How Moral Hang-Ups Lead to Conversion
At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town. Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said, "Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house." And he came down quickly and received him with joy. When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, "He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner." But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost."
Tax-collectors were bad guys. Zacchaeus was well-known in town, but not a popular guy. People talked about him behind his back. They feared him when he was present and made fun of him when he was absent. We hear about tax-collectors in the Gospel and just imagine them being somewhat outside society. But in reality, they were shunned. To collaborate with the occupying force meant to lose one’s own people and national identity.
People would have been unhappy to hear that Jesus had gone to the house of Zacchaeus. It is hard for us to grasp how bad it would have been. Think of what some of the investment bankers did that led to ruining many people’s retirement funds. They knowingly sold bad stock, driving up the price and making profits for themselves, before pulling out and letting the stock crash. Then, they did not even have to answer finally for their actions. Now, picture one of these people being honored at a banquet for the Archdiocese. People would not be happy. Jesus was sticking his neck out for this Zacchaeus. This tells us a lot about him. He does not look at us the same way that others do. He is not looking to judge or to score political points. He is looking for our salvation.
Call to Discipleship
This is part of Christ’s call to discipleship. The disciple is the one who learns from the master. The Gospels give witness countless times of people who enter in this type of relationship with Jesus Christ. As his followers, we are called to enter this relationship with him, but also to make disciples of others and bring them to Christ. Part of this discipleship is a call to conversion.
In the Church's preaching this call is addressed first to those who do not yet know Christ and his Gospel. Also, Baptism is the principal place for the first and fundamental conversion. It is by faith in the Gospel and by Baptism that one renounces evil and gains salvation, that is, the forgiveness of all sins and the gift of new life. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1427)
I find it deeply informative however, that Zacchaeus had an experience of Christ before his moral conversion. Something was happening in Zacchaeus when he heard that Jesus was coming to his town. “The merciful gaze of the Lord reaches us before we ourselves realize that we need it in order to be saved. And with this gaze of the divine Master there begins the miracle of the conversion of the sinner.” (Pope Francis, 3 November 2019) God was already preparing the conversion and discipleship of Zacchaeus. But Zacchaeus still had no idea what would happen when he climbed the sycamore tree.
When we try to impose our morality on others, they feel it as offensive and insensitive. We are called to bring them first to an experience of Christ. Now, in preaching, this may sometimes be impossible. As the people of God, we may be at different stages of our walk towards God, so we must be patient when we hear something preached that we were not quite ready to assimilate. Often, this is the way God will invite us to deeper conversion.
What our moral hang-ups say about us
People sometimes become offended by Catholic moral teaching. It offends their sensibility that the Church would dare to tell them how to live their life. The funny thing is, that they are often comparing it to an implicit moral teaching that comes from the world. It is like the anti-establishment youth who all dress according to the same pop icon.
Our culture affects us deeply about how we think about social and moral issues. If we do not have the correcting stance of the Church, it is easy to be drawn off-course. The Church helps us to be disciples when she teaches us about right and wrong. It is not about fulfilling a list of precepts, but rather about responding to a person, who is Jesus Christ.
The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. (Gaudium et Spes, 22)
When we feel conflicted about some moral stance of the Church, this is an opportunity to think more deeply about the issue, research, and discover some new and exciting facet of Christian anthropology.
One of the greatest strengths is the ability to change one’s mind when presented with the proper evidence. “Only fools and dead men don’t change their minds. Fools won’t. Dead men can’t.” (John Patterson)
Zacchaeus had a profound encounter with Jesus and it changed the way he saw his whole life. He knew that his wealth was ill-gotten and resolved to make up for it with concrete actions.
How we can seek moral conversion and draw closer to Christ as disciples
Let Zacchaeus grasp the sycamore tree, and let the humble person climb the cross. That is little enough, merely to climb it. We must not be ashamed of the cross of Christ, but we must fix it on our foreheads, where the seat of shame is. Above where all our blushes show is the place we must firmly fix that for which we should never blush. As for you, I rather think you make fun of the sycamore, and yet that is what has enabled me to see Jesus. You make fun of the sycamore, because you are just a person, but ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than men.’ (Augustine, Sermon 174.3)
Through the mystery of Jesus Christ on the Cross, we have our way to salvation. He died on the Cross to save us from our sins. Even when people make fun of us for our faith, we can be grateful for the gift of faith. Sometimes, we might be embarrassed about aspects of Church teaching because the world feels it is out of touch. But it is precisely there that we should be even more proud of what the Church is teaching and give witness to the truth. Zacchaeus was willing to be made fun of as long as it was on his path to believing. May we also have the courage to stand up for our faith and give witness to the world.