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In the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus tells us we are all sinners and he loves us anyway — Effie Caldarola

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So, after two years, I finally succumbed to COVID-19.

When I woke up feeling like a cold was coming, I wasn’t surprised. I’d been exposed by a grandchild. Nevertheless, since I was going out to lunch with friends, I took a quick test. Negative.

On the drive home, I started to feel bad. I yearned for a cup of cocoa and a place to crash. The next day it was worse. I stayed in bed, took another test, once again negative. COVID-19 is a weird thing.

By the third day, I felt better. But my daughter brought me another test on the fourth day, and there it was — positive, a test I never wanted to ace.

Effie Caldarola
Effie Caldarola writes for the Catholic News Service column “For the Journey.” (CNS photo)

So, by Sunday, still feeling punk, I went online to a beloved Jesuit parish to “go” to Mass.

The Jesuit pastor is a quiet, gentle guy. He’s tall, almost gaunt, with a beard. He could play John the Baptist in a movie.

He speaks slowly and with authority. All he had to do on this particular Sunday when he reached the altar was make the sign of the cross, say, “The Lord be with you,” and then look at the assembly, and say, forcefully, “This man welcomes sinners.”

It’s hard to express how moving I found those words. This man. No introduction necessary, no need to speak his name. I could feel Jesus’ presence in the midst of my own sin.

This preacher knows how to use a long, weighty pause. After a few seconds, he added, “And eats with them.”

Then: “And he allows sinners to welcome him.” Those words, he said, “have been in my mind and heart these last few weeks.”

This was the Sunday we heard about Zacchaeus, a wealthy senior tax official, one of a despised class in Palestine. In my neighborhood, there are many sycamore trees. If Zacchaeus climbed a similar tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus, it must have been quite a climb.

When Jesus spots him and invites himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house, there are the inevitable complaints. As a matter of fact, Luke says “they began to grumble” because Jesus was going to stay at a sinner’s house.

Things don’t change, do they? Two millennia later, and we still fret about other people’s sins. It’s hard to deeply examine or admit our own sinfulness. We all need forgiveness, and Jesus welcomes us all. Again and again.

As Catholics, we know repentance is a continuing thing, not a one and done. Conversion is ongoing, always calling us deeper.

But Jesus doesn’t give up on us, despite the fact that we exclude some from the table, because we think we have the right to judge others’ motivations. We decide which — and whose — sins are worst.

Jesus often focused on two sins in particular: greed and hypocrisy. So, when Zacchaeus spontaneously offered to give half of his property to the poor, I wonder if Jesus ever worked on that other half. Over dinner of course.

The actual homily that day was a state-of-the-parish report, because it was stewardship Sunday. It didn’t matter. We all know the shortest homilies are usually the best.

This pastor’s brief introductory words were probably around 60 seconds, but it was the best homily I’d heard in weeks. He didn’t have to allude to Zacchaeus. We knew to whom he referred. We knew the things he was referencing.

I let his words sink in, and in the midst of my COVID-19 isolation, I wept a bit. I, too, will keep those words in my mind and heart.