You can do all things and overlook [people’s] sins so that they can repent.
Wisdom 11: 24
. . .
Somehow–maybe it was struggling to keep the two-year-old quiet–I didn’t hear this in Mass this morning. Not that it wasn’t read: it was read by the son of my two-year-old’s godmother. But I missed it, and the priest didn’t comment on it in his homily, which focused on the gospel. Fair enough, I suppose. There is a good deal to say about Zacchaeus. Still, the readings in the lectionary are ordered, and combinations occur for a reason. Sometimes that reason is pretty hard to discern, but today it is less puzzling.
At least it’s less puzzling if you happen to be a Catholic who has strayed far into Reformed and Evangelical territory. Then the prevenience of grace leaps out of every page of the Bible–even the books of the Bible that only appear in the Catholic editions of the Bible. And here it is in the book of Wisdom. I always associate Wisdom with the key passages in chapters 7-9, about the role of wisdom in creation, including one of my favourites: omnia disponit suaviter, [widsom] arranges all things delightfully. So finding this other theme of the Bible, the grace of God that makes way for the sinner’s return, there in Wisdom is, well, delightful.
And it is, of course, this path-breaking grace of God that drives Zacchaeus up the tree. The change has already begun. Can it be anything other than the Holy Spirit that draws Zacchaeus to Jesus? I don’t think so, and I could quote some early church theologians to support that claim. Besides, Jesus does just what the verse in Wisdom says: he “overlooks” Zacchaeus’ sins, so that he can repent. Religious leaders aren’t supposed to hang out with infamous sinners, but Jesus doesn’t seem too worried about that. He sees beyond the sin, sees the person who needs the space to repent. Jesus makes repentance possible.
Two things follow from this, for me. First, I am struck by the space-making work of Christ. I have noticed it elsewhere in the gospels (see Mark 5: 30-34, for example), but never connected it to Zacchaeus, to repentance. So also, I realize, Jesus is making space, always, for my repentance. Am I perceiving it? Do I enter into that space, or do I avoid it? (I’m not certain, but I am more determined to get to confession this Saturday!) Second, and this is something that has been tugging at me for a little while, Jesus makes space for pretty unpleasant people. Tax collectors are the bad guys in the first century, not the people the messiah is supposed to befriend. Who are the people around me that Jesus wants to befriend? I’m guessing they’re not the people I would ordinarily find friend-like.
No wonder I haven’t seen that space for repentance as space for me: I have just divided the people around me into people like me (friend-like) and people who need space for repentance. The fact that both (1) that Jesus makes space for me to repent and (2) Jesus makes space for “obvious” sinners–the “tax collectors” of our day–to repent means that I am not so different as I might like to think.
Luckily, there’s plenty of that prevenient grace to go around.