We believe that Jesus Christ, the Divine Word, God, was born of the Virgin Mary and entered our human condition. Why? Certainly, to show God’s love for us and to give us the truth of God. I asked that question to a group of people a few weeks ago and a young woman responded, “For Salvation.” I find that young people frequently come up with one-word answers that make a lot of sense. Salvation means going to heaven after we die, but what about now? In our lives here and now, salvation simply means being right with God. Being right with God means acknowledging the Truth Christ has revealed and living it. However, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that there are times in our lives when we are off track and are not right with God. To be right with God requires us to seek His forgiveness. Can God forgive sins? Of course. The enemies of Christ are shocked when He talks about forgiving sins. They rightly exclaim, “who but God alone can forgive sins?” (Mark 2:7, Luke 5:21).
Last Sunday (October 27, Luke 18:9 – 14) and this Sunday (November 3, Luke 19:1 – 10) St Luke records how Christ uses the image of a tax collector to illustrate reconciliation with God. We need a little background here to understand the situation of Zacchaeus (and the tax collector of Luke 18:9 – 14). Nobody likes paying taxes, but we in America see benefits from our taxes. American taxes go to support local and national needs. In the time of Christ, Israel was occupied by a foreign empire, Rome. Taxes went to the empire and had little benefit to Israel as a community. Jewish tax collectors were the worst kind of traitor, betraying family, community and their religion for personal gain.
Zacchaeus’ encounter with Christ is a life-changing experience. St. Luke records this dramatic event to illustrate conversion and reconciliation. Zacchaeus is a Jew and knows, from the Covenant given by God to Moses, what God wants for his life. When Zacchaeus encounters Christ he recognizes the disorder in his life. The really important point here, is that Zacchaeus realizes that his separation from God is not permanent. He sees in Christ healing and reconciliation and recognizes, like the tax collector from last week’s gospel (Luke 18:9 – 14), that he must acknowledge his sin and resolve to change his life.
We encounter Christ every time we go to Mass. We need to remember that the point of Mass is that during the Consecration bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. The Mass today for you and me is meant to reflect the experience of Zacchaeus. In an even broader perspective, we need to remember that we encounter Christ in every sacramental action of the Church. This includes Confession, where we acknowledge our sins and seeks God’s forgiveness. Confession is necessary when we have committed serious sin or failed to do something (eg go to Mass on Sunday) that God requires of us. However, the Church has always taught (CCC 1458) that going to Confession on a regular basis to present to Christ our day to day short-comings is a source of grace that helps us discern God’s will for our lives and gives us the strength to follow Him.
We need to remember that the rule of life Christ brings us is not meant to be oppressive but to bring us to full, joyful life. This is the message we get from the Book of Wisdom, our first reading, “But thou art merciful to all, for thou canst do all things, and thou dost overlook men’s sins, that they may repent. For thou lovest all things that exist.” (Wisdom 11:22 – 24). There are two things I suggest are helpful to us in our Christian life. First God speaks to us in the words of Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church. We need to seek that message and make it the foundation of our lives. Second, we need to remember that Christ is present for us, here today, in the sacraments and the community of the Church. Being an active participant in the sacramental life of the Church (Mass, Confession) gives us ongoing companionship with Christ who is here to offer us salvation to eternal life.