By Fr. Glenn Jones
If you read about (or have experienced) Armed Forces boot camp/basic training, you recognize that arrivals to that training are in that arrival simply breaking the shell, as it were, as “hatchlings” in the service. Basic training is an apt analogy for anyone beginning in a new field of study or profession … and certainly for the budding Christian. One isn’t a “good” soldier, sailor, airman or Marine right off the bat; to become proficient in any field takes time—even a lifetime. For example, one might call the child who completes his first arithmetic assignment a “mathematician”, but certainly not in the way as one would a doctorate in mathematics from MIT. Development takes time and usage … the eager pupil striving to learn and put all into practice. And advancement inevitably requires not avoiding the things that are “hard”.
These thoughts rattled around in mind with the scripture readings of our Catholic Mass this weekend. Now, some things come fairly easy to the Christian—contributing money for the church or the poor … smiling, pleasantries, and the like. But an “advanced test” of a Christian—or simply of any good person—is the practice of that virtue we long to receive, and yet are often so reticent to give: forgiveness. And yet … forgiveness is a sine qua non (“that without which there is none”—an extra credit phrase, high schoolers!) of the good Christian, for hand-in-hand with forgiveness is that other essential Christian trait of mercy … “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13))
In our Gospel this weekend (Luke 19:1-10) we read of one of the despised of Israel: a tax collector named Zacchaeus. Yet by his eagerness to see Jesus (against all decorum and in an act of humility, Zacchaeus climbs a tree to do so), his desire for conversion was manifest. Without waiting for Zacchaeus words, Jesus reads his heart, and calls to him so they could go to Zacchaeus’ house. But … the judgmental attitude of the crowd? “He [Jesus] has gone to stay at the house of a sinner!” Obviously the crowd wasn’t quite ready for such ready forgiveness. It “wasn’t there yet.”
Imagine if Jesus had crossed his arms and berated poor ol’ Z. Zach might have simply despaired, gone off and been twice the jerky tax collector he had been before … a lost sheep. But, in Jesus preemptive offer of mercy, Zacchaeus readily and eagerly repents of past wrongs and once again becomes “one of the family”, Jesus assuring him—and the cantankerous crowd: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a descendant of Abraham.” Zacchaeus was lost, and was found.
Luke’s Gospel is wonderful in its showcasing of God’s mercy. Just a few chapters earlier (chapter 15) was the Prodigal Son parable, dovetailing with and foreshadowing this account with Zacchaeus. In that teaching story, Jesus speaks of the loving father who disregards all decorum to race to embrace his wayward son come home even before the son can utter a syllable of his rehearsed apology. So, in this story of Zacchaeus, Jesus demonstrates and practices what He preaches … His proactive offer of acceptance and mercy becoming catalyst to Zacchaeus’ conversion. Grace worked.
In inevitable human weakness we offend—sin against—others…and they sin against us. Scripture says that even the righteous man sins seven times (“…a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again…” (Proverbs 24:16))…something Jesus must have been recalling when He said: “…if your brother sins, rebuke [correct] him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4) Injured pride is truly a worm consuming the soul and which never dies…unless we ourselves kill it. After all, which is greater—the offense, or recovered amity/love between persons? Shall we, then, in pride and hurt feelings, hold back forgiveness? In refusing forgiveness, we refuse hope…we refuse love. And since God IS love…we therefore refuse—reject—God…for God Himself declares what is His joy: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)
Think of the many times have we ourselves have sought mercy? Are we, then, to withhold mercy, and yet expect to receive it? Thus we see justice in Jesus’ warning: “…with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get…” (Matthew 7:2), and “…if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
Jesus accepts Zacchaeus when others will not … offering God’s forgiveness to this sinner of sinners, and so Zacchaeus: “received him with joy”—joy and relief that only reconciliation, forgiveness and reacceptance can bring.
And yet … to provide such joy is within our own grasp as well … our own power—offering hope to all from whom we might be estranged, or who might have harmed us … or, whom WE may have harmed. So … be bold! Make the first move. Offer—or, ask for if you were at fault—that reconciliation. Pride will whisper the question: “Must we?” But God says: “Yes!” … or, in the words of St. Paul: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:12-14)
Zacchaeus climbed a tree to glimpse Jesus. When we climb the tree of humility and repentance, Jesus calls US by name, and says to us as He did to Zacchaeus: “…come down quickly, for today I stay [with you].” The one who greets him with faith and joy humbly replies: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” But then Jesus declares to all creation: “Today salvation has come to this house…For I have come to recover what was lost.”
“I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them…” (John 13:15-17)
Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.