Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Still Small Voice of God: 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time


There is so much turmoil in the national and international news these days, it makes it difficult to maintain a sense of peace.  Instability in Ukraine, Israel, and Iraq seem capable of spiraling out of control, leading to regional or international war.  Christians are targeted for elimination in Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere.  Closer to home, we witness worrying erosion of religious liberty in developed countries, such that being known as an advocate of traditional Christian sexual morality could cause one to lose one’s job and suffer character assassination.  A legal path is opening up to force the closure of all Christian public institutions (schools, hospitals) that refuse to endorse the new sexual ethic.  If this were not enough, all of us face the turmoil of our private lives: struggles to overcome sin in ourselves and our families; illnesses and surgeries; financial struggles; temptations against faith; discouragement and dryness in prayer.  It can feel overwhelming for the individual believer who wakes up each morning to face what seems to be an overwhelming avalanche of challenges on a personal and public level.  

The Readings for this Sunday Mass address the struggle of the believer to stay in relationship with God in the face of overwhelming distractions and threats.  In the midst of wind, waves, earthquakes, the voice of God still speaks to us.

1.  The First Reading is 1 Kgs 19:9a, 11-13a:

At the mountain of God, Horeb,
Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
Then the LORD said to him,
“Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by.”
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

This reading from Kings give us the opportunity to give some background on 1-2 Kings, which were originally one book, a sequel to Samuel detailing the history of David’s successors until the collapse of his kingdom at the hand of the Babylonians.

According to the report of Origen, the Jews in antiquity called this book by its first two words, wehamelech dawid (“Now King David …”; cf. 1 Kings 1:1).  Septuagint translators split the book in two to make it more manageable, and called the resulting volumes “3rd and 4th Kingdoms (basileiōn)” (“1st-2nd  Kingdoms” = 1-2 Samuel).  The point of division they chose—part way through the reign of Ahaziah (cf. 1 Kings 22:51-53; 2 Kings 1:1-18)—is not a major literary break in the narrative.  Nonetheless, in modern Judaism the work is broken at the same point into two volumes, melachim a and melachim b (“Kings 1” and “Kings 2”).

The central focus of Kings is the rise and fall of the Davidic Kingdom, although there are many other important themes in this long and rich composition.  The first several chapters recount the glorious reign of Solomon, under which the Davidic covenant reaches its greatest visible expression, and indeed all the divine covenants to this point in salvation history are fulfilled, if briefly.  The high point of the narrative of Kings and of the whole Old Testament to this point is 1 Kings 8, the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Afterward there is a steady decline both spiritual and material, beginning in the latter years of Solomon’s own reign and culminating in the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem and the exile of the last reigning son of David (2 Kings 25).

Although David’s kingdom is established in 2 Samuel, it reaches its height and fullest expression under Solomon in 1 Kings.  Because the Kingdom of David is restored by Christ and manifest visibly on earth as the Church, the description of the Davidic Kingdom in the Books of Kings is instructive as a prototype of ecclesiastical structure.  Christ and other figures of the New Testament (John the Baptist, Mary, the Apostles) also find significant types within Kings: Solomon, Bathsheba, Elijah, Elisha, and others.

The basic structure of Kings is tripartite: the United Kingdom under Solomon (1 Kings 1-11); the Divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah (1 Kings 12–2 Kings 17); and the Kingdom of Judah Alone (2 Kings 18-25).  The first and third sections focus on a single Israelite kingdom ruled by a Son of David in Jerusalem, so they resemble each other:

A. One Kingdom under the Son of David: Solomon (1 Kings 1-11)
         B. Two Kingdoms, Israel and Judah (1 Kings 12–2 Kings 17)
A’. One Kingdom under the Son of David: Judah Alone (2 Kings 18-25). 

Furthermore, the long central section of the book (1 Kings 12–2 Kings 17) which tells the story of the divided monarchy, is arranged chiastically around the ministry of the two great prophets, Elijah and Elisha:

A. The Divided Monarchy Before the Great Prophets (1 Kings 12-16)
B. The Divided Monarchy During the Ministry of Elijah (1 Kings 17–2 Kings 1)
C. The Transition from Elijah to Elisha (2 Kings 2)
B’. The Divided Monarchy During the Ministry of Elisha (2 Kings 3–13)
 A’. The Divided Monarchy After the Great Prophets (2 Kings 14-17)

The Books of Kings, then, have been carefully structured in a balanced pattern.  Ironically, for a composition so focused on royal reigns, the ministries of the prophets Elijah and Elisha are the narrative high points of the otherwise dismal account of the decline of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the structural center-point of the whole narrative is the transition between Elijah and Elisha in 2 Kings 2, a narrative which is not incorporated into the account of the reign of any king.

Now to this Sunday’s Reading.  As often is the case, we have here only a snippet of a much longer biblical narrative, and it’s up to the homilist to remind the congregation of the full context of the story.  This event at Horeb follows a great show-down between Elijah and 450 prophets of the pagan god Ba’al (Canaanite equivalent of Zeus or Thor) at Mt. Carmel: a show-down that Elijah won convincingly by calling down fire from heaven.  However, this dramatic, miraculous victory did not produce the fruits of repentance in Israel that Elijah wanted.  Instead of leading to a mass conversion to the LORD, Elijah’s victory over Ba’al merely provoked the wicked Queen Jezebel to attempt to assassinate him.  So just days after his euphoric triumph on Mt. Carmel, Elijah found himself fleeing for his life, escaping from the territory of Israel into southern Judah and then out into the Sinai or Arabian desert to Mt. Sinai (aka Horeb) itself. 

Elijah has fled to Mt. Horeb to speak to God.  Elijah is conscious of standing in the tradition of Moses, the first of Israel’s great prophets, so he returns to the holy mountain where God spoke to Moses, in the hopes of gaining clarity from God about what to do next.  The victory at Carmel was as dramatic as anything Elijah could have hoped for, yet it did not substantially change the spiritual culture of Israel.  Elijah is ready to give up.  He questions his own vocation as a prophet.  He wants to die.  He is physically, emotionally, and spiritually drained.  On the inside, he is upset with God and confused by God’s guidance of human affairs.  Where is the hand of God in all this?

God commands Elijah to stand on the slope of Horeb and wait for the passing of his presence.  Then come the great phenomena associated with God’s appearance to Moses so many years before: wind, earthquake, and fire (see Exod 19:16-18).  But this time, God’s presence is not in these dramatic signs.  God’s presence comes later, in a “quiet whispering sound,” or as the old King James rendered it, “a still, small voice.”  There is no drama, but God is there.  Elijah goes out of the cave to speak to God.  The remainder of the story is omitted from the Reading, but after Elijah complains to God, God renews Elijah’s vocation and commissions him to go anoint the next generation of leadership (vv. 15-17).  He also assures Elijah that there will remain a remnant (“seven thousand”) in Israel who will maintain their faith in God.

May God be praised that this powerful story is included in Sacred Scripture, because it gives great comfort, consolation, and direction to the followers of the LORD down through the generations.  The whole narrative is a critique of judging reality by the external and dramatic, a reading of history that focuses on what gets screamed in headlines.  The external, dramatic, and visible in human history does not always reveal the hand of God.  Yet God is always living and active, working in human hearts in ways that we do not recognize or notice.  Those who seek holiness in this life must train themselves not to vacillate with the headlines, nor be shaken by contradictory events, but to stay faithful to their vocations, raise up the next generation, and be confident that God will preserve his little flock through the turmoil of history.  

2. The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14:

R/ (8) Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
I will hear what God proclaims;
the LORD — for he proclaims peace.
Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him,
glory dwelling in our land.
R/ Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice shall look down from heaven.
R/ Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
The LORD himself will give his benefits;
our land shall yield its increase.
Justice shall walk before him,
and prepare the way of his steps.
R/ Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.

Psalm 85 stands in Book III of the Psalter (Pss 73–89), by far the darkest of the five Books of Psalms, dominated by sadness at the decline of the Kingdom of David and the distress of the people of God who are frequently at the mercy of their enemies.  Psalm 85 is a lament of the people of God, who feel abandoned by him.  They wait to hear his voice, and the voice of God express consolation to them, assurance that his covenant faithfulness will be seen in the end.  In a way, the Psalm has close parallels to the spiritual journey of Elijah, who, feeling abandoned by God, flees to Horeb to hear God’s voice and be consoled.

3. The Second Reading is Rom 9:1-5:

Brothers and sisters:
I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie;
my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness
that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart.
For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ
for the sake of my own people,
my kindred according to the flesh.
They are Israelites;
theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants,
the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;
theirs the patriarchs, and from them,
according to the flesh, is the Christ,
who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Although this Reading from Romans was not specifically chosen to match the theme of the First Reading and Gospel, we do have a remarkable “divine coincidence” in terms of the connections with the First Reading in particular.

Our Reading is the beginning of a famous unit of Romans, chs. 9-11, in which St. Paul discusses the theological, spiritual, and pastoral problems raised by the Jewish rejection of Jesus.  Both Elijah at Mt. Horeb, and Paul writing to the Romans, are deeply concerned, even to the point of anguish, over the fate of their countrymen, the people of Israel.  Elijah was a prophet to the northern ten tribes of Israel.  Paul, in this Reading, calls his countrymen “Israel” and not simply “Judah” or “the Jews.”  The term “Jew” derives from the tribe “Judah” and originally designated a person who descended from that tribe.  Today it refers to an adherent of the religion of Judaism.  But both Paul and Elijah are concerned for “all Israel”—all twelve tribes that entered into a covenant with the one true God at Sinai. 

Paul is grieved because the people of Israel have rejected Jesus of Nazareth, Son of David, as their Messiah, failing to recognize him for who he is.  Elijah was grieved that, in his own day, Israel seemed to have wholly gone over to the worship of the pagan god Ba’al, such that her final destruction seemed inevitable.  God’s response to Elijah was to call to mind the faithful remnant: “All is not lost.  Seven thousand faithful Israelites remain, who worship me alone.”  St. Paul will actually quote God’s response to Elijah a little later in his treatment of the problem of Israel, in Roman 11:1-5.

The rejection of Jesus the Messiah by the ethnic people of Israel is and should be a cause of grief for all faithful Christians, because the one great desire of the Church is that all the nations and Israel herself would be united in the worship of the one true God, fully revealed to us through his Son Jesus of Nazareth, Son of David, King of Israel, the Anointed One.  We wish to be spiritually united to all Jews, not separated from them.  At the same time, while it is true that the visible people of Israel seem to have rejected Jesus, in every generation there have been many sons of Israel that have embraced him.  The first generations of the Church were predominantly Jewish.  All the apostles and the Blessed Mother were Jews.  Large numbers from the Jewish priesthood swelled the ranks of the early Church in Acts 6:7.  Catholics of Jewish descent maintain a unique spiritual culture to this day (www.hebrewcatholic.net).

This Reading from Romans reminds us that God always remains faithful to his covenant promises.  The offer of reconciliation with God through Jesus the Messiah remains available at every moment for every Jew or Gentile, right now and until the end of time.  God has not forgotten the covenants he made with the descendants of Abraham.  

4. The Gospel is Matthew 14:22-33:

After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat
and precede him to the other side,
while he dismissed the crowds.
After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.
When it was evening he was there alone.
Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore,
was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.
During the fourth watch of the night,
he came toward them walking on the sea.
When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified.
“It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.
At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter said to him in reply,
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
He said, “Come.”
Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus.
But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened;
and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter,
and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
After they got into the boat, the wind died down.
Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying,
“Truly, you are the Son of God.”

The body of the Gospel of Matthew seems to be divided into five major units or blocks of narrative, each ending with a major discourse (or “homily,” if you will) of Jesus: Matt 3-7; Matt 8-10; Matt 11-13; Matt 14-18; Matt 19-25.  Each section ends with the comment, “When Jesus had finished saying all these things” or something very similar (Matt 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1).  Therefore, this Sunday’s Gospel is set near the beginning of the fourth unit of Matthew, a unit that is marked especially by the theme of mercy, in particular the way in which mercy is expressed by the forgiveness of sins in the Church, which is the visible manifestation of the kingdom of heaven on earth.  Thus, Jesus’ concluding discourse of this unit in ch. 18 will largely deal with forgiveness of sin. The power to “loose on earth” figures prominently in the great pericope of Peter’s confession (16:13-20), and this language of "loosing" can refer to release from sins (Rev 1:5) or bondage to demonic power (Luke 13:16).

Mercy is not a dominant theme in this Sunday’s Reading, but we do note the kindness with which Jesus bears with Peter’s failure of faith in this narrative.  As soon as Peter cries out, Jesus “immediately” (Gk eutheos) reached out his hand a caught him, suggesting an attentive solicitude for the apostle’s welfare.  The Lord doesn’t sit back and let Peter flounder around in the water a while to “teach him a lesson.” Even the rebuke, “O one of little faith, why did you doubt?” may be understood to have been said with gentleness, from one who knows the weakness of our condition.

We note various parallels with the First Reading.  In both instances we have a great prophet (Elijah, Jesus) going to a mountain to pray alone.  The moral sense of the text is obvious: these great men of God did not neglect their prayer life.  If they needed to renew their relationship with God through the communion of prayer, how much more so do we? 

In both cases, too, we have the presence of storm imagery that serves as a distraction from concentrating on the presence of God.  Elijah may have had unrealistic hopes for what could be accomplished by dramatic public miracles, and at Horeb he senses that God is not in the storm phenomena that shakes the mountain outside his cave.  Likewise in the Gospel, when Peter takes his focus off of the Lord and starts to contemplate the wind and waves that are lashing about him, his faith begins to collapse.

Let’s not be too hard on Peter.  He was, after all, the only one of the apostles willing to get out of the boat.  So he attempted something for Jesus; it failed, and he needed to be rescued.  But he learned something from his attempt, and grew in faith in the long run.  One is reminded of Pope Francis’ statements to the effect that he would prefer that the Church go out into the streets to minister and suffer some damage, than that she stay safely in the sanctuary and not get the Gospel out.

The Readings work together this week to call us, as followers of Christ, out of an attitude of fear and intimidation.  The wind and waves that toss around us—the personal and public turmoil of our lives and world—are ultimately under the control of God.  But gazing at all the turmoil can be a major distraction from God’s call—in Latin, his “vocation”—in our lives.  Jesus called to Peter— “Come!”—just as he beckons to each one of us.  The challenge is to focus on the “still small voice” of Jesus beckoning us, to walk toward him by concentrating on fulfilling our vocation daily, and not capitulate to fear of the chaos that rages around us. 


Susan Moore said...

Wow, impeccable timing, this blog. Thank you, Jesus (and Professor Bergsma!).
And thanks a million for that link, I’ve been looking for something like that. My grandparents were Polish and also spoke Yiddish.

A couple years ago the Lord laid the following on my heart. It is obviously not meant as my personal ministry, but for the Church. Perhaps now that I’m apparently in the right faith-tradition, and school, I should share it. Perhaps if we give up our human ways and pick up His, His voice will be heard again in this country:

“Orphans and Widows Ministry exists as a national, non-profit, Christian health ministry whose mission is to promote, establish, support and/or evaluate Christian health ministries, and to conduct scientific research to better define and/or describe the care, and/or evaluate and denote the effectiveness of the care that Christian health ministries provide.

Furthermore, the organization desires to seek out survivors of intentional trauma and/or people estranged from the Christian community, and to promote, advocate for, and/or provide for their care through established Christian health ministries, and through those ministries to educated and support their caregivers.”

Susan Moore said...

Addendum; perhaps -now that I'm apparently in the right faith tradition, and school, and hospital, and parish- I should share it.

I'm guessing he has reserved a faithful remnant...

God bless.

John Bergsma said...

Thanks, Susan.

Anonymous said...

Wonderul! Awesome commentar! Thank you!