Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. This Sunday’s Gospel is about the story of Zacchaeus. It is one of the most familiar stories in the Gospels and one of the best known since our childhood. We were first introduced to the story of Zacchaeus when we prepared for our First Confession. I can still remember the song we learned for that occasion as it plays in mind my mind as I write these words: ‘Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus…Zacchaeus was a greedy little man’. Yet the story was very influential for it introduced us to a sense of right and wrong and how from the example of Jesus, God forgives us because he loves us, just like he did with Zacchaeus. Yet there is another dimension to the story that dawns on you as you get older - namely that God does not love us because we are good but rather we are good because he loves us. God’s love always comes first.
We are always projecting on to God ways that we humans think and act. In our way of thinking we say things like ‘If you like me, I’ll like you’; ‘if you are nasty to me, I’ll be nasty to you’; ‘if I am good to you then I expect you to be good to me’. God does not think or act in this way. God does not love us because we are good but rather we are good because he loves us. God’s love always comes first. Here lies the secret to the entire Christian and spiritual life. For the crowd in the story, God’s love had to be earned. That’s why they are furious and jealous when Jesus singles out Zacchaeus and goes to his house which in those times was a great sign of acceptance and fellowship. For the crowd who complain, Zacchaeus did not deserve this honour because he was a bad man and a thief. They were further scandalised because Jesus went to his house without any commitment on Zacchaeus’ part to repent. But Zacchaeus’ repentance followed as the natural result of being accepted and loved by Christ. We see this so often in the Gospels. People whose lives were changed and turned on their heads after an encounter with Jesus who did not demand that they repent before he loved them - but because he loved them, they repented.
For us too, the love of Jesus Christ constantly seeks us out for he is the lover of souls. Jesus wants us to stop hiding, stop running, stop avoiding and to come down where he is waiting to meet us. He wants us to face ourselves and to face him. In the Gospel, Jesus enters Zacchaeus’ house. There Jesus enters his personal and intimate space. Sometimes, we hide like Zacchaeus because we are afraid of what God might demand of us if we allow him to get too close. We want God in our lives but prefer to keep him at a safe distance. But God always wants to get closer to us than we want him to. Will we allow him?
There is another important aspect of the story of Zacchaeus to bear in mind. Yes, he is a changed man because of his encounter with Jesus but the change translates into how he treats those he has cheated. He gives away half he owns to the poor and restores what he has stolen. Being reconciled with God has both vertical and horizontal dimensions. Others benefit when we change our ways for the better. Being forgiven by God requires us to put right, in so far as we can, what we have done wrong and be reconciled with those we have harmed. The fruit of repentance is joy for everyone.
So let’s stop making up false gods and focus instead on who God really is and not who we think him to be. His love is not a reward but a gift that comes first before everything. In the words of St John ‘God loved us first’ (1 Jn 4:19).