Scripture notes – 31st Sunday of the year (C) – 3rd November 2019

The theme today is God’s love. The cycle of readings looks toward end of Year C, with Year A in December. The liturgy at this season always notes the end of the world and the return of Christ in glory, and the second reading reflects that.

The readings are available online here.

Wisdom 11:22-12:2
‘From a literary point of view, the book of Wisdom is the crown of the biblical Wisdom literature.’ (Henry Wambrough, OSB, in the Revised New Jerusalem Bible) It was written in Greek, probably in Alexandria where there was a large Jewish population, in the years before Christ’s birth. The ‘Wisdom’ traditions had a long history in Egypt as well as among the Jews, and the unnamed author of this book draws on Hellenistic as well as Hebrew ideas. He leaves us in no doubt, however, of the superiority of the Jewish theology. It is the last book written in our ‘Old Testament’. (It is missing, however, in the Hebrew Bible and therefore some Protestant translations.)

The opening idea of the shortness of human life echoes various Old Testament writers, but there is no pessimism here; if the created world seems ephemeral, the author stresses God’s love for all that is, and especially a caring that reaches beyond human sinfulness. This overwhelming love of God was a constant message of the Bible the author knew, and we have one example of that in the psalm response.

We know much more of the abundance and variety of life on earth in these days when we also realise it is under environmental threat. Wisdom’s words take on a special meaning now, an urgency to love creation as God does and to care for it as best we can.

Psalm 144/145:1-2, 9-11, 13-14
God as a Lord of ‘everlasting love’ is a like a refrain running through the book of Psalms. The description is two Hebrew nouns, hesed/emeth, that joined together combine the ideas of loving-kindness and faithfulness, one who is always there, always caring. In the forms of Hebrew poetry, the words may be separated in parallel lines, as in the last verse we read, ‘faithful in all his words/ loving in all his deeds.’

This combination may the closest to ‘defining’ God as we can get. In the New Testament, the Letter of John states it simply as ‘God is love’.

2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2
This short book is a puzzle to scholars, beginning with the curiosity that it repeats word for word some parts of 1 Thessalonians. Some think it was written before the other letter, others that it is a later composition by someone writing in the name of Paul. Both are addressed to converts in an important city of Macedonia. The account of Paul’s brief visit there is in Acts 17:1-8. This Letter shows a concern that some in the city are saying the Second Coming has already happened, perhaps an idea that it will not be a historical event, but a ‘spiritual’ unseen one. That is the idea behind the last words we hear. The opening words are a reminder that until Jesus does return, we are to continue in our present life of faith and action.

Luke 19:1-10
We are in the last month of the year dedicated to the Gospel of Luke, and Jesus in the Gospel is on the way to Jerusalem for the final days of his life. This incident is the last before he reaches the city. (The liturgy does not follow the gospels in order, and uses the last part of Luke for the seasonal settings of the Passion and Resurrection.)

This selection does not speak as openly of God’s love as did the Wisdom reading, but we see one aspect of that in Christ’s saying that he came to seek out sinners. The drama is typical of Luke’s style. Although he does not spell out all the details, this is rather like a film scenario as Zacchaeus is shown in action. He was a chief tax collector, and from previous readings, we know how despised all of them were by the Pharisees and the ordinary people, who would have been victims of their extortion. George Martin in his book on Luke of ‘Insight and Inspiration’ imagines people laughing at the short man, so forgetful of his dignity as he runs and climbs a tree. (The ‘sycamore’ of our translation is not the tree we know by that name, but a ‘mulberry fig’ whose branches are low to the ground and therefore the short Zacchaeus can reach them.)

There may be some deeper motive in his desire to see Jesus than mere curiosity – was he searching for a better way of life? While he looks for Jesus, it is the Son of Man who seeks him out. Whether someone identifies the tax collector for Jesus, or he has some more than ordinary knowledge here (as he will seem to when he reaches Jerusalem and sends for the donkey) he expresses a divine necessity in saying ‘I must come to your house’. Previously in the Gospel the Pharisees have objected to Jesus’ eating with sinners, and people in Jericho also murmur in condemnation. But Zacchaeus shows by his words that Jesus’ visit has changed him; he will give away half his wealth and offers restitution to any whom he has defrauded. Jesus’ presence in the household – which was likely a large one of extended family and servants – has made a difference to more than the tax collector, and Jesus pronounces salvation on all of them. It is unclear just why he is called a ‘son of Abraham’. Judging by his Jewish name, Zacchaeus would be one by birth, but the idea would seem to be something more like a ‘true’ or ‘real’ heir of the Patriarch. One perhaps who put his trust in God’s word (Genesis 15:6) or one who offers hospitality (Genesis 18:1ff).

The last words could be Luke’s summary – the Greek has no punctuation to make it certain – but Jesus also at times refers to himself in the third person as the ‘Son of Man’. At this moment as he goes toward his saving death, these words sum up the purpose of his life. The language borrows the idea of God seeking out his wayward sheep from the prophet Ezekiel, and that action of God is what Jesus himself is now doing.

The popular hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’ has the line ‘I once was lost, and now am found’ which can be taken as our personal position in relation to Jesus. He has come for all of us, to all of us, salvation for our own households of faith.

Joan Griffith