Liturgical Colour : Green
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, this Sunday as we listened to the words of the Scriptures, we are presented with the great love and compassion that the Lord has for each and every one of us, without exception. This Sunday all of us are reminded that God’s love for us is truly generous, and He has always desired to be reconciled and reunited with us. Yet, it was often our own attitudes, stubbornness and wickedness in life which became serious barriers and obstacles preventing us from finding our way back towards the Lord and His salvation. That is why as we recall our readings today, we should spend this time to reflect on what we should do as Christians in embracing the love of God wholeheartedly.
In our first reading this Sunday taken from the Book of Wisdom, we heard the reminder from the author of this Book of Wisdom, of the great mercy and compassion which God has willingly showed all of us His beloved ones. This Book of Wisdom, although also known as the Wisdom of Solomon, was written during a much later time that Solomon’s reign, and was likely composed by several authors throughout the Jewish diaspora which was scattered after the destruction of both of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The authors of the Book of Wisdom therefore could draw upon the historical facts and examples from how God showed mercy and compassion on His people after they had all faced their just punishment, for their many sins and wickedness.
Back then, the people of God in both the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had not been obedient to God, rebelled against Him and followed their own paths rather than following what God had told them to do through His Law and commandments, and they also persecuted the many prophets, messengers and servants of God sent to them to remind them to return to the Lord. They refused to listen to the reminders from God’s servants and continued to live wickedly, worshipping pagan idols and gods, forsaking the Law and the commandments that their ancestors had kept. They spurned and rejected God’s love, and as a result, they had to face the just punishment, of having their kingdoms, cities and lands destroyed by their enemies, and them being brought into exile in far-off lands.
Yet, God has not forgotten or abandoned His people, although they had first forgotten and abandoned Him first. He did not treat them badly or hated them for what they had done, but He continued to care for them and loved them tenderly and generously as He had always done in the past. That is the proof of just how loving God has been towards us, and truly how ungrateful and unbecoming our attitudes had been, in how we and our ancestors and predecessors often behaved, in disobeying the words and commandments of the Lord. The Lord has always been patient in loving us, and yet, we have only treated Him with contempt and disdain. The Lord forgave His people when they turned back towards Him in regret and sorrow, and brought them all back to their homeland and reestablished them all there.
In our Gospel passage today, we heard of the classic story of the encounter between the Lord Jesus and Zaccheus the tax collector. In that occasion, just as the Lord was about to enter into Jericho, the man named Zaccheus, a notorious tax collector, wanted to come and see Jesus, and despite his physical challenges, being very short in stature, he climbed up a tree in order to see the Lord. The Lord knew that Zaccheus was looking out for Him, and called him down from the tree, and told him that He would want to come to his house for a meal with him there. The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law who were there unsurprisingly criticised the Lord for this action, for having embraced a tax collector, and a notorious one at that, and even asked to have a meal at the latter’s house.
Back then, during the time of the Lord Jesus, we have to understand that tax collectors were often reviled and hated, simply because they were doing their work in collecting taxes both for the local rulers like king Herod and others, as well as ultimately the taxes for the Roman overlord of the whole region. At that time, the whole region of Judea, Samaria, Galilee and beyond were under the total dominion of the Roman Empire. Many among the people disliked themselves being ruled by the Romans and other local rulers appointed to rule over them, and the taxes which made people’s livelihood difficult did not help to endear those rulers to the people. Hence, by association, the tax collectors were also often hated because of the nature of their work.
They were often treated as collaborators and even traitors to the nation and the people. This was especially true for the case of how the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law treated the tax collectors and all those others whom they often deemed to be unworthy of God and His salvation. The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, those people who often took great pride in their knowledge, piety, practices and prestige in the community, and they always looked down on others who they deemed to be inferior to them. The tax collectors in particular were among the lowest in the hierarchy of the people of God in the sight of the Pharisees and the elders, as they were considered as scum and traitors, unworthy of God and His grace.
But they had forgotten that God loved all the people all the same, regardless of their status, background or stature in the eyes of men and the world. Even the worst of sinners are still capable of being saved, just as the Lord Himself had willingly extended His generous offer of mercy and forgiveness even to those who were most despicable and unfaithful in their ways. The Lord still looked kindly upon His beloved people even after they had betrayed Him, abandoned Him and rejected Him, and persecuted those who were sent to them in order to remind them. What matters therefore is not how righteous one is compared to the others, but rather, whether those who have sinned and disobeyed against God were willing to shed off their past existence and embrace God once again with love.
The Lord showed to all of the people, as well as all of us through His interactions with Zaccheus that no one is beyond God’s mercy and love. Zaccheus did not just welcome the Lord but he also publicly announced before everyone assembled, the Lord Himself, the other people, and the same Pharisees and the teachers of the Law who were there criticising the Lord for welcoming and embracing him, that he would return all those whom he had once cheated and treated unjustly, not just equal but more than what they have been owed by him. He essentially made a public declaration of faith and repentance from his sins, and made a public commitment to be faithful to God, before all the people.
That is what the key of God’s mercy and compassion, forgiveness and grace is all about. God is always ever merciful and generous with His compassion, and He is always ready to welcome us back to His embrace. Even the worst of sinners and all those whom we might have deemed unworthy or undeserving of salvation and God’s grace, are in fact recipients of His love and mercy. We must not forget that even many among the greatest of the saints were once great sinners themselves, and some of them were murderers, idolaters, adulterers, and tax collectors among others. One of the Lord’s Twelve Apostles and one of the Four Evangelists, St. Matthew, was a tax collector like Zaccheus. St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the four great original Doctors of the Church, was a hedonist and a Manichaean unbeliever in his youth, and who also fathered a son out of wedlock.
There are still many other examples of great sinners and all those perhaps deemed unworthy and undeserving of the Lord who have turned over a new leaf and embraced God wholeheartedly, like Saul, the chief persecutor of early Christians, who encountered and was called by the Lord to be His disciple. He abandoned his past mistakes and wayward life as a misguided young Pharisee, and became one of the Lord’s greatest champion and defender, as St. Paul the Apostle, whose many Epistles are part of our New Testament today, showing his work and concern for many of the faithful throughout his ministry. St. Paul embarked on many missionary journeys and did many evangelising work for the good of those souls that had been lost from God, calling on all of them to repent their sins and return to the Lord, and also for those who did not know God to find out more about Him.
Through these examples of our holy predecessors, of the sinners turned saints, I hope all of us can realise better that the Church and the Body of Christian faithful are not made up of only saints who have been deemed righteous and worthy. Those Pharisees and teachers of the Law wanted salvation and God’s blessings and graces only for themselves, the ‘righteous’ ones, while others whom they did not agree with, were those who were unworthy of God’s salvation and grace. The Church is in fact more like a ‘hospital’ for sinners, as God’s mercy, love and compassion bring about healing for the souls of sinners, and where God called all of them to return to Him with repentance and through His forgiveness by which they are all made whole once again.
In our second reading today, we are reminded by St. Paul in his Epistle and letter to the Church and faithful in Thessalonica, that God is the One Who makes us worthy of Him, and not we who make ourselves worthy of Him instead. Our works and deeds, all reflect the nature of our disposition, our faith and our adherence to God and His ways, and not self-justificatory in nature or making us righteous by themselves. That is why it is important that all of us as Christians we must first of all be humble and put God at the centre of our whole life and existence. We should not let the temptations of pride, ego and worldly desires and ambitions to mislead us down the slippery path towards damnation.
We must not let our pride and ego, our hubris and ambition to make us into a self-enclosed and inward looking Church, where only the righteous and the elites have the right to be saved or to be in the presence of God. Let us not forget that each and every one of us are sinners ourselves, regardless of how serious our sins and mistakes may be. And God is always ever ready to welcome us back to His presence and heal us, and He is always patient with us. But it is we who have always shut the door before Him, ignored Him, and even made it difficult for others to follow Him and be forgiven by Him. That is how we end up falling deeper and deeper into our flawed and misguided ways, and unless we make the conscious efforts to return to the Lord with faith, we may end up getting more distant from Him, as we are full of our pride and ego instead of what should have been love for God and for our fellow brothers and sisters.
Let us all hence commit ourselves to a renewal in our faith and a change in our practices, much as our great and holy predecessors had committed themselves to change their ways, from their past wicked and sinful ways into new, faithful and committed way of life in God’s grace and presence. Each and every one of us should also heed the examples of our predecessors and strive our best to live our lives worthily of the Lord and also helping those around us who are struggling in their journey and life. We should not turn a blind eye to their plight, and we should not ignore them or worse still, acting the way many of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law had done, in ostracising those whom we deem to be less worthy than we are. Remember, that they are our brothers and sisters and are equally beloved by God.
Each one of us as Christians ought to take care of our fellow brethren, and we should always do our best to reach out to others who are in need of guidance and help in our faith. Let us all do our part to be the faithful witnesses of Our Lord’s truth and resurrection, and be the wonderful beacons of God’s light in our world and community today. Let us make the Church of God a truly living, vibrant and missionary Church, one that is always ready to show God’s love, compassion and mercy to more and more people out there. May all of us as God’s people, as His Church, and as those who are called as Christians, be the genuine followers and disciples of God, in all of our lives and actions. May God be with us all and may He strengthen each one of us to be ever courageous and committed in our journey of faith through life. May all of us remain humble and concerned for our fellow brethren in faith, at all times, so that we may always work together to glorify God through our lives and actions. Amen.