"Today salvation has come to this house"
(Readings: Wisdom 11:22-12:2; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10)
Introduction to Mass
The book of Wisdom in the first reading today talks about how far God is prepared to overlook human frailty and wickedness in order to win men and women back to him. In the Gospel reading, Jesus himself illustrates this aspect of God's character when he persuades one man - the tax-collector Zacchaeus - to return to friendship with God.
As always we begin Mass by apologising to God for the wrong we've done and by renewing our own desire to return to friendship with him.
The theme of the readings this Sunday is summed up in the last line of the gospel, where Jesus says about Zacchaeus that 'today, salvation has come to this house', and when he says about himself that he has come 'to seek out and save what is lost'.
In the Old Testament period it was the prophets who tended to make fiery speeches, condemning the Chosen People's lack of faithfulness, their hypocrisy, the different forms of corruption in their society. Christ spoke in the same language to certain groups of people, when he saw the same kind of distortions of the faith that the prophets had seen.
But the author of the book of Wisdom gives a much gentler, forbearing picture of what God is like. God, says the Book of Wisdom in these few lines, cares about everything that he's made. Especially when it comes to us - to human beings - God wants a state of harmony to exist between him and us, not a state of division or separation. And he wants that harmony so much that he's prepared to tread very softly when it comes to our various sins and moral failures.
"Little by little," says the Book of Wisdom, "you correct those who offend". "You are merciful to all... and you overlook men's sins so that they can repent".
The whole picture of God that emerges here is a picture of someone who understands the frailty of human nature, someone who never loses sight of our potential for holiness in spite of various kinds of sinfulness. And this is the image of God that Jesus projected, very deliberately and purposefully, in his own ministry - as we see in the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus was a wealthy man and a senior tax-collector. That means that he was somebody who had been prepared to sacrifice his religious principles and his membership of the Jewish community to work for the Romans and increase his own wealth.
But in spite of these apostasies, it turns out that Zacchaeus wasn't someone who was completely closed to God. Luke doesn't give us any great psychological explanation as to why Zacchaeus was curious about Jesus. He doesn't tell us whether Christ noticed something special about Zacchaeus' attitude that suggested a sort of openness to his message. There must have been more to Zacchaeus' meeting with Christ, which had such a huge impact on him, than we're told in these few lines.
The important thing is that after receiving Christ as a guest in his house, Zacchaeus turned his life around. He gives away half of his property to the poor and pays back the people he's cheated four times the amount he took from them in the first place. Jesus describes these concrete actions as the coming of salvation in Zacchaeus' life.
There are two aspects to this salvation that comes to Zacchaeus. One aspect is what we might call restoration. The relationship between God and Zaachaeus, which had been lost, is now restored. The relationship between Zacchaeus and the rest of the community of believers is restored. That comes about because Zacchaeus repairs his relationship with the people he's cheated in the past: he wipes out the wrong he's done by paying them back four times as much as he took from them in the first place.
The story reminded me of the striking remark made by Primo Levi, the Italian chemist who was imprisoned in one of the Nazi concentration camps during the war. Talking about the Nazis who expressed sorrow afterwards for what they had done, Levi said that for him "verbal repentance is not enough"; genuine repentance means "a man has to show by his actions that he is no longer the man he was".
This was what Zacchaeus did. He showed by his actions that he was no longer the man he'd been. And when harmony is restored between people in that way, Jesus called it 'salvation'.
The second aspect of the salvation that's at work in this incident is what we might call liberation. In the Bible, and in our Christian theology, the idea of salvation always carried with it the meaning of being delivered, or freed, from slavery - and Zacchaeus is freed in a very obvious way from the slavery of accumulating money, which up till this point had been the main goal of his life.
Earlier on in his gospel Luke had already given us an example of somebody who wasn't able to take this step - the rich young man, who 'went away sad' rather than parting with any of his wealth. He didn't experience his meeting with Christ or hear the gospel message, as a liberation. He experienced it as a sacrifice which he wasn't prepared to make.
This other rich man, Zacchaeus, is a counterbalance to the first one. Jesus' visit to his house left him more than willing to give up the lesser good of his wealth for the greater good of being reconciled with God. And on this one occasion at least, Christ's preference for the company of people who were outside the boundaries of the religious Law was vindicated.
So the readings today tell us two important things about God. On the one hand, he takes us as we are, he overlooks our faults and sins in his desire to restore our friendship with him. But on the other hand he never leaves us as we are, and it's only when a fundamental turning-around has taken place in somebody's life that Jesus announces the arrival of salvation.
That's the practical lesson I'd draw from today's readings, and it's up to all of us to put it into practice in whatever way we think it applies to us as modern-day believers in Christ's message of salvation.