THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – YEAR C
The late Father Anthony DeMelo told the story of a cobbler who one day came to Rabbi Isaac of Ger and said, “Rabbi, tell me what to do about my morning prayers. My customers are poor men who own only one pair of shoes each, so I pick up their shoes late in the evening, and work on them most of the night. At dawn there is usually still much to be done if the men are to have their shoes ready before they go to work. What am I to do about my morning prayers?” “What have you been doing up until now,?” asked the rabbi. “Sometimes I rush through my prayers quickly, and get back to my work. But then I feel that I have been disrespectful of the Almighty. At other times, I simply let the hour of prayer go by. Then I feel an even greater sense of loss. But every now and then, as I raise my hammer from a shoe, I can almost hear my heart sigh. What an unlucky man I am, that I am unable to make my morning prayer in a fitting manner.” Rabbi Isaac thought for a moment, and then told the cobbler, “If I were God, I would value that sigh more than any prayer.”
The story illustrates the need everyone feels from time to time to take counsel, to seek out a sympathetic listener who can assist us in finding our way out of a crisis or dilemma. Rabbi Isaac embodies the two qualities we look for in a counselor: empathy and distance. He feels the urgency of the cobbler’s worry about prayer, yet he is far enough away from the problem to see it in perspective. In this case, the perspective to which the good rabbi gives voice is God’s. “If I were God,” he begins, and a way opens out of the harried cobbler’s predicament.
Today’s liturgy suggests that God, himself, is a bit like Rabbi Isaac, combining empathy and distance in his dealing with us. In the Gospel, Jesus shares Zacchaeus’ urgency about finding his way back to righteousness. The tax collector is short of stature, perhaps a bit overweight, with a twinge of angina now and again. And because his profession has necessarily put him at a distance from God, Zacchaeus is scared. We can almost see and hear him huffing and puffing, grabbing at bark and branches to find a perch from which he can get a glimpse of the prophet Jesus, and determine whether he can screw up enough courage to visit him privately.
Jesus senses Zacchaeus’ panic, and he addresses it in his summons to hurry down. Then comes the reassuring announcement that Jesus is clearing his calendar for the rest of the day, just so that he can attend to the distressed sinner. In response, Zacchaeus announces that he is going to divest himself of his ill-gotten gains as fast as he can. Again Jesus resonates to the urgency in his host’s voice, and states to the assembled audience, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Not only can we hear the angels rejoicing before God’s throne at one sinner who has repented, but we come away with the distinct impression that for one afternoon the business of ruling the universe came to a brief halt as Almighty God focused his attention on one tax collector sick with worry that he might die in his sins.
Today the liturgy reminds us that our God, in the person of his Son Jesus, has entered into our humanity to share our feelings, our temptations, our struggles, even the burden of our guilt. He has lived as we live. He has fretted and worried and laughed, as we do. He can resonate to us when we are anxious, confused, disappointed, frustrated, grief-stricken, as well as when we are jubilant, overflowing with gratitude, self-confident, firm in hope, aflame with love. We can always turn to him knowing that he will understand us, just as Rabbi Isaac understood the cobbler. Even if we are afraid to approach him, he will seek us out the way Jesus’ glance searched the tangled branches of a sycamore tree until it discovered a man whose soul had become tangled in years of unholy living. And it will be as though God has no other business in the universe except to care for us, for you, for me.
But, of course, God does have other business in the universe. As the Book of Wisdom observes, “Before the Lord, the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth… But you spare all things because they are yours, O Lord and lover of souls.” Our God calmly surveys human history from the vantage point from which he sees it in perspective. While Zacchaeus may have been sleeping uneasily because of his guilty conscience, God Almighty knows that he is not the hardest case ever. Far more hardened sinners have succumbed to his grace, and legions more will repent and find life. God knows that we are but dust, so he is gracious and merciful, compassionate to all his creatures.
Our God is both close to us and distant, intimately involved with each one of us, and yet independent. Yes, Rabbi Isaac was right on the mark – the sigh of one human being who longs for Him is the most powerful prayer of all. Such was that deep, final sigh of Jesus upon the cross, as he breathed his last for us, for Zacchaeus, for you, for me.