Creation, Love, and the Mercy of God
The season of Ordinary Time is winding down as we head into the new Liturgical Year in just a few weeks. Our readings over these last few Sundays have been shifting from the explicit instructions about Christian discipleship, what Jesus expects of the those who follow him, to more eschatological or “end time” themes. This Sunday we see that a little more clearly than we have so far, and it will become more stark as we head to the solemnity of Christ the King at the end of the month.
At first it might be difficult to uncover the connection or eschatological themes of these readings. The Book of Wisdom (Wis 11:22-12:2), from which we have our First Reading, centers on God’s act of creation and the Creator’s relationship to all that exists. This selection opens with an acknowledgment that the whole universe — put even more so each of us — is really no-thing when compared to God’s vastness and incomprehensibility. We are like a drop of dew or a speck of dust, deserving no attention or owed no honor. Yet, God loves us anyway. More to the point, our very existence is in fact a sign and promise of that Divine love.
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 have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.
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?
If we doubt God’s love and mercy, just look at all that remains in existence when it could be otherwise, or nothing-wise. Indeed, “how could a thing remain” unless God willed it?
Although our lack of faithfulness to God, demonstrated in the millennia-old narratives of Sacred Scripture and experienced in our daily lives, should suggest that we be treated like a drop of dew or a speck of dust, God (thankfully) does not think or act as we do. While we are quick to dismiss others and ourselves, God loves “all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made.”
So what is so “end-timey” or eschatological about this? Isn’t this about creation about the beginning?
Yes. But one thing that Christians often overlook is the truth that creation and salvation are one in the same. We can distinguish between the act of God’s creation and the goal or telos of that creation (which is salvation understood as all returning back to the Creator), they are inseparable: you cannot think about creation without God’s loving intention for it to be glorified and brought to completion, nor can you think about salvation without conceiving of God’s original desire for all that exists.
God is not an unjust judge. God is not even a just judge according to human standards (think of last week’s parable). God is a lover and a forgiver, one whose intention is always to draw near to the creation that is loved into existence and to bestow mercy and forgiveness upon it. This is echoed in the closing verses of today’s First Reading, reminding us again of what’s to come: love and mercy for the creation that God is head-over-heels in love with.
But you spare all things, because they are yours,
O LORD and lover of souls,
for your imperishable spirit is in all things!
Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little,
warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing,
that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O LORD!
The Gospel today bears an unexpected connection to these themes. The calling of Zacchaeus from the tree is usually viewed through the lens of sin and forgiveness, a demonstration of the mercy of God. This, of course, is true. But there’s also something curious going on here in Jesus’s response to the “grumbling” crowd:
And Jesus said to him,
“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.”
This man, who is both a professed sinner and an outsider, is also “a descendant of Abraham.” Jesus is referring here to what the Jewish establishment in his time would have regarded as an exclusive right and a closed community — you’re either in or your out, Jew or Greek, circumcised or not!
Yet, Jesus is reminding us what is hinted at slightly in the First Reading from Wisdom. All of creation, each and every aspect of what exists, is loved into existence and maintained in existence by God. God loathes none of it and no one.
Salvation is not about being “saved” in some simplistic, in or out, Jew or Greek kind of way. Salvation is about “saving what was lost” in terms of the scattered community of creation. Salvation is about the completion of God’s desire for all creation in the beginning, our cosmic return to God. We members of the human family are all descendants of Abraham, brothers and sisters to each other. But we are also brothers and sisters to the rest of the created order and our goal of salvation remains the goal of all God’s creation (as we also see in Romans 8): the Return to God.