Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Importance of Making Things Right: 31st Sunday in O.T.


Happy November, everyone!  This month constitutes its own unofficial liturgical season, focused on the Last Things.  We begin the month with All Saints and round it out with the Feast of Christ the King.  This Sunday’s Readings introduce themes that will be developed throughout the month: repentance, the Kingdom of God, and final judgment.  In particular, the Gospel Reading urges us not merely to repent while we still have time, but also to make right the wrongs we have done to others, that is, to make reparation.  Some non-Catholic theologies deny the need for reparation, but it is a biblical concept that has within it the power of healing and reconciliation.

1. Our First Reading is Wisdom 11:22-12:2:

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 Wisdom of Solomon is a late Old Testament book that finds its way into the Lectionary surprisingly frequently considering its brevity.  We have already read from it twice this year.  One of the dominant themes of Wisdom of Solomon is that the attribute of wisdom leads ultimately to true kingship.  Thus it seems appropriate to begin the lead-up to Christ the King by reading from this book.

Persecution, judgment, and eternal life are major concerns of the Book of Wisdom as well as the liturgical “season” of November.  Today’s Reading is an excerpt from a philosophical reflection on God’s justice and mercy as demonstrated during the Ten Plagues on Egypt (11:17-12:22). 

The sacred author asserts the essential goodness of all created things and God’s love for all that he has made. 

It is not simply clear from direct observation that everything created is good.  We can probably all think of examples of things that seem evil in their nature (e.g. spiders).  It takes divine inspiration to recognize the essential goodness of creation.  The author of Wisdom looks past superficial appearances to recognize that being in itself is good, and that a good creator must have had a good intention for everything to which he has gifted existence.

In previous generations, predatory animals like wolves and hawks were thought to be naturally evil, and were hunted nearly to extinction.  Now we recognize that these animals once considered distasteful have an important role in the health and functioning of an entire ecosystem.  So taking a larger and less superficial view, we can recognize that they are good and necessary.  This a limited but perhaps helpful analogy to understand Wisdom’s intuition that there exists a larger frame of reference—ultimately the divine perspective itself—in which all created things can be recognized as good, and as serving the good intention of the creator.

If God loves all he has made, how much more so human beings, who share his image and have the potential to receive his spirit and become his children?  So the holy sage asserts that God works gently with sinners, reminding them of their sins repeatedly and giving them opportunity to repent.  We will see this patience of God at work in Jesus’ dealings with the sinner Zacchaeus in the Gospel.

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13, 14:

R. (cf. 1) I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.
I will extol you, O my God and King,
and I will bless your name forever and ever.
Every day will I bless you,
and I will praise your name forever and ever.
R. I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.
The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and of great kindness.
The LORD is good to all
and compassionate toward all his works.
R. I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.
Let all your works give you thanks, O LORD,
and let your faithful ones bless you.
Let them discourse of the glory of your kingdom
and speak of your might.
R. I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.
The LORD is faithful in all his words
and holy in all his works.
The LORD lifts up all who are falling
and raises up all who are bowed down.
R. I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.

Psalm 145 is an important psalm in the structure of the Psalter.  While not a “Hallelujah” Psalm itself (see Psalms 146-150), it marks a transition from the body of the psalter to its glorious five-psalm conclusion.  It leads into the festival praise at the end of the Psalms. 

Psalm 145 is also the quintessential “kingdom” psalm.  The concept of the kingdom of God is rare in the psalms: outside of Psalm 145, the kingdom is mentioned only twice (once each in Psalms 103 and 105).  But Psalm 145 mentions God’s kingdom four times.  The Psalmist has been given insight into the fact that human kingdoms are all transitory, and that the ultimate guiding force of history is the reign of God, who alone is eternal.  In earlier Scriptures, God’s rule was closely tied to the visible kingdom of David.  While not abandoning the kingdom of David, Psalm 145 develops a supernatural and transcendent view of the nature of God’s kingdom. 

The themes of Psalm 145 are very similar to those of our Reading from Wisdom.  Like the sage of Wisdom, the Psalmist affirms that the workings of nature show the essential goodness of all creatures and God’s compassion on all of them.  All God’s creatures are good, because God cannot perform an act—especially an act of creation—that does not originate in his good will.  God’s compassion is especially revealed in his dealings with men.  So God’s kingdom is a reign characterized by justice, goodness, and compassion.  Some additional verses of the psalm affirm:

17 The LORD is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings.  18 The LORD is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth.

In the Gospel we will see God’s kindness extended to Zachaeus, a man most would have regarded as beyond the hope of salvation.

3.  Our Second Reading is 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.

Second Thessalonians is the letter of Paul in which he speaks the most about the end times and the final judgment.  For that reason, Mother Church has us read this Epistle this Sunday and for the next two Sundays leading up to Christ the King. 

The Thessalonians were the original end-times enthusiasts, the “Tim Lahayes” and “Left-Behinders” of their day.  St. Paul writes to them to teach them more accurately about the second coming of Christ, and also exhort them not to let their eagerness for the return of Christ become an excuse for laziness or neglect of their duties of state.  They have to concentrate on growth in holiness while they are in this life (“We pray that God may make you worthy of his calling …”).  They also need to be more sober in evaluating reports that the second coming of Christ has already occurred or is now taking place.  Christians should have a certain healthy skepticism about claims that the Christ’s return is imminent.  Church history is full of such bogus claims, the most recent memorable ones coming from California radio evangelist Harold Camping (May and then October of 2011). 

A spiritual director once told me that we should live in such a way that if Christ came back next week, we wouldn’t have to change our plans or behavior at all.  The proper preparation for the Second Coming is to repent now, because while we don’t know when Jesus will come for all mankind, he may come for us at any time.  No one knows the day of his death, which shows the wisdom of the piety of the Rosary: “Pray for us now, and at the hour of our death.”  The Rosary is a prayer of eschatological preparation.

4.  The Gospel is 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."

This week we come to the end of the Travel Narrative, as Jesus is now in Jericho and next week will be in Jerusalem itself.  It has been a long journey, but we have learned much by following the rabbi from Nazareth.

Zacchaeus tends to be sentimentalized in contemporary Christianity, probably because of Sunday school songs and flannelgraphs where he looks short, cute, and appealing.  But Zacchaeus should not be sentimentalized.  He was a wealthy tax collector, a social oppressor and collaborator with an oppressive and dictatorial foreign government.  How do we feel about drug dealers riding by in black Lexuses and pulling out roles of $50 bills?  How do we feel about former Enron executives retired in Aspen?  The emotions would be similar for the Jews with respect to Zacchaeus.  We can understand why they were frustrated and put off by the fact that Jesus chose to have dinner with him rather than anyone else in town.  Why not have dinner with the some of the righteous poor that had been victims of Zacchaeus’ extortion?

Zacchaeus is like the spider, the hawk, or the wolf—the creature of God in whom we can’t see any goodness.  We give up on him and conclude that God is not compassionate toward all he has made, but has just created some for damnation.

Jesus sees things through a broader frame of reference.  He sees the created goodness that remains in Zacchaeus despite the evil that he has done.  And his visit with Zacchaeus leads to repentance, and not just repentance but reparation.

It is key that Zacchaeus vows to make good his wrongs:

"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."

Years ago God gave me the grace to experience a serious wrong at the hands of a Christian, who at a later time pontificated to me at some length about the wonders of the forgiveness of Jesus for those who have faith—a forgiveness that he obviously thought I had never experienced because I was a Catholic who believed in earning my salvation through works.

I say it was a grace to go through that experience, because it opened my eyes to just how grating on the nerves it is to listen to Christians (Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise) speak of the forgiveness of God when you are a person who has been wronged by them.  It is not hard at all to imagine why such an experience could alienate a person permanently from the Christian faith: it makes it seem as though Christians appeal to the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ as an easy way to avoid actually having to apologize and make right the offenses they have committed against others.  Jesus eases their conscience while they refuse to confront their own wrongdoing.

This is not a Catholic-Protestant issue.  This is an issue that effects every Christian—you, me, all of us.  We have to exercise care: if we are going to speak to others of the forgiveness of God, let us first do what Zachaeus did, and ensure that we have made all things right with those we have wronged.  This is what we call making reparation.  Reparation is the demonstration that our repentance is real.  Until we make reparation, our religiosity is hollow talk.  On the other hand, reparation touches hearts.  Apologies and concrete acts—including money and goods, where appropriate—toward those who have been wronged can often soften hearts and break down barriers that otherwise seemed permanent. 

Those righteous poor, tempted to resent Jesus for visiting the house of Zacchaeus, may have ended up very grateful that Jesus did visit him when Zachaeus showed up on their doorstep the following week with a cash payment of four times the amount he had extorted from them the year before.  This may have led them to see Jesus in a very different light.

Are there reparations that you and I have to make in the coming week that would allow other people a chance to see Jesus clearly?


Myshkin said...

My RSV-CE edition does not have "shall" in reference to Zachaeus's promise to make reparations.

A few days ago, I was struck that the Lectionary rendering of 2 Tim 4:7 as "I have contended well" is overly soft, inasmuch as my other translations at hand have "I have fought the good fight."

So, now, today, I am left to wonder at some of these discrepancies.

My view is that the Lectionary's translation of this Gospel from Luke makes much more sense to me than had my RSV-CE Bible's.

Thanks, always, Dr. Bergsma. You do so much good that you will never know about!

Charles said...

Thank you for your post. This reminder to fix the wrongs that we've done is inspiring. I can certainly think of wrongs that I should make right. I will work on these.

P.S. Gary's comment is a bit like graffiti. I'd have that removed.

Myshkin said...

in re: Gary's comment, above:

Please gain some perspective, Gary. You might save yourself embarrassment.

To hear a Protestant like you, one would think that before Martin Luther, no Catholics had so much as turned a page of
Scripture, to paraphrase Pope Leo XIII.

John Bergsma said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

As a parish priest, I can't thank you enough for these insights and sound biblical teachings that y'all give week after week! I visit your sight every week and build the majority of my homilies from them... I have a question that I would love some insight from y'all (and if you can do it before 5:00 am tomorrow, that would be great!) When I read that Jesus was walking through Jericho, it reminded me of the great Battle of Jericho from Joshua. I thought of how the walls fell and The Lord was victorious... Is there any spiritual significance in Jesus walking through those streets, the shouting crowds of people, and the walls of sin which surrounded Zachaeus's heart came crumbling down.... I had some prayerful reflections about it and was just curious about anyone else's reflective thoughts.

Thank you,
A simple little priest from Louisiana

Edward said...

I missed the reference to Jericho entirely. It is a beautiful reflection, especially considering Joshua describes Jericho as walled off, "shut up inside and out" and "no one came out and no one went in," while the Gospel of Luke repeatedly describes Christ as entering, that "today I must stay at your house," he has "gone to stay at the house of a sinner," and "salvation has come to this house."

John Bergsma said...

Yes, there's a faint echo of salvation coming to the house of Rahab when Joshua invades Jericho when salvation comes to the house of Zacchaeus in the Gospel. And of course "Joshua" and "Jesus" are the same name, variant renderings of the Hebrew "y'shua", "salvation." It's not a connection that Luke stresses too much, but I think there's something there in the spiritual sense of the text.