Jesus Christ is King of Thieves, though he never stole. He is savior of sinners though he himself never sinned.
The Gospel chosen for today’s feast presents Jesus as reigning from the cross. Nothing could be more paradoxical. Perhaps we can look at this Gospel and feast from four perspectives:
I. Vision – In the Gospel for today’s feast we have vision or an image for the Church. We like to think of more pleasant images such as the Church being the Bride of Christ or the Body of Christ. Today’s image is less exalted and more humbling to be sure, but it is an image just the same: The Image of the Church is Christ, crucified between two thieves.
Yes, this is the Church too. Somehow we are all thieves. The fact is, we are all sinners and we have all used the gifts and things that belong to God in a way that is contrary to his will. To misuse things that belong to others is a form of theft and we are thus thieves for we have all misused what belongs to God.
Consider some of the things we claim as our own and how easily we misuse them: Our bodies, our time, our talents, our money, our gift of speech, our gift of freedom and so forth. We call them ours but they really belong to God and if we use them in ways contrary to the intention of the owner we are guilty of a form of theft.
So the Church is Christ, crucified between two thieves.
II. Variance – But consider also that these two thieves were very different; even as in the Church we have saints and sinners, and in the world there are those who will turn to Christ and be saved and those who will turn away and be lost.
One thief derides Jesus and makes demands of him: – Are you not the Christ! Save yourself and us! The text says this thief “reviles” Jesus. To revile means to speak against another with contempt and to treat some one as vile, or loathsome.
The other thief reverences Christ and rebukes the other saying, – Have you no fear of God? This thief recognizes his guilt – We have been condemned justly. And he requests – Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom. But he leaves the terms of it up to Christ. He acknowledges he is a thief and now places his life under the authority of Christ the King.
So here are two different men. Christ came to call sinners, thieves, if you will. Yes, we are all thieves, that is true. But pray God we are the good thief, the repentant thief, The one thief who is now ready to resubmit himself to the authority of Christ, who is King of all creation, and King of us thieves.
Now heaven is a real steal, something we don’t deserve. But it is only accessed through repentance and faith. The bad thief wants relief but will not open the door of his heart by repentance and faith so that Jesus can save him. Mercy is offered and available there right next to him, but it is accessed through repentance and faith. He does not open the door, but the good thief does and thereby will be saved.
III. Veracity – But is Christ really your king? Well a King has authority. So another way of asking is, “Does Christ have authority in your life? Do you and I acknowledge that everything we call our own really belongs to Him? How well do we use the things that we call our own but which really belong to God?”
How do we use our time?
Are we committed to pray and be at Mass every Sunday without fail?
Do we use enough of our time to serve God and others or merely for selfish pursuits?
What of our capacity to talk?
Do we use our gift of speech to witness, to evangelize, or merely for small talk and gossip?
Do we observe proper safety or are we reckless and unsafe?
Do we reverence life?
Do we love the poor and help sustain their lives?
Well you get the point. It is one thing to call Christ our King, it is another to truly be under his authority. The Lord is clear enough in telling us that he expects our obedience: Why do you call me Lord Lord and not do what I tell you? (Luke 6:46)
Is Christ your King? Which thief are you, really?
IV. Victory –The thief who asks Jesus to remember him manifests a kind of baptism of desire as well as repentance and faith. As such he moved straight-way in the victor’s column. Jesus words, Today you shall be with me in paradise indicate a dramatic and sudden shift for the thief. In other words Jesus says, Your faith has saved you. As of this moment you are now at my side, and I am your saving Lord.
Now to be with Jesus, wherever He is, is paradise and victory. Soon enough the heavens will be opened as well, but the victory is now, and paradise begins now.
And thus he claims the victory through his choice for Jesus Christ. Will you have the victory? Well, that depends on if you choose the prince of the world, or the King of the Universe, Jesus.
Some think they can choose neither Jesus nor Satan, but tred some middle way. Well if that’s your choice, I’ve got news for you, you’ve chosen the prince of this world, who loves compromise. Jesus says, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. (Matt 12:30)
As for me, I’ve decided to make Jesus my choice. Now I pray that he will truly be my King in all things and that my choice will be more than lip service. Come Jesus reign in my heart! Let me begin to experience victory and paradise even now!
In the month of November the Church has us ponder the Four Last Things: death judgment, heaven and hell. As the golden gown of autumn gives way to the lifeless look of winter we too are encouraged to see that our own lives are on a trajectory that leads ultimately to autumn and then the winter of death. But for those who have faith this passage to death leads ultimately to glory. Scripture says, And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever (1 John 2:17).
In today’s gospel the Lord Jesus gives us a kind of road map of life and calls us to have a sobriety as to the passing and perilous nature of this world in which we live.
There is an historical context in which our Lord speaks. There were political rumblings in Israel in the early 30s AD that would eventually lead to war. Hatred of the Romans is growing among the Jews. The Zealot party and other factions are building power. Jesus, in this passage, prophesies that war will come and lead to Jerusalem’s ultimate destruction. Everything that they knew was going to pass away. By the Summer of 66 AD a three and half year war ensued that resulted in the complete destruction of Jerusalem and the death of 1.2 million Jews. Josephus records the war in great detail in his work The Jewish War.
That is what this text we read today meant historically. But we also need to know what it means for us today. So let’s look at the text from that perspective. The Gospel can be seen in three major sections.
I. PORTRAIT OF PASSING THINGS – The text says, While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, “All that you see here( the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” Then they asked him, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” – Notice how they admire the temple and its beauty. But the Lord reminds them that, glorious though it now is, it is all going to be thrown down. We too must hear that whatever glory we see or experience in this world will not ultimately last. It is all going to pass away.
The Temple is a portrait of passing things. Just as it was in splendor and now is gone, so too everything we see now and admire will pass. This is a sober truth we must come to accept, even if it is difficult. Other scriptures remind us of this truth. For example, The world as we know it is passing away (1 Cor 7:29). And again, And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever (1 John 2:17). Hence this world is passing and we too are passing from it one day soon.
Note however, for them as well as for us, one world was ending, but another was beginning. The Old Testament, Old Covenant and ritual order of the Temple was ending, but the New Testament age of the Church was beginning. It was already breaking forth, even as the old was coming to an end.
And so for us, we should not lament the end of this current world or even our death, for a newer great world of heaven awaits if we are faithful. In fact, through the liturgy and sacraments that new world is already breaking forth if we partake of it.
II. POINTS OF PASSAGE TO PROMISED THINGS – Having been informed at the passing of all things, the apostles ask for signs that will precede the coming end to the temple and all things they know. We too can learn from what Jesus teaches them and apply it to our lives.
Jesus warns them of four perils on the passage to the promised land of the New Testament of the age of the Church. We too will experience perils in our journey to the Promised Land of Heaven.
A. FALSE MESSIAHS – The text says, “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them!– Do you want Jesus Christ to be the Lord of your life? Then you’ve got to get rid of false messiahs.
There are just too many people giving worldly things and people greater authority in their life than Jesus Christ and what he teaches. Fads, fashions, philosophies, all those people, things and philosophies we submit our lives to in hope that we be happy.
The danger is that something or someone is reigning in your life other than Jesus Christ. Perhaps it is someone in power we admire, or someone in the media whom we give authority and allow to influence us inordinately. Perhaps it is political positions that we allow to trump the scriptures and the teachings of the Church. Perhaps it is just our own convictions or ideas that over-rule God’s teachings.
A false messiah is any one or any thing that is telling you how to organize your life other than Jesus Christ. Before Christ can reign unambiguously in your life false powers and influences have to go.
Too many people look only to science, popular culture, economics, medicine, education, politics and the like. They have been deceived.
It is not that we can’t use these things at all, but they are not the Messiah. None of these things or people every died for you. Only Jesus did that.
The power to save you is not in the statehouse, courthouse, or White-house – it’s in the blood, the saving blood of the Lamb, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
B. FIERCE MILITARISM – The text says: When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. A war was looming for those ancient people.
And we too are in a war, a battle. Before Christ can reign unambiguously in you the false powers in you have to be defeated. They will not go without a fight. The world, the flesh, and the devil can be expected to wage a fierce battle to keep their power.
Are you in a battle? You should be! Too many Christians have lost the sense of battle. Scripture says, Resist the devil and he will flee from you(James 4:7). And yet too many not only do not resist him, they welcome him. Scripture also says, Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph 6:14).
An old hymn says, I’ve seen lightning flashing, and hear the thunder roll, I’ve felt sin-breakers dashing, which tried to conquer my soul; I’ve heard the voice of my savior, he bid me still to fight on. He promised never to leave me never to leave me alone.
On our way to the promised land of heaven we will encounter necessary battles. Battles for what is right, battles against sin, battles for proper priorities.
C. FAR-FLUNG MARVELS – the Text says: There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky. In the time of Jesus and the era just preceding the war there were in fact many earthquakes, droughts and even heavenly signs. Historians of the time speak of a comet and strange views of what we know today as the Aurora Borealis.
But what of us? For us What are earthquakes of life? Earthquakes involve the shaking of the ground! The shaking of that which is most stable and basic to us. What are you basing your life on? What is the foundation of your life?
For most of us the foundations of this world are things like, Money, Politics, Friends, Family, our own skills. All of these things are shaken in life and all of them will eventually fail. Our talents and personal powers fade as we age, family members and friends die, move or fail us. Political power and worldly access fails. Haven’t we all experienced our world shaken, our soul famished, the plagues of sin that infect our world and ourselves?
Further, haven’t the stars, all the things that orient us, fallen from the sky from time to time and the sun, the light we see by darkened. Has not the world turned upside down? Maybe it was the sudden death of a loved one, the loss of a job, trials, tragedies, testings, and tumult, a diagnosis of cancer or Alzheimer disease.
This is why God has to be our ultimate foundation, and our ultimate navigation point. Either Jesus is our foundation, or something else is. Without God as our foundation we cannot stand. The foundations of this world will cave, Christ must be our sure foundation.
D. FEARFUL MALICE– The text says, Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name…..You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. The early Christians had much to suffer through persecutions. Most of us in the Christian West have had less to suffer but more difficult days may well be ahead as the secular West grows increasingly hostile to the traditional Christian Faith.
Persecution however is an expected part of the Christian journey to the promised land of heaven. Even if we’re not handed over it is a truth of our time that many of us are not taken seriously, are written off or called names even by our closest family and friends?
Christ tells us not to worry of such things. They are part of the normal Christian life. And even if some of us eventually lose our life for the faith, the Lord promises that not a hair of our head will be harmed. That is, our souls will be saved. The world can only harm our body but not our soul, unless we allow it.
So these are the perils that we must soberly accept on our journey home to the promised land of heaven. This leads to the final exhortation of Christ.
3. PRESCRIPTION for the PASSAGE to PROMISED THINGS – The text says, By your perseverance you will secure your lives. Despite these perils we can only journey on and not lose faith or lose heart. There is glory waiting for us if we persevere.
Scripture says elsewhere:But he who endures to the end will be saved (Mat 10:22) and again, For yet a little while, and the coming one shall come and shall not tarry; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls (Heb 10:37).
An old Spiritual says,Hold on just a little while longer, everything’s gonna be alright.
In this regard the end of the Book of Daniel also seems pertinent:So [Daniel asked the Archangel Gabriel], My lord, what will the outcome of all this be?He replied, “Go your way, Daniel, because the words are rolled up and sealed until the time of the end. Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand….“As for you, go your way till the end. You will die, yet at the end of the days you will rise to receive your reward.” (Daniel 12:8-10, 13)
Yes, on our passage through this passing world it is necessary to persevere unto the end. If we do, there is glory on the other side. If we do not, there will be only worse woes that will usher in.
In the readings today, the Church presents for us a strong reminder and teaching on the resurrection. Jesus himself leads the charge against those who would deny the resurrection from the dead and the seven Brothers of the first reading along with their mother bring up the rear. Let’s take a look at what we are taught in three stages.
I. Ridicule of the Resurrection– The Gospel opens with the observation that Some Sadducees, who deny there is a resurrection, came forward and put [a] question to Jesus. These Sadducees propose to Jesus a ridiculous example about a woman who was married seven times to successively dying brothers and had no children by any of them. They suggest that the resurrection will cause there to be a real confusion in determining whose husband she really is! Now we’re all supposed to laugh, according to these Sadducees, and conclude that the idea of resurrection is ludicrous.
Jesus will dismiss their absurdity handily as we shall see in a moment. But let’s take a moment and consider why the Sadducees disbelieved the resurrection.
Fundamentally, they rejected the resurrection due to the fact that they accepted only the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Now this is somewhat debated among scholars but for our purposes we can surely say that if something was not explicitly in the Law of Moses, they were unlikely to accept it. All the other Old Testament books such as the prophets, the historical books, the psalms, and the wisdom tradition were set aside by them as authoritative sources.
They further claimed that, in these first five books, the resurrection of the dead was not taught. Most other Jews of Jesus’ time did accept the complete Old Testament, and teachings such as the resurrection of the dead which are set forth there, but the Sadducees simply did not. They were a small party within Judaism (Josephus said they were able to persuade none but the rich). Nevertheless they were influential due especially to their wealth and to the fact that they predominated among the Temple leadership. You can read more of them here: Sadducees
Hence the Sadducees arrive to poke fun at Jesus and all others who held that the dead would rise.
They are no match for Jesus who easily dispatches their arguments. And Jesus uses the Book of Exodus, a book they accept, to do it. In effect Jesus argument proceeds as such:
You accept Moses, do you not?
(To which they would surely reply yes)
But Moses teaches that the dead will rise.
(Jesus must have gotten puzzled looks but he presses on).
You accept that God is a God of the living and not the dead?
(To which they would surely reply yes).
Then why does God in Exodus identify himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all of whom have been dead some 400 years? How can he call himself their God if they are dead?
Obviously they are alive, for he could not call himself their God, for he is not a God of the dead but of the living.
So they are alive to God. They are not dead.
Hence Jesus dispatches their view. For us, the point is to see how forcefully and clearly Jesus upholds the fact that the dead are alive in the Lord. He powerfully asserts an essential doctrine of the Church and we should rejoice at how firmly Jesus rebukes their disbelief in the resurrection of the dead.
Rejoice! For your loved ones are alive before God . To this world they may seem dead, but Jesus tells us firmly and clearly today, they live. Likewise we too, who will face physical death will also live on. Let the world ridicule this, but hear what Jesus says and how he easily dispatches them. Though ridiculed, the resurrection is real.
II. Resplendence of the Resurrection– Jesus also sets aside the silly scenario that the Sadducees advance by teaching in effect that earthly realities cannot simply be projected in to heaven. Marriage scenarios, perceived in earthly ways, cannot be used to understand heavenly realities. The Saints in heaven live beyond earthly categories.
Heaven is more than the absence of bad things and more than the accumulation of good things. Heaven is far beyond anything this world can offer. Scripture says, No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no human mind has conceived — the things God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9). And Again, The sufferings of this world cannot compare to the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom 8:18).
Do you see the majesty of this teaching? We have a glory waiting for us beyond imagining. Consider your greatest pleasure, your happiest experience, your most fulfilled moment. Now multiply them by ten trillion. You are not even close understanding the glory that waits.
And this glory will personally transform us. The Lord once told Catherine of Siena that if she ever saw the glory of a Saint in heaven she would fall down and worship because she would think she was looking at God. This is our dignity, to be transformed into the very likeness of God and reflect his glory. Here is an elaboration of Catherine’s vision of the soul of a saint in heaven:
It was so beautiful that she could not look on it; the brightness of that soul dazzled her. Blessed Raymond, her confessor, asked her to describe to him, as far as she was able, the beauty of the soul she had seen. St. Catherine thought of the sweet light of that morning, and of the beautiful colors of the rainbow, but that soul was far more beautiful. She remembered the dazzling beams of the noonday sun, but the light which beamed from that soul was far brighter. She thought of the pure whiteness of the lily and of the fresh snow, but that is only an earthly whiteness. The soul she had seen was bright with the whiteness of Heaven, such as there is not to be found on earth. ” My father,” she answered. “I cannot find anything in this world that can give you the smallest idea of what I have seen. Oh, if you could but see the beauty of a soul in the state of grace, you would sacrifice your life a thousand times for its salvation. I asked the angel who was with me what had made that soul so beautiful, and he answered me, “It is the image and likeness of God in that soul, and the Divine Grace which made it so beautiful.” .
Yes, heaven is glorious and we shall be changed. Scripture says we shall be like the Lord for we shall see him as he is(1 John 3:2).It also says, He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified Body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself. (Phil 3:19) I have written more on our resurrected bodies here: What will our resurrected bodies be like?
Further, too many people have egocentric notions of heaven where “I” will have a mansion, I will see My relatives, I will play all the golf I want. But the heart of heaven is to be with God for whom our heart longs. In God we will experience fulfillment and peace beyond any earthly thing. There is more to heaven than golf, reunions and mansions, certainly more than clouds and harps. The “more” can never be told for it is beyond words. St Paul speaks of a man (himself) who was caught up into heaven and affirms it cannot be described, it is ineffable, it is unspeakable:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven…. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. (2 cor 12:2-3).
Do you long for heaven? Do you meditate on it? Is there a part of you that can’t wait to get there? There’s an Old Spiritual that says, “I’m gonna ride the Chariot in the mornin’ Lord. I’m getting ready for the judgment say, Mah Lord, Mah Lord! And this leads us to the final point.
III. Response to the Resurrection– What difference does the resurrection make other than to give us joy if we meditate upon it? To see that answer, look to the first reading today, where the seven brothers are willing to accept torture and death. If there is a great reward waiting for those who remain faithful and we see that reward as the greatest thing we have , then we will endure anything to get there. Notice how the vision of heaven spurs them on to reject demands of their persecutors that they deny their faith:
We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors…. You are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying….. the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s courage, because he regarded his sufferings as nothing (2 Maccabees, 7:2,9, 12)
Only their vision of the rewards waiting for them could motivate them to endure the awful sufferings described in the 7th Chapter of 2nd Maccabees
And what of us? Do we meditate on heaven and value it’s reward enough to be willing to endure suffering to get there? We need a strong vision of heaven to be able to endure and stand fast. Too many today have lost a deep appreciation for heaven. Too many pray to God merely for worldly comforts and rewards. But these will pass. We ought to ask God for a deep desire and drive for heaven and the things waiting for us there.
What athlete will discipline his body, as severely as they do, without the deep motivation of reward and the satisfaction of meeting goals? What college student attends thousands of hours of school, reads lengthy books and writes lengthy papers if it is not for the pot of gold and career at the end of the trail? Then, who of us will endure the trials of faith if we are not deeply imbued with the vision of glory and deeply desirous of its fulfillment no matter the cost? Without this our moral and spiritual life become tepid and our willingness to endure trials falls away. An old hymn says:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.
And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, The clouds be rolled back as a scroll; The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, Even so, it is well with my soul.
Meditate on heaven often. Although we can never fully grasp its glory here, we ought not let that stop us from imagining what we can. Read Revelation Chapters 4,5, 8, 21 & 22. But above all, ask God for an ever deepening desire for Him and the good things waiting for you in heaven. Look to heaven, long for heaven, desire God and deeply root your life in him. Heaven will not disappoint!
This African American Spiritual says, I’m gonna ride the chariot in the morning Lord! I’m gettin ready for the judgment day, My Lord, My Lord! Are you ready my brother? (Oh yes!) Are you ready for the journey? (Oh Yes!), do you want to see Jesus (Yes, Yes!) I’m waiting for the Chariot ’cause I ready to go. I never can forget that day, (Ride in the chariot to see my Lord), My feet were snatched from the miry clay! (Ride in the chariot to see my Lord!)
The Gospel today is of the familiar and endearing story of Zacchaeus, a man too short to see Jesus, who climbs the tree (of the Cross), encounters Jesus, and is changed.
The danger with familiar stories is that they are familiar and we can miss remarkable qualities. Perhaps it is well that we look afresh and search for the symbolic in the ordinary details.
I. Shortsighted Sinner – Zacchaeus was physically short, and so, could not see the Lord. But let me ask you, do you think that Luke has told us this merely to indicate his physical stature? Well, I’m a preacher and I’m counting on the fact that there is more at work here than a physical description.
I suspect it is also a moral description. Zacchaeus cannot see the Lord because of the blindness sin brings. It is his moral stature that is the real cause of his inability to see the Lord. Consider some of the following texts from scripture that link sin to a kind of blindness:
My iniquities have overtaken me, till I cannot see. (Ps 40:12)
I will bring distress on the people and they will walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD (Zeph 1:17)
They know not, nor do they discern; for God has shut their eyes; so that they cannot see, and their minds so that they cannot understand (Is 44:18)
Because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed within her the blood of the righteous, now they grope through the streets like men who are blind (Lam 4:13)
Unless one is born again by water and the Spirit, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. (John 3:5)
Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God. (Matt 5:8)
So sin brings blindness, an inability to see the Lord. Now Zacchaeus has fallen short through sin and hence he cannot see Jesus. “How has he sinned?” You might say. Well, he is the chief tax collector of Jericho. Tax collectors were wicked men, I tell you no lie. The Romans recruited the mobsters of that day to collect taxes. These were bad guys. They ruffed people up and extorted money from them. The Romans permitted them to charge beyond the tax as their “cut” of the deal. They were corrupt, they exploited the poor, and schmoozed the powerful. These were men who were both feared and hated, and for good reason. They were, to a man, wicked and unjust.
Zacchaeus was not just any Tax Collector, he was Chief Tax collector. He was a mafia boss, a Don, a “Godfather.” Got the picture? Zacchaeus isn’t just physically short. He’s the lowest of the low, he doesn’t measure up morally, he comes up short in terms of justice, he’s a financial giant, but a moral midget. Zacchaeus is a shrimp, well short of a full moral deck. That he cannot see the Lord is not just a physical problem, it is a moral one.
Now I am not picking on Zacchaeus. For the truth be told we are all Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus is us. You say, “Wait a minute, I’m not that bad.” Maybe, not but you’re not that good either. In fact we’re a lot closer to being like Zacchaeus that to being like Jesus. The fact that we are not yet ready to look on the face of the Lord is demonstrable by the fact that we’re still here. We’re not ready and not righteous enough to look upon the unveiled face of God. How will Zacchaeus ever hope to see the Lord? How will we? Let’s read on.
II. Saving Sycamore– Zacchaeus climbs a tree to see Jesus. So must we. And the only tree that can really help us to see the Lord is the tree of the Cross. Zacchaeus has to cling to the wood of that old sycamore to climb it, and we too must cling to the wood of the old rugged cross.
Only by the wood of cross and power of Jesus’ blood can we ever hope to climb high enough to see the Lord. There is an old Latin chant that says, Dulce lignum, dulce clavos, dulce pondus sustinet (sweet the wood, sweet the nails, sweet the weight (that is) sustained). So Zacchaeus foreshadows for us the righteous that comes from the cross by climbing a tree and being able to get a glimpse of Jesus.
III. Sanctifying Savior– Jesus stops by that tree, for we always meet Jesus at the cross. And there at that tree, that cross, he invites Zacchaeus into a saving and transformative relationship. It is not a surprise that Jesus invites himself for what amounts to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house. Though dinner is not mentioned here, it was just a basic aspect of Jewish hospitality. But remember, it is Jesus who ultimately serves the meal. Consider these texts:
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. (Rev 3:20)
And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:29).
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. (Luke 24:28-30)
Yes, Zacchaeus has now begun to see the Lord, and the Lord invites him into a Holy Communion, a relationship and a liturgy that will begin to transform him. And Zacchaeus is us. We too have begun to see the Lord through the power of the Cross to cast out our blindness and the Lord draws us to sacred Communion with him. The liturgy and Holy Communion are essential for this, as the Lord invites himself to our house, that is to say, our soul and our parishes.
IV. Started Surrender – Zacchaeus is experiencing the start of a transformative relationship. But this is just the start. Note that Zacchaeus promises to return four-fold the money he has extorted and also to give half his money to the poor. Now there’s an old song that says, “I surrender all….” but Zacchaeus isn’t quite there yet, and, probably most of us aren’t either.
Eventually Zacchaeus will surrender all, and so will we. But in time. For now he needs to stay near the cross to see and continue to allow Jesus to have communion with him. One day all will be surrendered.
So here is the start for Zacchaeus and us. The best is yet to come. You might say, that the Gospel ends here to make a long story short 🙂
This song says, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea heard my desparing cry and from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, love lifted me!”
There’s an old saying on pride that goes: “Faults in others I can see, but praise the Lord, they’re none in me!” It’s a steel trap statement because one is snared in sin by the very act of claiming they have no sin. And it’s the biggest sin of all: Pride!
In today’s Gospel, the Lord illustrates this very point in speaking to us of two men who go to to the temple and pray. One man commits the greatest sin of all, pride, and leaves unjustified. The other, though a great sinner, receives the gift of justification through humility. Let’s look at what the Lord teaches us.
1. Prideful Premise – Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness. When it comes to parables, it is possible for us to go right to the parable and miss the introductory statement that often tells us what spurred Jesus to give the parable. Many simply see this parable as being about arrogance. But there is more to it than that.
Jesus is addressing this parable to those who are convinced of their own righteousness. They are under the illusion that they are capable of justifying and saving themselves. They think they can have their “own righteousness,” and that it will be enough to save them.
But the truth is, there is no saving righteousness apart from Christ’s righteousness. I do not care how many spiritual push-ups you do, how many good works you do, how many commandments you keep. It will never be enough for you to earn heaven. On your own you are not holy enough, to ever enter heaven or save yourself. Scripture says, One cannot redeem himself, pay to God a ransom. Too high the price to redeem a life; he would never have enough (Psalm 49:8-9)
Only Christ and HIS righteousness can ever close the gap, can ever get you to heaven. Even if we do have good works, they are not our gift to God, they are his gift to us. We cannot boast of them, they are his. Again Scripture says, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).
But the Pharisee in the Parable has a prideful premise that is operative. Jesus says he is convinced of his OWN righteousness. Notice how, in his brief prayer he says “I” four times:
I thank you
I am not like the rest of humanity – greed, dishonest, adulterous
I pay tithes
It is also interesting that the Lord, when telling the of the prideful Pharisee, indicates that he “spoke this prayer to himself.” Some think it merely means he did not say the prayer out loud. But others suspect that more is at work here, a double meaning if you will. In effect, the Lord is saying that his prayer is so wholly self-centered, so devoid of any true appreciation of God, that it is actually spoken only to himself. He is congratulating himself more than really praying to God, and his “thank you” is purely perfunctory and serves more a premise for his own prideful self adulation. He is speaking to himself alright. He is so prideful that even God can’t even hear him.
Hence we see a prideful premise on the part of the Pharisee who sees his righteous as his own, as something he has achieved. He is badly mistaken.
2. Problematic Perspective– and despised everyone else. To “despise” means to look down on others with contempt, to perceive others as beneath us. Now the Lord says the Pharisee did this. Notice how the Pharisee is glad to report that he is “not like the rest of humanity.”
Not only is his remark foolish, it is also impertinent. For, it is a simple fact that you and I will not get to heaven merely by being a little better than someone else. No indeed, being better than a tax collector, prostitute, drug dealer, or dishonest business man is not the standard we must meet. The standard we must meet is Jesus. He is the standard. And Jesus said, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48). Now, somebody say, Lord have mercy! It is so dangerous, and a total waste of time, to compare our self with others because it wholly misses the point.
The point is that we are to compare our selves to Jesus and to be conformed to him by the work of his grace. And, truth be told, any honest comparison of our self to Jesus should make us fall to our knees and cry out for mercy, because the only way we stand a chance is with boatloads of grace and mercy.
It is so silly, laughable really, that we compare our selves to others. What a pointless pursuit! What a fool’s errand! What a waste of time! God is very holy and we need to leave behind the problematic perspective of looking down on others and trying to be just a little better than some poor (and fellow) sinner. It just won’t cut it.
There’s a lot of talk today about being “basically a nice person.” But being nice isn’t how we get to heaven. We get to heaven by being Jesus. The goal in life isn’t to be nice, the goal is to be made holy. We need to set aside all the tepid and merely humanistic notions of righteousness and come to understand how radical the call to holiness is and how unattainable it is by human effort. Looking to be average, or a little better than others, is a problematic perspective. It has to go and be replaced by the Jesus standard.
Let’s put it in terms of something we all can understand: money. Let’s say that we’re on our way to heaven and you have $50 and I have $500. Now I might laugh at you and feel all superior to you. I might ridicule you and say, “I have ten times as much as you!” But then we get to heaven and find out the cost to enter is 70 trillion dollars. Oops. Looks like we’re both going to need a LOT of mercy and grace to get in the door. In the end, we are both in the same boat and all my boasting was a waste of time and quite silly to boot. We have a task so enormous and unattainable that we simply have to let God grant it and accomplish it for us. And this leads to the final point.
3. Prescribed Practice – But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ Given everything we have reflected on, we can only bow our head and cry from the heart, “Lord have mercy!” Deep humility coupled with lively hope are the only answers.
And here too, being humble isn’t something we can do. We have to ask God for a humble and contrite heart. Without this gift we will never be saved. We are just to proud and egotistical in our flesh. So God needs to give us a new heart, a new mind. Notice that the tax collector in today’s parable did three things, three things we ought to do:
Realize your distance – the text says he stood off at a distance. He realizes that he is a long way from the goal. He knows how holy God is, and he himself is very distant. But his recognition of his distance is already a grace and a mercy. God is already granting the humility by which he stands a chance.
Recognize your disability – The text says he would not even raise his eyes to heaven. Scripture says, No one can see on God and live (Ex 33:20). We are not ready to look on the face of God in all its glory. That is evident by the fact that we are still here. Scripture also says, “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8). This tax collector recognizes his disability, his inability to look on the face of God for his heart is not yet pure enough. So in humility he looks down. But his recognition of his disability is already a grace and a mercy. God is already granting the humility by which he stands a chance.
Request your deliverance – the text says he beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Notice then how his humility is steeped in hope. He cannot save himself but God can. He cannot have a saving righteousness of his own, but Jesus does. So this tax collector summons those twins called grace and mercy. In this man’s humility, a grace given him by God. He stands a chance. For, by this humility, he invokes Jesus Christ who alone can make him righteous and save him. Beg for humility. Only God can really give it to us. The humble, contrite heart the Lord will not spurn (Ps 51:17). And thus Jesus says, whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Beware of Pride. It is our worst enemy. Beg for the gift of humility, for only with it do we even stand a chance.
I have it on the best of authority that, as he left the Temple, the tax collector sang this song: “It’s Me O Lord, Standing in the Need of Prayer!” Here it is sung by a German choir which explains their unusual pronunciation of “prayer.” It’s OK though, I don’t pronounce “Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung” (speed limit) very well either!
The readings today speak to us of the power of persistent prayer. In particular the first reading from Exodus pictures prayer powerfully:
In those days, Amalek came and waged war against Israel. Moses, therefore, said to Joshua, “Pick out certain men, and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses told him: he engaged Amalek in battle after Moses had climbed to the top of the hill with Aaron and Hur. As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight. Moses’hands, however, grew tired; so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other, so that his hands remained steady till sunset. And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. (Ex 17:-8-13)
We can notice here six practices related to prayer, six fundamental teachings on prayer:
I. The Problem for Prayer.In those days, Amalek came and waged war against Israel. None of us like problems, but one thing about problems is that they help to keep us praying. Israel is at war and their enemies are strong. It was time to pray.
In the Gospel for this weekend’s Mass, a widow is troubled about something and it keeps her coming back to the judge. Sometimes God allows us problems to keep us praying. Problems also keep us humble and remind us of our need for God and others.
Problems aren’t the only reason we pray but they are one important motivator. It shouldn’t be necessary that problems would cause us to pray. But if we’re honest, we’ll probably admit that problems have a way of summoning prayer from us.
II. The Priority of Prayer. Moses, therefore, said to Joshua, “Pick out certain men, and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses told him: he engaged Amalek in battle after Moses had climbed to the top of the hill with Aaron and Hur.
Notice that Joshua and the army did not go forth until after Moses took up his prayer place. Prayer ought to precede any major work or decision.
Too often we rush into life without praying. Each day should begin with prayer. Important decisions are a time for prayer. Prayer needs to precede, it has a priority over and before action.
Too many people use prayer as a kind of rear-guard action wherein they ask God to clean up the messes they have made by bad decisions. We end up doing a lot of things we shouldn’t because we don’t pray first. We also end up doing a lot of things poorly that prayer might have clarified or enriched.
And prayer isn’t just about praying for this or that specific thing. Prayer involves an on-going relationship with God in which we gradually begin to receive a new mind and heart, where our priorities and vision are clarified and purified. This new mind and heart we get from prayer and study of our faith are an essential part of the prayer that precedes decisions and actions.
III. The Power of Prayer.As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.
As long as Moses prayed, Israel got the best of the battle. But when fatigue caused his prayer to diminish Israel began to lose.
The fact is, prayer changes things. We may never fully know here how our prayer helped to change world history but I am sure that one of the joys of heaven will be to see what a real difference our prayers, even the distracted and poor ones, made. We’ll tell stories in heaven of prayer’s power and appreciate what difference it made for us and what a difference we made for others. For now, much of this is hid from our eyes. But, one day, by and by, we will see with a glorious vision what prayer did.
I suppose too that one of the pangs of purgatory might be to see how our failure to pray also had negative effects and how only God’s mercy could over-rule our laziness and failure to pray.
Moses is struggling to pray here in this story. So do we. But remembering prayer’s power is an important motivator to keep us on our knees and at our beads. Pray!
IV. The Partnership of Prayer. Moses’ hands, however, grew tired; so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other.
Moses, because of his fatigue, knows he needs to get Aaron and Hur to assist him in praying. As a team they pray together and, once again, Israel is strengthened and begins to win through.
Prayer is not supposed to be a merely “lone-ranger” experience. It is true that personal prayer is important but so is communal and group prayer. The Lord says, Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20). Likewise he says, Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven(Matt 18:19).
Hence, we are taught to gather in prayer liturgically and also to find partners for prayer. Since prayer is so essential and we are individually weak, we ought not have it all depend on us. We need our own Aaron and Hur to support us in prayer and make up for our weakness.
Do you have some spiritual friends who help you not only to pray but also to walk uprightly? Scripture says, Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up….where a lone man may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:10,12)
Do not pray or journey alone. Find some good spiritual friends to accompany you on your journey and to pray along with you.
V. The Persistence of Prayer.so that [Moses] hands remained steady till sunset.
The text says that, with Aaron and Hur to help him, Moses prayed right through to sunset. They prayed right until the end and so must we. There is a mystery as to why God sometimes makes us wait. But pray on anyway. We may at times get frustrated by the delay, pray on anyway. We may get fatigued or even lose heart, but pray on anyway.
Like Moses, get some friends to help you, but pray on anyway. Pray, pray, pray.
Be like the woman in today’s Gospel who just kept coming to that old judge until he rendered justice for her. Pray until the sunset of your life. I have brought people into the Church long after their spouse or mother who prayed for them has died. Just keep praying till sunset.
VI. The Product of Prayer. And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.
The text says that the enemies of Israel were utterly defeated. This is the product and the power of persistent prayer. This is what prayer does.
We have already discussed above that we may not fully see prayer’s power and product on this side of the veil. But one day we will on glory’s side. We may not need God to mow down a foreign enemy. But how about the enemies like fear, poverty, illness, and sin? Yes, we have enemies and God still answers prayers. Pray and wait for the product of prayer.
So there it is, six practices and teachings on prayer.
This song says, “I Can Go To God in Prayer”
This song says, Somebody prayed for me. Had me on their mind, took the time and prayed for me. I’m so glad they prayed for me!
One of the great human inadequacies is rendering proper and adequate thanks to God. Perhaps the biggest problem is that we don’t even know 90% of what he does for us. It is hid from our eyes.
A further problem is that we tend, in our fallen condition, to be wired to magnify our distresses and problems and minimize or discount the enormous blessings of each moment. God sustains every fiber of our being and every atom of creation, his hidden blessings are countless. But we get angry if our iPod is malfunctioning or if one or two out of the trillion blessings he gives is withdrawn.
But in the end an old gospel song says it well:
I’ve got so much to thank God for; So many wonderful blessings and so many open doors. A brand new mercy along with each new day. That’s why I praise You and for this I give You praise. For waking me up this morning , For starting me on my way, For letting me see the sunshine, of a brand new day. That’s why I praise You and for this I give You praise. So many times You´ve met my needs, So many times You rescued me. That’s why I praise You.
For every mountain You brought me over For every trial you’ve seen me through. For every blessing, For this I give You praise
Fundamental Question – So here is the question at the heart of today’s Gospel. It is best asked in the Book of Psalms: What return shall I make to the Lord for all the good he has done for me? The same psalm goes on to answer the question in this way: The cup of salvation I will take up and call on the name of the Lord. (Psalm 116:12)
The Mass is signified – Yes indeed, how can I possibly thank the Lord for all the good he has done for me? Notice that the psalm points to the Eucharist in saying, The cup of salvation I will take up….” As you know the word “Eucharist” is a Greek word which means, “thanksgiving.” We cannot thank God the Father adequately, but Jesus can. And in every Mass we join our meager thanksgiving to his perfect thanksgiving. Jesus takes up the cup of salvation and shows it to us at every Mass through the priest. This is the perfect and superabundant thanks that only Jesus can offer the Father. And he joins us to his perfect sacrifice of thanks in every Mass. This is how we give thanks in a way commensurate with the manifold blessings we have received.
Hidden Mass! – Now the Gospel for today makes this point, that the Mass is the perfect offering of thanks to the Father, in a remarkable and almost hidden way. But for Catholics it is right there for us to see if we have eyes to see it. For the Gospel today contains all the essential elements of Holy Mass. In so doing, this Gospel about giving thanks reminds us once again that it is the Mass which is the perfect thanksgiving, the perfect “Eucharist.” Let’s look and see how it is a Mass:
Gathering – Notice first that there is a gathering. Ten lepers (us) have gathered and Jesus comes near as he passes on his way. We do this in every Mass, we gather and the Lord draws near. Indeed, in the person of the priest, who is the sacrament, the sign of his presence, Jesus walks the aisle of our Church just like he walked those ancient roads.
Kyrie – Next they cry out for mercy just like we do at every Mass: Lord have mercy! Jesus, Master, have pity on us!
Liturgy of the Word – Next Jesus quotes Scripture and then applies it to their life just like he does for us at every Mass. In saying, “Go show yourselves to the priests” Jesus is referencing Leviticus 14 which gives detailed instructions on how the priests of old were to diagnose leprosy and also its having been cured. Jesus quotes this scripture and applies it to their life. This is what we do at every Mass wherein God’s Word is proclaimed and then the Lord Jesus, speaking through the priest or deacon, applies the text(s) to our life.
Liturgy of the Eucharist – Next, the text says that one of them: fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. This is what we do during the Eucharistic prayer, we kneel and thank Jesus, and also, with Jesus, give thanks to the Father. As we have noted, the word “Eucharist” comes from Greek and means “to give thanks.” Here is the perfect thanks rendered to the Father. To those who say they can stay home and give adequate thanks to God, there should only be the rebuke that they are prideful. Only Jesus can give perfect thanks to the Father. And we can only give adequate thanks to Jesus by following his command to “do this in memory of me.” We have to be at Mass.
Ite Missa est – Finally, Jesus sends him on his way, saying Stand up and go; your faith has saved you. We too are sent forth by Jesus at the end of every Mass when He speaks through the priest or deacon: “The Mass is ended, God in peace.”
So, there it is. In this Gospel that very clearly instructs us to give thanks to God is the very structure of the Mass. If you want to give proper thanks to God and you made it to Mass this morning, you’re in the right place. Only here is perfect and proper thanks given to God.
It was all prefigured in the psalm long ago: What return shall I make to the Lord for all the good he has done for me? The cup of salvation I will take up and call on the name of the Lord (Psalm 116:12). It is the very cup of salvation, the chalice containing Christ’s blood that is held up at every Mass. It is the perfect sacrifice of thanks. It is the prescribed sacrifice of praise. It is the proper sacrifice of praise.
The readings for today’s Mass provide a rich fare in describing some essential qualities of faith. Each of these amounts to a fundamental for firm faith. There are five fundamentals that can be seen:
1. Wanting The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” (Luke 17:5-6). There’s an old saying, “What you want, you get.” It is true that many doubt this and think that they have wanted many things that they did not get. But it is likely they didn’t want it enough. Precluding physical impossibilities and other impossible things, when we really want something enough we usually get it. That’s because we work at it and have a passion for it.
Many people who say they cannot find time to pray or go to Church, still find time to golf, watch TV and eat. They find the time because they want to do these things. They do not find time to pray or go to Mass because they do not want to do these things enough.
Hence, the apostles ask the Lord to increase their faith. In effect they ask for a deeper desire to know the Lord. Too often we miss a step in our prayer. We might ask the Lord to help us to pray when what we really should ask for is that the Lord give us a desire to pray. For, when we want to pray, we will pray. When we want to be holy, we will naturally strive for holy practices. It is about what we desire, what we want. Ask the Lord to help you want Him and his kingdom. Ask the Lord for a new heart that has proper wants and desires. Ask the Lord for a new mind that has proper priorities and that prefers to think on what is good, true and beautiful. What you want, you get.
2. Waiting – The first reading speaks of our need to await the Lord’s action ––How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord. Then the LORD answered me and said: Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity (Hab 1:2-3; 2:2-4) –
Waiting is one of the great mysteries of the Christian life. Why God often makes us wait is not always clear. Perhaps He is trying to strengthen our faith. Perhaps he is helping us clarify or confirm our desires. But, truth be told, waiting on the Lord has a lot of mystery about it. Nevertheless it is consistently told us in scripture that we must learn to wait on the Lord and that there are blessings for those who do. For example:
Ps 37:8 Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil….those who wait for the LORD shall possess the land.
Is 49:23 those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.
Lam 3:25 The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.
Is 40:31 but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
And so, waiting is a fundamental of firm faith. Gospel music is replete with waiting themes. One song says , You can’t Hurry God, you just have to wait, trust and never doubt him, no matter how long it takes. He may not come when you want him but he’s always right on time. Another song says, Weeping may endure for a night but joy will come with the morning light. Other songs counsel that we must hold on and hold out:
I promised the Lord that I would hold out, he said he’d meet me in Galilee
Hold on just a little while longer, every thing’s gonna be alright
Keep your hand on the plow…Hold on
Lord help me to hold out, until my change comes!
The reading from Habakkuk above warns that the rash man has no integrity. That is another way of saying that waiting is integral to the Christian life. It is a fundamental of faith. To have integrity means to have all the necessary pieces and parts which make up the whole. To lack patience then is to lack integrity, to lack an essential fundamental of the Christian faith.
3. Withstanding – And here the second reading counsels us— God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God. (2 Tim 1:6-8)
This quote from today’s second reading tells us that life has its difficulties and challenges. Things do not always get easier by becoming a Christian. In fact, they often get harder since we must endure the hatred and ridicule of the world. Thus a fundamental of the Christian Faith is that we be able to withstand such things with courage.
Notice that this courage, power and love come from God, not from us. Hence it is grace that is being described here. This is not a moralism or a slogan. Withstanding means that God is “standing with” us, and we with God. Such withstanding is only possible by the relationship with God that comes by faith. In this way we discover the power, the capacity to withstand, to courageously live the Christian faith in a hostile world.
4. Working – And here the Gospel teaches: Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.‘” (Luke 17:6-10)
This saying of the Lord in today’s Gospel can tend to irritate us and even seem hurtful if we misunderstand grace and seek to understand this text by the flesh. Our flesh is self-centered and thinks we deserve praise and good things from God for the good things we do. The flesh expects, yes, it demands, rewards. But the fact is that we can never have God in debt to us, never. If we have good works, they are not our gift to God, they are His gift to us.
All our works of charity and faith which our flesh wants credit for, they are all God’s work and God’s gift. The letter to the Ephesians makes this clear:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God– not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:8-10)
Hence if I think that I did something deserving of praise and reward I am thinking in terms of the flesh, not the Spirit. All I can really say to God is “Thank You” when I have done something good like caring for the poor or keeping the commandments. His grace alone permitted me to work them. God may speak elsewhere of rewarding us but that is His business. He is not in debt to us in anyway. When we have done everything we ought our one disposition should be gratitude. We are useless servants in the sense that we can do nothing without God’s grace. We can only do what we are told and what He enables us to do.
That said, it is clear, work is a pillar of faith. The text from today’s gospel and the text from Ephesians just above both make clear that work is something God has for us. James 2:17 says, So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. Likewise, Jesus says, “It was not you who chose me. It was I who chose you that you should go and bear fruit that will last”(Jn 15:16) Work is a fundamental of faith.
5. Winning – And we conclude with a reference back to the First Reading: For the vision still has it’s time, it presses on to fulfillment and it will not disappoint. It will surely come, it will not be late.(Hab 2:3)
See what the end shall be! Yes, it is true that we must want, wait, withstand and work. But we do not do this to no purpose. We have a cross to carry. But if we carry it with the Lord, we carry it to glory. The end of today’s first reading makes this clear. There is an old Gospel song that says,
Harder yet may be the fight, Right may often yield to might, Wickedness awhile may reign, Satan’s cause may seem to gain, There is a God that rules above, With hand of power and heart of love, If I am right, He’ll fight my battle, I shall have peace some day. I do not know how long ’twill be, Nor what the future holds for me, But this I know, if Jesus leads me, I shall get home some day.
This is what Habakkuk describes, that we will win with Jesus. He describes a victory that is
Future – the vision still has it’s time, it presses on to fulfillment
Fantastic – and it will not disappoint
Firm – It will surely come
Fixed – it will not be late
For all those who walk with Jesus on the way of the Cross, there is victory up ahead. Even here we already enjoy the fruits of crosses past. Our withstanding of the past has given us strength for today. Our waitings of the past have had their fulfillment and are the hope that our current waiting too will have its fruit. Our work by God’s grace has already granted benefits to ourselves and others.
But these are but a small foretaste of a greater glory to come, which waits for us in heaven. Yes, if we want, and wait, withstand and work, we will win! I promise it to you in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Refrain of this song says, I do not know how long t’will be nor what the future holds for me. But this I know, If Jesus leads me, I shall get home some day. (I am not wild about falsetto singing (women or boys should sing soprano…But the song is magnificent).