In our second reading we find St. Paul offering up a beautiful prayer that God might make us:
‘worthy of his calling and powerfully bring to fulfilment every good purpose and every effort of faith, that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you and you in him’ (2 Thessalonians ).
Our Gospel reading offers us a powerful illustration of what St. Paul means: God takes human initiative, in this instance Zacchaeus’ attempt to see Jesus, and brings it to fulfilment by leading Zacchaeus to a profound change of heart.
Zacchaeus is introduced in the first verse of our Gospel as a wealthy tax collector. This is enough for us to understand that in the eyes of his contemporaries he was both a traitor and a sinner. As a tax collector he was a collaborator serving the hated occupying army of Rome; if he was rich, then he was corruptly using his power for his own benefit. Yet even so he sought to ‘see who Jesus was’ and importantly he did something about it: he climbed a Sycamore tree (Luke 19: 1-4).
Repentance is about turning away from evil and towards good (1 Peter 3: 11), it is about re-orientating our lives away from selfishness and sin and towards God. Yet this is not an effort we make on our own. God is at work with us in our efforts to reform, inspiring and strengthening good intentions and adding to our efforts in order to draw us to himself. Zacchaeus’ instinct to climb a tree in order to see Jesus was a good purpose. We cannot, after all, orientate our lives to Christ unless we can see what we are aiming at. But we must remember, whilst Zacchaeus thought he was seeking Jesus, in fact Jesus was seeking Zacchaeus: and of course Jesus is seeking us as well. The Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost (Luke 19:10).
Jesus saw Zacchaeus as he passed by the Sycamore tree and said to him:
"Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today." (Luke 19: 5).
Jesus sees the positive first inclination in Zacchaeus’ attempt to see Him and offers Zacchaeus an opportunity to do a fuller good: he offers Zacchaeus the opportunity to assist in his mission. Zacchaeus joyfully accepts and invites Jesus to his home. The crowd grumble that Jesus is heading to the house of such a notorious sinner. But as we heard in our first reading, God loves everything that he has made, and overlooks sins so in the hope that His children might repent (Wisdom 11: 23-24). No one is beyond God’s mercy, no one is beyond God’s love. In Christ’s presence, full conversion comes. The shedding of possessions is a sign in Luke’s Gospel particularly of a change of heart, of a reorientation towards God, of repentance: Zacchaeus promises to give away half of everything he has to the poor, and to repay fourfold any injustice he has committed. Zacchaeus finds the strength to break with his past in Jesus’ company.
This is not the end of the journey for Zacchaeus, conversion is always a lifelong process of deepening knowledge and love of God. Throughout this journey, we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus through the Sacraments, the Scriptures, and Prayer. We also need to be alert to opportunities to do good: God often brings our good intentions to completion by giving us opportunities to work with Him for the salvation of the world, and in this service we too find healing.
fr Timothy Radcliffe's sermon for All Saints can be found under the liturgical index.