The Small Matter of Sin

The passage from the Book of Wisdom about God “overlooking” sins has a wry humor when juxtaposed with little Zacchaeus, too small in stature to be seen. That is not true, of course, for no matter where Zacchaeus was standing, hidden among the crowd or walking away from Jesus, God “sees” our sins. From the story of Adam and Eve, to Cain and Abel, Moses and the Egyptian slave driver, and David and Bathsheba, all of whom try to carry out their acts of disobedience clandestinely, the truth is that sin cannot be hidden from God. Sin needs a solution other than human concealment. Zacchaeus’ climbing a tree to see Jesus is simply a sign that he wants to be found by Jesus, that he is seeking the solution.

The solution must be able to coax those who are afraid, scarred and marred by rejection out from the shadows, comforting them with the assurance that God can be trusted. In Wisdom we read the reason for trust: that God is “merciful to all, for you can do all things, and you overlook people’s sins, so that they may repent. For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it.... You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living.”

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As David Winston explains in his Anchor Bible commentary on this book, “Earlier in Wisdom we read that God could have crushed the Egyptians with one fell swoop if that was God’s wish,” but “God…never acts arbitrarily, but always according to the laws of his own being. His omnipotence guarantees the unbiased character of his all-embracing love. The act of creation is itself a manifestation of this love, and precludes the possibility of divine hatred to any of his creatures. The deity therefore compassionately overlooks the sins of men with a constant view to their repentance.”

When Jesus looks at Zacchaeus, God incarnate does not see his sins, as numerous and major, or as few and petty, as they may be, but the person of Zacchaeus, a person scarred by life and his or her sins, as we all are to various degrees, but a person made in the image of God and loved by God. By climbing the tree, Zacchaeus has made it clear that he wants also to know God, to love God; the act of seeking Jesus out is itself an act of spiritual awareness and repentance.

The first thing Jesus tells Zacchaeus in Luke’s account is that he wants to spend time with him: “Hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Now that Zacchaeus is out from the shadows, Jesus’ goal is not to scold him back into a dark corner, but to reveal to him the light. Zacchaeus “was happy to welcome him,” but everyone else “began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’” This is true, but God could not dwell with anyone if God did not “overlook people’s sins.”

While human judgment can be harsh, God, who knows his creation through and through, accepts us as we are. By accepting Zacchaeus and his step toward him and inviting himself into his home, Jesus creates a relationship of intimacy, ignoring the petty grumbling of those who considered themselves more righteous than Zacchaeus. In this way, as the author of Wisdom says, “you correct little by little those who trespass, and you remind and warn them of the things through which they sin, so that they may be freed from wickedness and put their trust in you, O Lord.” When Jesus puts his trust in Zacchaeus, overlooking his sins, Zacchaeus repents of his fraudulent past, offering to give half his possessions to the poor and to pay back fourfold those who were defrauded.

You cannot buy your salvation, but Zacchaeus’ acts of contrition are signs of genuine repentance, so that Jesus can say, “Today salvation has come to this house.” It has come indeed, for though the solution to sin seems counterintuitive—do not hide it, but confess it and bring it out into the open—it is a person, Jesus Christ, who was placed high on the cross for all to see, who, when you turn to him, cannot see your sins. They have been overlooked.

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