Sunday, October 31, 2010

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
From Automaticity to Attention
Picture: cc edenpictures
Dear sisters and brothers, do you ever feel grateful for the wonder of automation? I was thinking about this just a couple of days ago, as I was doing my laundry. All I had to do was throw my dirty clothes into the washer, add detergent, and press the right buttons. I could then go off and do whatever else I needed to do: read the newspapers, watch the news, check my email... Then I returned a little later to transfer my clothes to the dryer. And, in no time at all, my clothes were washed and dried. What was wonderful about the whole process was that I didn’t have to watch the machines do their work. I didn’t have to pay much attention to them. They knew when to stop on their own. That’s the marvel of it all. Automation saves you from having to pay constant attention.

But not everything is automatic. I know someone, for example, who once left a large pot of beans over the stove to boil, went off to do something else, and then promptly forgot all about the pot. Unfortunately, unlike the washer and the dryer, that stove was not automatic. It didn’t know when to stop boiling those beans. It needed more attention than our friend gave to it. As you can well imagine, there were no beans for dinner that night. 

Automation is great. But not everything is automatic. Some things require more attention. Which is why it’s important for us to be able to tell the difference. It’s important that we know when something is automatic and when it needs more attention.

And it is this difference between automation and attention that we need to keep carefully in mind as we meditate on our scripture readings today. Our readings invite us to reflect upon the way in which God relates to God’s creation. What is this relationship like? Some people may think that it is not much different from the way in which I relate to the washer and the dryer. It’s a relationship of automation. God simply pushes the buttons at the beginning, and then leaves the scene, returning only later, at the end of time. And, if the results are not up to God’s expectations, one can expect to be punished.

This is probably the kind of understanding that we find St. Paul arguing against in the second reading. It is likely that the Thessalonians have received a forged letter telling them that the day of the Lord is at hand. And they are alarmed. They think that, like the pot my friend placed on the stove, they have been left all alone to prepare for Christ’s second coming. And they’re not ready. They’re worried that God will return to find nothing but burnt beans. But Paul says that God has not left them alone. Paul reminds them that we always pray for you, that God may make you worthy of his calling... According to Paul, God does not leave us to prepare for Christ’s coming automatically, the way I leave the washer and the dryer to do my laundry. Instead, God pays careful attention to us. God is continually offering us the help that we need.

And the first reading helps us to deepen our understanding of God’s careful attention to creation, by reminding us that no created thing could be preserved, had it not been called forth by God. In other words, the very fact that we continue to exist is itself a sign that God is paying careful attention to us. God does not just create us and then leave us to make the best of our lives on our own. Instead, not only does God remain close to us, but the first reading even goes so far as to say that God’s imperishable spirit is in us, continually calling and guiding us, consistently caring for and paying attention to us. 

And it is this same spirit that we find at work in Jesus in the gospel (Luke 4:18). This is the spirit that moves Jesus to journey to Jerusalem. This is the spirit that sends him to seek out and to save the lost. In the ministry of Jesus, God shows God’s continual and careful attention to those whom God has created.

But there is something else in today’s gospel that we should find striking. Notice how the reading begins by telling us that Jesus had originally intended only to pass through Jericho. But he ends up staying at the house of Zacchaeus. What causes Jesus to change his mind? What is it about Zacchaeus, this chief tax collector who was also a wealthy man, that enables him to benefit from the ministry of Christ?

The answer is not difficult to discern. Rather than simply allowing Jesus to pass by, Zacchaeus took the trouble to climb a tree. Although he knew people didn't like him, he was willing to draw attention to himself, so that he could pay closer attention to Jesus. Zacchaeus did this -- he paid closer attention to Jesus -- not just by climbing the tree. We're told that he also gives half his possessions to the poor. In our reading from the New American Bible, Zacchaeus’ words are in the future tense. He tells Jesus:shall give to the poor. But some commentators tell us that, in the original Greek, the sentence is in the present tense. What Zacchaeus is telling Jesus is that he already gives, or is giving to the poor. On this reading, more than just climbing a tree, the apparently rich and sinful tax collector pays attention to God also by caring for the needy. Zacchaeus is able to benefit from Jesus' attention because he himself pays attention. And it is by his attention that salvation comes to stay in Zacchaeus' house.

All of which should lead us to reflect upon our own situations today. We all benefit from modern technology. We all enjoy the wonders of automation. But not everything is automatic. Some things need more attention. And the trick is being able to tell the difference. For example, does keeping a neighborhood safe involve automation or attention? Does it require of us nothing more than to pay our taxes promptly and then to leave everything to the police? Or are there perhaps also situations in which we need to do more, times when we need to pay more attention? Are there occasions when, like Zacchaeus, we need in some way to climb a tree? And could it be that how we deal with questions such as these will determine the state of our relationship with God? Could it be that the quality of our attention will determine whether or not salvation comes to stay in our house?

Sisters and brothers, how are we being invited to move from automation to attention today?

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