“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook people's sins that they may repent.” (Wisdom 11:23)
You never know when God’s mercy will embrace you, you never know when you will feel the need to receive God’s mercy right away, and, as a priest, you never know when you will be called upon to dispense God’s mercy through confession. It happens to priests all the time. When we least expect it, someone will grab us for confession. We can be working on something, walking through a hospital, an airport, or even relaxing on a beach when someone will grab us to ask us to hear their confession (yes, the beach confession has happened). On this Priesthood Sunday, as priests we are reminded that we are Ministers of Mercy in a unique way through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. That so many times people will stop us before Mass, after Mass, or whenever or wherever they can find us to ask for forgiveness and we need to be ready to hear their confession.
Today God’s mercy hits the tax collector in the gospel in an unexpected way. Jesus was just intending to pass through town when he looks up and sees small Zacchaeus in a sycamore tree trying to get a glimpse of Jesus. This is the moment where God’s mercy strikes: the gaze of Jesus, then the invitation of Jesus to abide in your home. This tax collector was simply “seeking to see Jesus.” The gospel writer doesn’t tell us Zacchaeus’ intentions or his reasons for wanting to see the Lord. But whatever his motives were, whatever was in his heart, even if it was simple curiosity to see Jesus, it was enough to catch the Lord’s attention. All Jesus needs is the tiniest of openings. When Zacchaeus comes out of the tree, he hears the grumblings. He hears the chatter. “How can Jesus be with this sinner?” Even through the gossip of others, God’s uses this sin to draw out something greater in Zacchaeus’ acts of repentance. He will give half of what he has to the poor and pay back anyone he has extorted 4 times over! So Jesus enters his life, he experiences his mercy and we immediately see the results. “Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus tells him, “because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.” You see when Jesus looked up into that tree, he didn’t see a tax collector, he didn’t see a sinner, what he saw was a child of God. The beauty of God’s mercy is that it looks past our faults, our imperfections and our sins. It embraces us always because we are his children. Now if we could only apply that same mercy to each other…
We hear the people grumbling in the gospel. They don’t like that Jesus had treated such a sinful man in this way. They don’t have rooms in their hearts for mercy. Just like last week, we see division. Last week we saw the gulf that separated the Pharisee and the tax collector and this week we see the gulf between Zacchaeus and the people that were looking on and grumbling. They only saw in Zacchaeus a thief and a tax collector. Jesus saw a child of God in need of mercy. If we could only treat each other with more mercy, more respect, more like Jesus treated this tax collector, and how Zacchaeus, in turn, started treating everyone else. We spend so much time demonizing those who are sinners or that simply don’t agree with us that we fail to see that ALL of us are children of God and that ALL of us are in need of his mercy. If we could only see each other with the gaze of Jesus.