31st Sunday of the Year
“Today salvation has come to this house …
For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
The most perfect of all prayers is unquestionably the Lord’s Prayer which we are taught as youngsters and should pray all of our lives. It is, according to Church Fathers, the model of all Christian prayer, and nothing is more distinctively Christian in this prayer than the last few petitions. In the first of these, we ask God to forgive us our trespasses, while recognizing that our being forgiven by God depends upon our willingness to forgive those who trespass against us. Then, we immediately pray that we will not be overcome by temptation but be delivered from evil. How easily we repeat these last lines, taking for granted, perhaps, that what we are asking for will be granted by God, that he will forgive us our trespasses, help us to resist temptations and deliver us from evil.
There are many evils in this world we pray to be delivered from, but in this prayer, given the proximity of our prayer for forgiveness of our sins from our plea that God deliver us from temptation and from evil, it would seem reasonable that here we are especially praying to be delivered from the temptation not to forgive others, and the evil that results from our refusal to do so, evil for us and for our neighbor. What an evil it is for us if we do not forgive others! If we do not forgive others, then God will not forgive us, because the sincerity of our repentance, according to the Lord’s teaching and the Lord’s Prayer, depends upon our willingness to do for others what we would have God do for us, our willingness to forgive.
It is not always an easy thing to forgive others, especially when the evils we have suffered at their hands are great and have hurt us deeply. We see this all the time in the world. We see the horror of wars between ethnic enemies, where ancient wrongs still poison hearts today with bitterness and resentment, resulting in a refusal to forgive or even to regard the enemy as a human being. We also witness the bitterness and hatred even among relatives or neighbors for wrongs suffered. This poison in the human heart is all around us, perhaps even in our own hearts, and it is one great temptation that we must pray to be delivered from by God, who alone can change our hearts in these matters.
The supreme example of such forgiveness, of course, is found in Our Savior, who not only forgave his immediate enemies for torturing and murdering him, but forgave the whole human race, ourselves, whose sins were the ultimate cause of his suffering and death. This theme of forgiveness generating forgiveness is also found in today’s Gospel where Jesus brings about the conversion of a tax collector by his mercy and forgiveness, which entails a gesture on His part that was a great scandal to the authorities of his people. Jesus was going to forgive this man’s sins, but to do that he chose even to associate with him in his own house, and this act of compassion and mercy brought about an instantaneous conversion of this man of ill repute, this tax official named Zacchaeus.
Tax Collectors are never very popular in any society, but the tax collectors for Rome were positively despised in Israel in our Lord’s day. Tax collector’s were considered little more than extortionists, for the tax job went to the highest bidder who then had to milk the people, often by literal extortion, to make their payments to Rome and makes themselves wealthy in the process. These collectors were considered to be thieves and political collaborators with a hated oppressor. A respectable Jew would have nothing to do with them, and their name, publican, became synonymous with the worst kind of sinners, the ilk, the refuse of society.
Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector, but the chief collector for Jericho, and thus a quite wealthy man as the result. Nonetheless he was curious to see Christ for some reason. We never know what is in the human heart, and that is why we fail to see the spark of goodness that lies hidden perhaps even in the most evil of men. Jesus evidently saw Zacchaeus not simply as a tax collector, but simply as a man, and as a man in great need of redemption, and perhaps as a man who was open to conversion. Perhaps Jesus knew that this was the motive for the man climbing a tree to see Jesus, a motive perhaps not even precisely known to the man himself. The crowd only saw an enemy, a man they hated, but Jesus saw something else, a lost sheep who was beloved of His Father in Heaven.
His gesture of compassion, his willingness to “stay at” his house that day, signaled his readiness to forgive Zacchaeus, and it led Zacchaeus to conversion. And Zacchaeus, desiring this forgiveness and recognizing it in the heart of Jesus immediately signals his own sincere repentance. He then and there promised reparation by restoring any fraudulent taxes four fold and giving half of his belongings to the poor. There was genuine conversion, and all because his heart was transformed by the compassion Jesus showed him simply by his willingness to be his friend, to stay at his house that day, and forgive these now repented sins. Can’t we hear the angels rejoicing over the one lost sheep who has been found and restored to his Master.
When we pray the Our Father, we are praying to have the heart of Christ, and that includes a readiness to forgive even our worst enemies, and, like Jesus, to be more concerned for their salvation than for the wrong they have done to us. Zacchaeus’ sins would contribute to Jesus death, just like ours, but what Our Lord was concerned about was not this evil He Himself would suffer, but the evil in the soul of the tax collector who was in danger of being lost forever. His compassion and readiness to forgive of the sinner not only converts the sinner, but leads to a restoration of justice and even a tremendous act of charity on the part of the converted man.
What a different world we would live in if men truly forgave each other in this fashion. We cannot answer for the world’s refusal to live by this law of mercy., but we must answer for ourselves. That is why we must pray ever more sincerely, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and deliver us above all from the temptation to refuse forgiveness, deliver us from the evils that result from hardened hearts. Deliver us O Lord as only you can. Amen