Msgr. Joseph Prior

Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 30)

“Do you know what Papa said when he became a Catholic? He said: ‘You have brought back my family to the faith of their ancestors.’ The family haven’t been very constant [in regards to religion], have they? There’s him gone and Sebastian gone and Julia gone. But God won’t let them go for long, you know. I wonder if you remember the story Mummy read us the evening Sebastian first got drunk — I mean the bad evening. Father Brown said something like, ‘I caught him (the thief) with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.’”

Young Cordelia Flyte speaks these words to Charles Ryder in “Brideshead Revisited.” She speaks of her family members who have strayed from faith and from God. Yet she does not lose hope. Quoting a line from the Father Brown mysteries she sees God as ever present, always ready to pull us back with a light “twitch upon the thread.”

The Book of Wisdom, in the passage from Sunday’s liturgy, draws a contrast between the Creator and his creatures, between God and man. “Before the Lord the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.” God is great; man is small. Man by his choice turns away from the greatness (and goodness) of God, yet God has “mercy on all, because you (God) can do all things and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.”

What’s more is that at the heart of God’s actions is a tremendous love: “for you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made.” The author goes on to describe God as a “lover of souls.”

God takes on flesh in Jesus Christ and shows us just how he is the “lover of souls.” St. John the Evangelist captures this reality in a well-beloved quote from his Gospel account: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).

The Gospel passage for the liturgy is taken from the Gospel according to Luke. The encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus show’s God’s saving love in action.

Zacchaeus is a tax collector and a sinner. We learn from his own admission, after encountering Jesus, that he has defrauded others and has been neglectful of the poor. Yet Zacchaeus climbs a tree to see Jesus as he passes through his town.

The evangelist tells us that Zacchaeus is trying “to see who Jesus was” — not just to see Jesus but to know him. The love and mercy of God are so powerful that all Zacchaeus has to do is to be open to an encounter and a transformation will take place. As Jesus walks by he looks up the sycamore tree and calls Zacchaeus by name: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your home.”

Zacchaeus does as Jesus asks and receives him into his home. When the people see this they grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” But something has happened to Zacchaeus; he is no longer defined by his sin but through the encounter with Christ is moved to change. We see this in his words to Jesus. “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.”

Jesus acknowledges the change and Zacchaeus’ pledge to do good and to make amends: “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.”

God loves us so much that he sends his son to save us. He encounters us in Christ Jesus and draws us, through him, into a loving embrace. We are never too far from this encounter. In all the commotion of Jesus’ visit, Zacchaeus heard his name being called by Jesus.

That’s all it took for him to turn his life around. He heard the voice and replied. He opened his heart, accepted the Word and was transformed. He now has a new “lease on life,” as the saying goes. His life will never be the same because of this encounter.

God works in mysterious ways. He seeks every opportunity to draw us to himself without forcing Himself upon us. He continually calls us deeper into the mystery of salvation, the mystery of divine life. He invites us to be transformed by this encounter and in turn to invite others to share in the same saving grace. Sometimes all it takes is a “twitch upon the thread.”

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.