“You are merciful to all, because you can do all things and overlook men’s sins so that they can repent…You love all that exists…You spare all things because all things are yours, Lord, lover of life, you whose imperishable spirit is in all.” The beautiful words from the writer of the Book of Wisdom in the First Reading for the Thirty First Sunday of the Year.
We all have our own images of God. Sometimes people imagine God to be the great accountant, who keeps exact records of everyone’s sins. A kind of God who preserves details of our failings on long individual lists. Nothing escapes His attention, nothing is overlooked by Him. And given what He sees, He regards His handiwork in creation with some kind of all – powerful disapproval, and He waits for the last day when He can confront each one of us with the punishing record of our sins. But this depiction of God is a world away from the image of God presented in today’s First Reading from the Book of Wisdom.
When God looks at us what does He see? When He looks at us, He sees the divine, He sees a reflection of His very self. He sees the work of art which is made in His own image and likeness. “You spare all things because all things are yours, Lord, lover of life, you whose imperishable spirit is in all.” We have a soul, we have an immortal soul, that is the essence of our very person. A reflection of God. And when God sees us, He sees our soul. And God wants to keep us forever. Because He sees something sacred and imperishable. Is that not what Jesus saw in Zaccheus in the Gospel? Everybody else only saw the outside. Everybody else only saw the superficial. Everybody else saw this petty, conniving, vicious and corrupt thug. Who, as a tax – collector, had cheated and swindled and stolen from them. But Jesus sees beyond. He sees deep down. He sees below the obnoxious exterior. And He beholds a soul made by His Father. A soul that He, God the Son, would willingly die for on the Cross to save. Jesus saw the good. He saw what was best in Zaccheus and He called it forth and He restored Zaccheus to the person God had intended him to be from the very beginning.
In this radical understanding God is celebrated as the great lover of life, who hates nothing that He has created and preserves His own creation in the spirit of mercy. Out of this commitment to showing mercy God deals with sinners: He, “overlooks our sins so that we can repent.” This sequence is important: first, God overlooks sin; after that, repentance is expected. That sequence underlines the difference between the way God forgives and the way we forgive: we demand repentance first, then we overlook the wrong. But unlike us, God is a professional when it comes to forgiveness. He is the supreme expert in showing mercy. His alertness to sin does not mean that He stays with it, transfixed by human wrongdoing. He sees beyond it, hoping that this generosity of spirit will lead sinners to repentance.
In the musical Les Misérables, the Bishop confronts Jean Valjean with the simple statement, “Jean you have a soul.” This changes Jean, it challenges him to a life of conversion and transformation. That is what Jesus did with Zaccheus. That is what God does with all of us. The great Irish spiritual writer Blessed Columba Marmion claimed that, “God is happiest when a baby is Baptised.” Because the moment a baby is Baptised, that baby’s soul is radiant, it is brimming with God’s grace and God’s light. It is restored to the way God intended all of us to be, before the Fall of humanity. And God then pledges for the rest of this child’s life to restore that soul. We have a God who is concerned with saving. We have a God who is concerned with restoration. So for the rest of that baby’s life, when that soul becomes tarnished by sin or neglect, God is going to want to restore and want to save it and restore it to its Baptismal lustre.
We have a God who says, “Who cares about all those superficial things.” Almighty God says, “I want to save what is essential. I want to save what has value. I see the sacred. I see the Divine. I see souls and I want to save them for all eternity; because they have an imperishable value.”
-Fr Christopher A Thomas, The Assumption, Beeston, Nottingham