The theme of mercy, God’s mercy, permeates the Sunday readings for November 3, and gives us a hint on how we should be with one another. See the bottom of Page Two for a list of the readings.
From the Book of Wisdom, we hear that God’s mercy is on all creation. For us human beings – we live in a grace of second chances. God ‘overlooks’ our sins, that is, does not condemn us, so that we may see the error of our ways and repent. A classic example of “loving the sinner while hating the sin.”
God’s mercy is rooted in Love. It is out of tough love that God occasionally ‘rebukes us “little by little” that we may wake up, morally speaking, and turn to the good.
The Psalmist describes God as being: “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness.” In other words, God is not in the habit of shaming but healing. Lifts us up when we fail, calls us to conversion when we need it.
In the Gospel, Jesus gives us a wonderful example of how to treat a public figure who is a well-known “sinner,” with mercy. The man in the story, Zacchaeus, by name, was a Jew, who had sold out his townsfolk by being a tax collector for the despised Roman tax machine. His occupation was synonymous with traitorous collaboration and extortion. He had become rich by not only getting a commission fee from the Romans but also by skimming off the top.
How does Jesus act toward him when he sees Zacchaeus clinging to the top of a tree in order to see what the commotion is and to see what Jesus looks like? (Because of the story, we can presume Jesus knew about Zacchaeus’ ill-gotten gains.) Does Jesus make a public spectacle of him? Does he put him down in front of his townsfolk? Does he shame him to make a point? No. Just the opposite. Jesus calls out to Zacchaeus and invites himself over to the tax collector’s house to join him and his family for a meal!
Let’s look for a moment at this story in terms of one in our own time. As we draw closer to the General Election, we are going to have some public shaming events to try to sway voters. Like, for example, a priest refusing to give Holy Communion to a Catholic politician, who is pro-choice, in a public setting, that is, as the parishioner is in line to receive. This is not mercy. This is not love for the sinner. Mercy is for their pastor to take the person aside in private and explain to him or her that he cannot in conscience give that man or woman Communion as long as he or she takes this position. To do otherwise is un-Christian. Saint John Paul II expressed it well:
“with Jesus, the person who is the recipient of mercy does not feel humiliated but rather found again and restored to value.”
Back to Zacchaeus. Because of the way he is treated by Jesus, his heart is radically changed. “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.”
Servant of God Luigi Giussani puts it this way: “How beautiful it is to read the Gospel and discover hints, the subtle details that reveal Jesus’ capacity for tenderness, his heartfelt solidarity with all human things.”
Author Mary Elizabeth Sperry suggests that the story of Zacchaeus offers us a road map for the Christian life: “The story reminds us, she writes, that God always takes the first step. Our response, like the tax collector, then, is to ask for the grace to change our way of living, to abandon our sinful ways and make amends to those we have hurt. As we repent and repair our past wrongs, we become examples and instruments of God’s love and mercy to others.”
Staying on the right moral path is a frequent theme of St. Paul’s Letters. In today’s Second Reading, he encourages the Thessalonians to be true to their calling and not be led astray by false prophets or, what we call today, “fake news.” This passage concerns when Jesus will return. St. Paul counsels them “not to be shaken out of their minds suddenly, or be alarmed by a ‘spirit,’ or by an oral argument, or by a letter allegedly from us to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand.”
Ms. Sperry also points out that by inviting Jesus into his home, Zacchaeus gave his whole family an opportunity to meet the Lord, giving them a chance to repent of any wrong doing of their own by their complicity in his way of making a living.
(Wisdom 11:22-12:2; Psalm 145; II Thess 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10)
Fr. Max Oliva, S.J.