Zacchaeus, Come Down

We celebrate two days at the beginning of November that look beyond this world to the world to come: the Feast of All Saints and All Souls Day, November 1st and 2nd. The Feast of All Saints is not just a feast of canonized saints, like Mary the Mother of Jesus, Peter and Paul, Mother Teresa. It celebrates our belief that a great number– beyond counting according to St. John– are with God now. Each of us knows some good and faithful people who must be among them.

What about All Souls Day? I wonder if on that day we recognize there’s human weakness, as well as human goodness, in those God calls for judgment. They need God’s purifying mercy for their sins, their misuse of God’s gifts, their meanness, their lack of faith and hope and love. We know people like that too, maybe we can see ourselves in them.

The more important of these two November days is the Feast of All Saints, which proclaims the God’s mercy to be stronger than our sinfulness. It’s beyond what we expect. We hope and pray for it.

Our readings for this Sunday are about God’s mercy, a mercy that pursues us through this life and into the next. (Wisdom 11, 22-12,20) Our gospel story about the call of Zacchaeus is a special lesson in God’s mercy. Zacchaeus, the chief tax-collector in Jericho, is a wealthy man whom Jesus called down from a tree and then stayed in his house on his way to Jerusalem. (Luke 19, 1-10)

As Jericho’s chief-tax collector, Zacchaeus was an agent for Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and Perea in Jesus’ day. Archeologists are still uncovering ruins of a good many of Herod’s building projects in Galilee and elsewhere. He built on a grand scale and he built lavishly, to impress his allies, the Romans.

Of course, you need money for his kind of building, and that’s where tax-collectors come in. There was no dialogue or voting on government spending then. Herod told his army of tax-collectors, “Here’s how much I need; you go out and get it. Go to the fishermen along the Sea of Galilee and the farmers near Nazareth and get what I need; I don’t care how you squeeze it out of them.” And the tax collectors went out and got him the money, and kept some for themselves.

You needed to be tough and relentless for the job. It had to leave you hard headed and hard hearted. People bitterly resented the tax collectors. Zacchaeus, chief tax collector in Jericho, led them all, and he was the one whom Jesus called down from a tree and stayed with on his way to Jerusalem.

The only words Jesus said to Zacchaeus, according to the gospel, are these: “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” No thunderous warnings or stern corrections. Jesus declares that salvation has come and they sit down for a feast. In this story you can hear echoes of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, also from Luke’s gospel.

Zacchaeus encountered the goodness and mercy of God in Jesus and it changed him. Goodness and mercy changes people. When we encounter the goodness and mercy of God we’re changed too.

We have to ask: Is God’s mercy a thing of the past, or limited only to this life? Will it also pursue us in death? Jesus will judge us at that moment. Will his judgment of us be like his judgment of Zacchaeus? When he calls us home, will he be merciful as he was to the tax-collector?

We see now in signs; we hear promises. Then we will see him face to face, and his goodness will change us, the sight of him will purify us.

God’s mercy pursues us, now in signs, then face to face. As we look upon the Bread come down from heaven at Mass we hear, “Behold, the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.” God’s mercy is proclaimed, as it was for Zacchaeus, at a supper.

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