Homily for the Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C 2019
Conversion is one of the effects of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. When God’s Kingdom comes, and we turn fully to it, we are converted. According to the Vine’s Greek New Testament Dictionary, “Conversion (noun) epistrephe akin to epistrepho, ‘a turning about, or around, conversion,’ is found in Acts 15:3. The word implies ‘a turning from and a turning to;’ corresponding to these are repentance and faith; cp. ‘turned to God from idols’ (1 Thess. 1:9).”
The Dictionary goes on to explain, “Divine grace is the efficient cause (of conversion), human agency the responding effect.” In other words, there can be no conversion without grace – God-Self Communication of love. Conversion is always a response to love; it is a response to God’s unconditional love, felt and experienced at a deeper level. Thus, we turn from a pseudo love to the real love because we have been loved by God. We have been accepted, restored and sent.
It is the love that makes us feel we matter, we belong, and we are part of a plan. It brings about an awakening; something that was dead in us wakes up. A new life surges, and suddenly, we realise there is Someone bigger than us. And that Someone is God. He is good and He loves us. We therefore give away all that hinders us from giving ourselves totally to Him. We change our desires; we broaden our thinking to include God; we make restitution and amend our lives.
The Mass is so designed that the language of love is spoken first before the language of sin. We gather with a hymn, a psalm or an antiphon that expresses God’s love. We then enter the drama of love by signing ourselves in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And shortly after that, we hear these affirming words, “Peace be with you” or “the Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you.”
Why does the Mass begin this way? Because, without love, we are senseless (Redemptoris Hominis no. 10). We do not know the difference between love and sin. We cannot admit of our wrong doings. So, God’s love which is light shines at the beginning to reveal the truth about us. We then see ourselves for who we truly are, we admit our sins, and we confess them. Bishop Barron puts it this way, “It is the love of God that causes everything to be and comes before everything we do. God does not love us because we do good, we do good because God loves us.”
There is no doubt that it is God’s love that caused Zacchaeus to set out on his journey of conversion. He began from what some scholars call indifference. A sort of religious apathy, where things that pertained to God did not interest him. But like Karl Rahner said, even at this stage he was in contact with God’s action. He may not have realised it at the time, but God was loving him, shining his light on him and calling him from falsehood to truth, to curiosity.
So, the first stage of Zacchaeus’ conversion is from indifference to curiosity. He probably heard about Jesus from those he extorted money. He might have heard their whispers, “This Jesus is a friend of sinners. He even ate and dine with tax collectors and sinners.” This must have caught Zacchaeus’ attention. So, “He was anxious to see what kind of man Jesus was, but he was too short and could not see him for the crowd…” (Luke 19:1-10). For he knew the man he had become.
He knew his sins had made him short in virtue. But he could sense Someone bigger than him, Someone who loves him and who was ready to accept him and even dine with him as He had done with other sinners like him. “So, he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus who was to pass that way.” He ran from the Zacchaeus of the crowd in search of the new Zacchaeus, searching for Jesus, the Man he is beginning to sense can forgive him.
This takes us to the second stage of Zacchaeus conversion. It is a conversion from Zacchaeus’ search for Jesus to the reality that Jesus had already found him. It is the reality that God in Jesus not only found him but also knew him and He even called him by name, “Zacchaeus come down. Hurry, because I must stay at your house today.” And Zacchaeus had that epistrepho moment, when he turned fully from his own search for Jesus to the joy of being found by Jesus.
This is an interesting detail Luke gives. For many a time, we are carried away, thinking it is only by our own effort that we can find God and enter heaven. As such, we find it difficult to let go, to come down from the sycamore tree of self-righteousness, wilfulness and Pelagianism; and take the humble path of obeying the Lord, cooperating with His grace and following Him. Zacchaeus hurried down and welcomed Jesus joyfully. We should hurry down too from our own sycamore trees.
The last stage of Zacchaeus’ conversion is from self-centredness to self-giving love. Zacchaeus can now love, because he has been loved. He has been found. He in turn found the poor. He also saw clearly his sins, and he started recalling those he might have cheated. So, from being self-centred, living off the poor and the powerless, he now turned fully to give away all, and he even gave away fourfold. This is what happens when we come down from our sycamore trees.
We begin to resemble the Lord whom we follow. But more importantly we hear as we love, as He is loving us, that we are part of God’s Household. “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man (Zacchaeus and all of us) too is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.” No doubt, we have been lost in our own way. Lost to indifference, lost to self-righteousness and pride, lost to self-centredness, but today is that epistropho moment, salvation has come to this house, our house. Let us turn fully towards Him.
Fr. Francis Afu