Sunday, November 03, 2013

Between Automation & Attention (Rerun)

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Readings: Wisdom 11:22-12:2; Psalm 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13, 14; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2; Luke 19:1-10
Picture: cc Andrew Seaman

Dear sisters and brothers, do you ever sometimes marvel at the wonder of automation? When I do my laundry, for example, all I usually have to do is throw my dirty clothes into the washer, add detergent, and press the right buttons. I can then go off and do whatever else I need to do. Have my breakfast, read the newspapers, check my email... Then I return a little later to transfer my clothes to the dryer. On those rainy days when I can’t hang them out to dry. Again I press the right buttons. And, before I know it, all my clothes are washed and dried. What’s wonderful about the whole process is that I don’t have to stick around to watch over the machines as they do their work. I don’t have to pay much attention to them at all. They know when to stop on their own. That’s the wonderful thing about automation, isn’t it? It saves us from having to pay constant attention to something.

But, even though modern technology is now so far advanced, not everything is automatic. I know someone, for example, who once left a large pot of beans over the stove to boil. And then went off to do something else. Completely forgetting 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 my friend was able to give to it. So, as you can well imagine, there were no beans for dinner that night.

Automation is great. But not everything is automatic. Some things still require our close attention. This is true not just of a stove. It’s also true of something that our Mass readings are inviting us to reflect upon today. The relationship between God and 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 much later. At the end of time. And, if the results are not up to God’s expectations, people will 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. A letter claiming to be from Paul. But actually written by someone else. A letter telling the Thessalonians that the day of the Lord has already arrived. That Jesus has come for the second time. And the poor Thessalonians are alarmed. Worked up. Perhaps they think that, like the pot of beans my friend placed on the stove, they have been left all alone to prepare for the Lord’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 assures them that he and the other leaders are praying continually that God will make them worthy of his call. Implying that God does not just leave us to prepare for the Lord’s coming automatically. The way I leave the washer and the dryer to do my laundry for me. Instead, God pays constant careful attention to us. Continually offering us the help that we need.

And the first reading helps us to deepen our understanding of God’s careful attention, by reminding us that no created thing could persist or be conserved, if not called forth by God. In other words, the very fact that we (and everything else) 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 insist that God’s imperishable spirit is in all of us. Continually calling and guiding us. Consistently caring for and paying close attention to us.

And it is this same spirit that we find at work in Jesus in the gospel (see Lk 4:18). This is the spirit that moves Jesus to journey to Jerusalem. The spirit that sends Jesus to seek out and to save what was lost. In the ministry of Jesus, God pays continual and careful attention to all those whom God has created.

But that’s not all. There is something else very significant in today’s gospel. 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 a man named Zacchaeus. What causes Jesus to change his mind? What is it about Zacchaeus that enables this senior tax collector and a wealthy man, to benefit from the ministry of the Lord?

The answer is not difficult to discover. Again it has to do with attention. Notice how, rather than simply allowing Jesus to pass by, Zacchaeus takes the trouble to climb a tree. Although he knows that people don’t like him, he’s still willing to draw attention to himself. But only so that he can himself pay closer attention to Jesus. And Zacchaeus does this–he pays closer attention to God–not just by climbing the tree. We're told that he also gives half his property to the poor. In our reading, taken from the Jerusalem Bible, Zacchaeus’ words express something that’s going to happen in the future. He tells Jesus: I am going to give... But bible commentators tell us that, in the original Greek, the sentence actually expresses something that’s already happening in the present. What Zacchaeus is telling Jesus is that he is already giving half his property to the poor. On this reading, more than just climbing a tree, the tax collector, whom everyone thinks is a great sinner, is actually a generous benefactor of the poor and the needy. Isn’t this why Zacchaeus is able to benefit from Jesus' attention? It’s because Zacchaeus himself already constantly pays close attention to God. Especially to God present in the poor. As a result, when Salvation comes around, It doesn’t just pass him by. It decides to stay, and to shower blessings on Zacchaeus and his entire household.

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. And isn’t it true that sometimes we can too easily forget that not everything in this world is automatic? That some things just need more attention from us? Things like my relationship with God for example. Not enough just to go to Mass every Sunday, and expect the relationship to deepen by itself. It won’t. Not if I don’t make the time and the effort to communicate meaningfully with God. To pray from my heart. To pay closer attention to what God might be trying to show me. Through the people and the events that God is sending into my life.

And the same can be said for my other relationships as well. Relationships with my spouse and my children. With my friends and my colleagues at work. Unlike washers and dryers, these relationships are not automatic. They need my attention. Or they will die. And what about helping those who are less fortunate? Doesn’t this also require attention? Even if I may sometimes be tempted to think that it is only a question of paying my taxes on time. And hoping that the government will take care of the problem. Isn’t it true that the government cannot do everything? Could it be that there is something more that I need to do as a Christian? Closer attention that I need to pay? Greater efforts that I need to make? To reach out to those who could really use my help?

Sisters and brothers, in our readings today, salvation comes to Zacchaeus and his household because of the close attention the tax collector pays to God and to the poor. To God present in the poor. What about us? You and me? How are we being invited to continue moving from automation to attention today?

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