Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: Mal. 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10; I Thess.2:7b-9,13; Mt 23:1-12
It is a real question why some people are willing to accept positions of responsibility and authority today. In fact, many aren’t. We hardly get the cream of society running for public office. A number of priests have declined appointment as bishop. It can seem to be an appointment to grief. Running for public office can be brutal. And once in office, the scrutiny and demands for transparency open one to unending criticism. Our culture doesn’t even support office holders with much more than a veneer of respect and honor. Whom do we in fact honor today?
Some may have crass motives for seeking or accepting public roles: the prestige from a certain position, the possibility of financial gain, a role which gives automatic respectability and status. But others may be moved by a vision and hope to make the world a better place, to be in a more influential position to bring about good changes. I remember that John F. Kennedy once said he chose a life of politics because he thought it was the most effective way to improve the life of others. They have a vision and hope they want to incarnate. Perhaps, like St. Paul, they want to share their very selves.
But even with the best of intentions, those hopes are rarely realized. Obstacles from within and without frustrate these plans. And a deep sense of disappointment rises to stop us in our tracks. Our disappointments are keys and doors to what our real hopes are, hopes we are reluctant even to admit. Someone said that childhood is simply a preparation for the disappointments of adult life. One of our first lessons is the hard one of realizing our parents are fallible. And this spreads as we learn that our mentors, teachers, heroes also have holes and defects. Who is not disappointed with the consequences and results of Vatican II? How many renewal programs have fulfilled all our hopes? For several years, a woman came to me for spiritual direction. I could see that there was a pattern of her putting men up on a pedestal and then discovering they were not worth that position. The pedestal was then demolished. It was pretty clear that I was in line for the same demotion, and sure enough, one day I was told that I was callous (among other things) and cavalier. I had never been called cavalier before, so that one stuck. But the pattern of unrealistic expectation and disappointment remained unbroken by any sensed need to alter the expectations. There is some “golden ideal” or “golden age” which becomes the standard before which all other efforts rably fail.
Jesus criticizes the Jewish leaders in today’s Gospel for a failure to live and practice the message they preach. When the message becomes self-fulfilling and self-referential, it remains intact in the face of harsher realities of life. The rewards are esteem and honor that come from public position, that come from maintaining a system and hierarchy that lets everyone know his or her place. These men profess a standard which has not penetrated the inner movements of their hearts and behavior. It seems good enough. It lacks the self-knowledge to be disappointed with oneself. They have not been willing to share their very selves. The cleavage between inner and outer has translated into a social cleavage between higher and lower. Why do we break faith with one another, violating the covenant of our fathers? Theirs is a knowledge and observance which has not been integrated into the whole of their lives. This kind of knowledge is not a wisdom. It is a weight, a burden.
We seem left with the alternatives of abandoning the whole religious project or slipping into an inertia, a corporate acedia, the despairing unwillingness to be our true selves. But Christ’s declaration resurrects that true self. You are all brothers and sisters. You have but one God who is in heaven. You have but one Master. In His word (Gospel) is the revelation of who we are. Christ in us, the hope of glory. The hope in us is not the product of our efforts or the deduction from abstract premises. It is our very sharing in the life of Christ who came to share his very life with us. This is a life and love which hopes all things. We live from this very conviction and substance of what we hope for. This is a hope which can endure disappointment and fallibility because it rises from the life of the Risen One within us. Each of us has been touched and transformed by Christ who made himself our servant. The systems and hierarchies have been overturned and the mighty toppled from their thrones and pedestals. We are all brothers and sisters, the equality created by the Gospel. We have but one God who is the source of the glory, life, and honor our soul’s desire. That He is in heaven means that He is utterly free, inaccessible to our small-minded manipulations, yet present in the midst of failures, fallibilities, and disappointments. Christ, the one master, leads us in incarnating in our lives the one hope he has brought into the world. It is our work of service and religion to follow Him in living lives that express that hope, in that courageous love which is strong enough to share our very selves.
Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: Wis 11:23-12:2; 2 Thess 1:11-2:2; Lk 19:1-10
Paul talks about the Second Coming of Christ. “Don’t be shaken out of your minds or alarmed,” he tells the Thessalonians. It is not that imminent. Just one week from election-day 2016, this is good advice to Americans. No matter where you stand, November 8 will not be the end of the United States much less the end of the world. The Second Coming is coming, but it does not base its arrival date on American politics. The concerns of divine Mercy and Justice are much larger and more profound, and way truer, than our political affairs and future.
Clearly, though, the end of the world did come for Zacchaeus the chief tax collector. Jesus put it this way: “Today, salvation has come to this house.” This arrival of grace and mercy at Zacchaeus’s doorstep is the end of the world that the Gospel proclaims and that is the most meaningful to each of us in our personal and communal lives. “Repent, for the Kingdom of God has drawn near”; “Today, salvation has come to this house.” This is not information but performance. As the monks heard from Cardinal Sarah the other day, the Gospel does not only announce; the announcement “makes things happen; it is life-changing.”
“Today, salvation has come to this house.” But this is what the angels announced to the shepherds: “A Gospel of great joy . . . . Today . . . . a savior is born for you” (Lk 2:10-11). Salvation found Zacchaeus in a fig tree; Zacchaeus, who was trying to see, was seen by the one he sought. The “Ruler and Lover of souls” who “has mercy on all” called him down. For Jesus at his birth there was no room in the inn; now, on the eve of his death, he is welcomed into Zacchaeus’s house to stay.
Zacchaeus is the last tax collector in Luke’s Gospel. Levi was the first, and his world, too, came to an end with Jesus’ performative command, “Follow me.” We heard a parable about a tax collector last week. He prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Did Zacchaeus know Levi? Was he inspired by the parable of the tax collector’s prayer? Had he known of Jesus’ preference for eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners as his way of calling them to repentance? Surely he did, and he found out for himself that it was true, as Jesus himself confirms, that “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
But of course, Zacchaeus is not really the last tax collector, the last sinner. The point of the Liturgy of the Word at Mass is to bring us into the story: We are Zacchaeus. We are here to see Jesus. The performative word is alive among us. There is the real possibility that today, whether that today is today or tomorrow, Jesus sees us, comes to us, dwells with us, saying “salvation has come to this house, too, she too is a child of God.” That is why we gather every Sunday, why Christians have always gathered like this, to hear, to be seen, to be saved.
Our story takes place at Jericho. Jericho is famous as the city whose walls came down before Joshua. Origen said that as the walls of Jericho fall before Joshua, so the hearts of sinners give way to Christ. It was the first city conquered by the Israelites after their Exodus from Egypt and still stands today, a city 11,000 years old.
Jericho, then, along with Zacchaeus’s position as an official for the Empire, puts the story of salvation squarely in the context of this-worldly politics and economics. The Gospel does have a place in the Public Square. Like Zacchaeus, every human authority for all its power is small of stature before the “Ruler and Lover of souls” for whom the whole universe is like a grain of dust (see Wisdom 11:22, 26).
It is true that our coming elections will not have apocalyptic consequences. Still, what is a Catholic to do this political season? As one person described it, “Imagine that you’re the driver of trolley going down a track and your brakes fail. If you continue in the direction you’re going, there are workers on the track that can’t hear the trolley and it will surely kill them. You could turn onto another track, but there are other workers there and you will surely kill them. What do you do?” Maybe take the Zacchaeus option, jump clear, and climb a tree. In any case, even no action is action.
Our Catholic Tradition tells us that “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation. . . . rooted in our baptismal commitment to follow Jesus Christ and to bear Christian witness in all we do. . . . As far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship 2016, 13). We have a duty to work for a just ordering of society, and voting is one way to exercise that duty.
We also have a duty to form our consciences in accord with reason and the teaching of the Church (Forming, 17). How do you do that? First, like Zacchaeus, develop a real desire for the good and true. Then, examine the facts, like Zacchaeus did regarding Jesus in communication with people who had known him: read Scripture, consult the Catechism, ponder pertinent papal teachings. Finally, but most importantly, prayerful reflection is essential to the formation of your conscience (Forming 18). Desire the good, examine the facts, and pray.
Obviously Catholics will not be acting in good conscience if we vote for a candidate whose policy favors morally evil acts and our intention is to support that position. On the other hand, we may decide to vote for a candidate less likely to advance a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods (Formation 34, 35, 36). But this election season, at least to me, all this is very much like being on that runaway trolley. God help us and those unsuspecting on the track, workers, the handicapped, children in the crosswalks. Our pastors, the U. S. bishops, give us this advice: focus more on moral principles than on polls, on the needs of the weak than on the benefits for the strong, on the common good than on narrow interest (Formation 61).
“He came down quickly and received him with joy.” Just like the angels had said to the shepherds, “Good news of great joy.” Soon in our Mass we, too, will receive Jesus with Joy. It is the joy of ourselves being seen and received, of being saved with each other into the Body of Christ. It is the Joy that accompanies the end of the world, Today.