29th Sunday in Ordinary Time:“Walking in Complete Conversion”
Psalm 119: 137-144
Let me share a story that might have happened about 2000 years ago in the house of a man named Simon. Let us journey through this story and enter that city called Jericho.
There is a knock at the door, and Simon’s son says, “Someone is at the door, father! He said his name is Zacchaeus.” Simon exclaimed, “Zacchaeus!” and his face was flushed with rage. He said, “What does that thief want?!?” Simon moved brusquely past his son, clenching his jaw, saying, “The nerve of that man after all that he has squeezed out of my income, he has the gall to come back to ask for more! He is an extortionist, a crook, a merciless vermin!” There was a flash of other words that came to his mind to describe the foul and despicable character of this social criminal.
Arriving at the door, while jerking it open, Simon exploded, “What do you want?!” He was almost unable to control the momentum of his stride. “It isn’t yet time to pay taxes to Caesar. Get out of my sight!!!” Zacchaeus said, “I am here to return something to you, Simon.” Simon wondered, “What do you mean?” Zacchaeus held out a bag containing silver coins, heavy enough for Simon to hold out two hands in order for it not to fall.
Simon was confused, yet suspicious. The man standing in front of him had literally robbed all of Jericho while collecting taxes in the name of the emperor. No one was more cunning and sly and treacherous with his words as this man. Simon could not move. He was thinking that Zacchaeus was trying to lure him into a trap. Simon asked cynically, “What is this all about, Zacc?” Zacchaeus answered, “Simon, I know this is strange and you have every reason to doubt to what I say after all those years of fraud and trickery that I have done to you and many others. But I am here because I realized I defrauded you. I have sinned against God and against you. I have charged you way beyond what you should really pay in taxes and I have kept the difference. I know that you and many others here in Jericho are aware of that. I know how you hated me for it. But I stand here before you today to ask for forgiveness, to show you how sorry I am, and to make restitution. That is what is in the money bag is all about.”
The small figure of this man called Zacchaeus, unexpectedly and uncharacteristic of how people have known him, suddenly bent down in a humble display of repentance. Tentatively, Simon took the bag and looked inside and said, “There is a lot here and it seems much more than what you charged me.” Zacchaeus replied, “Yes, it is four times what I have overcharged you.” Simon asked, “But why, Zacchaeus?”
Zacchaeus replied with remorse in his voice, “I am keeping a vow that I made to Jesus when He came and visited our town. I told him that I would give everyone I cheated up to four times as much as what I took from them. Jesus was here in Jericho! I saw Him! He gazed at me with eyes so filled with compassion and love in spite of all that I have done. He called me out by my own name and He even stayed in my house. We sat and had dinner together. Jesus had a dinner with me, a sinner, Simon, but He changed me! Something inside of me was transformed into what I have never experienced before. I am a new creature now, Simon. I was forgiven and hope was born in me."
The gospel of Jesus Christ always bears hope. We are burdened with life today. Life seems to be difficult, and yet the life many of us see and experience today is only a small portion of the much bigger picture of life which God has given for us to live. It is a God-kind of life. This is why St. Paul can say in Romans 8:18 (NIV), “18 I consider that our present sufferings of this life are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” If only we can pause and pay attention to this.
This Sunday, our theme is to “Walk in Complete Conversion.” What does this mean? What does it entail? Complete conversion is composed of 3 aspects: Firstly: God always initiates and fulfills His work. God is always the first cause. He always takes the first step and first move. We can only do what He has already provided for. God has taken the first action for our salvation.
In Luke 19:1 (GNT), the first words of the gospel says, “Jesus went on into Jericho.” It was the action of Jesus first that started the gospel. God always acts first. Our gospel begins with Jesus’ action. He purposed to go to Jericho. He had a mission to fulfill and He plans to complete that mission.
In 1 Peter 1:19-21 (CEV) it says, “19 You were rescued by the precious blood of Christ, that spotless and innocent lamb. 20 Christ was chosen even before the world was created, but because of you, he did not come until these last days. 21 And when he did come, it was to lead you to have faith in God, who raised him from death and honored him in a glorious way. That’s why you have put your faith and hope in God." We have faith because it was God’s action first. We cannot boast about what we have done because what we did is just a response to what God had done for us.
As Jesus entered the city, the gospel zooms in on a man; but this was not an ordinary man or citizen of the town. He was the chief tax collector. He was a Jew, who works for the Roman government in order to collect the required taxes but with the liberty and blessing of Rome to demand much more than what Rome required. He extorted people. He benefitted from the people’s lack and misery, and the whole town hated him.
This man, Zacchaeus, was drawn to Jesus. Yet even his attraction to Jesus was not self- generated. It was God working in his life. John 6:44 (New Life Version) says, “Jesus said, “The Father sent Me. No man can come to Me unless the Father gives him the desire to come to Me. Then I will raise him to life on the last day.” We are here not because we chose it, an obligation, by chance or to fulfill a ministry. We are here today because God drew us here. It is God working in our lives. It is only because of Him and only Him. God takes the first action. He draws us to Himself.
The second aspect of Complete Conversion is: Jesus knows us by name. As Zacchaeus is gripped by this indescribable desire to see Jesus, as an inner hunger and thirst which he has never felt before takes control of his actions, and he tries to make it with the crowd but could not. After all, the people despised him. Was he willing to risk being beaten up by the crowd? He was a small man. He could not face the onslaught of this multitude. Did he want to give up? No way! It was because a certain zeal for God has consumed him, so he runs ahead of the crowd, finds an ideal vantage point where he can have a clear view of Christ when Jesus passes by. Zacchaeus climbs up the tree, hoping that no one would notice him, not even Jesus. Then he waits. As Jesus was passing by, He stops, and looks up the tree where Zacchaeus was, and with loving eyes and a voice filled with compassion, Jesus calls him by his name, “Zacchaeus!!” Zacchaeus was stunned thinking, “How did Jesus know me? What does He want? Will He reveal my sin and condemn me for it? Will He expose me before this crowd and join them in accusing me? Why ME?”
Among the 7 billion people on this earth, the Lord is never too busy or occupied for each one of us. We matter to God. God pays attention to us. In Luke 12:6-7 Contemporary English Version, Jesus says, “6 Five sparrows are sold for just two pennies, but God doesn’t forget any one of them. 7 Even the hairs on your head are counted. So don’t be afraid! You are worth much more than many sparrows.” In Isaiah 43:4 (GNT), it says, “4 I will give up whole nations to save your life, because you are precious to me and because I love you and give you honor.”
This city extortionist, this thief, this abuser of the helpless, was noticed by Jesus. He was chosen by Jesus, and Jesus calls him “Zacchaeus.” The name Zacchaeus means the pure one. But wait, isn’t Zacchaeus a thief? Isn’t he a criminal in the eyes of many? Did he not take advantage of people without regard to their cries for mercy, and now Jesus calls him the pure one? God calls us not because of what we have done or failed to have done. God calls us for what He made us to become but not for the state that we are in at the moment. No matter how dirty or filthy we can be, we are still worth the blood of Jesus. We are precious in God’s eyes.
I have heard many parents and teachers constantly gripe about their children’s behavior or current condition – how bad their children are, how lazy or how rebellious or disobedient. We fail to realize that the attitude of God toward us is not criticism, disapproval, or even condemnation. Rather, God is a God who calls things not as they are but as they ought to be. In the beginning, darkness covered the land and the Spirit of God moved in the darkness. God did not say, “Wow, it is dark!’ Instead He said, “Let there be light.” This is God’s creative power. Our words have created power. When we call people by names that insult and injure, we basically plant that seed in their lives.
Zacchaeus was called by Jesus as the pure one – not because of what he did, but because of what God has created him to become. He is the pure one! God is a God who calls things as they should be. Jesus called Zacchaeus the pure one without the latter doing anything or doing a good deed. Jesus calls us also not for what we have done or failed to do, but for what He has made us to be.
In Ephesians 1:4, it says, “We were made holy and blameless.” This is what Christ made us and this is what we are as seen in the eyes of Jesus. Many times we fear, and it keeps us away from Christ. We are paralyzed to come to Christ because we fear that when we do, Jesus will get mad at us. We are afraid of being condemned.
In Isaiah 49:14-16a (NLT), it says, “14 Yet Jerusalem says, “The Lord has deserted us; the Lord has forgotten us.” “Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you! See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands." The nails, the wounds are there to remind Jesus, “Our name is written in His palm.” Even when we get to heaven and see Him face to face, He will wear His glorified body still with the scars of the palm of His hand because it means that our name is precious to Him and forever and for all of eternity. Our name is written down by Jesus on His palms that bore the nails on the cross.
After God takes the initiative to come into our lives, after He purposes to meet us, after He calls us by our name and identifies our true nature and value, after He affirms how precious we are in His sight, now, He wants to have dinner with us. He wants to spend an intimate life of fellowship with us. Revelation 3:20 (NLT) says, “20 “Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.”
The third aspect of Complete Conversion is: we now open the door. Christ takes the initiative. Christ calls us by name, and now, He knocks and we now have to open the door. We surrender to His unconditional love. We jump into the ocean of His infinite goodness, mercy and love. He immerses us in the water that refreshes us forever and ever.
In Luke 19:6 (NLT), “6 Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy." He was a new man. Something beautiful has happened to this most hated man of Jericho. He was converted, not for a fleeting moment, not for a short time, not partially, not partly, but he was converted completely.
And so we pick up the story that might have happened 2000 years ago in the city of Jericho, in the home of a man named Simon. Zacchaeus was speaking, “Simon, Jesus was here. I saw Him. He gazed at me with eyes so filled with compassion and love in spite of all that I have done. He called me out by my own name, and He even stayed in my house. We shared a meal together. He changed me Simon! Something inside of me was transformed into what I have never experienced before. I am a new creature now Simon. I was forgiven. Hope was born in me. There sat Jesus before me. All that I was taught when I was a child, all that I learned in the synagogue, all that I learned from my parents about forgiveness, about salvation, about redemption, about God changing hearts of stone and making them hearts of flesh – all of these are now real to me because of Jesus was in front of me. Simon, it became real when I surrendered my life to God, and I allowed Him to do His work of love and mercy in me. And I changed. A surge of power, I cannot explain gripped me and changed me. I don’t want to rob and cheat people anymore. I want to help people and I want to serve them. I want to love them. For the first time in my life, I want God more than anything else!"
Even as Zacchaeus was relating this, something happened in that room. Everything became quiet. The whole household of Simon suddenly became still, and they felt as if a wind, soothing, comforting breeze entered and they began to feel an indescribable peace within them. Simon, now close to tears, said to Zacchaeus, “Lead me to this Jesus. I want what you have. I want my family to have the life that you now are living…. I want Jesus!”