Conversion stories are touching even as they are difficult to believe. The sinner’s conversion is the hardest for believers and non-believers alike to accept. Deathbed conversions, death-row conversions, sudden changes of heart of known wicked people, all these stories often are met with something akin to I bet from those who hear about them. Is that because the scoffers have not had conversion experiences of their own? Have some believers forgotten how they came to faith, forgotten that faith is a gift of the Spirit? Non-believers can’t imagine their becoming believers.
You came to bring God’s mercy that is promised in today’s reading from Wisdom: 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. How much rebuking, much less reminding of sins, was part of your mission and ministry?
Tax collectors and sinners enjoyed your company and, at your invitation, shared your table. Would that have been the case had the principal topics of conversation at table been their sins and the magnitude of their wickedness? If those had been the most frequent topics of conversation at table, their sins and the magnitude of their sins and wickedness, I doubt you would have had many that accepted your invitation, not nearly enough to make them the source of the condemning cause for your crucifixion: This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.
Do you love people in their sinfulness? That is not to say that you love their sin. Do you love the sinner who seems to be lost on his/her way, lost without even knowing it? They wander in the darkness until you become the source of their light. Is conversion the result of their feeling accepted by you even as they listen to your stories and find themselves in them? Do their hardened hearts thaw as it dawns on them that you are telling them they are God’s beloved ones? As you know, this is often the theme of y prayer and why I weep remembering.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, your reputation must have reached Zacchaeus before you met. Someone must have told him about you, or he had overheard others talking about you. Something created the burning curiosity about you in him, burning enough to put himself in the ridiculous situation of perching on the limb of a tree in order to catch a glimpse of you as you passed by. The people who despised him would have derided him even as they spat at the base of his tree.
The crowd blocked Zacchaeus’ view of the parade. People might have been shouting to gain your recognition with the hope that you would stop and speak to them, even touch them. But you saw Zacchaeus. Did you look at him with love? You called out to him and invited yourself to his home. The scandal of what you did sent shock waves of revulsion through the crowd, quick to enunciate Zacchaeus’ sins. Perhaps they had already consigned him to damnation.
I must stay at your house today. How long did you intend to stay? Were you saying that you would dwell with Zacchaeus and his family indefinitely the way you live in your disciples and accompany them on The Way?
Zacchaeus’ conversion is remarkable. Half my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over. What would be left for him and his family? Was it true that he had made his living extorting from his neighbors by adding to their tax bills for his own profit?
Zacchaeus is the prime example of the price paid by those who became your first disciples and then had to leave everything familiar behind, everything they could no longer do or share in if they would go through the dying and rising of Baptism. Being a tax collector was all Zacchaeus knew. His days of wealth were over as salvation came to this descendent of Abraham. You found what had been lost.
Sometimes I wish I could hear this story again as if for the first time. With familiarity almost everything loses its impact. If I were hearing it for the first time, my heart would melt and any temptation to hopelessness or despair would vanish, especially if I thought that what you said to Zacchaeus you were saying to me. I would have to nosh on this for a while, take it in and digest the substance to make it my own. And believe.
Ah, but there is another point you want me to get out of this encounter. It is one thing for me to recognize my commonality withy Zacchaeus and so repent. It is another for me to recognize that I must have your attitude toward today’s Zachaeuses, those who are despised and outcast, those who are deemed to be sinners. This is the work of the faith community that gathers with you at your table to share the Bread and the Cup. We must love without discrimination. All must be embraced and told that you want to dwell with them, that they are the ones for whom you came. That is the message, isn’t it? That is what you want me, want us, and want the church to believe and live. Pope Francis has said that in proclaiming this to be The Year of Mercy. My pray is that those who tremble in fear as they approach the church for the first time, or return for the first time after a long absence, will be welcomed and embrace by your mercy.
Have I consigned any to those dark places? Have I judged any to be sinners and beyond forgiveness and redemption? These are the ones I must forgive and love. Will you help me to do that? I cannot do it on my own.
It is characteristic of being your disciple to pray and to persist in prayer because that is what you did. Continuing from last week, this week’s readings continue to challenge your disciples not only to pray but about the attitude we should bring to prayer. You want us to maintain a proper perspective on who we are as we come before God. And you are the perfect model for that, too.
The reading from the Book of Sirach puts the starting point squarely before us. Why is it so difficult for us to accept the universality of God’s love? Why do we have to think that God’s love is something we earn? The God you announced and whose will you fulfilled does not have favorites. Everyone is on an equal footing before God. Do you suppose that a God who loves universally is hard to imagine in this celebrity adoring age in which we live, this age that looks down on the poor and blames them for their poverty? Some even see poverty as a punishment for sin.
The fans that line the red carpets as their idols enter the theater swoon should one of the adored nod to, smile at, or, heaven be praised, pause to sign an autograph for one of the throng and take a selfie with them. The assumption seems to be that God holds the stars and the wealthy in the same light. Then there are the sports stars, the politicians, and even some of the clergy and hierarchy of the church that convey the attitude that they are above everyone else. Why is it so hard for us to see that that is not what you are about?
Sirach tells us that God will deal with all from the loftiest to the lowest with equal justice. But I think you would have us accept that God does hear the cries of those society deems to be on its lowest rungs. God hears the cries of the orphans and the widows, the ones who in your time had no one to intercede for them. Am I reading into the text, or does is Sirach saying that the prayers of the lowliest have an expressway to God’s ear? If that is so, is there also the implication that something blocks the prayers of the loftiest among us? Might that blockade be pride? As I write this I hear that antiphon that the faithful sing: The Lord hears the cry of the poor. Blessed be the Lord!
You want equality to be evident when the Assembly gathers to pray. Some worship spaces help us to visualize that equality. We come together as your Body and gather around the Table of the Word and the Table of the Eucharist. The Altar, the principal symbol of your presence, is in the center, or at least thrust out so that the faithful may gather about, rather than simply before the Table. You would prefer the Presider’s Chair be among the people rather than above them. You are pleased by the special effort made so that the disabled in the community have equal access to the sacred space.
Here is a thought. Is that why, in John’s Gospel, during the Last Supper, you admonish the disciples to wash one another’s feet the way you had washed them? Disciples, or rather, parishioners are called to be feet-washers. It is the work of the parishioners to make sure that anyone coming through the doors recognizes immediately that all are welcome here.
You make clear that no one has the right to look down on another. You would have us be comforted to know that the prayers of the lowly pierce the clouds and do not rest till they reach their goal, that is, until they reach God.
Paul is the exemplar of what you look for in disciples as he writes to his protégé, Timothy. This is a masterpiece from one who is beaten but not broken. Paul writes from prison and is convinced that he will soon be executed. He puts that impending transformative moment in the context of sacrifice. I am already being poured out like a libation and my departure is at hand. His acceptance reflects yours. He tells Timothy and us that he has done the very best that he could and now sees all of his endeavors for the Gospel as an athletic contest. He is the winner even as he awaits execution. And you, the Lord, the just judge that you are, will give him the crown he has merited.
These are mundane and human emotions in this epistle; but it must have been gut wrenching for Timothy to read how abject Paul became before his persecutors. Everyone abandoned him. Why? Were they embarrassed by what his arrest had made of him? The way your first disciples were when you were arrested and led away? Were they afraid that were they to stand by him, his fate would be theirs? I think I see it now. The image Paul paints of himself standing before his judge is reminiscent of your standing before Pilate. You stood alone. Paul stands alone. But Paul is convinced of what no one else could see, that you stood by him, supported him and would rescue him from whatever evil befell him until you would bring him safely to heaven. The humbled one knows he will see glory with you whom he has preached and for whom he will die.
Were you speaking to the judgmental when you told the parable in this Sunday’s Gospel? Are you speaking this Sunday to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else? You are speaking to those whose attitude proclaims they have no need of God’s mercy. If there is a heaven they are getting there on their on their own. To despise everyone else means to look down on everyone else, see everyone else as being beneath them. Please let not those attitudes be mine. Still, you want me to hear the parable. Something of pride may persist in me.
It will be hard for the parable to have the impact on the assembled today that it had on the first audience. We have all heard it before. Pharisees and tax collectors have no particular significance for us. Well, maybe tax collectors do, but not the significance they had for the Jews in your time. The Pharisees were the experts in the Law and highly regarded scholars in the temple precincts. The tax collectors were hated, seen as collaborators with the Romans. They added to their neighbors’ tax bills to earn their own living.
Listening to you today, it might be important for me to imagine two others going into the temple or church to pray. If I were in Northern Ireland, one going in would be a Catholic, the other a Protestant. Were I in a place populated with the very prejudiced, one going in would be a Black or an undocumented Hispanic, the other would be Caucasian and a citizen. If I were the sexist, one would be a man, the other a woman, or one would be gay and the other straight. Am I correct that the hearer is helped to get the message if s/he is able to admit admiring one and having low regard for and being judgmental about the other. Of course it will also help if one is able to be surprised where grace is found.
I shouldn’t be too harsh on the Pharisee. As you paint him, he is probably all those things he boasts about in his prayer. He praises God from a prominent place in the sanctuary and thanks God that he is the extraordinary person he perceives himself to be. His virtues abound. He fasts more often than the Law requires. He tithes on more than he has to. He doesn’t lie. He keeps the Sixth Commandment. You want me to see that all that is fine, as far as it goes. The problem is he recognizes no need for God’s grace to make these responses. He does it all on his own. He is judgmental and sees himself as better than the rest of the human race and better than the man with whom he shares Temple space. I wince as I hear the assumptions about the other that no one has a right to make, especially without any evidence to support them. The Pharisee judges the tax collector to be a sinner. Please Lord, if there is anything of those judgments in me, please grant me the grace to change.
Help me to recognize the wonder of the attitude exhibited in the tax collector. He knows what people think about him. He may well be aware of the extortions he has practice on his neighbors through their tax bills and see them as sinful. He might feel trapped in his situation and be unable to see any way out for himself. There is no question that he holds himself in low esteem and so stands against the back wall, doesn’t dare to look up, and beats his breast in misery. O God, be merciful to me a sinner. Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector goes home justified. That means his relationship with God is made right. Mercy and grace have embraced him. Mercy and grace. You inspired Pope Francis to designate this year as a Year of Mercy. In this context, please help me to accept the implications of that in my relationships with others.
If this Gospel is to have its impact on us, we have to stand under it and be vulnerable. If you hear the cries of the poor, the Assembly of which I am a part must stand among those poor. The Pharisee could have been among them if he had had the humility to recognize that everything he had achieved and all his religious practices were the result of grace working in his life. It might also have helped had he accepted the grace to see that there was sin in his life, that there were times when he could have done better, especially in his attitudes toward others. If he could have acknowledge the other person with him in the temple as a brother and perceived his misery, and yielded to a moment of compassion that inspired him to pray for the tax collector, his whole experience would have been different.
Is this what you want me to take from his Gospel? If only he (I) could know in his (my) heart that he (I) must never judge, he (I) could come to understand what it means to pray and to have a need for God. In C.S. Lewis’s words, we could be surprised by grace.
Do you remember the time I brought Holy Communion to that man who lived alone and was dying from cancer? I walked into his room and immediately was overwhelmed by the stench. My stomach churned and I wanted to flee. The man told me how grateful he was that I would visit him. Then he said that he was embarrassed because he had a dressing that needed changing. Could I help him? Do you remember the long pause I took before I swallowed my pride and said I would be happy to help? I assisted him in removing the dressing. I washed and dried the wound and applied balm before placing the new dressing. At some point the experience stopped being repulsive and I felt graced to be able to assist my friend. His dignity remained intact.
Do you remember that we prayed with the Host help up before him: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those called to the supper. He received and afterwards while he paused in silent prayer, I thanked God for the witness I had been given, the grace of this moment that helped me to recognize in my brother, you who will rescue us from every evil threat and bring us safe to your heavenly kingdom. I knew that I would never be the same even as I knew I needed mercy and forgiveness for my pride. O God, be merciful to me a sinner.
To you be glory forever and ever. Amen.
How many times had the ten lepers seen you? How many times had they heard you before they dared approach you? What did they see or hear that convinced them that you could do something about their plight?
Could this have been their first encounter with you, their eagerness and trust the result of what others had told them about you? In the end, there isn’t much difference. To experience the witness of a disciple is the same as hearing you. The result is to ponder what they have seen and heard and to work toward a decision about you. Here they call you Master. Will they call you Lord one day – the day after this meeting?
To appreciate their misery, one has to have had the experience of being pariah. There is unique pain in being shunned, in knowing that one is unwelcome among a people thought to have been one’s own, in knowing that one’s very being is despised. How miserable it must be to know that anyone coming into contact with them would incur ritual impurity and so could not enter into temple worship until s/he was declared clean again. These poor ones rang bells and cried out, Unclean! Unclean! to give ample warning lest contact, even with the hem of a garment be made. They begged for their sustenance. They lived near the refuse piles outside the city gates. They were the off scouring of society. Their situation was hopeless, death their only release. These were hopeless until this day when you came, approaching their city.
Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!
One of the lepers was twice unclean. One of the lepers was a Samaritan, a member of a sect splintered from Judaism. They worshiped God from the Mountain rather than in the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s interesting how you use Samaritans to illustrate the response you are looking for from all your disciples. You told the story of the Good Samaritan, the one who responded with compassion to the man beaten nearly to death. The religious establishment had passed by the poor wretch on their way to synagogue, avoiding contact with a body, again, lest they incur ritual impurity. That was not a concern for the Samaritan. He cleaned and dressed the wounds, put the man on the Samaritan’s beast of burden and secured shelter for him so that he could heal.
Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!
You tell them to fulfill the prescripts of the Law for those healed of their leprosy. Go show yourselves to the priests. You don’t question them. There is no other element to the encounter. There is no dramatic encounter. You simply send them off without dramatic incantation. There are no showy gestures to attract attention to the miracle taking place. You tell them to show themselves to the priests who can then certify to their cleanliness and make it possible for them to enter into society and worship again.
I don’t find it difficult to imagine the excitement as, one by one, each of the ten came to realize their skin had taken on the pink bloom and healthy glow of youth again. No more scabs. No more running sores. Was it then that the Samaritan became unacceptable company for the nine? Did they oust him from their group rather than run the risk of incurring another kind of impurity through their contact with him? Observance of the Law, after all, was important for them. They were grateful to you, weren’t they? But they were intent on carrying out your directive and so take care of the Law’s demands. Did the nine think that there would always be time to get back to you someday?
Were you angered at the foreigner’s return to you? Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God? There is the sound of indignation in your words. Were you disappointed because the Samaritan gives the response you were seeking from the House of Israel? Giving thanks to God is the meaning of Eucharist. Does this foreigner have the heart necessary to enter into Eucharist when you will give thanks, bless, break and distribute the Bread that is your Body and the Cup that is your Blood? Is that part of this ecstatic moment of Thanksgiving emanating from the foreigner at your feet? Is he ready to be part of a Eucharistic people?
Your attitude must have changed when you recognized the Samaritan’s faith. He believed in you. That is a gift that only God can give. The Spirit worked in him. He is ready for discipleship. Did this become another moment when you felt your ministry being pulled in an unexpected direction beyond the House of Israel for whom you said you had been sent? Did you accept at that time that you had been sent for the nations, too? The Samaritan found God through healing, just as Naaman, the Syrian, another leper, had through Elisha’s ministry.
What would you have me take from this?
I know that I am to adopt your attitude towards today’s lepers. It is not acceptable that anyone or any class or group be thought unworthy of coming to the Table. I must, through my words and actions, declare all are welcome here. Works that result in the formerly designated unclean feeling your embrace when they are clothed, fed, and given drink must accompany that declaration. You were scorned for being a man who welcomed sinners and ate with them. To be scorned for the same offenses I would have to come to see as a blessing and not a curse. And of course there is a risk of guilt by association.
Is there something more that you would have me recognize? You want me to identify with the leper because I am a sinner. I may know rejection and experience betrayal and broken relationships. You want me to know that your wish is that I be whole, that I be healed, forgiven and have a place at the Table.
The Spirit has stirred this faith and makes it possible for me to believe. I cried out, Jesus, Master! Have pity on me! And when you told me to Stand up and go; your faith has saved you, I stood and began to walk with you.
And I called you Lord.