Friday, July 13, 2012

God Likes to Choose the Unlikely: The Readings for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The readings for this upcoming Sunday are united by the theme of God’s choice of his messengers.  And, as is typical for God, he chooses some unlikely candidates. 

1.  Our first reading is from the prophet Amos 7:12-15:

Amaziah, priest of Bethel, said to Amos,
"Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah!
There earn your bread by prophesying,
but never again prophesy in Bethel;
for it is the king's sanctuary and a royal temple."
Amos answered Amaziah, "I was no prophet,
nor have I belonged to a company of prophets;
I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.
The LORD took me from following the flock, and said to me,
Go, prophesy to my people Israel."

A little background: Amos was a prophet sent to the northern kingdom of Israel, consisting of the ten tribes that had broken away from the descendants of David who ruled in Jerusalem to
the south.  The kings of the north prevented their people from making pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem, and instead built idolatrous shrines at Bethel (in the south of their realm) and Dan (in the north).

Amos went to the northern kingdom of Israel and prophesied that the rich and elite would be destroyed and exiled, because they were oppressing the common people, and offering false worship to idols.

Amaziah, the priest of Bethel temple, was an illegitimate priest and political appointee who served not God but the king, Jeroboam.  In the northern kingdom, the government had taken over the “church” and was using it for its own political purposes.  Amaziah was in charge of the idol-temple in Bethel, and he was not pleased with Amos hanging around preaching judgment on Israel’s sins.  He tells him in no very polite words to get out.  Because Amos was preaching against northern Israel, Amaziah figures he must be pro-Judean, and tells him to get back south to “earn your bread.”  Actually, Amos was not "pro-Judean"; he also had words of judgment for the south.  Be that as it may, Amos responds by denying that he is a professional, or prophesying to make money: “I was no prophet … I was a shepherd and dresser of sycamores …”

Amos was not a “professional.”  He had no formal theological training—“nor have I belonged to a company of prophets.”  The “company of prophets” were groups—often called “the sons of the prophets”—that probably copied, studied, and preserved sacred texts, and fostered prayer and the development of prophetic gifts.  One may think of them as an early form of religious orders. 

But Amos was not associated with those groups.  He was an unlikely candidate who got a call from God.  He was compelled to go and preach, not motivated by money, but by the Spirit of God moving in him.

2. Our second reading comes from Ephesians 1:3-14.  St. Paul gives a birds-eye overview of how God brings people to salvation:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us in Christ
with every spiritual blessing in the heavens,
as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world,
to be holy and without blemish before him.
In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ,
in accord with the favor of his will,
for the praise of the glory of his grace
that he granted us in the beloved.
In him we have redemption by his blood,
the forgiveness of transgressions,
in accord with the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us.
In all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us
the mystery of his will in accord with his favor
that he set forth in him as a plan for the fullness of times,
to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth.

In him we were also chosen,
destined in accord with the purpose of the One
who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will,
so that we might exist for the praise of his glory,
we who first hoped in Christ.
In him you also, who have heard the word of truth,
the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him,
were sealed with the promised holy Spirit,
which is the first installment of our inheritance
toward redemption as God's possession, to the praise of his glory.

Like the reading from Amos, this passage from St. Paul focuses on God’s choice of certain individuals.  In fact, this passage is a key biblical text for the doctrine of predestination, the truth that believers were chosen in advance by God.  Contrary to popular belief, “predestination” is not a specifically “Protestant” or “Calvinist” doctrine, although its true that it receives a great deal of emphasis in Calvinism.  Calvin, however, got his ideas from St. Augustine.  “Predestination” is a biblical and Catholic doctrine, found in Scripture and the Fathers.  In the Catholic theological tradition, there are two distinct schools of thought on the issue of predestination: the Dominican and the Jesuit.  The Dominican tradition has a stronger view of predestination, in which God is proactive, moving certain people to choose him.  The Jesuit tradition has a weaker view, in which “predestination” is finally nothing more than God’s foreknowledge of our own free choice.

For myself, I’m not optimistic that I will ever understand predestination, or the mysterious interaction between God’s will and my own free will, in this life.  With St. Paul, however, I do recognize that, although I often felt like I was “choosing for God” at various points in my life, when I look back now, it seems apparent that God was moving everything in a direction he always intended.  How this works, I don’t know, but it is a common Christian experience.  If someone wants to insist that it can’t be so, that God can’t “choose us” and at the same time we freely “choose him,” I would reply that reality is more mysterious then we think it is.  Even physicists have discovered this: there are apparent “contradictions” in the material world that are nevertheless true.  As physicist-turned-theologian John Polkinghorne points out, light is both a wave and particle at the same time, yet how this can be so is very difficult to imagine.

3.  Our Gospel is Mark 6:7-13:

Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two
and gave them authority over unclean spirits.
He instructed them to take nothing for the journey
but a walking stick--
no food, no sack, no money in their belts.
They were, however, to wear sandals
but not a second tunic.
He said to them,
"Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave.
Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you,
leave there and shake the dust off your feet
in testimony against them."
So they went off and preached repentance.
The Twelve drove out many demons,
and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Jesus chose the Twelve back in Mark 3:18, and they have been following him around for a while.  Now he gives them their first assignment “on their own.”  He sends them out to preach, exorcize, and heal. 

Just as Amos was no professional theologian, we are reminded that the twelve apostles Jesus chose were not groomed for religious careers.  The first four disciples—Peter, James, John, and Andrew—were fishermen.  Matthew was a tax collector.  Simon was a “zealot”, i.e. part of a terrorist organization.  The former careers of the other disciples aren’t well known, but it is a safe guess that like Peter and John, they were “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13). 

God seems to like to choose the unlikely.  As St. Paul will say elsewhere:

For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. –1 Corinthians 1:26-29

Jesus instructs the disciples to go out and preach in poverty—“take nothing for the journey.”  There can be great advantages to following this command literally, and thanks be to God, there are still many who do, who give up all claim to material possessions and enter the religious life, free from property so that they can be open to God.  But even for those of us for whom this is impractical (because, for example, we have to raise children), we can learn to be detached from material goods.  Again quoting St. Paul:

From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away. 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Of course we do not all have a formal commission to preach, exorcize, and heal as the apostles did, but every one of us who has been baptized and confirmed has, by the virtue of those sacraments, a commission to spread the Gospel in whatever place we are.  There are a lot of people in the workplace and in our neighborhoods who need to hear the good news, who need to be freed from demons, and need healing both physical and spiritual.  Don’t underestimate the good that prayer, fasting, and friendship can do.  We may not be formally trained, but then neither was Amos.  There is a lot of work to be done, and there is a lot of good that we can do, not because we’re so great and we chose God, but because he chose us and gave us his Holy Spirit through the sacraments.


"Aunt" Judy said...

Thank you, as always, for this delightful food!

De Maria said...

I agree with you completely. I also feel that I will not understand "predestination" in this life. And have also come to realize that God is there before us and is guiding us where He wants us to be.

Amen! He gave us His Holy Spirit through the Sacraments!


De Maria