Zacchaeus and God's Loving Mercy
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Flannery O’Connor was an American writer who died in 1964 at the age of 39. She was a sincere Christian, although her writings are not classified as religious works. In her mid–20s, she was stricken with lupus, an inherited vascular disease that attacks the joints. This severely restricted her movement, and she spent the last 13 years of her life on a farm in Milledgeville, Georgia.
At one point, Flannery’s aunt encouraged her to travel to Lourdes, France, and take a healing bath in the waters of the famous shrine there. Flannery found the whole idea distasteful, although she did finally agree to go. But she wrote, “About the Lourdes business, I am going as a pilgrim, not a patient ... I am one of those people who could die for her religion easier than I could take a bath for it.” She simply did not expect a miracle, for while she understood that they occasionally happen, they are not among God’s promises to us.
She did, however, have a profound experience of God’s grace in her life and that gave her life meaning. In 1957 she wrote, “... for me the meaning of life is centered in our redemption by Christ, and what I see in the world is in its relation to that. I don’t think that this is a position that can be taken halfway ....”
Naturally, she would have liked to be healed, but like countless Christians down through the ages, she found a sufficiency in the grace of God. She learned to expect that despite whatever else happened to her, and it made all the difference.
This Sunday, we hear a similar story in the person of Zacchaeus. Through the grace of God, he realized that his ill-gotten wealth was nothing compared to what Christ was capable of giving him. He was eager to receive it as he was determined to become His follower. As we are about to culminate the Jubilee Year of Mercy (November 20 - Solemnity of Christ the King), we are once again drawn to reflect on the mercy of God. Allow me to highlight some of its rich qualities:
1. MERCY AS SIGN OF GOD’S LOVE. The word “love” in today’s world, has been reduced simply to a “feeling.” In Greek, there are seven words for love and the word for the love God has for us is called agape, which connotes action, a self-gift. The love we want to have for God is a self-gift in return, of our time, energy, worries, hopes and joy. Clearly, God loves all things especially His children created in His very image and likeness. Jesus showed the same unconditional love to Zacchaeus by calling him by his name overlooking his sinfulness in mercy. It is not weakness on the part of God but a sure sign of His power and love. Yes, Jesus does not undermine Zacchaeus’ sinfulness but in His great mercy, He hopes for Zacchaeus to abandon his old self and return to the Father in faith.
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, the singer and actress who calls herself Madonna explains how her life has changed since she first came to fame in the early 80s. Referring to one of her more famous songs, "Material Girl," Madonna claims, "I'm so not the Material Girl now. There were many years when I thought fame, fortune, and public approval would bring me happiness. But one day you wake up and realize they don't. " [Oprah Talks to Madonna," O Magazine (January 2004), p. 122).]
Well, no offense to Madonna but today’s Gospel gives more “meat” to her realization. Zacchaeus came to that conclusion the day Jesus entered his life – the moment he encountered Jesus and experienced His unconditional love and mercy. It is ONLY through God’s mercy in love that one can experience true happiness something that the world CANNOT give.
2. MERCY AS COMPASSION. The “eyes of mercy” has it sight for the most sinful of all sinners. When it sees such person, it looks at him/her without prejudice but embraces him/her like it’s one with him/her in his/her struggles, weaknesses and difficulties. Zacchaeus’ reputation precedes him. He was not only a tax-collector but the “chief” among tax-collectors. And so, he was treated with disgust; judged by his work and looked down by his own townspeople as a sinner. He was looked upon under the lens of the human eye. Jesus, however, saw him differently through the lens of compassion. Regardless of Zacchaeus’ reputation, He expressed a desire to stay at His house and to see him not as an enemy but as His brother. When we see each one in the eyes of mercy, everyone becomes a brother/sister; everyone becomes part of community of God. When we lose sight of this identity, persons could be treated simply as objects, not as people deeply loved by God.
3. MERCY AS MOVEMENT TOWARDS CONVERSION. Clearly, Zacchaeus was touched and moved by the mercy of Jesus. Knowing the truth of what Jesus was trying to show him, he responded by giving up his ill-gotten wealth. Jesus’ mercy was so powerful that he was moved to defend it and declares with a sincere heart that he has now become a changed person. This is a living proof that if we desire and accept God’s mercy, He will bestow upon us the grace we need to be moved by it in conversion. Nobody can take it away from us once received. Not even by those who have already judged us so unfairly and lost hope that we are capable of changing for the better.
Snow Man was a gray white horse that Harry De Leyer picked up cheaply at a horse auction. Harry trained Snow Man, and the horse served well at the girls’ school where Harry was the riding master. However, when the school closed for the summer, a neighbor made a generous offer for Snow Man, and Harry could not afford to refuse it. So Snow Man had a new home. Snow Man, however, liked his old home and his old master. Time and time again he jumped the neighbor’s high fences and returned to Harry. Finally, Harry bought his horse back. In that series of events, though, was a clue to Snow Man’s real greatness. Snow Man was a natural jumper, and the horse that once jumped fences to return to his loving previous master later jumped at Madison Square Garden for two national titles! [Paul Aurandt, ed., Paul Harvey’s the Rest of the Story, ed. (New York: Bantam Books, 1977), pp. 68).]
All Snow Man needed was the love and attention of his master smething that Zacchaeus needed as well. Zacchaeus knew that there was something more in life, and he was determined to experience it. He was willing to do whatever it takes to make his dream come true. After his encounter with his newfound Master, he was willing to live up to his new commitment by no longer being dishonest in his work, by making amends for his wrongdoings in the past and by sharing what he had with the needy.
Flannery O’Connor, in my first story spoke about sufficiency in the grace of God. In its fullness, we can experience it through God’s love and mercy. Do we find this sufficient enough in the same way as Zacchaeus found it through his encounter with Jesus? For all we know, God loves us greatly. Such love is so great that NOTHING in this world can compare. Yearn for it … God alone SUFFICES!