Zacchaeus & Purgatory

Zacchaeus said, “I will repay four times over whatever I have extorted from anyone.”

I had the opportunity to visit Jericho a few years ago. A hardscrabble place, with a harsh desert wind. And: tense. Palestinian territory. Israeli soldiers with huge guns guarding checkpoints.

2013 November calendarI think we can imagine that Jericho’s air coursed with tension back when the Lord Jesus walked the earth, too. And the tension swirled around this man Zacchaeus. He wasn’t just a corrupt tax collector. He was the chief tax collector. He had grown rich while abusing his countrymen and capitalizing on their woes.

I myself can hardly relate to Zacchaeus. I have never had to climb a tree to see over a crowd in my life. But Zacchaeus stood short of stature, and he wanted to lay eyes on the rabbi from the north.

If we really think about it, we have to conclude the following: Not all of Zacchaeus’ money came to him dishonestly. If it had, then he could not have given half of his largesse to the poor and still also paid back all those he cheated four-fold. Apparently, Zacchaeus had cheated people, but he also made prudent investments and honest profits on them. He industriously climbed the sycamore tree to see the Lord. He must have industriously increased his money, too.

So, when Christ called him, and Zacchaeus turned his heart to God, the notorious tax collector had enough honest money in his coffers to pay back those he had wronged four-fold. His conversion to Christ turned him instantly from an extortionist into a successful investment banker for his community.

zacchaeusNow: We pray every month of the year, of course. We pray each and every day. But during November we pray especially for…the dead.

Praying for the dead is an ancient custom. Sometimes it pays to ask why. Why would we pray for our beloved dead? Why would we have Masses said for them? Make sacrifices for them?

If we could be certain that our loved ones have made it all the way to heaven; if we could be sure that they are totally at peace, free of all debts to God and man, altogether reconciled to the truth; if we could know all this for sure, then we wouldn’t pray for them. Rather, we would pray to them.

On the other hand, if we had no hope whatsoever that our beloved dead could reach the goal; if the whole thing were hopeless, then we wouldn’t pray for them then, either.

We pray because we hope. Death swallows us human beings up into a great darkness. But we believe that God’s light shines beyond what we can see. So it’s worth praying. We hope for forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace for the ones we love, and we pray for this.

Next question. Between the certainty that we don’t have, and the hopelessness that we don’t feel–about our deceased loved ones–some intermediate state must exist. For them, that is. Some intermediate state between heaven and hell. What is it? It must be something that involves making progress. We pray that our beloved dead will make progress toward the ultimate goal. How does someone make progress after death?

What happened with Zacchaeus teaches us the answer. Zacchaeus saw from the tree. The Lord called Him closer, and of course Zacchaeus wanted to respond. To get closer, Zacchaeus had to do two things: He had to get down out of that daggone tree. He had to receive the mercy of God in Christ. And he also had to set everything to rights as best he could. He had done a lot of wrong, so—with the means at his disposal—he had to make it right again. The people from whom he had stolen, he had to make them whole again.

Camel ride near Jericho
Camel ride near Jericho
The Lord forgives us when we repent. We can’t make God “whole” for what we have taken from Him, because we don’t have the wherewithal. God has His own “currency” of infinite value, and we don’t hold any of that currency and never will. In His mercy, God simply pardons our offenses against His great goodness and love.

But—because the Lord loves us so much—He gives us means by which we can make other things right as best we can. That’s how merciful He is: He forgives freely while simultaneously respecting our capacity for making things right, within our means.

We deceive ourselves if we don’t acknowledge that our debts weigh heavily in the balance of justice. Who doesn’t fail in his duties in this life? Duties to family, to church, to neighbor, to the poor and vulnerable? We have a duty to the truth, to respect it completely. We fail. We have a duty to use all the material means we have to help others. We don’t. We have a duty to receive everything as a gift, and give thanks, and seek only the higher things of God. We get sidetracked. We let ourselves get grievously sidetracked.

So there’s a lot to settle up. We can start while we’re still making our pilgrim way on earth. Whatever debts remain when we die, we settle in purgatory. And our time in purgatory gets shorter with every prayer someone says for us, every Mass someone has offered for us, every sacrifice someone makes for us. We hope that someone will do all these things for us when we pass on. Which means the least we can do is pray and fast and make sacrifices and have Masses said for our beloved dead and for all the faithful departed.

One thought on “Zacchaeus & Purgatory

  1. Father Mark,

    “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us* and persevere in running the race that lies before us.” [Heb 12:1]

    For whatever reason, this scripture keeps coming back to me in times of trial; so much in life can be torturous or serene, depending on the degree to which one is accompanied, is with someone.

    Remembering the love of my Grandmother, which seemed to cascade on me (remembering also the mashed potatoes she heaped on my plate BEFORE she had finished asking, “Joe, do you want more mashed potatoes?”), I can’t help but get a sense that she is here with me, along with a flood of others, just from my lifetime, better yet those from the millennia before.

    In God we trust.



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