Last week we had the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee in the Temple. This week the Gospel names Zacchaeus as that tax collector.
Why were tax collectors lumped together with other sinners? The way taxes worked in the Roman Empire was that the Romans enlisted the help of locals offering them a lucrative living for collaboration. The tax collector got a percentage of the tax, so he would set as high amount of tax as possible. If anyone protested, well, behind the tax collector’s table there were Roman soldiers. So a tax collector was a thief, and worse than a thief, he used the hated Romans to steal from his own people.
Last Sunday showed us a humble and repentant Zacchaeus. He finally was able to acknowledge his excessive over-taxing at the expense of his fellow countrymen and so he stood in the back of the Temple praying, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Zacchaeus heard that Jesus, a forgiver of sinners was passing by. He was curious, but he was also short. He couldn’t see Jesus, so he climbed that sycamore tree to get a better look. He must have been shocked that Jesus would call him out of the tree and tell him that he would eat at his house that evening. Having a meal with someone is a gesture of friendship. The Lord wanted to be part of Zacchaeus’ life. Many people grumbled at that, but Zacchaeus, the little man, stood his ground and gave half of what he had to the poor, promising to repay fourfold those he had cheated.
Zacchaeus responded to the mercy he had received. How have we responded to the mercy of God we have received in our lives? Do we take it for granted and go on with our lives continuing to sin, or do we really try to change our lives? Saying, “I’m sorry,” and seeking mercy is good, but only if we intend to respond to the mercy we receive.
You see, it is not enough to say that we are sorry and receive forgiveness. We have to do all we can to change our actions. The only limits on God’s mercy are the ones that we put on them. Sometimes those limits are refusing to ask for His mercy. Sometimes those limits are refusing to respond to His mercy.
Zacchaeus realized that things had to change. That’s the reaction we have to have when we want to truly embrace God’s mercy; Our avoidance of sinful acts, our decision to pray, our commitment to going to weekend Mass; and our determination to live up to our marriage vows and baptismal promises. The story of Zacchaeus, challenges us to respond to the Lord’s mercy in our own lives.