Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

By Father Donald Dilger

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

The first reading is an excerpt from the Book of Wisdom, a product of Jewish theology, philosophy, history, and experience of Jews in Egypt. The date is sometime between 100 to 50 B.C. The book can be understood as apologetics — defense of Jewish faith in a pagan, polytheistic, multi-cultural environment. Today’s selection begins by comparing the infinity of God with the created universe, which the author describes as “a grain from a balance (scales), or a drop of morning dew.” Keeping this comparison in mind, the advances of astronomy in recent times may bring home to us the infinity of God. The Hubble telescope has traced light, which has been speeding toward earth for thirteen billion years. In the small area of the universe which the Hubble was able to see, there were an estimated ten thousand galaxies like our own Milky Way galaxy. That was just one little sector of space. Yet the Creator is greater than all yet to be found in the wonders of the universe.

Why would this Infinite Being care at all about us, a mere blip in all of creation? As the Psalmist asks, “What is humanity that you are mindful of it, and human beings that you care for them?” His answer, “You have made him just a little less than God, and crowned him with glory and honor.” All of the above is pre-Christian. In post-Christian times we would take into account the incarnation, the redemption, the salvation worked for and in us through Jesus Christ. Through the lens of this salvation offered to us, the rest of the first reading should be understood. “You have mercy on all, because you can . . . . You overlook people’s sins that they may repent. You spare all because they belong to you. Your breath (spirit) is in all things. You rebuke offenders a little at a time as a warning to remind them of the sins they are committing. For what purpose? That they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O Lord!” This prayer is so Christian in tone that it compels belief in the inspiration of Old Testament Scriptures and their perfection in New Testament Scriptures.

The Responsorial Psalm, 145, is a song of praise to the Lord. Psalm 8, quoted above, would have been a better choice, or parts of Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God. The vault of heaven proclaims his handiwork.” But we accept what the Lectionary offers. A hymn of praise to the Lord is an acceptable response to the glories of creation described in the first reading, and to glories of God’s love for us also described in this Psalm. The People respond, “I will praise your name forever, my king and my God.”

With only four Sundays left in the current liturgical year, the second reading begins a tone of finality — the end is approaching, as St. Paul writes, “The day of the Lord is at hand.” The two Letters to the Thessalonians, one of Paul’s foundations in Greece, are concerned with the end of time and the return of Jesus. Today’s excerpt from the second of these letters already hints at an abuse of his teaching which Paul will correct in the second reading two Sundays from today. Thus he writes in today’s second reading, “Regarding the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering with him, do not be shaken out of your minds, or be alarmed by a spirit or oral statement, or a letter supposedly from us, that the day of the Lord is at hand.” The spirit to which he refers is probably some utterance in a trance, during a liturgy, predicting the date of Jesus’ return. The oral statement came from those who believed this spirit. The letter supposedly from us, that there were such letters attributed to Paul is clear from other sources.

The gospel reading for this Sunday is the story of the local head of the Internal Revenue Service, the chief tax collector Zacchaeus, a very rich man. Luke has made unkind statements about rich people, especially those who ignore the teachings of the Torah about taking care of the poor. An example: his first Beatitude, “Blessed are you poor.” He adds a curse on the rich, “Woe to you rich, for you have (already) received your consolation.” Perhaps Luke had an editor who warned him, “You were too hard on the wealthy. What will happen to the Sabbath collection? Before you end your book, a correction is in order.” That correction is the story of Zacchaeus, not only rich, but short of stature. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem has almost reached its goal. En route to Jerusalem he has to pass through Jericho, the home of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus heard the commotion as Jesus and his Galilean crowd passed through the city. He needed to see Jesus. Solution for the vertically challenged: climb a tree. Jesus noticed the little man in the tree, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly. I intend to stay at your house.” The critics grumbled, “In the house of a sinner?”

Zacchaeus is about to become an unsinner. He has a prepared speech, a confession, “I shall give half my possessions to the poor. If I have extorted anything from anyone, I shall repay four times over.” Jesus provides the absolution, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man (Jesus) has come to seek and to save what was lost.” Once more Luke has demonstrated God’s love for outcasts, and especially for repent-ant sinners. The fourfold repayment is a law in the Torah, “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.” As Israelite society moved beyond nomadic and rural life, that law was applied to all theft. A “son of Abraham” has become obedient to the Torah. He is entitled to the blessing God bestowed on Abraham. “By you all the families of the earth will bless themselves.” True even for the tax collector. By Luke’s narration of Zacchaeus’ story, countless generations of wealthy people are inspired to share with the poor, and the poor will bless them and praise God for their generosity.