31rst Sunday in Ordinary Time– YEAR C
SCRUTINIZED BY PEOPLE, ADMIRED BY GOD
Our eyes immediately notice the black spot or a spray of mud on a white canvas. In a strange automatism,our eyes are immediately attracted by the particular that spoils. It happens: a defect, a shortcoming, a disability that becomes targets of nicknames, allusions, and jokes, sometimes innocent, and at other times sarcastic. A person's gaze is cruel when it focuses on the stains, the limitations, and the deteriorating aspects. Is it so inGod's eyes? If yes, it spells trouble for everyone because “the heavens are not clean in his eyes, how much less who is vile and corrupt, who drinks evil as if it were water” (Job 15:15-16).
Should we be afraid of the sight of God? God sees you! We recall this warning often used by educators and catechists of the past as a deterrent to prevent wrongdoing. That triangle with the staring eye of God at the center instilled reverence and awe in us.
The thought that may have often come to us is that we would have made of this God ‘a policeman.’ Is it correct—although for our good behaviors—to present God this way? Is his gaze that of the investigator who seeks to condemn or the tender embrace of the Father who includes, forgives, often captures only that which is lovely and loveable in his children? The answer to these questions concerns us.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “When I was made in my mother's womb, your eyes have contemplated me, O Lord.”
First Reading: Wisdom 11:22–12:2
Before the Lord the whole universe is as a grain on 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, OLord! —The Word of the Lord.
The morning prayer of every pious Israelite begins with the words: ‘Remember Israel....’ Israel is a people that does not forget. She remembers how much her fathers suffered in Egypt. They were beaten, humiliated, and subjected to hard work. Then the Lord delivered them, striking their oppressors with harsh punishments. This fundamental article of the Israelite Creed would seem an invitation to hate the Egyptians forever. Instead, the Egyptians have never been execrated or accursed both in the Bible and in the Jewish tradition.
Not everyone has always shared these noble sentiments. Many have wondered why the Lord did not destroy them. Why didn’t he strike them with harsher plagues? Why so much moderation towards them?
The reading the response that a pious Israelite, who lived in Alexandria, in Egypt a few years before Christ, gives to this question. To those who consider the patience of the Lord excessive and unjustified, he tries to make them understand the reasons for the Lord’s behavior. He reminds us above all that God’s eyesare different from ours. Contemplating the starry sky and the firmament stars, a person is astonished in front ofthe immensity of creation. But God sees everything “for the entire world lies before you, just enough to tip the scales, a drop of morning dew falling on the ground” (Wis 11:21-22).
He is patient because he is strong, big and can do everything (v. 23a). The weak attack their opponentswith violence because they are afraid. He who is strong does not worry, tolerates all, and does not feelthreatened. God has an indulgent and merciful look because nothing scares him. He lets people act withfreedom, always keeps calm, not scared if he sees them making mistakes because he is confident that the game will not get out of his hand. The intolerance towards those who commit sins, the aggression againstthose who think or behave differently are born of insecurity, fear, a sensation that the forces of evil can becomeuncontrollable.
The second reason for the moderation of God against the Egyptians is that he overlooks the sins and gives his children time to repent (v. 23b). If he punishes, it is not to destroy the sinner but to regain and lead him to repentance. He does not know revenge, retaliation, and punishment, but only love and salvation. “I do not want the death of the sinner but that he should turn from his evil way and live” (Ezk 18:23).
An anonymous prophet, who lived a hundred years before, announced an unprecedented event: the conversion of the Assyrians and the Egyptians to form together with Israel one people. The Lord of hosts—he says—will bless them so “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance” (Is 19:25). The author of the Book of Wisdom has assimilated this universalistic mentality that the Lord patiently tried to instill in his people Israel.
The third reason is that the Lord looks with love on all creation because everything that exists is his work. He does not despise anything that he did. He does not hate anyone; he loves everyone: good and badbecause all are his creatures and all bring in themselves something good for the very fact of existence. The Lord is a "lover of life" (vv. 24-26). The desire for revenge never blinds his eyes, as often happens to those of man.
The rabbis told that, after the passage of the Red Sea, the angels would have liked to join their voices to those of the Israelites who were singing praise because Pharaoh and his army had been submerged. But the Lord intervened and said: ‘How can you sing while my children are dying? The waves are swallowing my creatures, and you want to sing a song?’
The reading ends with the theological interpretation of punishments God inflicted on the Egyptians: it is not about punishments, but medicines (12:1-2). How one does with medicines, he cured the wounds in small doses. He did not want to destroy but to admonish the guilty, let them come to their senses, make them understand that they left the right path, push them to renounce their wickedness, and lead them to faith.
Second Reading: 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 andevery 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. —The Word of the Lord.
The Christians of Thessalonica are going through a rather difficult moment in their community. They are infiltrated by some visionaries who announce the imminent end of the world. To spread more easily their insane ramblings, these preachers claim to report Paul's thoughts and, as evidence, show some letters they swear they received from him (2:2). The Apostle urges the Christians of Thessalonica to be careful, not to be influenced by these fanatics who, instead of preaching the Gospel, disseminate ‘visions’ and ‘personal inspirations.’
Hard times are the ideal breeding ground in which the hallucinated preach their reveries. These are people who want to escape the difficulties of life. Paul prays to God that the Thessalonians should come to understand where the truth lies and asks that the Lord be glorified not by talk of deluded people but by the witness of concrete love which the members of the community demonstrate.
Gospel: 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 Jesus 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 Jesus 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.” —The Gospel of the Lord.
At the time of Jesus, the ordinary people took only one meal a day, in the evening. Understandably, the Israelites have imagined the Kingdom of God as an eternal banquet where everyone finally would eat to their heart's content. Isaiah uttered the prophecy they referred to: “The Lord will prepare for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, meat full of marrow, fine wine strained” (Is 25:6).
Since then, the banquets of this world have been a picture of the future world. Gathering righteous and sinners around the same table was considered blasphemy against the holiness of God who wanted them separated. The exclusion constituted a peremptory call for the wicked to convert. Everyone shared this belief in Israel; that explains the surprise provoked by the behavior of Jesus.
The passage presents the Master who enters Jericho and crosses the city accompanied by the crowd and the disciples (v. 1). At the entrance to the town, he has just cured a blind man who begged him: “Lord, that I may see” (Lk 18:35-43). The combination of these two facts is not random. The healing of the blind man and the ‘recovery’ of Zacchaeus reflect and illuminate each other.
Both the blind man and Zacchaeus want to see Jesus, who performs a miracle for them. He reverses their conditions deemed unrecoverable. Both the stories speak of a crowd that follows the Master, but does not understand, criticizes him, and opposes his choices and saving work. Both the stories finally close, recalling the devastating effects—the new vision of the world and life—produced by the encounter with the light given by Jesus.
In today's passage, the one who tries to see is a rich publican named Zacchaeus. By a strange twist of fate, the name he carries means the pure, the righteous. All consider the publicans—and with reason—thieves, and Zacchaeus is not only a tax collector but a chief tax collector. Luke even invents a better word to describe him: he calls him ‘archpublican’—a term that does not exist in Greek—like saying ‘archthief.’
Besides the name, the evangelist notes another detail: he was small in stature. This is not trivial information on the physique of Zacchaeus. It is the image of how he appears in the eyes of all: an insignificant freak, an annoying black dot in an immaculate society, one of those excluded from the banquet of the Kingdom of God.
Zacchaeus is well aware of his condition, but being excluded from the just assembly does not embitter him that much. He is convinced that being lumped together with people who scrupulously observe the law but whoare hypocrites, opinionated, self-satisfied with their righteousness would not benefit him greatly. On the one hand, he would like, yes, to distance himself from the group of sinners, among whom he knows to be rightlycataloged, but what would be the alternative? The adhesion to the sect of the Pharisees? He will not find the answer to his torments, to his concerns.
He had everything in life and yet is deeply dissatisfied. He has participated in many banquets and is still looking for food that satisfies. The need he experiences is so compelling, so irresistible that to satisfy it, he is willing to brush aside the funny jokes of the crowd that did not sympathize with him. He wants to see Jesusbecause—he thinks—maybe Jesus is the only one able to understand his anxieties and inner drama, and he goes up the sycamore tree to see Jesus (v. 3).
Surprisingly, he climbed up a sycamore tree. Why didn’t he go up on the terrace of one of the many houses along the main street? Maybe because no one has agreed to host him. Nobody opened a door for him. He was not even allowed to step on the stairs that, from the outside, lead to the terrace.
Here is Zacchaeus: the unclean, the sinner, refused by all. He desperately looks for Jesus because he has heard of him. He knows the harsh judgments he delivered on wealth, but he also knows that he is “the friend of Publicans and sinners” (Lk 7:34). He was told that he “did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:32), and for this, he wants to know who Jesus is. Even Herod asked: “who is this man?” and he wanted to see him (Lk 9:9), but with a completely different frame of mind: looking for him in a detached way, only to have a clear idea about his identity. Zacchaeus, instead, is ready to get involved; he longs for a radical change in his life.
In this desperate search, the crowd of those who accompany Jesus intervene. As it happened with the blind man of Jericho (Lk 18:39), instead of favoring the encounter with the Master, the crowd stands in between, becoming an impediment. The crowd does not understand that it is the ‘small,’ ‘the impure,’ the outcasts that Jesus is looking for.
The reason for this attitude is a defect of sight. In Zacchaeus, even those who follow Jesus can see only the Publican, the sinner, the loan shark; no one else. They cannot find in him anything good and positive. They reject him but cannot eliminate him physically; they isolate, despise, and do not even say a word to him. This is their way of killing him. Their discriminatory attitude is like that of the Pharisees. The sight of these pure people is so bad that it sees evil everywhere, even where there isn’t: in Jesus.
They also criticize and condemn Jesus because—they think—he becomes unclean staying at a sinner’s house (v. 7). Let us know how clean and pure are the eyes of Jesus. When he arrives at the scene, he looks up and says: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house” (v. 5). No one in the crowd pronounced this name because Zacchaeus was “unclean.” Only Jesus calls ‘Zacchaeus—pure’! He is ‘pure’ and is also a “son of Abraham” (v. 9).
From on high, he sought to see Jesus, but now it is Jesus who, from below, sees him first. In the face of the sinner, Jesus always looks up because his position is that of the Servant who humbled himself "and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:7-8). Even when he is alone with the adulteress, Jesus raises his head towards her (Jn 8:10), he looks down on her because the one who loves does not dare to judge; he embraces, remains in the last place, bends down in front of the beloved to wash her feet.
In Jericho, Jesus is in the midst of the righteous who follow him and applaud him listening to his word. Yet, instinctively, as soon as he sees a ‘small one,’ he immediately diverts his eyes from the group of the ‘faithful’ and directs his attention to the sinner. He does not care about ‘social conventions’ nor the ‘holy instructions’ issued by the religious leaders. He feels an irrepressible need to be with the one who is isolated and despised. “I must—he says—stay at your house.” I must is for me an inner need: if I'm not with you tonight, I will not be able to sleep.
What have those who looked down on Zacchaeus got? Nothing. With no appeal, their sentences have done nothing but make him wicked. The stern and grim looks of the censors, judges, and prosecutors only block the unique look that saves that tender look of Christ. The story ends with a dinner.
The forward stroke of Zacchaeus (v. 4) and the verbs of motion (to enter, cross, run, climb, and descend quickly) that characterize the first part of the story (vv. 1-7) have as their goal the sinner's house where Jesus is going and ‘takes abode’ (v. 7). With his coming, the feast and the banquet of the Kingdom of God that Isaiah announced begins.
We observe who is inside and who is outside, who celebrates and who is sad. The ‘righteous’ should be inside. Instead, they're all out murmuring, fretting with rage, because they disagree with the type of guests Jesus wanted to fill the hall with. The ‘unclean’ for whom Jesus came are inside. There is Zacchaeus, the chief of sinners, the one for whom there was no hope of salvation because he is a Publican and rich (v. 2). Jesus himself has just said: “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle rather than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Lk 18:25). Yet, “that which is impossible for people becomes possible through God’s intervention” (Lk 18:27). Salvation did not come automatically: it was offered, yes, free of charge, but Zacchaeus had to welcome salvation into his home. Only then he finally discovers the true joy that he was desperately looking for.
At this point, love begets another love: Zacchaeus, freely loved, realizes that other people need love. He remembers the poor. “Lord, he says to Jesus, I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay four times over” (v. 8). Unlike what he did with the wealthy aristocrat (Lk 18:18-23), Jesus did not ask Zacchaeus to “sell everything and distribute his assets to the poor.” He did not reprimand him nor put any condition. He only asked to be welcomed.
Zacchaeus was not admitted to the banquet of the kingdom because he was good. He became good laterwhen he involved himself in the party. He was converted when he found out that God loved him even though he was impure, poor, and small; indeed, precisely because he was small. The discovery of this disinterested love was the light that dispelled the darkness that enveloped his life and made ??him realize that only love and the gift are a source of joy.