Scripture and the Liturgy

Making Things Right: 31st Sunday in OT

These commentaries are available in book form here. Year A is about to start on Nov. 27; get Year A’s commentaries here. And don’t forget to get the volume on the fixed feasts and major Solemnities here. Consider joining me for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where I teach on Scripture at the very sites the sacred events occurred; June 23-July 2, 2023, information here.

We are drawing close to November, the month that 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 finale of the liturgical year: 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 arguments 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 the Solemnity of 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.  Our recognition of the goodness of creation is complicated by the fact that the creation we observe today is fallen—it suffers from the effects of human sin, and the cosmological consequences that sin introduced (Rom 8:22-23). We cannot emphasize enough that entropy and decay over centuries and millennia mean that the creation we observe is not the same as that which came from the hand of the creator. Furthermore, we all can probably think of examples of things that seem evil in their nature (e.g. spiders!).  It takes divine enlightenment 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.  Taking a larger and less superficial view, we can recognize that they are good and necessary.  This is 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?  Thus, 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 main body of the psalter to its glorious five-psalm conclusion.  In other words, it leads into the “festival of 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, a recent memorable one coming from California radio evangelist Harold Camping (May and then October of 2011).  I remember seeing end-times posters from his group in prominent places all through Bethlehem while I was there on pilgrimage.  That was eleven years ago and nothing has come of Camping’s predictions, except to discredit Christian faith.

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 (Luke 10-19), 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 a former Enron executive now comfortably retired in Aspen?  How do we feel about shady political campaign operatives taking millions in donations from foreign governments while manipulating a domestic election?  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 fellow 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 supposedly 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 and helps them avoid facing up to their own wrongdoings.

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?

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