I think there are some – perhaps many – people who operate under the misimpression that God loves us based on what we do, who think that we need to mend our bad ways in order for God to want to be with us. So they feel the need to try to “be good” so that God will love them.
The story of Zacchaeus, which we hear about in today’s Gospel from St. Luke, highlights the error of that way of thinking. It reminds us of the important truth that God loves us first and always. That we need do nothing to earn God’s love. That God does not love us because we do something to earn that love. Rather, it is God’s love that allows us to respond in love and gratitude.
Here is Zacchaeus – chief tax collector, wealthy man, crook. Unpopular. Not a good person. Not someone you’d choose to spend time with. It is fair to assume most people wanted nothing to do with him.
But not Jesus. Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house – effectively says: Zacchaeus, it doesn’t matter to me that you are a tax collector and that you are unpopular. I still want to be with you. I want to be your friend. And Jesus’ joyful greeting of Zacchaeus causes Zacchaeus to renounce his ways, to promise to give half of his possessions to the poor and make recompense to all he has cheated.
God loved Zacchaeus first, and that allowed him to respond back in love. And when Jesus explains Zacchaeus’ salvation at the end of the passage, he makes clear that Zacchaeus is not saved because he gave things back and made amends; he is saved because of who he is – a descendent of Abraham, which means a child of God. As are we all.