Zacchaeus, and the Bold Audacious Powerful Generous Mercy of God

The Following is a talk I gave, based on the Sunday Gospels, in order to make an appeal to our Augustinian Guild:

Before the LORD the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.  The first reading opens with a reflection on God’s omnipotence, in other words, God is all powerful.  All creation is described as slight and precarious, that is before the all-powerful.  But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent. For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made;  Yet in all God’s greatness, he doesn’t take pleasure in destruction, namely the condemnation of his creation.  In fact, it is not because God is feeble that he is merciful.  In this case, quite the opposite, God is bold and audacious to be moved with mercy for the sinner.  Consequently, the sinner is moved to accept God’s love.  I can only speak for myself, but I know a frail God who accepts a sinner like me, is more likely going to be an object of my own clever manipulations.  If God’s mercy was rather connected to God being pathetic and listless, mercy wouldn’t be much mercy at all, love would not be much love at all, and no sinner would be moved to being reformed, if indeed God were just an unlimited storehouse of mercy like candy.  It is because our sin is real, that God conquers our sinfulness through his powerful mercy

…  But you spare all things, because they are yours, O LORD and lover of souls, for your imperishable spirit is in all things!  And it is this same God, who is all powerful, who is passionate and actively seeks out the redemption of the sinner whom he loves devotedly.

One sinner, that comes to mind, is Zacchaeus, whom we hear from the Gospel.  He was a tax collector, and that made him a sinner on many levels, according to the Jewish custom.  As the Pharisees of Jesus day struggled to keep their identity solid and clear amid Roman occupation, and the threat of Gentile assimilation, some people did not much benefit from the theology of the Pharisees, men like tax collectors.  They defiled the sacred codes by interacting with Gentiles.  It could only be imagined that men like Zacchaeus were pushed to the margins, and pushed to lives opposed to the morality of the Pharisees.  However the Gospels do indicate that Zacchaeus did indeed transgress in other ways beyond the sacred, namely that he was a thief, and the he manipulated the system, and manipulated the Jews by whom he collected taxes.  The Romans required the Jews to pay a tribute tax, a special one indeed.  The pathetic and listless Romans required everyone to worship their ceaser as divine, although it is likely that nobody believed it was true, people just went along with it.  Somehow, the Jews refused to be subjected to idolatry… and the Romans conceded a special tax.  Yet by that time, it was common knowledge, that the tax collectors among the Jews were pocketing extra money.  For these reasons, men like Zacchaeus were the big losers of the day.

Zacchaeus, is also described as short in stature, so short, that in order to see Jesus, he had to climb a syacamore tree.  Somehow Zacchaeus was incredibly daring to go out of his way to see this Jesus… the man who healed the blind, and forgave the prostitutes.  Jesus had a daring vision of God’s mercy, that the Pharisees did not have time for.  You can only imagine what kind of desperation Zacchaeus was trapped in.  He had no access to God, according the Pharisees, and was probably sick in his own skin being the thief that he was, a traitor taking advantage of his own people …  Jesus dared to risk ritual defilement to be close to the sinner.  Zacchaeus was a broken man, and he had no way of denying this anymore…

As we I had referred earlier to God as the opposite of listless and pathetic, and rather passionate and devout…  Zacchaeus learns that it was indeed Jesus who was looking for him.  Jesus, as fully God, and fully human, moved by mercy to redeem the sinner, as the first reading indicated.  Jesus was daring, bold, and in your face against the possession the Romans had over Zacchaeus, as well as the Pharisees who excluded him from his own religious heritage.  Jesus wanted to be so close to him, as to dine with him… in the same way that Jesus wants to be so close to us, in our daily Eucharist, as to dine with us today, so close that Jesus chooses to come to meet us…

And so, the thief and lose Zacchaeus is moved to equal boldness.  The Mosaic Law, sacred to the Pharisees would have required that Zacchaeus would pay back what he stole double… Zacchaeus multiplied his genorosity, in the same way that Jesus multiplied his mercy to go out of his way to accept a sinner… and Zacchaeus gave back fourfold, and sold his possessions to the poor.  But because in Jesus all powerful mercy, he gives Zacchaeus the expectation, and even the confidence, that we all must do great things.

I, personally, find myself relating to Zacchaeus on many levels.  For one, as the son of a former IRS agent, I certainly know from him, sometimes how unpopular taxes are.  In addition, as you can see I am short.  I may not have been pushed to the margins by my dad being in the IRS, but I have been pushed to the margins by being a youth.  It was almost as if people had expected us to be in gangs, to be violent, to be into drugs, to be into premarital sex, and to do everything by our own whims, without any regard to what’s right.  I mean, I have been pulled over by police in my own neighborhood, and searched, in the same way, I have been given glares of suspicion upon entering different churches.  If Zacchaeus is only expected to sin, he will sin.  If I was expected to sin, well the same followed.  Yet, I felt as if Jesus actually believed I was capable of many good things, and had the merciful audacity to challenge me to a higher standard.

I found myself, to even fall in love with the same church I felt out of place with, when I studied the teaching I never quite understood before.  In Guadiem et Spes, the Vatican II Document of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, paragraph 69 states, in brief:

God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner… Since there are so many people prostrate with hunger in the world, this sacred council urges all, both individuals and governments, to remember the aphorism of the Fathers, “Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him, you have killed him,”  The Church, was daring enough to take a stand on behalf of the neediest… That is powerful mercy…  And so I found myself wanting to witness to this in the same way.  I would soon find my place in with the Augustinians, perhaps for one, Augustine a sinner himself, who narrates how God found him, and mercy transformed him in his Confessions, was a relatable and welcoming piece for a broken sinner such as myself.  But moreover, because of the audacity of the Augustinians to witness against the injustices in the world, as paragraph 69 of our Constitutions states:

Because exaggerated economic inequalities arouse scandal where great wealth and destitution, abundance and famine exist side by side in the same society, the ideal of evangelical poverty impels us all the more and under a stricter obligation to bear witness to the world of the poor Christ against the unbridled lust for riches, and to faithfully observe the obligations of poverty in keeping with the nature of our Order…

And if we are to effectively stand on behalf of the needy, we need to have the humility to know our own insufficiency, even a financial insufficiency.


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