31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Ages 9-12): Mercy and Joy
(You could begin by reading the scripture passage. Better yet, ask someone to read it to you. The Word of God is meant to be heard.)
Last week, in the parable we listened to, the hero was a tax collector. Jesus must have a soft spot in his heart for tax collectors. In the Gospel for this Sunday, Jesus encounters a tax collector in person. What will he be like?
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.
Why does St. Luke tell us that Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector? Why does he tell us that he is rich? From this we know that Zacchaeus is a fairly important person who works for the Romans. Likely, he has been doing this work for some time now, taking a little bit extra for himself each time he collects taxes. People would be a little afraid of him. For certain, they would resent him. He is a traitor to Israel, and he takes what does not belong to him.
He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.
Frankly, this is a funny image. Imagine this important rich man, too short to see over anyone's head, running ahead to climb a tree. We do not see that everyday. Rich men get other people to do what they want. Zacchaeus could pay someone to lift him up, or get some of his Roman buddies to move people aside. He does not do this. We wonder why not. Does he know that no one would take his money because they despise him? Does he know that the Romans only use him, laughing at how short he is? Or does he simply not think at all—the desire to see Jesus is just that strong?
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
What is going on here? Jesus changes his plans about passing through Jericho. He decides that he must stay with Zacchaeus, a known sinner. Zacchaeus has not asked for this. We can even say, like the others who grumble, that Zacchaeus does not deserve this. It is a gift that Jesus gives him freely. This is mercy.
Notice Zacchaeus' response to the gift of mercy:
So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.
"Happy" is one of those words that does not really describe feelings very well. Is he delighted? Is he content? Is he pleased? Is he gleeful? The New American Bible translates that same line like this:
And he came down quickly and received him with joy.
Joy is different. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
We know, of course, that the Holy Spirit flows freely through Jesus, both in the Gospel and now in his Risen life, in the fullness of the life of God. The Holy Spirit flows from Jesus to us. When this happens freely, when we are "moved by the Holy Spirit," there are signs. We call these signs "fruit" of the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus offers Zacchaeus mercy, the Holy Spirit flows from him into Zacchaeus. We know this because, bubbling up in Zacchaeus, there is joy.
Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
He has changed, hasn't he? He is transformed! Once, he lined his pockets with money that he demanded from his fellow citizens of Israel. Now, he is concerned about the poor. We can see that he is becoming the person he was made to be.
Why is this important? What does St. Luke want us to know about mercy? We commit sins—maybe not the same ones as Zacchaeus—but sins we are ashamed of. Does Jesus offer us the gift of mercy?
For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.
In the sacrament of reconciliation, we know the mercy of God. We experience the mercy that allows the Holy Spirit to flow, to open us to change, to transform us. In the mercy of God, we are restored to the person we are meant to be.
What fruit of the Holy Spirit will bubble up in us when we receive mercy?
Is this all that St. Luke wants us to know about mercy?
The people who resent Zacchaeus are not happy (they are certainly not filled with joy) when he receives this gift. How do we react when we see someone else receive mercy? Do we grumble when they are forgiven?
Mercy is God's gift. We have received this gift from God. If we have received it, can we also give it? Can we offer mercy to a sinner? What fruit will the Holy Spirit produce then?