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January 11, 2012

The Moment of Conversion
by Friar Jim Van Vurst, O.F.M.

God’s Touch Is a Graced Moment

There are what we call “graced moments” in people’s lives. They can also be described as “the touch of God.” I suspect most of us have experienced such a moment more than once in our lives. After all, we are in God’s hands and God is always walking with us. Jesus himself said that he would never abandon us.

One of the most significant and dramatic touches of God is when a person experiences a conversion in his or her life. It may be somebody who really doesn’t know God and so rejects him. Then there are conversions that take place in people's hearts, who, though they believe in God, has wandered away and led a life directly contrary to God’s gospel values. A conversion is one of the most mysterious events that can occur simply because it happens in the deepest part of the person: the heart.


The Conversion of Zacchaeus, the Tax Collector

We are blessed in that the Gospels give us several scenes or events that reveal to us just how that conversion and change take place. One event in particular is what happened to the wealthy tax collector who met Jesus as he was passing through the town of Jericho (Lk 19:1-10). This encounter took place shortly before Jesus entered Jerusalem and faced his passion and death.

By this time, Jesus’ reputation for his miracles had spread widely. Even without modern communications, news of what Jesus had done in his ministry spread like wildfire. As Jesus approached the entrance to Jericho, he was spotted walking with some of his disciples, and word spread quickly: The miracle worker is coming to town.

Enter Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector who would have any number of his contacts telling him of Jesus' approach. This is when the conversion process starts for Zacchaeus. He is curious to see Jesus. It is at a moment like this that his heart opens, and the grace of God slips in. Zacchaeus’ heart beats faster. He had to see this man about whom he had heard so much.

The Gospel tells us that Zacchaeus tried to get a good look at Jesus as he approached, but he was short, and the gathering crowd blocked his view. And so he climbed a sycamore tree and perched up there like a bird in a tree. Now he could see Jesus coming. Then came a major moment of grace: the call. Jesus looked up, spotted Zacchaeus, smiled and shouted, “Zacchaeus, come down. Today I must stay in your house with you.” Jesus’ voice and his manner filled the heart of Zacchaeus. It was the touch of God, though Zacchaeus could not fully realize just then. But we can be sure that in the days following that call, Zacchaeus would relish and imagine those words of Jesus again and again.

Of all the people in the town Jesus might have chosen, the religious leaders think a dinner in the home of a tax collector would be the last thing Jesus would do. After all, Zacchaeus worked for the Romans and collected taxes. Cheating and overcharging were the standards. Why is Jesus eating with a sinner?

But it is at that very moment that the heart of Zacchaeus responded to Jesus’ invitations. He hurried down from the tree and ran to Jesus. Luke uses these beautiful words, “Zacchaeus received Jesus with joy.”


Conversion Means Change of Life

Conversion also means change and the giving of self. Does Zacchaeus mean what he says? Is he really going to change? Yes, indeed. Every call from God requires a response, both in word and in action. Zacchaeus stands before Jesus and says, “Behold, half 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 illustrates a key element of the grace of conversion: He changes his behavior and makes reparation for all he has cheated in the past. After Zacchaeus fulfilled that promise, he was probably no longer a rich man. In truth he was richer than ever. His heart was filled with the riches of God’s grace.

Jesus knew what Zacchaeus was saying and that he really meant it: “Today salvation has come to this house because this man, too, is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and save what was lost.” Jesus' words are a confirmation that Zacchaeus really made the change, and the grace of God filled his heart with goodness.

From our perspective, it always appears that we are seeking God. The truth is that God never stops seeking us. Zacchaeus might have been lost for a time, but God never ceased going after him. That one circumstance of Jesus passing through the town became the grace of opportunity. Zacchaeus responded to hearing the word of Jesus’ approach, even if it were out of curiosity. It doesn’t take much to open one’s heart and let God in. That’s the first step.

The second step: Jesus’ words and his invitation to Zacchaeus: “Come on down,” open Zacchaeus’ heart fully to the grace of God. When Zacchaeus  welcomes Jesus into his home, the tax collector receives the Lord.

The third step in Zacchaeus’ conversion was described in the change he made in his life. He repaid what he had taken dishonestly and he repaid it four-fold. The conversion was complete and Zacchaeus began his new journey through life as a follower of Jesus, growing and maturing in that faith.

I believe that, in our own lives and journeys, we have all experienced one or two conversions and life changes. After all, the Gospel events that we relish are not just for our enjoyment, but to remind us of God’s love and God's constant seeking of us. Zacchaeus may have thought he was rich as he counted his coins after a major tax collection, but he could never have realized how rich he would someday be.

Do you think that, after Jesus’ resurrection, Zacchaeus did not become a member of that early Christian community? There seems little doubt that he did and told his story to many. After all, Luke considered it important enough to make sure that the grace-filled event would be remembered wherever his Gospel was read.


Friar Jack's Inbox
Readers respond to Friar Jack Wintz's December E-spiration, Musing: The Words of St. Anthony Live On

Dear Friar Jack: Your E-spiration about St. Anthony was one of my favorites! Thanks for sharing! Germaine

Dear Germaine: I’m very happy that you were pleased with St. Anthony's inspiring words and thoughts. My prayers for peace and good health go out to you and all the readers of this column. May 2012 be a blessed year for all! Friar Jack

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I am Fr. Jim Van Vurst and I hope you'll enjoy
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