so our own merit; but the power, thank God, will that of divine grace, and the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
As a pledge of our desire for perfect conformity with Jesus Christ, we come now to Mass. And as a wonderful sign that the divine invitation is addressed not just to the crowd, but to each of us individually, and by name, we come to holy communion, to Jesus present in the holy sacrament, one by one. Yes, Jesus comes to all of us: but in this moment above all just to me. And even as he asks to be welcomed, and received with faith, and generosity, and love; so in return he gives us this pledge of his abiding presence, of his abounding grace and power, and of his mercy without end.