The examination of conscience and spiritual renewal

Father John A. Kiley

Unlike most of Judea’s geography, Jericho is an Israeli city of natural springs. Water flows liberally through cobble stone gutters washing away refuse and cooling the neighborhoods. And there actually is a sycamore tree in Jericho at this present time which Holy Land tourist guides will suggest is possibly the tree that Zacchaeus climbed in order to secure a better look at Jesus as he passed through this Judean city. This sycamore is located immediately along a main street so the suggestion of a hasty climb has some merit. Its branches are rather low lying so again the possibility of an easy ascent is not out of the question.

St. Luke informs his readers that Zacchaeus climbed this tree to get a better look at Jesus “because he was small of stature.” So the question arises, “Who was small of stature?” Was Zacchaeus somewhat short and so could not see over the taller crowds who were in front of him? Or, was Jesus rather diminutive and therefore could not be seen by a late arrival since the heads and shoulders of the first arrivers towered over the celebrated preacher. The Christian faithful, of course, could not imagine the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity Incarnate, being anything less than a strikingly fit specimen of humankind so Zacchaeus has born the onus of diminished stature through the ages. But what Zacchaeus popularly lacked in height, he gained in humility.

St. Luke has previously introduced his readers to another repentant publican, the tax collector presented in last week’s Sunday Gospel, who humbly and truthfully announced himself a sinner at the Temple door in contrast to the haughty Pharisee who laid claims only to several boasts, acknowledging neither sin nor short-coming. Now again, in another incident unique to St. Luke’s Gospel, the evangelist introduces Zacchaeus, a well-to-do agent of the Roman Empire, who expresses an unexpected but laudatory attitude toward material goods, much in contrast to the “rich young man,” also unique to St. Luke, who sadly could not separate himself from his extensive possessions. Zacchaeus, on the contrary, knowing the popular disdain that tax-collectors earned, stands his ground and makes this promise to Jesus, “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.” Zacchaeus displays remarkable detachment from the goods of this world. His announcement here might also indicate a willingness to be open to other features of the spiritual life that Jesus might offer him. Indeed, his openness toward Jesus is happily and touchingly declared by St. Luke’s cheerful observation about Zacchaeus: “And he came down quickly and received him with joy.”

Thus another publican, another Jew on the periphery of his religious community, exemplifies the essence of true contrition: sorrow for any past offenses and a determination to improve in the future. In St. Luke’s eyes, this contrite frame of mind constitutes Zacchaeus as a true Jew: “And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man, too, is a descendant of Abraham.” The irony here is that the Scribes and Pharisees, who publically represented the Jewish church, betray by their smugness that they are truly not authentic sons of Abraham. They are frauds. These self-righteous leaders among the crowd who see no need for personal spiritual renewal can only scoff at Zacchaeus: “When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” Their superior attitude places them outside Jesus’ frame of reference since Jesus “…has come to seek and to save what was lost.” There can be no redemption for those who are self-satisfied and refuse to acknowledge that they too are indeed lost and, like everyone else, need salvation.

The examination of conscience, an inventory of a person’s offenses, is a handy device for authentic spiritual renewal. The sacrament of Penance is rarely frequented nowadays and the nightly Act of Contrition before sleep has probably faded much from the scene as well. Nonetheless, the wisdom behind these once traditional exercises is worth recalling. Self-awareness is a critical step toward sanctification.

Believers might use the Ten Commandments and the Precepts of the Church as handy devices to analyze the errors of their ways. Or three quick questions might be considered to uncover one’s sins: What have I done against God? What have I done against my neighbor? What have I done against myself? Every sin fits into one of these categories. Zacchaeus was justified because he faced the truth about himself. Self-awareness, both of strengths and weaknesses, is a major step toward personal salvation.