Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

First Reading: Wisdom 11:22-12:2; Response: Psalm 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13, 14; Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Gospel: Luke 19:1-10

The Book of Wisdom, also known as The Wisdom of Solomon (died 922 B.C.), dates from the middle of the first century B.C. Though attributed to Solomon, the author is unknown. He or she was a Greek-speaking devout Jew, writing in Greek, for the large Jewish communities of Egypt. A major reason for locating its composition in Egypt is its emphasis on relationships between Israel and Egypt. It is not part of the Hebrew Bible, but of the Greek Bible known aa the Septuagint. The latter is the basis of our canon or list of Old Testament documents believed to convey divine revelation. This Sunday’s excerpt from Wisdom begins with a comparison between the Lord God and the whole universe. The universe, in comparison to God, is no more than a grain of cereal falling from the scales during the weighing process. A second comparison: the universe, in comparison to God, is like a drop of morning dew falling on the earth. Despite the difference of infinitesimal to infinite, the infinite Lord has mercy on all “because he can do all things.” He overlooks the sins of people to give them time to repent. This is apologetics — the author’s defense against critics who use the existence of evil to deny the existence of God.

Why does God notice us at all? “Because you love things that are, and loathe nothing that you have created. Anything that you would have hated, you would never have created.” More apologetics — defending the Lord God as creator of all things. In later times, this can serve as a defense against the theory of double predestination — that God created some humans for salvation, but others for damnation. You can be sure that those who hold this teaching would list themselves among the saved. The very fact that anything exists, says the author, is a demonstration that God created it and sustains it. “You spare all things because they are yours.” The author prays, “O Lord and lover of souls! Your immortal Spirit sustains all things!” Back to the existence of sin and of ongoing sinners. Instead of wiping them out, God rebukes them just a little at a time to warn them. Thus, they have opportunity to abandon their evil deeds and return to belief in God. An amazing assembling of apologetic material probing the mystery of creation and the existence of evil!

Psalm 145 is a hymn of praise. It echoes the reading from Wisdom in citing the Lord’s kindness, his being good to all and his compassion toward all his creatures. He lifts up all who are falling and raises up those humbled by oppression. Therefore, the people respond with joy, “I will praise your name forever, my king and my God.” An even more direct response to the first reading would have been Psalm 8, which reads in verse 4, “What is humanity that you are mindful of it, or human beings that you care for them?”

The reading from 2 Thessalonians begins with part of Paul’s introductory praise of and thanksgiving for his converts in Thessalonica. He gets their attention with compliments before introducing a problem for which he was partly to blame. From a previous letter to them, called 1 Thessalonians, some concluded that the Lord would soon return — during his and their lifetime. Taking him at his word, some with a “What’s the use” attitude stopped working. He writes, “with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering with him, do not be shaken out of your minds, or alarmed by some spirit or oral statement, or by a letter supposedly from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand.” In the meantime, how should they handle the idlers? “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat” (3:10, but not included in today’s reading).

The name of the hero of our gospel reading is Zacchaeus. He is well-named. It means “clean,” and he either has come clean or will come clean at the end of the story. Jesus is getting closer to Jerusalem, the goal of his pilgrimage. He was passing through the city of Jericho. Here was the home of Zacchaeus. He held a civil position akin to our own chief of the Internal Revenue Service — chief tax collector. We have seen, on past Sundays, how tax collectors were hated and shunned. They were employed by the occupying Roman government to gather taxes to be shipped off to imperial headquarters in Rome. Collecting taxes for Rome was a position sold as a franchise. The collector was allowed to keep a certain percentage of the amount collected. In determining the amount to be collected, there was room for fraud. In the excitement caused by the passing through town of Jesus and a large group of Galilean pilgrims, Zacchaeus, being short of stature, climbed a sycamore tree to view this famous healer from Galilee. Jesus saw him and said, “Come down, Zacchaeus. Today I must stay at your house.” Zacchaeus was not accustomed to be treated with dignity. He came down from the tree and joyfully took Jesus to his house. The compassion of Jesus moved him to his own compassion. He announced, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I shall give to the poor. If I have defrauded anyone, I will repay it quadruple.” Contrition and restitution!

A fine story, but there were grumblers. “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” Jesus has an answer for them. He knew well that Zacchaeus was a sinner, as much as Zacchaeus knew it. He also knew that his arrogant and self-righteous critics were sinners. Here was the difference: Zacchaeus repented; they did not. Therefore, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house (the home of Zacchaeus), for he, too (just like his critics), was a descendant of Abraham.” Jesus bestowed forgiveness and emphasized the man’s dignity as a fellow Jew instead of a hated outcast of society. Why did Jesus do it? “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” Why did Luke put this story so close to the end of his gospel? He had pointed out that Zacchaeus was rich. Throughout his gospel, Luke had made some cruel statements about rich people. It began with a curse following “Blessed are you poor, etc.,” to which Luke countered, “Woe to your rich, etc.” A pastor who would say that to his congregation would see the collection plummet. Luke now shows that wealth can be a blessing for those who are willing to share it.