Zacchaeus, the Prodigal Son, and the Eucharist: God Meets Us Halfway

 

At Mass this past Sunday, I saw some connections between the First Reading and the Gospel that ties back to the story of the Prodigal Son. I love how the Catholic Church has selected readings each day that tie in to each other and teach us through God’s Word, keeping with a pattern so that we can follow the story of salvation and God’s never-ending love for us.

Let me begin with the First Reading, which was from the Book of Wisdom:

Before the LORD the whole universe is as a grain from a balance
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.
For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.

As I read this before Mass, I was struck with the second verse: “But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.”

Then, in the Gospel, we get more of this message:

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.”

Once again, we see God overlooking sin so that He can extend mercy. Zacchaeus was looking for Jesus – without a full understanding of Who He is – when Jesus comes up to him and offers him mercy. You overlook people’s sins that they may repent. Zacchaeus did repent, and it’s certain that Jesus knew he would do so if given the chance, but that repentance did not happen until after Jesus approached him with mercy.

How blessed we are that God does not wait for us to be perfect before He begins to extend mercy! How blessed we are that even if our contrition isn’t perfect, God comes and meets us halfway, ready to forgive us on the spot.

The Prodigal Son parable tells us that God is like this, too. That used to be my least favorite parable. As a matter of fact, I hated it until I finally asked God to help me understand it better:

The father never stopped loving his son, and he watched for him to come home. Think carefully about the part where the son goes home. He’s on his way, rehearsing his lines. “Father, I have sinned against you and against heaven. I do not deserve to be called your son. Treat me as one of your servants.” He’s busy repeating this to himself, trying to get it down perfectly, steeling himself to face his father’s wrath.

Suddenly, he’s nearly there; he can barely see the house in the distance, and he picks up the pace, thinking about the bread he’ll get for supper. His stomach rumbles loudly, and he keeps rehearsing the lines. “Father, I have sinned against you and against heaven…” He has his head down and keeps putting one foot in front of the other. But back at the house, his father catches sight of him on the horizon.

Think about that for a moment.

Back at the house, his father catches sight of him on the horizon.

How is that possible? Did he just happen to look out? Of course not! Not a day went by that this man wasn’t watching for his son to come home again. He mourned that his boy was gone. Maybe he knew businessmen who found out where the boy had gone and who kept tabs on him. Maybe he knew all along what the boy was doing, and he grieved for him. Maybe he would sit in front of the house, looking out over the fields to the road that his son had walked down all those years ago, praying for his son and wishing he would just come home. “Lord,” he would pray, “I don’t care what he’s done. He’s in danger, and I just want my boy back. I just want my son to come home. Please let him come home to me.”

But for the father to catch sight of him so far away, he had to have been looking. Not occasionally. Not every once in a while. Every. Single. Day. And maybe most of the day. Maybe his heart was so broken that he stopped working alongside his older son and merely sat and prayed and waited.

Again and again, the Bible tells us that God loves us and wants us to be with Him. He needs our repentance, but He doesn’t wait for it to come and meet us halfway. He searches for us on the horizon, then runs like the prodigal son’s father did, embracing us and leading us back home again. Long after the parables of sheep have lost their meaning to Western Civilization, we should be able to understand this act of love: God doesn’t wait for us to be perfect or to repent for the right reasons before He runs to meet us and bring us home again. We can finish healing there. We can return to the Church and begin our healing. God will help us.

And part of that healing comes through the sacraments: Confession first, but then, on a regular basis, Communion. And this is where I really got teary-eyed at Mass on Sunday. I realized that I, like Zacchaeus and the prodigal son, was tentatively approaching God, unworthy though I am, hoping to be healed and needing to be loved. And Jesus, just as He did for Zacchaeus, meets me halfway on the altar. He comes to me, even though I’m a sinner. He comes to me, even though I can’t get through a day without screwing up. He leads me home, gives me the grace to become better, and when I screw up again, offers forgiveness through His Church and His priests so that I can begin again. He picks me up every time I fall. He never tires of it. He never stops loving me, no matter how many times I confess the very same damn sins I confessed last week and the week before and the week before.

He loves me. He waits for me. He looks for me and runs to meet me when I start to go towards him.

And you know what? He loves you, too. Return to Him. Run into His waiting arms and let Him care for you.

©2016, Christine Johnson