Let me share with you three stories that all have something in common. First story: I was in my 20’s, not long out of college, working for a company called Emery Worldwide. One day a man called saying he was from the company that serviced our copy machine and needed to know the serial number. I promptly put him on hold and asked my boss for it. He responded, “Don’t give it to him! It’s a scam! They’ll start sending you all this toner you don’t want and charging you outrageous prices for it! Then they’ll start sending collections agencies after you for not paying!” So, I told the man that I couldn’t give it to him, he said something obscene to me, and hung up.
Second story, years later: my mom received a call from a young man who said he was her grandson. He said he was in Mexico, had run out of money, and could she send him some money so that he could get back home. Having lost my faith in humanity by that point, I said to her, “Hang up! It’s a scam! He’s lying!”
Final story: a friend of mine happened to be studying in Poland. One day he was on the subway in Warsaw when a woman got on, smiled at him, and then went up to him and started to sort of do the tango with him. Since she was attractive and he thought she might be interested in him, he indulged her for a few moments, and then they got to the next stop; she smiled at him, and got off the train. You can probably guess what happened next: suddenly he realized his wallet was gone!
Why am I sharing these stories? One is because this is an excuse to warn everyone about all the con artists out there, those people who prey off of others, usually the weak and the vulnerable, people who say they need the serial number of your copy machine, they’re a relative calling from Mexico, they’re calling from the IRS and you owe back taxes and you’re going to be arrested if you don’t forward money immediately, and so on. These are just a few of the stories that I or someone I know have personally experienced. Be on your guard!
But the main reason why I share these stories is to give you all a little perspective about this man named Zacchaeus who appears in our Gospel reading today. He is often sentimentalized, perhaps because he was short and he climbed a tree to see Jesus. But as a tax collector, he was to the Jews what con artists would be to us: particularly despicable people. We shouldn’t sentimentalize Zacchaeus; he probably did cheat a lot of people out of their money, making them pay exorbitant taxes so that the Romans could continue to occupy their land.
And yet, out of all the people there, it was to him that Jesus spoke: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” The crowd was not pleased; they began to grumble because Jesus was going to stay at the house of a notorious sinner. Neither Zacchaeus’s reputation nor the grumbling of the crowd, however, deterred Jesus.
This should give encouragement to each one of us, none of whom are perfect. If Jesus would choose to stay at the home of this man, who was kind of at the level of the con artists I mentioned in these stories, then certainly Jesus also desires to stay with each one of us. Remember that the Gospel begins by saying that Jesus came to Jericho but intended to pass through the town. But when he saw Zacchaeus, he immediately changed his plans and chose to stay at his house that evening. Perhaps he saw something in him that indicated that this man, in spite of his sins, desired forgiveness deep in his heart.
Imagine Jesus looking at you in this way. Regardless of what you’ve done and how many times you’ve done it, regardless of what people might say or think about you, Jesus desires to forgive you. He desires that you be reconciled with Him. And He desires to stay with you, not just for a night, but for the rest of your life and for all eternity. Jesus knew that the life that Zacchaeus had been leading was not a good one and that this little man was probably empty on the inside, in spite of – or rather because of – the wealth he had acquired by cheating his neighbors. Jesus knew that Zacchaeus needed reconciliation with the Lord, just as he knows that we need to be reconciled to him when we have turned away from him. And that reconciliation comes about through a personal encounter with Christ, through welcoming Jesus into your heart, through spending time with Him.
But this was not all. Zacchaeus immediately responded to Jesus with joy and promised to make restitution for what he had stolen: “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” Making restitution or reparation goes with forgiveness. That’s why in the sacrament of reconciliation, the priest gives a penance, usually a prayer or something relatively simple to do. The penance is normally just a symbolic act of reparation, often insignificant compared to the sins. God of course forgives us wholeheartedly, unconditionally; his forgiveness is not dependent on a penance. But this is a part of the sacrament of reconciliation because God knows that making reparation for what we’ve done – even in some small way – is good for us, for our spiritual growth, for our relationship with God, and for our relationship with others.
I remember once seeing a commercial for some comedy on TV – I think it must have been a pretty dark comedy – the kind of commercial in which they show a 10-second scene from the upcoming episode. In the scene there was a man lying in a hospital bed within a woman sitting next to the bed. The man said to the woman, “You tried to kill me!” And she responded, “Yeah, and I feel really bad about that.” OK, that’s nice, but maybe a little inadequate! Sometimes it is necessary to make restitution for the wrong we have done to someone, and the more serious the offense, the more necessary the restitution.
It’s also possible to say that we’re sorry and not really mean it. However, contrition, or sorrow for our sins, is necessary, however little we might feel. But fortunately, God can work with the little bit of contrition that we might have. Or we might know that we should feel contrition but not actually feel it; in that case, we ought to ask the Lord for that grace to be sorry for our sins. And God in his mercy can work with even that, with the little bit that we are able to give him. And it’s necessary to make restitution in some way for our sins, which we can do through little acts of kindness, by making a donation to a charity or to one’s parish, and certainly by praying for anyone that we have wounded through our own sins.
God’s mercy is there for everyone. It is there for us if we choose to receive it. There is no one beyond the scope of God’s mercy. That is true not just for us but for everyone, including the people who have sinned against us in some way. We ought to pray for the conversion of anyone who has hurt us or has sinned against. We should pray for our enemies, for the enemies of the Church, for those who persecute Christians. Think of the good that can come about through their conversion. The conversion of an enemy of the Church can produce so much good. There is so much healing that takes place when people are reconciled with one another. We ought to pray for this: for the reconciliation of enemies, for the grace to be able to forgive as Jesus forgives, and to give thanks to the Lord for His infinite mercy.