Fifty-ninth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Wisdom 11:22-12:2; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10
As we approach the end of the Jubilee Year, I feel like I’m spending a significant amount of time repeating myself in these reflections. But it’s fitting, in a way. Every message in the word of God is ultimately the same message, and one that always bears repeating. Today’s readings are no different in this regard, even as the words, characters and situations do differ. Saint Paul writes in the Second Reading: “We always pray for you, that God may make you worthy of his calling.” In this loving message he reminds us that favor with God is not, and cannot ever be, merit-based. When being “merciful like the Father” means humbling ourselves, thinking of ourselves less, not being concerned with seeming righteous before others, then clearly actually becoming righteous is less about what we do for God and more about what God does for us. Paul doesn’t pray that the Thessalonians simply be worthy of God’s call; he prays that God may make them worthy. And there is revealed the true mystery: it is only when we surrender to God that God can truly begin to work within us and through us.
Not that surrendering to God is an easy thing! Putting others before ourselves can be hard enough, but it’s a microcosm of putting God before everything. But as we know the opportunities are always there, and that is the reason those opportunities are always there: because it is so very hard. The First Reading, taken from the Book of Wisdom, says of God: “[Y]ou have mercy on all because you can do all things.” And in the same breath it says: “[Y]ou overlook people’s sins so that they may repent.” God’s power and His mercy go hand-in-hand. That is why the author can call God the “lover of souls.” Truly, a God-Who-Is-Love would not have made something He hated, and He would not hate anything He has made and placed His own Spirit within. That is why He is so patient with us, and calls us all to imitate that same patience. We need to learn to love as He loves, and to do so little by little – just as He forgives us, “little by little.”
Jesus extends this patience to the tax collector Zacchaeus in today’s Gospel reading. It seems Jesus was quite fond of tax collectors – and He was one of very few people who was (and still is)! And yet that’s the point of the story, and of all the tax collector stories. These bureaucratic middlemen who encounter God are very good at a job that they loathe almost as much as people loathe them. And as a result, they seem to be more susceptible to the idea of surrendering themselves to God, to throwing themselves upon His mercy, because He’s the only one left they can turn to for a kind eye. So as the crowd around grumbles about how yet again Jesus has gone to dine at the house of a sinner (at least this time He’s not the one killing the mood!), He reminds them all of two things. “[T]his man too is a descendant of Abraham” – that is, he too is destined to receive the same promise from God as all the rest of Israel. And “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost” – that is, God has come to earth as Man in order to draw even the farthest of men back to Himself, to help even the most wicked achieve their highest good.
Only God can do these things. Only God can justify us totally; that’s why it’s for us meet Him halfway, so He can take us all the way. This reality – that no man, even the man Jesus Himself (by His own admission), does anything on his own – is what the grumblers in the Gospel did not yet understand. And it’s one of the reasons why Saint Paul warns the Thessalonians in the Second Reading about false messages. Just as He asserts that it is God Who “bring[s] to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith,” so He tries to make sure that they are not “shaken out of [their] minds suddenly” by people preaching a different message other than what they had received, or claiming to have some secret knowledge that “the day of the Lord is at hand.” The message of the Gospel is no secret! It is to be shouted, loud and often, to any and all who will listen! And the day of the Lord is always imminent, because no one knows when it will dawn. Even Jesus did not claim to know the day His Father had chosen, only that it would be after the Gospel had been preached to all nations. If the Son of God Himself did not claim to know all His Father knows, did not presume to act on His own but only in accord with His Father’s will, why should that not be the model we should follow? Why should we not throw in our lot with our Brother’s Father and let Him take us all the way?
Every message of God is the same message. To borrow from my pastor again, just as there’s a difference between taking the Bible literally and taking it seriously, there is a difference between seeing it as the words of God and as the Word of God. And it’s the same as the difference between knowing what we can do for God and neighbor and accepting what only He can and must do for us in order to be happy with Him for ever.