Sunday, October 31, 2010

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wis 11:22-12:2; 2 Thess 1:11-2:2; Lk 19:1-10

It would be very easy to preach about the gospel story of Zacchaeus. In many ways he is among the most appealing figures in the New Testament and someone we can certainly identify with. But I’m more intrigued by the first reading we heard, from the Book of Wisdom. It’s a marvelous little meditation on the love and mercy of God.

The Book of Wisdom is part of a collection of writings in the bible that are called "Wisdom Literature." We should take just a moment to describe this type of writing, because in some ways it’s unfamiliar to us and in other ways it isn’t. Wisdom literature was a kind of writing that was widespread in the ancient world. It was found in the cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Syria as well as in Old Testament Jewish culture. The purpose of wisdom literature is practical guidance in the daily struggles and challenges of life. It’s trying to develop the art of "living well" in a world that is often conflictive and confusing. In some ways Wisdom Literature looks a lot like the advice columns in daily newspapers: Dear Abby, Dear Ann, Dear Carolyn. People have problems and they want some practical help in getting through them.

One big difference separates biblical Wisdom Literature from the newspaper advice columns. The biblical Wisdom Literature always assumes that you are dealing with daily problems in the light of a relationship with God, and that your problem has not only has a human dimension but also a divine dimension. The Wisdom writer wants to offer some suggestions and guidelines to help you cope with the particular problem you are facing in both dimensions.

What is the particular problem that our Wisdom writer is dealing with? Unfortunately, that occurs in the passages just before the reading we heard. (That’s one of the problems with Lectionary texts; sometimes you only get half the picture.) The writer was responding to a question about the punishments the Egyptians received because of their persecutions of the Hebrews (the plagues). He writes about the sins of the Egyptians, the greatest being the worship of false gods. And that God struck them down because of these sins. But then it’s like the Wisdom writer realizes that his readers might take him the wrong way and think that God will immediately strike them down for any serious offense. So that’s when he begins the beautiful meditation we heard in today’s reading. He turns it into a prayer: "But you (O Lord) have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook sins that they may repent. (Overlook doesn’t mean God forgets about them, but rather that he delays any action to give time for repentance.) For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made." And later: "You spare all things, because they are yours, O Lord and Lover of souls..." I love that phrase, "Lord and Lover of souls," and it shows up in a lot of prayers in the Byzantine tradition. So the Wisdom writer is saying: whatever you have done, God gives you a chance for repentance! There is nothing that cannot be forgiven.

This is a Christian message that needs to be given over and over. People can do some sinful and pretty stupid things in their lives....whether by bad choice, ignorance, peer pressure or something else. Later on, in a different frame of mind they realize what a mistake and horrible decision they made. They may very easily think and feel that they can never be forgiven by God. In my forty-three years of priestly ministry I’ve met more than a few who have felt like that. They need to hear that they are forgiven by God if they have true sorrow in their hearts and ask and pray for God’s forgiveness. Often a lot of these people have turned their lives around a long time ago, but in their hearts they continue to feel unforgiven. They need to hear this reading again and again: "You, O Lord, have mercy on all...and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.....O Lord and Lover of souls."

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