Mercy and Repentance: a Seamless Garment

31st Sunday of the Year

For the Son of Man has come to seek
and to save what was lost.” Luke 19:10

The most perfect of all prayers is unquestionably the Lord’s Prayer which we are taught as youngsters and ought to pray all of our life. For according to our Church Fathers, who often commented on it, it has to be the model of all Christian prayer. And perhaps nothing is more distinctively Christian in this prayer than the last few petitions.

In the first of these petitions, we ask God to forgive us our trespasses, while humbly recognizing that our being forgiven by God depends upon our willingness to forgive those who trespass against us. In the second petition, we sincerely pray that we will not be overcome by temptation, and the third is that we may be delivered from the evil they propose and all evil.  How easily we can repeat these lines, taking for granted that what we are asking for, if asked sincerely and humbly, will be granted by God, that he will indeed forgive us our trespasses, help us to resist our temptations and deliver us from evil.

Now there are many evils in this world we pray to be delivered from, but in this prayer, given the proximity of our plea for forgiveness of our sins to our plea that God deliver us from temptation and from evil, it would seem reasonable that here we should most especially be praying to be delivered from the temptation not to forgive others and from the evil that results from our refusal to do so, evil both for us and for our neighbor. For 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 own teaching and the Lord’s own Prayer, depends upon our willingness to do for others what we would have God do for us, that is, on 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 fact confirmed all the time in this unforgiving world. For instance,we witness the horrors of wars between ethnic enemies, where ancient wrongs still poison hearts with bitterness and resentment, resulting in a refusal to forgive or even to regard the enemy as a fellow human being. But we also can often witness the bitterness and hatred even among relatives or neighbors for wrongs suffered, even wrongs from times long past.  This poison in the human heart is all around us, perhaps even in our own hearts, and it is certainly a great temptation that we must pray to be delivered from by God, Who alone can change our hearts in such bitter matters.

The supreme example of such forgiveness, of course, is found in our innocent Savior, who not only forgave his immediate enemies for torturing and murdering him, but also forgave the whole human race whose sins were the ultimate cause of his suffering and death.

This theme of forgiveness begetting forgiveness is also found in today’s Gospel where Jesus brings about the conversion of a tax collector by his mercy and forgiveness, which entailed 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 accomplish that end he chose 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, the publican 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 thieves and 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 Roman tax 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 refuse of society.

Now Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector, but the chief tax collector for Jericho, and thus he was quite a wealthy man as the result.  Nonetheless this man was curious to see Christ for some reason.  We ourselves never know what is in the human heart, and that is why we often fail to see the spark of goodness that lies hidden perhaps even in the most evil of men.

However, Jesus evidently saw this man Zacchaeus not primarily as a tax collector, but simply as a man, and as a man in great need of redemption, and  as a man whom Jesus could see was open to conversion. Jesus knew that this was the underlying motive for this small man climbing a tree to see Jesus, a motive likely not even clearly understood by the man himself. Whereas the crowd only saw in Zacchaeus an enemy, an evil man whom they hated, Jesus saw something else, that is, a lost sheep who like all men was beloved of His Father in Heaven.

His gesture of compassion, then, his willingness to “stay at” his house that day, signaled his readiness to forgive Zacchaeus, and it in fact led Zacchaeus to conversion. And so Zacchaeus, desiring this forgiveness and recognizing it in the merciful gesture of Jesus, immediately proclaims his own sincere repentance. Then and there, he promised reparation for his dishonesty by restoring any fraudulent taxes four-fold and in addition by giving half of his belongings to the poor. Here was genuine conversion, and it all took place  because his heart was transformed by the compassion Jesus showed him simply by His willingness to stay at his house that day, and thus to forgive all his sins if he repented of them. And cannot merciful hearts hear the angels rejoicing over this one lost sheep who has been found and restored to his Master.

When we pray the Our Father, we are truly praying to have the heart of Christ, and that heart 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, just like ours, would truly cause Jesus death. 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 the sinner not only converts the sinner, but leads to a restoration of justice and, beyond that, even to a tremendous act of charity on the part of the converted man.

What a different world we would live in today if men truly forgave each other in this fashion. We cannot explain the world’s refusal to live by this law of mercy, but we must answer for our own lack of mercy if we fail to forgive our enemies as God has forgiven us.  That is why we must pray every day and 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 and from the evils that result from hardened hearts.” Deliver us, O Lord, as only you can, so that as Paul says, “that our God may make [us] worthy of his calling and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith, that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in [us].” Amen.




Categories: Homilies, Uncategorized

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