THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – Wis 1122-1221 2Thes 1:11-22 Lk 19:1‘10
To Whom Does Salvation Come? The Table as Place of Salvation; Taking the Long View; The Long and Short of It; Mercy as the Way to Salvation. About sixteen miles northeast of Jerusalem is Jericho, a town that in our Lord} time was beautiful and important. It was the last stop for pilgrims going the steep climb up to Jerusalem from the east. Here the weather was almost balmy. In winter, it was a relief from the damp, bone-chilling winters of Jerusalem — a New Testament Miami, Riviera, Estoril, or Rio.

It contained a great palm forest, balsam groves that perfumed the air, and famous gardens of roses. The Jewish historian Josephus called it “a divine region”, and others called it “The City of Palms”. Herod the Great had placed his winter capital on a hillside there; there is even today on a hillside in Jericho a hotel called “The Winter Palace”. The Romans carried Jericho’s dates and balsam world-wider.

All this resulted in wealth. Customs had to be paid on the many items that passed through, and agricultural taxes on produce from the lush groves. That required the presence of a high tax official, with several ordinary ones under him. That chief tax collector — and a rich man — was Zacchaeus (v. 2).

The terms “rich” and “poor” are particularly frequent in Luke. Luke’s Jesus is critical of the rich man who was tempted to eat, drink, and be merry ( 12:6). He criticizes the host who invited only rich neighhours (14: 12). But it is in those passages in which he contrasts the rich with the poor that Luke has Jesus’ teaching at its starkest — Jesus’ blessings to the poor and woes to the rich (6:20, 24); the rich man and Lazarus (16:19); the poor widow who gave her all (21:14). All the incidents are challenges to abandon the blindness of riches while other people are poor.

Zacchaeus’ wealth had come at a price. Like Matthew and all other tax collectors, he had had to love money enough to defy the hatred of his people in order to collect taxes for Rome. Because he was an outcast he was lonely and, though he had become wealthy, he wasn’t happy. His conduct with Jesus was born of the courage of desperationIt was his courage that led him into the crowd. He knew that many citizens would take the chance to. get in a kick, a push, or a shove at him, and he would probably wind up black and blue with bruises. As the masses of our day might tend, with little evidence, to conclude easily that a rich man cooks his books to avoid paying taxes, the crowds of that time believed the worst of Zacchaeus the tax collector.

The crowd took special delight in taking care that this short man running in front of them wouldn’t be able to see anything. But he who had climbed over difficulties on his road to riches found it relatively easy to climb a tree that had a short trunk and low—forking branches. Jericho tax-payers might have been amused to see their diminutive tax commissioner perched on a branch like a cat waiting to spring. Jesus, when he came to the spot, might have laughed as well, as might Zacchaeus himself when he was caught.

There is no recorded instance of Jesus’ ever refusing an invitation to share food and drink, but here he surprisingly invited himself to stay at Zacchaeus’ house (v. 5). Whereas the crowd saw in Zacchaeus a tax thief who earned his large commissions on the backs of the poor, and a shrewd manipulator who had climbed a tree to see the man they all wanted to talk to and had perhaps been following for months, Jesus saw Zacchaeus’ heart and his hope. Zacchaeus looked at Jesus, and Jesus looked into Zacchaeus. Like all true seekers after God, Zacchaeus got more than he bargained for, and he was delighted (v. 6).

When Jesus arrived at Zacchaeus’ house (v. 7), the gossips of Jericho clucked their tongues, murmuring against Jesus and showing the hardness of the society’s class distinctions and its merciless coldness toward fallen members. After all, the jawbone of an ass was just as dangerous a weapon then — and is today — as it was in Samson’s time.

Sharing food and drink is one of the easiest means of conversion and reconciliation. Many of Jesus’ parables show that he used eating at table to picture fellowship with God. So delighted was Zacchaeus at the Lord’s visit that he promised to give half his belongings to the poor (v. 8). “If I have extorted anything from anyone,” he continued (and he could have added “and I have”) he would pay him back fourfold — which weren’t things he ordinarily did. Zacchaeus was showing him— self to be a man of feeling, deeply touched by Jesus’ kindness. He responded to a moment of truth — the moment he knew that God’s love was bigger than the whole world — by letting go of his accumulations of a lifetime. And he went way beyond his religious laws. The rich man was becoming merciful; he was getting through the needle’s eye!

Jesus, not to be outdone in generosity, promised that that very day salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ house (v. 9). Just as Zacchaeus’ entire household had suffered from his unjust practices, now it would benefit from his conversion. The Son of Man was saving what was lost (v. 10) — that is, not necessarily what was damned, but what had been put in the wrong place.Persons are considered lost when away from God, and found when put back in their rightful place in God’s household. That is frequently us.

And that is God’s mercy. In modern religious usage we tend to associate mercy only with the judgment of God, as if we were criminals facing the judicial system and throwing ourselves on the mercy of a court. But the classical meaning of mercy (chanan in Hebrew, eleeo in Greek) is much wider in scope; it means kindness, graciousness, loving helpfulness. And that is the implication of the final sentence of this passage, which encapsulates, Jesus’ ministry to save.

The immensity of God’s loving mercy that Jesus demonstrated, the Book of Wisdom spoke of. Today’s First Reading is at the heart of that book. Written about a century before Christ at Alexandria in Egypt (where the Jews were a minority in a Hellenistic culture), it indicated that salvation doesn’t necessarily come only to those fixated against sin, which is negative, but to those who are open to God’s love, which is positive. This passage begins by putting everything in perspective. Before the Lord the whole universe is as a grain on a scale (v. 22) — a very small weight on an extremely sensitive measure — or as a drop of morning dew. It is a reflection on one of our greatest paradoxes — on the one side God’s utter transcendence — His being over all of His mighty creation — and, on the other side, the individual attention His mercy accords to persons.

God’s mercy is a prolongation of His creative power(ll:24-12:2) and of His mastery over His own might. God is like a strong tall man who is so secure in his person that he can afford to be gentle. He loves all the things that His creative power has made, for only love can explain His having created and preserved them. Because of this love God pardons and is patient with all kinds of people so that they might repent (vv. 23f). We, in turn, should feel so secure in our person as to be able to imitate God’s mercy. This should stimulate in us an attitude of reverence for everything within creation — how we are to behave toward the universe, toward animals, and toward all other aspects of ecology. As the bumper sticker says, “God doesn’t make junk.”

As regards animals, we are the recipients of two old traditions. The mainstream Western tradition has been that animal nature is not like ours, so animals simply don’t matter, and people can do what they like with them. The other tradition treats animals as our fellow-creatures, having feelings.

In our religious tradition, hostility to animals grew out of the preoccupation with establishing monotheism and avoiding nature-worship. Pagan religions had made much use of animal symbolism, and had often revered particular animals and plants as sacred. The gods had them as companions — Jove had his eagle, Athene her owl, Odin his ravens and his eight—legged horse. Moreover, pagan writers such as Plutarch who had championed animals had sometimes used arguments from the reincarnation of souls — that the souls of deceased people who proved themselves unworthy went into lower forms like animals — which was contrary to Christian doctrine.

So the defense of animals smelled of heresy. St Francis got away with going against that tradition, but his influence in this respect —despite today’s blessing of animals on his feast day — wasn’t wide. At the beginning of the seventeenth century Descartes, in laying the foundation of modern science, exalted human reason as the only genuine form of consciousness. Animals, having no reason, he. said, are just automata. This convenient doctrine was invoked to justify crude vivisections which even the conscience of the age found shocking.

What prevailed was Spinoza’s notion that animals, though conscious, can’t concern us, because they are simply too different from us for any sort of duty of consideration to be possible. This went far beyond Christianity. Exalting reason as humankind’s link with God, humankind’s self-worship by reason of intelligence became to some extent an overt religion, as when the French revolutionaries enthroned the naked Goddess of Reason on the altar of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Auguste Comte set up a formal Religion of Humanity.
Upsetting the general body of scientists as much as upsetting Christianity was Charles Darwin. What worried many scientists about Darwin was not God’s dignity but humankind’s. For them, Darwin’s idea that human dignity is compatible with an earthly origin was unbearable.

The truth is that we live here surrounded by our animal relatives. In order to understand ourselves, we need to take animal parallels seriously, though of course not simplistically. Doing so doesn’t degrade us. Dignity depends on truth. In a beautiful Polish, Lithuanian, and Slovak Christmas custom, as each of the many dinner courses is served, a small portion is set aside for the animals. This reminds all that at the first Christmas, when Christ was born, the animals were the only honoured “eye witnesses” and deserve to be remembered.

Today’s reading from the second letter to the Thessalonians carries the same theme in yet a different way. This and the first letter to the Thessalonians were written about 51 AD, and constitute the earliest writings in the New Testament. The first letter had taught that the day of the Lord would come “like a, thief” and might catch some people off guard (1 Thes 5:5). Some were therefore teaching that the final days were already there. This gave rise to two sets of errors. Some said, “Let’s live it up — eat, drink, and be merry, and the devil take the hindmost.” Others sank into despair, feeling that in the time available they would never be able to reform their lives and so would be damned.

This second letter intended to overcome these ideas. The author, not necessarily St Paul though certainly with the authority of his name, encouraged these frightened Christians to square their shoulders, throw back their heads, leave the end of the world to God, and carry on with life. The letter wants them not only to endure their circumstances patiently, but to master them and use them to strengthen their nerve.

Today’s section begins with a prayer that is a concise expression of the delicate coordination of both divine initiative and human effort in thework of our salvation. Our glory is Christ, all right, but his glory is us. Just as the glory of teachers is in the students they form and parents’ glory is in the children they beget, Christ’s glory is in those who have learned to be little lights of the world, lit by his great light. It is a prayer that could very well be used by everyone.

That we be gathered to Jesus is, of course, the deepest hope of all of us. If we are to be numbered among Jesus’ assembly, we must rely upon the mercy of God. Most of all, we look upon Jesus’ mercy to Zacchaeus, and the mercy of the new and converted Zacchaeus to others, perceive how different that mercy is from society’s attitude, and imitate it. Salvation comes to the merciful!