An interlude of mercy

There is an atmosphere in two of today's readings that Catholic blogger Todd Flowerday calls "an interlude of mercy" (catholicsensibility.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/reconciliation-lectionary-wisdom). The phrase well captures a sense of God's patience with us sinners as we figure out how to respond to love. This interlude is the time between transgression and awareness, when God invites us forward into life; it is so much more powerful than anger or violence.

CEL-Oct302016.jpgIf nothing else in these readings touches us, that particular dynamic -- that interlude of mercy in the face of our error and sin, that space in which to face ourselves free of external judgement and condemnation -- offers wisdom on how we might act when we are confronted by the error and sin of others.

Thirty-first Sunday in
Ordinary Time
Wisdom 11:22-12:2
Psalm 145
2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2
Luke 19:1-10

Our reading from Wisdom is particularly rich in this respect, as it encourages Jewish immigrants in Alexandria, Egypt, to remain faithful to their teachings and traditions even while they are surrounded by radically different beliefs: Culture clash at its most virulent.

We have a sense of the disorientation and pain this kind of clash can cause as we hear the pros and cons of our own immigration debate year after year. Those who work with immigrants and refugees know how difficult it is to balance keeping one's culture and beliefs while also facing the need to enculturate to new surroundings.

Written for immigrants with strong traditions and beliefs, Wisdom as a whole provides great insight in this area, wisdom that still holds today: The best place to start is the common ground between the immigrating and receiving communities.

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Our reading from 2 Thessalonians provides an interesting challenge to the various understandings of Scripture as the inspired word of God. Many scholars doubt that Paul wrote this book, while the consensus is that he did write 1 Thessalonians; and 2 Thessalonians absolutely contradicts Paul on one very important point: Are we already living in the Parousia?

And, finally, we get to the hero of today's Gospel reading from Luke: Zacchaeus -- ever the surprise. See what you think about the possibility that, in this story, the Lord sought to save not Zacchaeus, but the people who wanted to condemn him.

The crowd had demonized Zacchaeus. Jesus praises him as "a son of Abraham." Luke's Jesus says, "Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham."

Jesus does not define Zacchaeus as a sinner rejected by God. He may have sinned, but that does not define him. What defines him is that "he too is a descendant of Abraham."

William Loader, a minister of the Uniting Church in Australia and emeritus professor of New Testament at Murdoch University, Perth, notes, "The point within that context is that Zacchaeus is not a nobody. He is also a human being -- in that context, a child of Abraham, 'one of us Jews.' Among his people Jesus would write no one off. ... This is not unlike what Jesus tells his disciples to do in Luke 10: turn up on their doorstep for a meal and see what happens!" ("First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary: Pentecost 24," at wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkPentecost24.htm).

We receive Scripture in part to apply it to our own day and time. Through it, we can glean the wisdom of the ages. In it, we find our faith ancestors in some of the same quandaries that we are in, with some of the same questions that we have. We can't simply transpose Scripture to our own setting -- the error made by the author in 2 Thessalonians -- but once it has been interpreted for our place and time, it offers immense human help.

Somehow this seems miraculous to me. That the human element, though it has changed in so many ways down the ages, has an underlying constancy. That our own needs, personal and communal, have been faced and responded to in the past, and that we gain wisdom from those responses that can be helpful today. This all seems so obvious on one hand, yet on the other, it is something we often fail to value, fail to make use of except on Sundays.

Thank God for the interludes of mercy when, for whatever reason, we once again know God, who waits patiently for us to awaken to what the Divine holds out to us.

[Angie O'Gorman is a freelance writer and human rights worker living in St. Louis, where she works at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. She has done human rights work in Honduras, Guatemala, the West Bank and the United States.]

This story appeared in the Oct 21-Nov 3, 2016 print issue under the headline: An interlude of mercy .

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