The 31st Sunday in Ordinary time: The Power of Grace

St Dominic with Bible

This reflection refers to the readings for Sunday, Novmber 3, 2013.  For last week’s reflection, click here.

WIS 11:22-12:2; PS 145: 1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13, 14; 2 THES 1:11-2:2; LK 19: 1-10

This Sunday’s Gospel gives us the story of Zacchaeus, the short, wealthy tax collector who climbed a tree so he could see Jesus. Jesus called him down, and asked him to eat in his house. When the people saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus repented of his sins – extorting taxes from the poor. “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

Zacchaeus is a wonderful story of the working of grace. The first move seems to be Zacchaeus’s: he climbs the tree. And yet the detail of him climbing the tree just emphasizes that something miraculous is happening in Zacchaeus’s soul. He was not a good man. What made him climb the tree? The attraction of Jesus – the power of grace, moving in his soul. The first move is not Zacchaeus’s. It is Jesus who comes to seek and to save.

Similarly, though Zacchaeus repents, and repents powerfully – “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” – the power of that repentance itself emphasizes the miraculous attraction of Jesus. This doesn’t just happen! It is precisely the presence of Jesus that transforms Zacchaeus’s heart.

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The same dynamic explains intercessory prayer, the theme of the reading from Second Thessalonians. “We always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling.” This is a remarkable statement. It is God who makes us worthy. It is God who transforms our hearts. Conversion is a kind of miracle.

That is precisely why we can pray for people. We don’t just pray that a dozen eggs will appear at their front door. We can also pray for the conversion of their hearts. Because the God who created their hearts can convert their hearts. In fact, only God is powerful enough to overcome our selfishness.

Paul concludes with a nice formula. “That the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him.” Which one is it? As with Zacchaeus, so with every conversion: it is God who turns us, and we who turn. Zacchaeus really does repent: he repays the people he has cheated, he climbs the tree, he sets out on the way of faith. But it is Jesus who makes that happen in him. We mustn’t have false dichotomies, where a work either belongs to God or to us. It is God who works in us. The result of God’s grace is that Zacchaeus converts.

Jesus is glorified in Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is glorified in Jesus. Do not separate the two! This is the work of grace

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The Old Testament reading, from the Book of Wisdom, takes us to the heart of the theology of grace. “Before the Lord the whole universe is as a grain from 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.”

God is merciful because God is powerful. On the one hand, our sin doesn’t hurt God: all of creation is like nothing next to him. Sin hurts me, not him. God can overlook sin because it doesn’t hurt him.

But in another sense, he can’t, and doesn’t overlook sin. For my heart to be turned away from God is bad for me. It’s not a question of whether he “minds.” Sin hurts me. God’s mercy is not to ignore my sin. In fact, God’s mercy is precisely that he does not overlook sin: he heals us. He comes to seek and save the lost. And he is powerful enough to do it.

“You love all things that are . . . for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.” God created us because he loves us. He has absolute power over us – but precisely that power shows forth his love: he only made us because he wanted us to exist. Jesus made Zacchaeus – so it is no surprise that he comes to save him.

“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, O LORD!” Not for his sake, but for ours. He made us for happiness, and wants to bring us to his perfect happiness. Repentance is a gift.

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How have you come to realize that sin hurts you? And how have you come to realize that it is God who has come to heal you, not you who heal yourself?

eric.m.johnston

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