31st Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 30, 2022 

A couple of weeks ago, I was driving through the neighborhood south of the parish campus when a car sped past me; I estimate the car was traveling at about twice the posted speed limit.  Several blocks ahead of the speeding car, a child was crossing the street on her way to her school bus stop; the child was using one of those crosswalks with the flashing yellow lights.  The driver of the speeding car did not notice the flashing lights, or the child, until nearly colliding with the terrified young girl.  The girl jumped out of the way, almost falling to the ground; the automobile driver veered off the roadway, left broad skid marks, and sped away. 

My first thought was for the safety of the young girl; she appeared frightened but unharmed.  My second thought was for the speeding driver.  I wondered what would happen if I was given responsibility for assigning eternal recompense to the driver for his or her behavior that day.  I imagine I would be tempted to award that automobile driver the privilege of an eternity as a pedestrian dodging a never-ending stream of speeding cars approaching from unpredictable angles.  Or perhaps, I would allow the driver to drive too fast forever in a demolition derby race car modified to have the driver’s seat mounted on the front bumper.   

As fitting as these possible eternal fates might seem, they don’t fit well with today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus said he had “come to seek and to save what was lost.” (Lk 19:10)  Apparently, he would prefer to assign an eternity very different from the one I would assign the careless driver. 

Within the context of the Gospel reading, “the lost” Jesus intended to seek out and save were people like Zacchaeus the tax collector.  Quite obviously, Zacchaeus had done some things he regretted.  It’s unlikely he would have promised alms for the poor and restitution to fraud victims if he hadn’t been guilty of a lifetime of thoughtlessness and greed. 

Zacchaeus wasn’t the only sinner Jesus sought and saved.  This section of Luke’s Gospel concludes Jesus’ outreach to sinners, the poor, and the marginalized.  His statement about seeking and saving “the lost” serves as a summary of all that preceded the story of Zacchaeus’ repentance.  Both Zacchaeus’ promise of restitution and Jesus’ response attest to the legitimacy of Zacchaeus’ change of heart.  Upon seeing the repentant tax collector up a tree, Jesus offered to dine with him; as with most meals depicted in the Gospels, this meal foreshadowed the Messianic Banquet, that is, the perfection and completion of God’s plan to save all creation. 

In Luke’s Gospel, Zacchaeus is the last sinner that Jesus tried to save, but he was certainly not the last sinner in need of salvation.  Sin continues unabated today; there are still those who persist in thoughtless, selfish activity.  The Gospel tells us that Jesus intends to save these, as well. 

The universality of God’s mercy is both a problem and a blessing.  The problem is the obvious one; the blessing is less obvious. 

As God intends to redeem all creation, including the worst sinners, we cannot wish perdition for anyone.  I find this problematic because I’m not certain how I’ll react if I find myself sitting at the Messianic Banquet next to the thoughtless driver I encountered a few weeks ago.  At the very least, it might be awkward.  How will I begin a table conversation with that driver?  Would it be appropriate to ask questions like, “Terrified any unsuspecting pedestrians recently?” or “Run into any interesting hedges this week?” Perhaps, there will be less conversation at the Messianic Banquet than one would imagine. 

There is, of course, a blessing in this situation that outweighs the burden of any potential awkwardness of sharing eternity with repentant sinners.  The blessing is that repentance (when done by us as well as others) reveals the nature of God.  The first reading says, “You spare all your creatures, because they are yours, O Lord and lover of souls, for your imperishable spirit is in all things!” (Ws. 11:26-12:1)  God is the God of forgiveness, not of retribution.  Everyone who finds this mystery difficult to fathom should be very grateful because the mystery of God’s universal mercy allows us to distinguish the real God from the many false gods present in the world. 

The god of retributive justice, the god of ephemeral treasure, the god of self-righteousness, and all their companions, are easily distinguished from the One, True God because the real God is merciful and forgiving beyond the human capacity to imagine. 

I’ll never be assigned the task of determining eternal recompense for anyone, nor should I be.  I’ll be quite content if I’m allowed the blessing of facing judgment by the God of Mercy.  This will allay all my concerns about my many iniquities.  It will even allay my concerns about the Messianic Banquet; there will be no awkwardness there because all present will be repentant sinners. 

The nature of God is revealed in God’s desire to redeem all creation.  It should not come as a surprise, but rather should make perfect sense, that God’s solicitude toward creation should be as unfathomable as God’s nature.  God is the One who desires all to be redeemed. 

Aren’t you relieved that Jesus was sent “to seek and save what was lost”? (Lk 19:10)  I am.