Surah Ash-Shuraa (Surah 42 – The Consultation) tells us:
That is (the Bounty) whereof God gives Glad Tidings to His Servants who believe and do righteous deeds. Say: “No reward do I ask of you for this except the love of those near of kin.” And if any one earns any good, We shall give him an increase of good in respect thereof: for God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Ready to appreciate (service). (Surah Ash-Shuraa 42:23)
And He listens to those who believe and do deeds of righteousness, and gives them increase of His Bounty: but for the Unbelievers their is a terrible Penalty. (Surah Ash-Shuraa 42:26)
Likewise Surah Al-Qasas (Surah 28 – The Stories) declares:
But any that (in this life) had repented, believed, and worked righteousness, will have hopes to be among those who achieve salvation. (Surah Al-Qasas 28:67)
But what if we have not ‘worked righteousness’, done ‘righteous deeds’ and have fallen short on good service? The Law of Musa explained the absolute obedience required and the ‘terrible penalty’ for any who fall short, which these ayat in Surah Ash-Shuraa and Surah Al-Qasas confirm. The glad tidings of the Prophet Isa al Masih PBUH was for those people who miss in righteous deeds as described in these ayat. Are you one who has not worked righteousness perfectly? Then read the encounter of Isa al Masih with a man who did not work any righteousness– who was a traitor even.
The Prophet Isa al Masih (PBUH) had brought Lazarus back to life from death – revealing the purpose of his mission – to destroy death itself. Now he was on his way to Jerusalem to complete his mission. On the way he passed through Jericho (which is today in Palestinian West Bank). Because of his many miracles and teachings a large crowd came out to see him. In that crowd was a rich but despised man – Zacchaeus. He was rich because he was a tax collector for the Romans who occupied Judea with military force. He would collect more taxes from the people than Rome required – and keep the extra for himself. He was despised by the Jews because, though a Jew himself, he was working for the Roman occupiers in this way and cheating his own people. He was viewed as a traitor to his people.
So Zacchaeus, being short, could not see the Prophet Isa al Masih (PBUH) in the crowd, and no one there was willing to help him. The Injil records how he met the Prophet and what was said:
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19: 1-10)
The people did not like what the prophet had done – inviting himself to Zacchaeus’s home. Zacchaeus was bad and everyone knew it. But Zacchaeus recognized that he was a sinner. Most of us hide our sins, cover them up or pretend that that we have no sins. But not Zacchaeus. He knew that what he was doing was wrong. Yet when he took the first step to meet the Prophet, Isa al Masih’s response was so warm that it surprised everyone.
Isa al Masih (PBUH) wanted Zaccheus to repent, turn away from sin, and to turn to him as ‘Masih’. When Zaccheus did this he found that the Prophet (PBUH) pardoned him – declaring that he was ‘saved’ from being ‘lost’.
How about you and me? We probably have not done such shameful things as Zacchaeus. But because we are not so bad, we think that, like Adam, we can hide, cover up or pretend away the ‘little’ sins and ‘mistakes’ that we do. We hope we can do enough good things to pay for our bad deeds. That was what the crowd who came to see the prophet thought. Therefore, Isa did not invite himself to any of their homes, nor declare that any of them were ‘saved’ – only Zacchaeus. It is far better for us to admit our sins before Allah and not try hiding them. Then as we ourselves reach out for the mercy of Isa al Masih we will find that forgiveness and pardon will be given to us beyond what we can imagine.
But how could Zacchaeus’s bad actions be erased so that he could have assurance of forgiveness from that moment – without waiting for Judgment Day? We follow Isa al Masih (PBUH) as he continues to Jerusalem to complete his mission.