Jesus' delayed Parousia forced Christians to turn their attention from a future event to a present reality.

The disciple of Paul who wrote II Thessalonians reminds his community of the first step in that change of focus (II Thes 1: 11-2:2). "We ask you, brothers and sisters," he writes, "with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling with Him, not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed either by a 'spirit,' or by an oral statement, or by a letter allegedly from us to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand."

If one looks only in one direction, one misses what's happening in every other direction. Anticipation of Jesus' second coming created tunnel-vision for many of His early followers.

Long-term look

That's one of the reasons Luke's Gospel is so significant. He appears to be the first Christian author to presume that Jesus isn't going to return during the lifetime of anyone in his community. Because of that belief, he helps his readers understand the long-term implications of concentrating on living this life to the best of our ability.

He does it subtly, for instance, by simply adding the word "daily" to Jesus' command to carry one's cross and follow Him. He does it more openly by frequently insisting that his community create an environment of forgiveness. Building such an environment is an ideal way of mirroring the dying and rising of Jesus during an entire lifetime. Sunday's Gospel (Lk 19: 1-10) is one of Luke's more famous stories of how Jesus deals with sinners.

Tax collectors are among the most despised sinners Jesus encounters during His earthly ministry. They not only work for the Roman army of occupation, but also force their fellow Jews to pay to support the very nation oppressing them. Such traitors have few friends.

No wonder the citizens of Jericho grumble when Jesus looks up into the sycamore tree and says, "Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house!"

The crowd is correct: "He had gone to stay at the house of a sinner."

Jesus is willing to take their criticism because He perceives something in this man which others seem to miss: "This man, too, is a descendant of Abraham." No matter what he's done, Jesus reminds the crowd that he's still "one of us."

Such an insight follows the train of thought in the first reading (Wis 11: 22-12:2). "For you [Yahweh] love all things that are," the author writes, "and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned." Both this writer and Jesus agree: There's God-given good even in people who do bad things.

Opportune time

Jesus discovers goodness in Zacchaeus by giving him an opportunity to do something good. He asks him to provide hospitality, and he does. Luke shows his readers that one forgiving action opens Zacchaeus' storeroom of goodness. "Half my possessions, Lord," he promises, "I shall give to the poor; and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over."

The Wisdom author praises God's patience in providing people with the time in which to repent. "You remember offenders little by little," he writes, "warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O Yahweh!"

Though many of us, like the earliest Christians, prefer Jesus to enter our lives suddenly and dramatically to make everything perfect, the fact that He hasn't done so to this point of salvation history is a reason to believe He wants us to play a role in that changing.

Our environment will evolve for the better only when we, like Jesus, do what's necessary right here and now to change that environment.

(10/28/04)