Friday of this past week was the Solemnity of All Saints, a holy day of obligation. If you are a faithful Catholic who prays daily, forgives those who offend you, gives alms, and participates fully in Sunday Liturgy, you will nonetheless be committed to the furthest depths of the netherworld if you missed Mass on the holy day. You are now, as the Evangelical preacher Jonathan Edwards wrote, “sinners in the hand of an angry God” and can expect to be cast into perdition at any moment.
If anything in the above paragraph seems the least bit believable, you are unfamiliar with God’s Word recorded in the Scriptures.
Today’s first reading says that, although the whole universe is little more than a grain of sand when compared to God’s grandeur, God loves every created thing and overlooks sin in order that all people might repent. (Wis. 11:22-23) The Scriptures are both consistent and adamant about the trustworthiness and efficacy of God’s mercy. Isn’t it curious that so many church-goers hold the opposite opinion?
There is a very popular sentiment in Christianity today that distrusts God and doubts God’s mercy. This lack of trust in God’s promises leads to a variety of anxieties about life and a variety of fanciful schemes for assuring salvation. There is a sad irony about the lives of people who seek God’s mercy but neither trust in the Divine promise of mercy nor grant forgiveness to others. This sad irony derives from trusting solely in oneself and one’s own efforts, despite the obvious limitations of human nature.
The Scriptures say that God shows mercy to all God’s creatures and that God does so as a necessary expression of the Divine nature. (Wis. 11:23) Obviously, it isn’t the case that God is forced to be merciful; rather, it is God’s nature to be merciful and God cannot fail to be merciful any more than God can fail to be God. Today’s first reading is an eloquent statement about the trustworthiness of God’s promises. The story in today’s Gospel is an equally eloquent example of God’s trustworthiness.
Zacchaeus the tax collector had repented before meeting Jesus. He hoped that Jesus would acknowledge his repentance. Jesus went beyond mere acknowledgment by inviting Zacchaeus to table fellowship. Jesus treated Zacchaeus as a disciple. Zacchaeus’ multiple promises of reparations to those whom he had wronged are testimony to the transformative power of repentance and forgiveness. Zacchaeus presumed nothing, but was willing to trust in Jesus’ forgiveness.
Zacchaeus’ change of heart illustrates the vast difference between God’s Grace and cheap grace. God’s Grace is promised to those who act justly by granting to others the mercy God has offered to all. Zacchaeus was extremely generous with his reparations because he had experienced Jesus’ generous forgiveness. (Lk. 19:8) Clear evidence of Zacchaeus’ salvation was visible in the saving effects that touched the lives of those around him. (Lk. 19:9)
Cheap grace, on the other hand, is the presumption of permission for pettiness, irresponsibility, and self-serving behavior. They delude themselves who think, “God won’t mind if I’m lazy, irresponsible, or selfish.” Willing repetition of one’s sins is an act of presumptuousness rather than an act of trust; this is true because trust depends on accountability.
If you’re confused about sin and forgiveness, you’re not alone. There are many voices that speak about sin and forgiveness. Some consider sin to be so powerful and pervasive that forgiveness can never be assured. Others consider sin to be so repugnant that forgiveness should never be assured. Still others consider sin to be licit in their own lives but culpable in the lives of others. Among those many voices, there is one that says forgiveness is assured to all who repent and show mercy to others; that voice is God’s, and God’s voice is the only one to be believed.
All of us need, and hope for, assurance of salvation. It should come as no surprise that God offers such assurance. Assurance of God’s mercy, and evidence of one’s salvation, are clearly visible when one’s repentance promotes the well-being of others.