We like to think that we can have God in our own pockets. But we’ve got it all wrong. It’s God who finds us and reveals Himself to us; it’s Him who saves us.
“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost” (Lk 19:10). With this stunning statement from Jesus, this Sunday’s Mass readings conclude with a big bang.
Jesus, the Son of Man, is divine; he is God. In making this statement, what he is saying effectively is that God has PERSONALLY come to seek us out and to save us! “What was lost”, understood in its individual sense, refers to you and me, who are “lost” because we are sinners. When understood corporately, the term means the whole creation, which “was made subject to futility…[and] is groaning in labor pains even until now” since the fall of our first parents (Rom 8:20, 22). What is so stunning about Jesus’ claim? Think about it: God, the Almighty, in whom “all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible” were created and before whom “every knee should bend”, somehow has chosen to humble Himself and descend into this lower sphere that is ours, which is both sinful and chaotic, in order to seek and save us (Col 1:16, Phil 2:10)! If this is not stunning, I don’t know what is.
The Judeo-Christian concept that sees salvation as a top-down, divine effort from above - not a bottom-up, human effort from below - is unique and highly intriguing. Just as intriguing is the consistency of the Scriptures in advancing this idea. “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you”, insists Jesus (John 15:16). Long before him, we have Ezekiel’s prophetic declaration: “For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep” (Eze 34:11, italic mine). Before Ezekiel, Isaiah’s message is just as enlightening: “Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; With divine recompense he comes to save you” (Is 35:4, italic mine).
“Jesus’ death”, explains Pope Benedict XVI, “[is] the fulfillment of a love in which God himself comes down to us, so as to draw us back up to himself” (Jesus of Nazareth II, p. 253). In other words, salvation is a divine initiative in which God descends to seek and save us out of love, not a human endeavor in which we ascend to attain divine greatness, as so many religions outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition generally believe. It is a cosmic and monumental undertaking carefully thought out and miraculously accomplished by God and God alone. It’s a merciful act because its benevolence we do not deserve. It’s called grace because what’s bestowed on us is from above, beyond human ability and comprehension.
Is this a totally one-sided equation – a purely God-driven undertaking that requires or allows no human input whatsoever? No. What is required – and what God has graciously allowed in order to make us a partner, no matter how small, of this monumental endeavor - is our free and humble response to God’s call for repentance. It’s exactly what Jesus asked of us when he proclaimed the coming of his kingdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17). He was inviting the world to get ready for this important partnership.
A case in point is this Sunday’s gospel. Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector in Jericho, repents upon seeing Jesus, and promises to give away half of his possessions to the poor and repay four times over anything he has extorted from anyone (Lk 19:1-2, 8). Zacchaeus repents in both words and deeds. He does so because he realizes he has sinned. And he is able to realize because he has humility in his heart, which causes him to repent. True repentance will not go unnoticed by Jesus. He sees in Zacchaeus, who is “short in stature”, a giant of a man because he, like Jesus, is willing to humble himself. He is ready for partnership; he can be saved.
It pains my heart to see that so many people still rely on their own effort to try to “find God”. They work hard to “elevate themselves spiritually to a higher level of perfection”. We like to think that we can have God in our own pockets. But we’ve got it all wrong. It’s God who finds us and reveals Himself to us; it’s Him who saves us even though His economy of salvation always has room for our input and partnership – our repentance. This reminder from Jesus is spot on: “It is not you who chose me, but I who chose you” (John 15:16).