NOVEMBER 3, 2013: THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
One of my favorite Peanuts cartoon strips starts with Linus making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Suddenly he notices his hands. Coming out of the kitchen he encounters his sister. "Lucy," he enthusiastically says, "look at these hands! One day they could be the hands of a terrific surgeon, or a world-renown inventor, or a great scientist." Lucy looks up and simply says, "Those hands have jelly all over them."
Sometimes we're so concentrated on the future that we overlook the present.
A generation or so after Paul's death, some of his followers are still focused on Jesus' Second Coming, ignoring their responsibility to "... 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 ...." Instead of carrying on Jesus' ministry, they spend their days discussing the latest rumors about the time and place of his Parousia. No wonder the disciple of Paul responsible for II Thessalonians begins this pericope with the simple statement: "We always pray for you”….
Our sacred authors, though deeply invested in the future, can only deal with the here and now which is at the heart of their readers' lives. The here and now is worth experiencing because, as today's Wisdom writer states, "Your (Yahweh's) imperishable spirit is in all things." God's life-giving presence gives meaning to everything we do and everyone we encounter, even in those situations in which we don't notice that presence.
This is especially true of the "bad people" who are a daily part of our lives. Our Wisdom writer sees their presence as proof Yahweh is a patient God. "You rebuke sinners little by little," he or she writes, "warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O Yahweh!" In other words, God's patience guarantees they'll be in our lives for a long time.
Yet, at the same time, we have to work at making God's spirit evident in them right here and now, as Jesus does with Zacchaeus in today's gospel passage.
As I mentioned last week, first century CE Jewish tax collectors were the most despised sinners in Palestine. Not only did they separate people from their hard-earned money, they then turned most of that money over to the Roman occupation forces. Considering men of that day and age wore little or no underwear, Zacchaeus must have provided some comic relief by climbing that tree to see Jesus. Everyone could finally laugh at this hated individual and he couldn't do anything about it.
The only fly in their vengeful laughter ointment is Jesus. He alone goes beyond the situation and sees Yahweh's spirit in Zacchaeus, saying and doing something to make that spirit kick in. To everyone's amazement and in spite of their objections, this "holy man" invites himself to stay at the tax collector's home.
Coming into contact with someone who honestly seems concerned about him, and not about what the Romans force him to do, Zacchaeus experiences a real "metanoia:" a 180 degree change in his value system. "Half my possessions I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone"
"Salvation has come" only because Jesus saw something of God in Zacchaeus and pointed it out, not only to the crowd, but also to Zacchaeus.
We can hope and pray sinners will one day convert, but what are we doing right here and now to help them notice the divine dimension woven into their existence? Maybe we need a few more faith-filled Lucys around, forcing us to focus on the present.