The Love that Reaches Out
The Love that Reaches Out

The Love that Reaches Out

Thirtieth Sunday of the Year. Fr Dominic White invites us to engage imaginatively in the exercise of mercy.

Just imagine. You’re in church, and in front of you, you see someone who you know to be a extortioner. You know that he’s got money out of your friends, money they can ill afford to pay. And there he is, praying.

Imagine again. Your country is under occupation. The occupying forces make you pay for the privilege – through that same extortioner and others like him. They don’t pay him a salary, of course. So he takes from you what they order him to take, and extra for himself.

That’s what a tax collector is in the New Testament. Not the UK government tax officers (never popular, for obvious reasons, but we do realise that public services have to be paid for somehow). No – this is an extortionist – and a traitor, because he’s not an occupying Roman, he’s a fellow Jew.

And though it’s hard to avoid finding the Pharisee sanctimonious, he is, to his credit, thanking God for the good he does, and which marks him out as a very observant and devout Jew. He does understand that it’s not all down to him, but rather it is, at least to some extent, the grace of God that has made him a devout man.

Why, then, is he not justified? For Jesus’ hearers, this story would have been not only a challenge, but even shocking and offensive. Indeed, whose side is Jesus on?

Well, let’s look at a real tax collector, whom Jesus met. He was called Zacchaeus. People are often named in the New Testament because they were witnesses of encounters with Jesus, witnesses who were part of the Church and known to many people. When Jesus came to Jericho, a crowd came out to see him, but, St Luke tells us, he was ‘short in stature’, so he climbed up a tree in order to see Jesus. Now if he was short, in a world where many people earned there money through the physical prowess needed for manual labour – carpentry, fishing, farming etc. –  he may have been unable to take up any of these trades. Occupiers know that they will meet with resistance from the strong. So they target the weak to do their dirty work – just as terrorists do. There may have been many like Zacchaeus. What the Pharisee doesn’t see is that they didn’t choose their profession, but more likely resorted to it out of desperation, like many in our own society who, failed by the system and descending into poverty, resort to prostitution or crimes such as drug trading and car theft. Of course, sin leads to worse sin, because it corrupts. The downward spiral. But these people are primarily victims of structural sins in society – not the sin of any particular individual, but of structures which do not bring about the common good, structures which are not those of the Kingdom of God.

The Pharisee’s tragedy is that he can’t see beyond himself – his religious observance is all about him. The tax collector, on the other hand, knows his life is a mess. He doesn’t pretend. Jesus doesn’t even tell us that he changed his life – perhaps he can’t see how to. When Jesus reaches out to Zacchaeus, though, offers his friendship, Zacchaeus’ life changes, and he promises to give half his possessions to the poor, and repay fourfold anyone he may have defrauded. This was, in fact, an extraordinary act of trust, because it’s not clear what else Zacchaeus could live off.

One of our brethren was for many years a prison chaplain. He knew his prisoners well, and understood very well how they had ended up in crime. The Dominican community our brother was assigned to had a scheme: near the end of their prison terms, prisoners were allowed a day out every week. Where would they go? The real risk was that their only ‘friends’ would be the people who had got them into crime in the first place. So the brethren welcomed the prisoners to their table, befriended them, and helped set them up for life after prison.

Or again, the testimony of a woman who was approached by a kind stranger outside an abortion clinic. The woman had resorted to abortion because her partner, the father of her child, had thrown her out. The stranger offered her a room in her flat – for as long as she needed. ‘Now I have a beautiful baby,’ she said. ‘And I’ve never felt so loved in all my life.’

Or again, told me by an Orthodox priest friend, a Ukrainian refugee, crying at church because her house had been destroyed by Russian shelling – and being comforted by a Russian woman.

In all these cases, people who reached beyond themselves, sharing the mercy that God has given them. In these hard times we are in, which are likely to get harder, there will be a great need for acts of mercy and kindness. We can rise to this, because Christ has given us mercy. He has poured out His life in giving us life. So we can pour out our lives to the end, because we have received a life that no one and nothing can take away from us.

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 35:12-14, 16-19 | 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18 | Luke 18:9-14

Image: ‘Christ’s Divine Mercy’ by Lawrence Lew OP

Fr Dominic White is a member of the Priory of St Michael in Cambridge. He is a Research Associate at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, and the founder of the Cosmos dance project and patron of Eliot Smith Dance Company.

Comments (3)

  • Dcn John Cruz

    Fr Dominic,

    Thank you for your thoughtful reflection. It touched my heart! Pax

  • Richard Burgoyne

    I thank God for the Mercy he has shown me.
    His Mercy has changed my life.
    Thank you Fr Dominic.

  • Rhian Morgan

    How much the extortioner reminds me of our own dear UK Government and their immoral and wasteful ways!


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