The Christian life is first and foremost a spiritual life, but one that is nevertheless lived in and through the body. This is to say that we need to have a solid foundation in the spiritual realm in order to carry out in the physical world the Christian call to follow Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. The readings in these weeks speak of the necessary virtues to establish the spiritual foundation for one to live the Christian life. It is the virtue of prayer that gives rise to other virtues that allow the Christian to live the commandment to love God above all else.
In the Gospel for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (OT), we hear of the widow who perseveres in petitioning the dishonest judge for a just sentence against her adversary. The Sunday following, we see displayed the humility of the tax collector compared to the Pharisee; and the week after that, we hear the story of Zacchaeus, another tax collector who shows repentance and justice.
The story of Zacchaeus shows us the pattern of the Christian life. The Gospels usually begin with the fundamental theme of repentance: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). Modern gurus in business and leadership would tell us, begin with the end in mind. This is the goal of the Gospel story, to lead us to repentance of our sins, which separate us from God, and then bring us into communion with God.
From the lead theme of repentance, the Gospels go on from there to show us numerous stories of encounter — often involving miracles — with the person of Jesus. These encounters mark the heart of the Gospel, for although his teachings give great wisdom, the miracle stories show in a graphic way the conversion of so many. Having encountered the mercy of God, incarnate in Christ, the individuals repent and are changed.
The encounter with Christ leads to a relationship with him that is established in prayer. St. Paul goes so far as to say that we should pray without ceasing (1 Thes 5:17). This is meant to establish by the power of the Holy Spirit a great bond that cannot be broken. This is the Catholic meaning of baptism. It is not only a forgiveness of sins but an incorporation into Christ; the strength of this bond is so strong that, like marriage, it is not to be broken. Even the bond of marriage, however, will be superseded by the bond of baptism. As we hear in the Gospel of the 32nd Sunday (OT), in heaven, people are not married or given in marriage (Lk 20:35).
So, we see that the conversion of a sinner, Zacchaeus, represents a typical response to an encounter with Jesus. This should result in baptism and a life marked by perseverance in prayer and virtue. The resulting union with Christ is a life marked by persistent prayer, represented by the widow. This solid foundation for the spiritual life is the wellspring of virtues that maintain in the soul the love of God and move one to serve others. Such virtuous deeds are rewarded with the life of heaven: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. … Let them find rest from their labors, for their works accompany them” (Rv 14:13).
Father McGrath is copastor of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Parish in Rochester.