God has a memory way deeper than sin.
I never thought about Zacchaeus’ name before, other than I once knew a family who named a son Zacchaeus, and I recall hoping he wouldn’t grow up to be short. But Pope Francis' Angelus message this past Sunday taught me about Zacchaeus’ name and opened up a new vista on the Gospel story for me.
Pope Francis said, “That man, short in stature, rejected by all and distant from Jesus, is as if lost in anonymity. But Jesus calls him, and that name ‘Zacchaeus', in the language of that time, has a beautiful meaning, full of allusions: ‘Zacchaeus’ in fact means ‘God remembers.’”
When I think of God remembering, somehow I picture myself as a child, in awe when I was told that God knew about every time I disobeyed, every bad word I said, every time I was unkind to one of my sisters or brothers, and that He would remember it. Not only that, his faithful servant St. Nicholas was making a list. He was double checking it. I remember my older brother taunting me, “Why do you bother even writing a letter to Santa? His list on you has to be way long.”
In my teens, I heard that same sentiment echoed by different comedians, starting with Steve Martin’s classic routine about his final judgment. “You’ve been keeping tabs on me? How many times did I take the Lord’s name in vain? Ewww, a million six…”
Even now, when trying to do a conscience exam I feel like there is no way I can compete with omniscience when it comes to tallying all of my sins and faults since my last confession. And the scrupulous thought has passed my mind: Will I lose heaven because God remembers something I don’t?
For Pope Francis, God remembering Zacchaeus has little to do with the person he has become. It has everything to do with the person he was intended to be, the person that God’s grace has more than enough power, even still, to make him.
“There is not a profession or social condition, there is not a sin or crime of any type that can erase from the memory or heart of God even one of his children. ‘God remembers,’ always, He doesn’t forget a single one of those He has created. He is Father, always in attentive, loving wait to see reborn in the child’s heart the desire to return home. And when He recognizes that desire, even just a hint of it, and many times practically unconscious, He is suddenly right there, and with his forgiveness He makes easier for him the pathway of conversion and return. Look at Zacchaeus, today, up the tree. His is a ridiculous gesture, but it is a gesture of salvation.”
Like the mother of a son in prison or in the grip of addiction, God does not think of me in my fallen state. That is a temporary setback that He is just waiting to remedy. The car isn’t totaled. In fact, the repair is already paid for, I just have to tow it back to the shop. God is, as one of the few “Z guys” in the New Testament, Zechariah, prays, “ever mindful of his mercy.” God remembers us as He created us, destined for holiness, beauty, truth, fulfillment…
Pope Francis wants us each to reflect on this. He, once again, used that “but I say to you ” style that Jesus used often with the apostles.
“And I say to you, if you have a burden on your conscience, if you are embarrassed because of things you have done, stop for a second, don’t be afraid. Think that there is someone who awaits you because He never stopped remembering you. And that someone is your Father, it is God who is waiting for you! So get climbing, like Zacchaeus did, up the tree of the desire of being forgiven. I assure you that you will not be deluded. Jesus is mercy and never tires of forgiving us. Remember it well. That’s how Jesus is.”
I don’t know about you, but I get goose bumps hearing the Pope say that with such tenderness and such rock-solid conviction. He knows Christ so very well. And He is telling us with absolute surety what his Friend, Jesus, is like. And in our heart of hearts we long so much for that truth, because it holds forth for us the promise of a fulfillment that only faith is bold enough to hope for. Most of us cannot remember a day when we felt like we had a clean slate before God. But God remembers.
The Good News of the New Evangelization is precisely that: we can hope for salvation because, even when we forget our innocence and forget our call to holiness, God remembers. We may have reached out to a tree and sinned against Him, but Christ reached out to Zacchaeus in a tree, on his way to redeem us all upon the tree of the Cross.