Fr. Ver Bust's Column:|
"Explaining the Gospel"
Jesus saves those who were lost
Forgiveness is offered
even when we have turned against God
November 4, 2001, Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Fr. Richard Ver Bust
Luke and the Gospels certainly have a lot of stories about tax collectors. They might symbolize all those categories of sinners that the Pharisees hated and Jesus came to save. They certainly were one of the more visible groups to attack. They were despised for their collaboration with the Romans. We probably still dislike tax collectors and the IRS. We just don't think of them as ritually impure.
Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. It meant that he had other tax collectors who reported to him and he took a portion of what they collected. Jericho was an important trade center. It would have been a lucrative place to be a tax collector. Zacchaeus probably was a rather wealthy man who enjoyed the benefits of his wealth. But Zacchaeus also had something going for him that we can admire. He did not think it above his status to climb the tree to see Jesus. So what if others would laugh at what he was doing. Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was entering the town. He must have heard rumors about the goodness of this man. Maybe he even heard from other tax collectors that Jesus did not despise them and how he often visited and spoke kindly to them.
We can picture what happened. Jesus looked up and saw Zacchaeus in the tree. Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus' house. Zacchaeus responded, eagerly and happily inviting Jesus to come and enjoy the best hospitality he could give. The response of the crowd is what one would expect. They grumbled about Jesus eating with sinners. If he did that he must be a sinner too. Jesus must be ritually impure too. Eating a meal with someone was a sign of accepting that person.
Luke tells us that Zacchaeus also responded immediately in acknowledging his past faults and his willingness to make amends. According to the laws of the time, if you extorted money, you must return it along with 20% over and above. Zacchaeus said he would repay the extorted amount plus a fourfold amount. He also, in this moment of repentance and happiness, would give half of what he owned to the poor. He was so happy that Jesus showed him such respect and honor that he would change his life.
The suddenness of the moment of repentance and forgiveness is stressed by the words of Jesus, "Come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house. "We can say as we do today, one must seize the moment. Salvation is offered and there is no reason for delay. The opportunity may never happen again. Jesus stressed this by saying that "today salvation has come to this house."
The opportunities we are offered are special and we must respond to God's call. The author of our first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, says that God loves whatever he has made. God so loves us that the Lord offers forgiveness even when we have turned against God by sinning. Paul prays that the Thessalonians will respond to God and be worthy of the call that God has given them. In the Gospel acclamation we recognize that God loves us so much that the Son was sent that we might have eternal life. As Luke tells us Christ was sent as the Son of Man to seek and save those who were lost. The whole message should give us comfort and urge us to respond to God's invitation to seek forgiveness that God may abide with us.
(Fr. Ver Bust holds the title of professor emeritus in religious
studies at St. Norbert College, De Pere.)