THEME: Interior Repentance or Conversion of Heart.

BY: Fr. Anthony O. Ezeaputa, MA.



The conversion of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) is a story of how God goes in search of sinners and waits patiently for them to show a willingness to convert for him to transform them. It is a good example of the teaching of the Catholic Church on interior repentance or conversion, which is the first step to genuine repentance.

It is also an illustration of what Catholic sacramental theology refers to as “the Acts of the Penitent in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.” The sinner must have a contrite heart, confess their sins with their lips, and make fruitful satisfaction (Catechism, 1451–1454).

Zacchaeus was a Jewish man by birth. It means that he is a descendant of Abraham and a member of the Chosen People of God. But his job as head of the tax collectors isolated him from his compatriots. “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham,” (Luke 19:9) Jesus remarked.

Jews considered tax collectors to be public sinners and thieves because they worked for the Roman government, which ruled Israel and demanded that taxes be paid to Rome every year. The tax collectors collected what would have been the Roman tax and added to this tax an additional tax, which was their salary. They paid themselves well by collecting enough money for a relatively comfortable lifestyle.

Without a doubt, Zacchaeus was despised by his fellow Jews since he was a tax collector (Matthew 18:17). But he feels a certain disgust and contrition within himself; he wants to reconcile with God and the Jewish people; and he is curious to encounter this Jesus of whom he has heard so much. However, he could not see Jesus, who was passing through Jericho, because of the crowd and his short stature.

First off, conversion and repentance don’t start by wearing “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting, mortification, and other forms of ascetism. Instead, they begin with the conversion of the heart, also known as interior conversion or repentance. Without the conversion of the heart, outward signs of repentance and conversion may be sterile and false. Actions, gestures, and works of penance are then outward expressions of what started in the heart (Catechism, 1430).

The sins and faults of Zacchaeus must have weighed heavily on his heart. He must have had sleepless nights thinking of how to go about his repentance, conversion, and reconciliation with God and his fellow Jews. But he still held a job that, at the time, was difficult to do without dirtying his hands. In fact, tax collectors at that time were synonymous with corruption and the exploitation of people. Perhaps, he was also afraid of what his colleagues and fellow Jews would say if he automatically repented.

The Catholic Church teaches that interior repentance or conversion is a radical reorientation of our entire lives with all of our hearts toward God. It involves the end of sin, a turning away from evil, and a sense of disgust for the sins we have committed. Additionally, it involves resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace. It is also normal that repentance or conversion of heart is accompanied by a feeling of sorrow and sadness, which is called “affliction of spirit” and “repentance of heart” (Catechism, 1431).

Zacchaeus demonstrated in his conversion a sincere “affliction of spirit” and “repentance of heart”. He was determined to reorientate his entire life with all of his heart toward God and to turn away from exploiting his people as a tax collector. He planned to make restitution for his sins. “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor; and if I have extorted anything from anyone, I shall repay it four times over” (Luke 19:8).

Thus, after wrestling with his conscience, mistakes, and obstacles, Zacchaeus decided to make a move by climbing a sycamore tree to see Jesus. Jesus is satisfied with Zacchaeus’s efforts and now takes control of the rest. “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house,” (Luke 19:5) Jesus remarked when he saw him.

Jesus makes the situation clear: despite what Zacchaeus has done in the past, he too is a descendant of Abraham. He deserves a second chance. He deserves to be forgiven. “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). Jesus has brought him to salvation because “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10).

Today, the Church is telling us that the human heart can be heavy and hardened by sin and mistakes. But repentance, conversion, and forgiveness are possible if we will listen to the voice of God calling us to make the first move like Zacchaeus. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20).

The Church also wants us to understand that a genuine conversion involves sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sins that we have committed, together with restitution or restoration of what our sins have caused and a resolution not to go back to our sins again. Let us ask God to give us the grace and strength to begin anew when we make mistakes. Let us ask God to give us a new heart. Have a fantastic Sunday.

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