Nov 3, 2019: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Wisdom 11:22-12:1

Before the LORD the whole universe is as a grain from a balance
 or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
 But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
 and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.
 For you love all things that are
 and loathe nothing that you have made;
 for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.
 And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it;
 or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?
 But you spare all things, because they are yours,
 O LORD and lover of souls,
 for your imperishable spirit is in all things!
 Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little,
 warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing,
 that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O LORD!

The Book of Wisdom is believed to have been written in Greek, in Alexandria, around 50 BC. Although the book itself claims that it was written by King Solomon, it was in fact written some 870 years later with the author, in order to highlight the importance of the work, using the prestige of Solomon, the greatest of the wise men of Israel. This attribution to another is called “pseudonimity” and was also used in the book of Ecclesiastes.

The universal love and providence of the Creator is celebrated in this most unusual reading.  Earlier traditions envisioned creation as a kind of reordering of cosmic debris after the primordial battle.  This passage depicts a Creator who is personally involved with every dimension of the natural world.  The same cosmic power is displayed, but it is coupled with love and mercy.

Before the LORD the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth. 

The first theme addressed by the author, who is known as Pseudo-Solomon, is the immensity of God.  Should a single grain of wheat fall from the scale, it would hardly be noticed.  The same is true of one drop of morning dew.  So it is with the entire expanse of the cosmos: it is as nothing when likened to God.

Although the ancient understanding of the universe cannot begin to compare with the modern one, within the context of its worldview this comparison is no less remarkable than it would be today.

But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook the sins of men that they may repent.

God is merciful precisely because he is powerful.  This may sound like a curious statement, for in a world that glorified strength, mercy could appear to be a weak virtue.  However, this passage dispels that false perception.  Only one with power can move beyond the strict rules of retribution, and if divine power is boundless, then it is possible that divine mercy has no limits.

This is a reflection on one of our greatest paradoxes: on one hand, God’s utter transcendence over all creation — on the other hand, his care and mercy toward individual persons.

God is like a strong tall man who is so secure in his person that he can afford to be gentle.

For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned. And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?

The author makes a daring statement: God loves whatever God has made, for only love can explain his having created and preserved them.

But you spare all things, because they are yours, O LORD and lover of souls, for your imperishable spirit is in all things!

The author moves to an even more daring statement: the imperishable (áphtartos) spirit of God is in all things.  What could sound like pantheism (God is identified with creation) might be better understood as panentheism (God is in all things but also transcends them).

The implications of such an incarnational concept are noteworthy.  First it provides a clue to the reason God so loves creation.  Second, it highlights the intrinsic value of the natural world, both human and non-human.

This passage was written too early to entertain the possibility that it contains trinitarian thinking; however, in the Jewish tradition the dynamic power of God, active in the lives of women and men, was often referred to as the spirit of the Lord (see Judges 6:34; 1 Samuel 16:13; Isaiah 61:1, to name a few).

Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little, warn them, and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O LORD!

Finally, Pseudo-Solomon is not naive when it comes to human weakness.  He knows that people sin, and he also knows there is suffering because of it.  This in no way nullifies his claims about the mercy of God; instead, that mercy explains the way that God deals with sinners.  They are rebuked more as a corrective than as a punishment, and this is done in order to bring them to greater insight, to deeper commitment, and to trust in God.

This reading makes it clear that God loves sinners before they repent; he corrects them in order to call them back to right relationship with their loving God.

We, in turn, should feel so secure in our person as to be able to imitate God’s mercy, and hold an attitude of reverence for everything in creation.  As the old bumper sticker says: “God doesn’t make junk.”

2nd Reading – 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2

Brothers and sisters:
We always pray for you,
that our God may make you worthy of his calling
and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose
and every effort of faith,
that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you,
and you in him,
in accord with the grace of our God and Lord Jesus Christ. 

We ask you, brothers and sisters,
with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ
and our assembling with him,
not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed
either by a “spirit,” or by an oral statement,
or by a letter allegedly from us
to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand.

Today we begin a three-week study of Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians.

Accompanied by Silas, Saint Paul arrived at Thessalonica (now known as Salonica) in the course of his second missionary journey after leaving Philippi around the summer of the year 50 AD. It was one of the most important cities in the Roman province of Macedonia.  Its busy port and strategic position on important trade routes meant that many people, mainly Greeks, gravitated to Thessalonica in search of employment. As far as religion was concerned, it was a typical pagan city, although it had a sizeable Jewish community with its own synagogue.

In keeping with his custom, Paul went first to the synagogue to proclaim the Good News: Jesus was the Messiah; the Old Testament prophesies had come true in him, he had redeemed mankind by his passion, death, and resurrection. As a result of his teaching, many Jews and Gentiles came to believe, including “not a few of the leading women” (Acts 17:4). His success earned him the envy of certain Jews who organized demonstrations and attacked the house where he was staying. This led to Paul and his companions leaving Thessalonica before the instruction of the converts was complete. The new converts also encountered persecution by the Jews. Paul completed his teaching of the Thessalonians by way of two letters.  They constitute the earliest writings of the New Testament.

In today’s short reading, Paul addresses two important issues: the fruition of the Christians’ calling by God and the correct teaching about the final coming of Christ.

Brothers and sisters: We always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith, 

In a moving passage, Paul tells his people that he prays for them and does so constantly.  He is not merely intent on their accepting his teaching, he is committed to their spiritual well-being.  Though he has been the minister of the word, it is God who has called them: Paul’s prayer is that they be worthy of that calling.  This concisely expresses the delicate coordination of both divine initiative and human effort in the work of our salvation.

This is the heart of Paul’s teaching: We are obligated to live ethical lives, but it is the prior grace of God and not our subsequent ethical behavior that saves us.

that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, 

In Greek, to glorify someone means to enhance that person’s reputation.  This may sound strange to us today unless we remember that Christian living is based not on the performance of good words but on faith in Jesus.  It is commitment to him that prompts Christians to live ethical lives.  It is commitment to him that overflows into unselfish love for others.  It is commitment to him that gives his followers the courage they need to endure in the face of difficulty.  It is commitment to him that motivates their every action. Therefore, whatever they do gives witness to their faith, a faith that claims they have died with him and have risen through his power to a new life.  In this way, Christians do indeed glorify the name of Jesus.

and you in him, in accord with the grace of our God and Lord Jesus Christ.

Christians in turn are glorified by Christ, for it is only through his grace that their transformation has been accomplished.  It is to this transformation that they have been called by God.

We ask you, brothers, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling with him,

There seems to have been some difficulty in the Thessalonians’ understanding of the coming of the Lord, so Paul sets out to correct it. The issue seems to be the nature and timing of Christ’s second coming.

He first assures them that they will be gathered together with him (see 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17); the dead will be joined with the living.  This, of course, is the deepest hope of all of us.

“When the resurrection will be, he has not said: ‘It will come in due order’; he has said ‘and our assembling with him.’ This point is quite important. Observe how Paul’s exhortation is accompanied by praise and encouragement, for he makes it clear that Jesus and all the saints will certainly appear at that time with us.” [Saint John Chrysostom (between A.D. 398-404), Homilies on the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians 3]

Paul taught that in faith and through baptism, Christians have died with Christ, have risen with him, and now live resurrected lives.  This means that the day of fulfillment has already dawned.  However, he also taught that fulfillment has not yet been brought to its ultimate completion — a kind of already-but-not-yet eschatology.

Hence there is a natural tension: To cling to the “already” and ignore the “not yet,” or vice versa, is a denial of an important aspect of the faith.  Believing that everything has already been fulfilled could lead some to feel that they are free of all ethical restrictions (see 1 Corinthians 6:12); to hold that fulfillment is only in the future is to deny the resurrection itself.

not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed either by a “spirit,” or by an oral statement, or by a letter allegedly from us to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand.

Having laid out his teaching, Paul insists that the Thessalonians should accept nothing more and nothing less, whether it comes to them through some kind of prophecy or tongues, through teaching or logical reasoning, or even a letter purported to have been written by him.

Though the eschatological day of the Lord is imminent, it is not yet present.  Believers must continue to live their lives in patient anticipation of his coming, realizing that they do so in the presence of his already having come.

“Therefore, not to know the times is something different from moral decay and the love of vice. For when the apostle Paul said ‘Don’t be shaken out of your minds suddenly or be alarmed either by a spirit, or an oral statement, or a letter allegedly from us to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand,’ he obviously did not want them to believe those who  thought the coming of the Lord was already at hand. Neither, moreover, did he want them to be like the wicked servant and say, ‘My Lord will not be coming for a long time,’ and deliver themselves over to destruction by pride and immoral behavior. Thus Paul’s desire that they should not listen to false rumors about the imminent approach of the last day was consistent with his wish that they should await the coming of their Lord fully prepared and ready for the journey, with lamps burning.” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (ca. A.D. 418), Letters 199,1.2]

Gospel – Luke 19:1-10

At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town. 
Now a man there named Zacchaeus,
who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man,
was seeking to see who Jesus was;
but he could not see him because of the crowd,
for he was short in stature. 
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus,
who was about to pass that way.
When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said,
“Zacchaeus, come down quickly,
for today I must stay at your house.” 
And he came down quickly and received him with joy. 
When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying,
“He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” 
But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord,
“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.”
And Jesus said to him,
“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 to save what was lost.”

The story of Zacchaeus demonstrates once again the mission of Jesus to seek and to save what is lost.  It also reveals the animosity the Jews of his day had toward those who were in any way in collusion with the occupying Romans, as were the tax collectors.

At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where his passion and death await.

Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector

Recall that tax collectors were despised because they were part of the economic system put in place by the occupying Romans.  Their pay consisted of anything they could collect above and beyond the amount due to the authorities.  There was no standard scale governing this added charge, and tax collectors often exacted exorbitant amounts.  They were often greedy and dishonest.  To be extorted in such a way by their own Jewish brethren, fellow members of God’s chosen people, was unthinkable.

Not only did Zacchaeus belong to this hated class, he was a chief among them.

and also a wealthy man,

Jherico was a prominent city on the east-west trade route.  It was probably a customs checkpoint, so tax collection was likely a thriving business there, from which Zacchaeus profited greatly.

The fact that a despised tax collector was wealthy added insult to injury.

was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. 

Sycamores have a short trunk and wide lateral branches, which make them easy to climb.

Despite his obvious disrepute, we will see that Zacchaeus has several very honorable qualities.  He must have known why people hated him and he probably despised himself for the same reasons.  He knew he was a cheat and a traitor, utterly unworthy of the mercy of God. He knew that the people would likely relish this opportunity to mock him for his short stature and unconventional tactics to get a glimpse of Jesus.  But he climbed the tree anyway.

The lesson for us is: Never give up! That simple outreach, that modicum of spiritual curiosity or hunger, is all the Lord needs.

When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

Note the words Jesus uses: “I must!” There is something obligatory here.  This is an invasion of grace.  Jesus does not ask permission to come to his house, nor does Zacchaeus extend an invitation.  Jesus does not demand that Zacchaeus demonstrate any qualifications for this honor; he simply moves in.

Note also the urgency in the word “today.”  He was only passing through Jericho, and if they did not seize the moment, the opportunity could be lost.  This urgency demanded that religious and social customs be set aside.

Think of Zacchaeus’ house as a representation of the man’s soul.  No matter how much you have sinned, no matter how far you have wandered from the Lord, no matter how unworthy you feel, open your heart even a tiny sliver — and grace will pour in.

And he came down quickly and received him with joy.

Zacchaeus responds immediately as Jesus instructed, and he extends to Jesus the fullness of customary hospitality.

When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.”

The narrative draws bold lines of contrast between Jesus’ attitude toward Zacchaeus and that of the bystanders.  They believed that only sinners kept company with sinners, and in the culture of that time, sharing a meal signified a very close relationship.  Both of these convictions led them to conclude that Jesus himself must be a sinner.

But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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 responds immediately to Jesus’ request and greets Jesus not only with joy, but with repentance. His decision to pay restitution is an acknowledgment of his sin and admission of his status as a sinner. His pledge of restitution shows that he must have already been aware of Jesus’ teaching on the proper use of wealth (see Luke 18:24-27).

The sincerity of this transformation can be seen in the extent of his vow.  The law prescribed the return of the money extorted along with twenty percent of that amount (Leviticus 6:5); however, Zacchaeus is extravagant in his compensation, repaying fourfold whatever he might owe, in addition to giving half of his possessions to the poor.  Such prodigality is his response to having been called by the Lord and honored with his presence.

This response is in sharp contrast to the rich man in Luke 18:18-23, who could not detach himself from his material possessions to become a follower of Jesus.

And Jesus said to him, “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 to save what was lost.”

Note that Jesus never challenges the criticism of consorting with a sinner.  Instead he insists that only those who are lost can be found; only those who are perishing can be saved.

God loves sinners and calls them to repentance.  Those who revere themselves as righteous seldom understand this and so miss opportunities for their own salvation.

Connections and Themes

From today until the end of the liturgical year, there is a definite shift in the perspective of the readings.  They move from a focus on discipleship to concentration on the action of God.

The splendor of the universe.  The change of seasons is always an opportune time to marvel and the magnificence of the natural world of which we are a part.  Its colors, its textures, its smells, all reflect the limitless imagination of the Creator.  Perhaps the most marvelous feature of the world is the interconnectedness of all the elements of which it consists.  Nothing is too small to make a difference; everything is dependent on everything else.  Nothing is unimportant or loathsome; everything is worthy of God’s care and mercy.  Somehow the spirit of the Creator is manifested through each and every aspect of the universe.  And we are part of it all.  We are dependent upon the forces of life within this awe-inspiring world, and it is dependent upon us to carry life and consciousness and creativity forward into each new generation and to further it into new manifestations.  The universe may be as a grain in the balance or a drop of morning dew, but each grain and each drop contain within them the possibilities of the future.

The intimacy of hospitality. Offering hospitality is a profound social act.  We reveal ourselves when we invite others into our homes.  There our tastes and our choices are on display.  When we offer hospitality, we invite another into our world, into our lives.  We shift our attention from our own cares and concerns to the needs and comfort of the other. By the act of hospitality, we transform strangers into friends.

Jesus not only accepts the hospitality of Zacchaeus, he boldly invites himself to the man’s home.  In a sense, he becomes the host, inviting Zacchaeus into his life, into the intimacy of his friendship. By this act he displays the unrestricted nature of his love.  He establishes a bond of love with a man of questionable character, and he thereby transforms him into a man who repents and radically reforms his life.  Although the home belongs to Zacchaeus, the real home into which Jesus invites him is the reign of God, and there Jesus is the host.

The hospitality Jesus offers dissolves all constraints.  Relationships disregard the biased measures of propriety, forging bonds of reconciliation and issuing everyone an invitation to intimacy.  The hospitality Jesus offers re-creates the world from one of insider versus outsider to one of universal inclusivity.  Sinners become friends; the lost are found, all are restored to their rightful place as children not merely of Abraham, but of God.  The creativity of the Creator is matched by the compassion of the re-Creator.

The blessings of salvation.  The compassion of God is manifested in the fact that God promises us a future.  In that future, all the blessings of salvation will be brought to fulfillment. Like Zacchaeus, we have been called, we have been invited to open ourselves to the Lord who is coming so he can extend to us the riches of his own hospitality.  We have a future; our past will not hold us back.  We have a future; divisions will be dissolved.  We have a future; this is the reason to cry out in praise and thanksgiving: “I will praise your name forever; let all your works give you thanks.”

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