Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Luke 19:1-10

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.

When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.

All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

When I was a child, I learned that forgiveness involved four steps: contrition, confession, satisfaction and absolution. First one had to be sorry for one’s sins. Then one had to confess them. After that one had to do penance to prove that one was truly sorry, and then, and only then would one be forgiven.

Jesus must not have read the Baltimore Catechism. At least in the story of Zacchaeus, forgiveness come first. Then, in light of the mercy received, Zacchaeus recognizes his sinfulness and promises to make things better for all who may have been hurt by it. Jesus does not demand confession, contrition or satisfaction first. He offers forgiveness first and then waits to see the results, and the results are profound. Zacchaeus is a changed man. It is the experience of mercy that leads to the conversion of heart, not the other way around.

For centuries, Catholic Christians have lives as though they needed to do something in order to deserve mercy. The heresy of Jansenism has been alive and well in our Church. We’ve made it seem as if mercy and forgiveness are rewards for a good life. We acted as if the Son of Man came to seek out and save only those who had already reformed their lives and were thus worthy of redemption. The story of Zacchaeus and his encounter with the Lord should give us hope, for we are saved, not by what we have done, but by what Christ has done for us.

Zacchaeus was not expecting Jesus to stop and call him down from his perch in the sycamore tree. He was not expecting a house guest. He was not expecting Jesus to look at him with such compassion and concern. Jesus didn’t expect to stay over night in Jericho. He had planned to continue on the way. But Jesus was moved by Zacchaeus and his curiosity. He was so moved that he invited himself into Zacchaeus’ home.

None of us expect Jesus to just show up, to call us by name, or to invite himself into our homes and our lives. We often believe that we need to be the ones who invite Christ into our lives rather than the other way around. However, God shows up when God chooses to do so, and God call us by name and invites God’s self into our lives when God sees it as an opportune time. And an opportune time is not dictated by us. It does not depend on when we’re ready to receive Christ into homes and our lives. It may in fact be while we are still sinners that “the Son of Man seeks and finds what is lost.”

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