Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the Mass readings for the Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 30, 2022.)

Last Christmas, NASA launched the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). In January, it reached its orbital position and its massive mirror unfolded. The first images were released to the public on July 11 this year. The initial designs for the telescope began in 1996, thus it was 25 years in the making, so to speak.

The images of far distant galaxies, stars and other bodies in space are beautiful to see. The vastness of the universe is truly amazing, so much so that is hard to imagine how large it is. Inspired by these images and the descriptions of space with regard to size, some commentators have been moved to describe the Earth and her inhabitants as “small.” Sometimes even the word “insignificant” is used. The universe is indeed immense. But with regard to the Earth and the human beings who inhabit this planet, there is another way of looking at our place in the world. This view reminds us that we are not “small” or “insignificant” but “great,” “worthwhile,” and “valuable.”

The first reading for today’s liturgy comes from the Book of Wisdom. The opening line from this passage reads: “Before the Lord the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.” Here the author is asking us to imagine the vantage point, not from a telescope or mathematical formula, but from God’s vision.

The exercise is certainly not a scientific one, but valuable nonetheless. It is somewhat akin to what we do as we read poetry. The images in the words stir our imagination to dwell on something real but perhaps too great for a prosaic description.

In this case the image is one of the greatness of God. No matter how large the universe is, the God who created it is greater. He has it all in his grasp. The beauty we see in the images created by man’s ingenuity, and the knowledge used to have these images generated, are small in comparison to the One who created them.

The passage does not stop there; in fact, that statement is only a prelude to what comes next. The God who created the universe is the same God who created man, male and female, to inhabit this universe.

But the real point is that he created all this in love. The author writes: “For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned. And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?”

Woven throughout the passage is the recognition that God’s love entails mercy. The man he created, he created free. That freedom entails making choices. Those choices are not always good. Yet the God who creates in love forgives in love and spares in love. The author writes: “But you have mercy on all … you overlook people’s sins that they may repent. … You spare all things, because they are yours, O Lord and lover of souls.”

Repentance is an important step that opens one to receiving God’s mercy. God may rebuke, but it is so healing can take place.

We come to know the greatness of God and his love in a more direct way through Jesus, his Son. Jesus reveals the unseen God throughout his life and ministry.

The Gospel passage today also reminds us of the magnitude of God’s love. The passage recalls the story of Zacchaeus, who was “short in stature” (in other words, “small”) and a wealthy man.

Despite his wealth, his status in the Jewish community would have been low, for he was a tax-collector. Zacchaeus would have been considered a “sinner” — hence the questions that arise from the Pharisees as the story progresses. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus as he was passing through the large crowd. Since he was short, or “small,” he climbed a sycamore tree so he could see.

Zacchaeus, however, was not “small” in the eyes of God. Jesus sees him. He sees him in the tree, not as an “anyone,” but as a “someone,” and not as someone “small,” but someone “great.” Jesus, representing his heavenly Father, calls him by his name: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

That simple act of calling him, recognizing him, acknowledging him, valuing him has a tremendous impact on Zacchaeus’ life. He receives Jesus with great joy and says: “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.”

The love of Christ expressed in that simple greeting results in a great transformation. Inspired by Jesus’ love, Zacchaeus pledges to reform his live, to care for the poor and to restore what he has stolen. The effects of God’s love in this man’s life will ripple through the entire community: those extorted will find restitution and the needy find a new friend, and some needed support.

God is the “lover of souls.” Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus is a witness to this love. As Jesus knew Zacchaeus by name, so too does he know us by our name. God, in his greatness, knows each and every one of us – by name. In his eyes, we are not “small” or “insignificant,” but worthy of being loved. We, on our part, can recognize that love and respond as Zacchaeus did by repenting and loving others in return.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.