The Book of Revelation was the last book of the Bible to be written, possibly around the year 95. In some early Christian communities the first fervour of conversion had already worn off. This was true of the church in Sardis, a city which had a reputation for licentious living. Some of the Christians there had given in to temptation from the pagans. Laodicia was a wealthy, commercial city and there too Christian fervour had waned. The first reading forms part of an exhortation for both these communities to repent and return to true devotion and Christian living.
In the gospel we hear the story of Zacchaeus who is set before us as a model of Christian conversion. He gave half his belongings to the poor and was willing to pay fourfold to anyone whom he had defrauded. Our Lord was so pleased with Zacchaeus that he went to his home and had dinner with him. It would be interesting for us to know if Zacchaeus actually persevered in his good intentions.
As people of faith we are in need of constant conversion. Most of us, I think, tend to vary in our degree of devotion and generosity. Moods and feelings afflict us in a way we can’t always fully understand. And yet we must strive to make overall progress in our lives, despite our occasional lapses. The chief means of doing this is right here at Mass. Just as Our Lord went to the home of Zacchaeus as a guest, so at Mass we are the guests of Our Lord.
In the first reading Our Lord is quoted as saying that he will have supper with those who are faithful. This is probably a veiled reference to the Eucharist, for the Book of Revelation often presents Christian truths in such a way as not to allow the pagans to understand them.
Our celebration of daily Mass together is an expression both of our devotion and a way of growing in Christian living. It should be our intention to draw from the Eucharist the strength we need to be, not lukewarm and lazy, but fervent and energetic in our Christian lives.
The Book of Revelation is probably the least understood book of the Bible. It’s full of symbols and figures of speech, most of which are derived from the Old Testament. Some people insist that the book was written with our own era in mind and that one should interpret it in the light of current events. Obviously, this is not the case.
The book was written around the end of the first century when the Church was undergoing terrible persecution by the Roman Empire. It seemed to the early Christians that the world was overwhelming them. The message of the Book of Revelation to these people was one of encouragement to remain resolute in the face of persecution. It was also an encouragement for them to believe that Christ had already won the decisive victory over sin and death, a victory in which his faithful followers will share.
The book has an application for us because circumstances haven’t changed substantially over the last two thousand years. The early Christians sensed an apparent contradiction between the truth of their faith and their daily experience. Like them we live in a world which contradicts the values of our faith at almost every turn. We are not really persecuted nowadays, but the pressure of a money and pleasure-centred world flaunt their temptations before our eyes in an attempt to turn us aside from our faith and our values.
As Our Lord gave sight to the blind so he wants to enlighten us as to the true values of life. He wants us to know that we need not give in to sin. He wants us to know that it is possible to live according to his demanding teachings. And he wants us to know that these teachings are worthwhile, for they alone can enlighten us on the journey that leads to everlasting life.
Saint Francis of Assisi has been credited with saying: Pray always; and if necessary, use words. For Saint Francis, as of course for Our Lord himself, prayer was not so much saying prayers and multiplying words, as it was an attitude towards life. Everything they experienced, everything they saw, touched and tasted, were signs of the sacred, signs of God’s presence.
So, when Our Lord challenges us to pray always he is not suggesting that we spend whole days or nights on our knees, but that we see all of life as holy; praying continually simply means being constantly aware of God’s presence in our lives. But Our Lord also tells us that sometimes we need to make a special effort to storm heaven with our prayers for a particular need. The second half of his challenge is to not lose heart when we pray. We have all been in situations where the answer to our prayers seems to take forever. The widow’s continued badgering of the judge is a lesson to us at those times. With such persistence we too can accomplish equity and justice in the world. There are two lessons, then, in today’s gospel: Pray always, and never lose heart.
For many people gratitude doesn’t come naturally. And if we think this is a modern phenomenon, recall that only one of the ten cured lepers returned to say thanks. Indeed, Our Lord asks, “Where are the other nine?”
Saint Luke tells us that “one of them, realizing that he had been cured” returned to give thanks. Well, surely all of them noticed that they no longer carried the disfigurements of their disease, but only one made the connection between the gift and the giver. Now it has to be said that Our Lord didn’t heal them on the spot. He sent them to the priests as part of the process of being healed.
And yet, grateful people are always aware and see connections. They are aware of their gifts and they see the connection between the gift and the giver. They are able to trace their blessings back to the ultimate source. I remember one of my Sunday School teachers telling us years ago that once we have said thanks, then we must do thanks. When the grateful leper returns to Our Lord, he falls at his feet. But Our Lord doesn’t encourage the man to remain on the ground, or even to remain at all. “Stand up and go,” he says. You have received a gift, now go and do something with it. It’s not enough for us to just say thanks to God for the gifts we have been given. We must do something with those gifts. As my old Sunday School teacher so wisely said, Doing thanks is always the best way to say thanks.
At first glance, Our Lord’s words to his disciples might seem quite harsh. Essentially, he told them that if they just did what he commanded, they would be nothing more than unworthy servants. Was he expecting them to slave even harder? Was he telling them that if they just did a little bit more, they might become worthy servants who have merited his pleasure? Not at all. God is never indebted to us. We owe God everything, even our lives. We were created for him, not he for us.
Our Lord’s parable shines a light on the kind of discipleship that he is calling us to, not the amount of work he’s looking for. We can choose to respond to him like slaves, or we can follow him in love and gratitude like friends. Indeed, Our Lord himself said that he wants to call us his friends, not his slaves (John 15:15). He wants us to know him as we would know a brother, the most loyal companion we will ever have.
Have you ever thought about how easy it could be to work for God and yet never really know him? You could do all sorts of work for the church and the poor, either out of a sense of duty or out of a desire to ensure a place in heaven. But if we respond to God this way, we’ve missed the point. God is calling us to a relationship of love, not one of slavery. Those who think like duty-bound slaves miss out on an inspiring experience of life in the kingdom of God. They won’t know a relationship with Our Lord that can fill them so deeply that they long to give everything back to him.
Now of course, there are things we must do as his disciples. Our Lord has told us to obey his commandments. But there are things that we do for Our Lord just because we love him—like turning our hearts to him during a busy day or going out of our way to help someone in need.
Saint Josaphat, an Eastern Rite bishop, honoured as a martyr to church unity because he died trying to bring part of the Orthodox Church into union with Rome. He was canonised in 1867 and became the first member of the Eastern Church to be formally canonised as a saint of the Latin Church.
Our Lord never tiptoed around the issues. He knew that millstones are very heavy. Large ones, like the one Our Lord refers to in today’s Gospel, can weigh more than a ton. But Our Lord wasn’t simply offering a public rebuke to all who cause people to sin.
We can get so focused on the millstone that we lose the heart of Our Lord’s message, which is, if you have been sinned against, you have to forgive. Seven times or seven times seventy times means the same thing: forgive every time.
Now, obviously justice shouldn’t be ignored, people have to suffer the consequences of their unlawful actions; but if we are going to survive the process of being victimized then we must learn to forgive. We have all been hurt at some time in our lives, and many of us carry that hurt around all the time. It’s a constant companion, a recurring complaint, a rancorous story told repeatedly, a horror film that plays persistently in our thoughts. Even if we don’t speak about the hurt, the result is the same: fear, shame, and resentment deepen; bitterness festers. The chains that those hateful emotions forge only tighten and become heavier over time.
But we don’t have to live in that kind of bondage. Notwithstanding justice, forgiveness is the key. Forgive, and if the hurt resurfaces, forgive again, and again. Seven times seventy times, if necessary.
This is why the apostles cried out to Our Lord, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). They were asking Our Lord to increase their conviction of the truth that God would take care of them; that God is capable of healing any hurt, and that he wants to do it.