NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 19: 1-10
THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town.
Now a man there named Zacchaeus,
who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man,
was seeking to see who Jesus was;
but he could not see him because of the crowd,
for he was short in stature.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus,
who was about to pass that way.
When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said,
“Zacchaeus, come down quickly,
for today I must stay at your house.”
And he came down quickly and received him with joy.
When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying,
“He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord,
“Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor,
and if I have extorted anything from anyone
I shall repay it four times over.”
And Jesus said to him,
“Today salvation has come to this house
because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.
For the Son of Man has come to seek
and to save what was lost.”
Jesus continues his journey to Jerusalem, and in the immediate preceding text in Luke [not included in the Sunday selections] Jesus is approaching Jericho where he heals a blind man. Of note in this healing miracle is the blind man’s extraordinary show of energy in his faith that Jesus can save him; the blind man is forcibly restrained by a skeptical crowd until his cries to Jesus can no longer be ignored and Jesus demands that the blind man get his meeting, which of course ends very well for him.
From the outskirts of Jericho Jesus continues into the heart of the city, where he encounters another tax collector. I believe this is the only time in the liturgical cycle where back to back Sundays feature a tax collector. Last Sunday’s Gospel treated of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple. Joel Green notes that these are two different men—Luke’s depiction of the tax collector of last week does not record any sins committed by the man. By contrast, today’s tax collector Zacchaeus has a bundle to confess, including “extortion,” which conjures images of loan sharking with the mob. Interestingly, Luke 3:13 quotes John the Baptist exhorting tax collectors not to extort and to be happy with their base pay. What both tax collectors bear in common from the Gospel texts is their social identity—both are held in common disgust in Jewish society, lumped together with the unclean, lepers, the poor, prostitutes, Samaritans. Salvation, it would seem, has something to do with self-respect and a conferral of God’s wealth. As Green puts it, “Luke pulls the rug out from under every cliché.” (p. 667)
Green comments that in Sunday’s passage Jesus and Zacchaeus are on a search for each other. Like the blind man mentioned before, Zacchaeus has physical hurdles to cross. The crowd is large, and judging from their later reaction (“When they all saw this….”) it was a hostile crowd overall. The English texts indicates that Zacchaeus was “small in stature.” The Greek here is a bit ambivalent, and the clause “for he was short in stature” can, grammatically, apply to either Zacchaeus or Jesus. However, John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Volume One, (1991) describes carpenters as framers for new housing construction, and many scholars of my acquaintance follow Meier’s lead that if Jesus was a working carpenter, he was probably not a slight man. (On the other hand, Zacchaeus’s profession was known for extortion, and episodes of physical strength in his line of work can hardly be ruled out, either.) Incidentally, a physical description of the human Jesus is recorded nowhere in the Scriptures.
In any event Zacchaeus’ only strategy to see Jesus turns out to be a sycamore tree probably overhanging the street. From the text, we can infer that Zacchaeus had given great thought to a meeting with Jesus, to the point of having his “examination of conscience” and his “penance” at the tip of his tongue. But it is Jesus who ‘looked up” (searching?) and immediately begins his own well-prepared message first. The choice of words is instructive. Luke uses the word “today” throughout his Gospel as a sign that the Kingdom of God has arrived for those who manifest the necessary faith to enter the kingdom. Early in his public life Jesus proclaims the Messianic message of the Prophet Isaiah to his hometown synagogue. Rolling up the scroll, he announces, “Today this passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” On the cross before his death, Jesus tells the “good thief” that “today you will be with me in paradise.” Thus, in our text here Zacchaeus is getting some very good news, even before his “confession.”
“Staying at your house” is an incredible statement for an observant Jew—particularly one with the high profile of Jesus. Zacchaeus, as a social and religious outcast, would have been considered “unclean,” and anyone who touched him or shared his food and hospitality would likewise be rendered unclean. Jesus, as we have seen, was deeply suspicious of the “unclean” label and those who applied it so widely and judgmentally. In Jesus’ view, the urgent matter here with Zacchaeus is not ritual purity but the reign of the Kingdom of God and the forgiveness it brings to earnest seekers and believers. This salvation proclaimed by Jesus will come personally and with the breaking of the bread. Salvation enfolds unity.
Luke records that Jesus’ self-invitation to Zacchaeus’s “unclean” home provoked a not-unexpectedly disapproval from the crowd (which apparently includes the disciples, since Luke does not mention them nor do they rush to Jesus’ defense, perhaps out of fear, perhaps an indication of their abandonment of Jesus after the Last Supper.) The surprise rebuttal comes from none other than Zacchaeus himself. “With joy” our tax collector slides down the trunk to address Jesus. The word “joy” in Luke’s Gospel appears as a response to a divine visitation. When the pregnant Mary visits her pregnant cousin Elizabeth in Luke 1, Elizabeth cries out that the infant within her (the future John the Baptist) “leaped for joy.”
Zacchaeus is filled with joy, and confesses to Jesus his regimen to bring the justice of the Kingdom. His plan is both specific and universal: he will restore any ill-gotten gains at 400% of value to people he may have defrauded. Then he commits to give half of his possessions to the poor. The word “poor” is collective—no group is singled out or, more importantly, excluded. Zacchaeus has come to understand the universal nature of Jesus’s call and the Kingdom he proclaims. He does not have to say more; his joy and his concrete plan of action are more than proof of his faith.
Jesus makes two critical points in the final sentences. First, salvation has come to this house (Zacchaeus’s) because, whatever his faults, Zacchaeus is a true son of Abraham, contrary to the artificial barriers and castes that have developed over the years. Again, we see the word “today” in its full sense. And secondly, the mission of Jesus is precisely to save those who have been lost—by their own devices, and equally by the cursed status applied to them by the self-righteous. Little wonder Jesus’ upcoming battle in Jerusalem, almost in view now, will be intense and decisive.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 19: 1-10
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 18: 9-14
THIRTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK to all three readings here
Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity --
greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
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.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The Liturgical Year and the Gospel of Luke are both well into the fourth quarter. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is coming to its close. In fact, the arrival into the Holy City and the expulsion of the money changers from the Temple will occur in the very next chapter (19). Likewise, this Sunday (30th in Ordinary Time) will find us only four weeks from the Feast of Christ the King, the final (34th) observance of the Ordinary Season Cycle. A catechetical tool: the Church’s liturgical season generally concludes around the same weekend as the annual Michigan-Ohio State football classic.
As the climax to Luke’s Gospel draws ever nearer, there is pressing need for clarity about who can truly be judged worthy of entrance into the coming Kingdom of God, and what kind of person one must be to be judged suitable for the Kingdom. Joel Green makes an important point about prayer in this context: when the term is used in the latter stages of Luke’s Gospel, it prayer is a measure of personality, not simply a formula. Prayer embraces a person’s “disposition and practices.” (p. 644) Twentieth century moral theologians would coin the phrase “fundamental option” to capture the deepest truth of a person’s beliefs, values, and conduct. Luke captures something of this basic moral disposition in a study of contrasts, two men praying side by side in the center of Judaism’s religious and cultural life.
Though Jesus does not strictly identify overconfidence with any group, the metaphor here is applied to the Pharisees. “Pharisee” is the name given to an intensely committed body of laymen devoted to Jewish life and knowledge of the Law. Green explains that the first character in this setting is one of those who, “having become convinced of their own self-righteousness, they have come to depend upon themselves.” (p. 646) Pharisees have had several tense encounters with Jesus already in Luke’s Gospel, primarily when Jesus’ vision and teaching took him beyond the strictures of later historical opinions on the Law; the issue of divorce is a good example.
True to form, the Pharisee asks for nothing, and certainly not forgiveness; instead, he uses the prayer moment to reflect back upon his achievements. Notice how his prayer is really addressed to himself. “Thank God I am not like the rest of humanity.” If you are looking for a good example of hubris, here it is. Actually, he is claiming to be more than a Pharisee, whose concrete obligations would normally include fasting on designated days, weekly prayer and observing the customary tithe. But the Pharisee goes on to boast that for him, the general Pharisaic way of life is too low a bar to measure his goodness. He observes that he fasts twice weekly and pays “tithes on my whole income.” In other words, he does not use loopholes available in Jewish Law practice, of which there were a considerable amount.
There is another factor in the Pharisee’s “prayer” that does not translate well into English. The Pharisee has contempt for the [Roman] tax collector. In Greek, the pronoun “this” can, in certain settings, carry a derogative meaning. This is evident in the story of the Prodigal Son where the older resentful brother, in reference to his celebrated younger brother, refers to him as “this son of yours.” The nuance here is critical, for in the teaching of Jesus, it is not just one’s vertical relationship with God that opens the door to the kingdom; it is the horizontal relationships with one’s neighbor that will matter (“love thy neighbor as thyself.”) The Pharisee’s reference to “this tax collector” is a statement of both disdain and segregation. Jesus, of course, was censured by Pharisees for eating and drinking with tax collectors. It bears noting that the Pharisee seems to be an equal opportunity loather; he brands “the rest of humanity” as “greedy, dishonest, adulterous.”
We turn our attention to the tax collector, a Jew who collaborated with the Romans by collecting taxes for the Empire. Tax collectors of the day would have been regarded as low class deviants, and our player in this drama acknowledges as much as he “stood off at a distance.” Some scholars have wondered why the tax collector in this story does not have a parallel list of sins to the Pharisee’s good works. (In chapter 19, another tax collector, Zacchaeus, will have plenty to confess from his perch in a tree.) In the first instance, the tax collector’s postures and gestures speak volumes. Second, the broken man identifies his being as that of a sinner (“be merciful to me, a sinner.”) But the third point probably trumps all: it is his lowliness as an outcast from his own people that leads him to confessional prayer. As Green writes, there is nothing in this text that suggests the tax collector needs forgiveness for a specific sin. (p. 649)
The collector is the collective voice of all of us who will never enter the Kingdom of God unless we fall on our faces and acknowledge a total need for the saving grace of God. Jesus states that only the latter went home justified, a declaration that must have rattled the souls of more than a few in the crowd, including the Pharisees and Jesus’ own disciples, who had their own dalliances with “the bread of the Pharisees” in the Gospel. When the American colonists under Washington and Lafayette defeated the British General Cornwallis in the final battle of the Revolution, the Yankee band is supposed to have played “The World Turned Upside Down” for the defeated British troops. The final lines of Sunday’s Gospel capture this sentiment well; the humble—not the independently proud—will be exalted in God’s new Kingdom, which is now just around the corner. Time for hedging bets is just about over.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 18: 1-8
TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK to all three readings
Jesus told his disciples a parable
about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.
He said, “There was a judge in a certain town
who neither feared God nor respected any human being.
And a widow in that town used to come to him and say,
‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’
For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought,
‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being,
because this widow keeps bothering me
I shall deliver a just decision for her
lest she finally come and strike me.’”
The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says.
Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones
who call out to him day and night?
Will he be slow to answer them?
I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.
But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
It is unfortunate that the texts immediately preceding this paragraph from Luke 18 are not readily available, because Sunday’s Gospel depends heavily for its understanding on the text that precedes it which, alas, is not in the Sunday Lectionary. Joel Green explains that Luke 17:20—18:8 form an inclusion, brought to an end by Jesus’ rhetorical question about the Son of Man finding (or not finding) faith when he comes.
Luke 17:20ff is in fact the first lengthy discussion of the “end times” and the coming of the Son of Man. It is famous for such lines as 17:35, “two women were grinding at the wheel, one was taken and the other left;” or Luke 17:37, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” The opening text of this Sunday’s Gospel picks up immediately after the vultures. (I’m sorry, I wish I had a better segue for that.) The point of Sunday’s text has to do with faith and surviving the awful days to come, described prophetically in Chapter 17.
Green sees two complimentary themes in this Gospel. One has to do with the vigilance of God in responding to his beleaguered people who call out to him. The other is the need for constancy of faith in making prayers, “without becoming weary.” These themes would appear contradictory unless the supplicant is willing to base expectations on God’s good time, not his own. God indeed has a plan, but its internal logic is not always immediately evident, as we know from Luke 24 when Jesus must painstakingly explain the divine plan to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after the crucifixion.
Before I jump into the interpretation here, I need to point out that the linguistic details of the widow’s demands are a good example of the challenges faced by translators. When I read the texts this morning from the revised NAB at the Bishops’ site, I knew this was not the same translation as I had used years before. The revised NAB used now at Mass reads “Render a just decision for me….” I still own a cherished copy of the original NAB translation of 1970, and I looked up the text there, and it reads “Give me my rights….” This was the reading at Mass until the NAB translation was overhauled some years ago, and the 1970 version had a sharp and lively ring that brings life to the setting, particularly in view of the fact that the setting is apocalyptic and threatening. Green’s commentary uses the new Revised Standard Version of the Bible published in 1989; its rendering goes “Grant me justice….” As all three translations are orthodox, I have to say that Sunday’s Mass text is, well, the weakest of the three. Who talks like that?
As it turns out, both the woman and the judge are caricatures in this story. The widow is a figure of the faithful supplicant who demands (prays) without stopping for what is rightfully hers, justice. The judge is an interesting study himself. Luke stretches his description of the judge almost to the breaking point in his effort to make him look neutral and beyond interests, though apparently he can be bought, as Luke refers to him as dishonest, possibly in contrast to the just judge who is the object of Christian prayer. The judge has no religious leanings and “no respect for anyone.” His motivation for serving up the widow’s rights—or “rendering a just decision” per the revised NAB—is self-interest. At the very least, she will pester him to death, but upon reflection he seriously entertains the thought that she will strike him across the bench.
Luke argues that if a valueless (dishonest) judge can be counted upon to deliver justice even for ulterior motives, how much more can the God of Justice be counted upon to deliver justice in the time of the testing. All the same, the widow’s unceasing contentiousness is symbolic not of God’s tardiness but of her own enduring faith. The faithful soul will storm the heavens with prayer in a faith that never waivers.
Luke has the faith of the widow in mind in recording Jesus’ closing words to this section, as to whether the Son of Man will find faith on earth when he comes. In the early Greek manuscripts, the word “faith” is preceded by a particle, rendering the text “this faith,” probably referring back to the degree of faith symbolized by the widow. The full sense of the sentence would then be rendered, “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find (this kind of) faith on earth? (Green, p. 637) When one considers that this last sentence concludes an episode devoted to the awesome drama of the judgment and arrival of the Son of Man, the need for vigilant prayer and faith becomes obvious.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 17: 11-19
TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK to all three Sunday Readings here
As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem,
he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.
As he was entering a village, ten lepers met him.
They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying,
“Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!”
And when he saw them, he said,
“Go show yourselves to the priests.”
As they were going they were cleansed.
And one of them, realizing he had been healed,
returned, glorifying God in a loud voice;
and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.
He was a Samaritan.
Jesus said in reply,
“Ten were cleansed, were they not?
Where are the other nine?
Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
Then he said to him, “Stand up and go;
your faith has saved you.”
The brevity and apparent simplicity of this text hide its theological content; word for word, this narrative of another of Jesus’ healings delivers an amazingly intense content. It directly follows last week’s Gospel from Luke 17 about the nature of God’s kingdom, who will be admitted, and what one must do to be admitted, and in our text at hand Jesus turns many assumptions about God’s deliverance on their heads.
Luke 17:11 indicates that the journey to Jerusalem has commenced with vigor, although in keeping with the theme of the paragraph Luke does not identify exactly where Jesus is except to say he is somewhere between Samaria and Galilee. This is roughly the equivalent of saying Jesus was driving through New England Patriots territory, which could be anywhere from Burlington to Bridgeport. The inclusion of the territory of Samaria in the narrative, though, is critical to the interpretation of the text.
Samaria, today the territory of the contested West Bank, was originally a Canaanite district until conquered by Israel. After the death of Solomon in 931 B.C. the region of Samaria broke off of Israel as a separate northern Jewish kingdom, only to be carried off into a lengthy slavery by the Assyrians. Over many years the Samaritans returned as the northern neighbors of Israel, but their social status was deeply scarred by the original break from Israel and years of forced intermarriage and a watering down of the religious and ethnic bloodline. Shunned by temple Jews, the Samaritans developed a sort of parallel Judaic religious life, worshipping at Mount Gerizim, erecting a temple, and maintaining a priesthood. The Gospels of Luke and John emphasize the second-class status and isolation of Samaritans in such texts as “The Good Samaritan” and “The Samaritan Woman at the Well.”
Jesus, at an unidentified village, encounters ten lepers, at this stage of uncertain origin. Joel Green (see home page) devotes considerable attention to the textual reference that “they stood at a distance,” (i.e., they were separated.) Green observes that “leprosy” covered a wide range of skin maladies; the true presence of Hansen’s Disease in this context is unlikely. (p. 619 n8) He goes on to discuss how the religious and social ramifications of an “unclean” skin disease were often more painful than the malady itself. For at least one of these unfortunates, the stigma of Samaritan heritage added to his woes for reasons cited in the previous paragraph. Put another way, we have one (at least) suffering soul who has been judged unfit for the Jerusalem Temple for just about every imaginable reason.
The faith of the group is strong, and it certainly resonates with last Sunday’s Gospel where the power of a faith as tiny as a mustard seed is able to accomplish great wonders. Collectively they hail Jesus as “Master” and beg for pity. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has cured other lepers early in the text, when such healings were an example of the power of God come to earth through Jesus. But this encounter, later in the text, has a different agenda. Jesus responds to their requests with the command to go and show themselves to the priests (who would verify healing and returned ritual purity.) I have to admit that Professor Green stunned me at this juncture of his analysis when he asks a very elementary question I have never thought of: which priests?
It is easy to forget that two distinct religious allegiances are probably in the mix. Green observes that it is impossible to know for sure. What is clear is that one of the ten lepers “realized he had been healed.” Since Jesus sent all ten to the priests, the assumption can safely be made that Jesus had no doubt their skin afflictions would be quickly healed. But such a healing would be visibly and physically obvious to all ten. What is Luke’s intention here in emphasizing that one of the ten realized he was healed?
Green is of a mind that the term “healed” takes on a holistic meaning here. (p. 624) This tenth leper perceives that he is the recipient of divine blessing at the hands of Jesus. He sees and believes that Jesus is Lord, with all that this implies. Falling to the feet is a public act of submission and a recognition of the authority of another. There is another interesting twist here; the Samaritan leper actually disregards the original instruction of Jesus to show himself to his priest. Going back to that pesky “which priest” question, I think it is useful to look at a text from St. John’s Gospel, Chapter 4, to explain why Luke leaves this question a mystery.
John 4 (read on the Third Sunday of Lent, Cycle A) involves the prolonged narrative of Jesus conversing with the Samaritan woman at the well, she of five husbands fame. As their discussion of true religion and worship becomes involved, there is this exchange:
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain [Gerizim], but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
I think what we have on Sunday is a theme developed in Luke. John, a few years later, will develop the thought with blunt clarity. The Kingdom of God has rearranged worship and society to such a degree that the one who worships “in the Spirit and in truth” will be saved—even unclean leprous Samaritans from the wrong side of the Jordan.