Zacchaeus 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 did more than just swindle people. If we do the math, we can figure that not all of Zacchaeus’ money came to him dishonestly. Apparently, Zacchaeus had cheated people, but he also made prudent investments with the money, with some honest profits on them. 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 times over.
Now, during November we Catholics pray especially for…the dead.
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.
Let’s get even a little more precise. 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 God 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 receive the mercy of God in Christ, so he could start fresh. And he also had to pay people back. He had done a lot of wrong, so—with the means at his disposal—he had to make it right again.
Now, 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.
God mercifully forgives sinners who repent. But there’s a lot of debts 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 and walk through Holy Doors for our beloved dead and for all the faithful departed.