Friday, July 10, 2015

"Go, prophesy to my people Israel": Readings for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Here are some thoughts on this Sunday's lectionary readings. I always find that looking at the readings in advance helps me prepare me to better enter into the Church's liturgical celebration. I hope you will find this helpful. . .

FIRST READING: 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.”

In order to fully appreciate the significance of the First Reading, it is helpful to locate it within its larger context of Amos. In chapter 7, Amos receives a series of visions in which the Lord announces that he will bring judgment on Israel. The reason? Among other things, injustice is rampant and those in authority are corrupt. In the previous chapter, we read:
But you have turned justice into poison
and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood (Amos 6:12).
At first, Amos asks the Lord to relent. However, by the end of the chapter, it seems the prophet has come around--he no longer protests. He realizes judgment can no longer be avoided. This episode seems to play a pivotal role in that realization. 

The priest Amaziah, obviously frustrated with Amos' constant criticisms of corruption, sends a letter to the king, accusing the prophet of conspiracy against the king for prophesying against him. The prophet then essentially banishes Amos. 

As far as Amos is concerned, this appears to be the last straw. No longer will he petition the Lord to turn back his wrath. Not only is the king wicked, the the priesthood (signified by Amaziah) has also refused to hear the Lord. As a result of his infidelity, Amos explains that Amaziah's whole family will suffer: his wife will be forced to become a prostitute in order to survive and his sons will be killed. 

The oracle is troubling--should Amaziah's family really be punished for Amos' crimes? To modern ears this sort of announcement is puzzling; how is this fair? But to ancient ears such an announcement would have been clearly understood. 

Within Amos' culture, the concept of "corporate solidarity" was taken as a given. While we in the West stress individualism, ancient societies would stress responsibility towards family in a much greater way. Thus, that Amaziah's infidelity would destroy his family would have been expected--if his sin was indeed serious. In other words, if his family did not suffer much for his behavior it might serve to downplay the gravity of his wickedness.

Put another way, we might say that it would have been perceived as a near miracle if Amaziah's corruption had no implications for the rest of his family. Amos' announcement that they would suffer thus confirms what Amaziah's letter to the king suggests--he is an evil priest. 

Amos makes yet another point as well. While the elite--the kings and the priests--have gone astray, it is the lowly Amos, a "dresser of Sycamore trees" (i.e., a farmer), who has been chosen by God. The wealthy elite--represented here in particular by Amaziah--may be able to trace their success to the prudence or righteousness of their forefathers (e.g., according Exodus 32, the Levites became priests because when Israel worshipped a golden calf, the tribe of Levi alone identified as those on the Lord's side). Sin, however, undoes whatever "status" previous righteousness has established.

Yet we should also note that Amos has not simply taken upon himself to become God's messenger. His prophetic ministry is the result of a divine calling, not a career choice on his part. No one should presume to speak for God. We might delude ourselves by self-righteousness and convince ourselves that we are somehow the only answer to corruption. Actually, though, one must be called to act as a prophet. Amos has received such a calling.

Amos was only a farmer; he doesn't make any pretense about his origins. He is only preaching his message because he God chose him. Perhaps there's a lesson here: the smaller we are, the more capable we are of being used by God. Amos was only a farmer; he doesn't make any pretense about his origins. The more we rely on earthly status and worldly influence, the less room we leave for God to work. 

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: 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.
In the First Reading we heard about how God sent the prophet Amos to confront injustice and wickedness in the land of Israel. Such evils, the prophet announced, would bring judgment upon Israel in the form of violence and subjugation. The Responsorial Psalm provides a contrast: whereas sin leads to misery, the psalmist sings announces that the Lord brings justice and salvation.

I think all of us have seen this play out in our own lives. When we live selfishly and fail to love as God loves, we experience chaos in our lives. Yet when we learn to serve the Lord by serving others we discover the truth of Jesus' teaching, "For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 16:25).

In other words, the Lord brings peace, sin brings sadness. The choice is ours--and it's never too late to change our minds. If we fail to choose wisely, the Lord will still hear our prayers and deliver us if we return to him.

SECOND READING: Ephesians 1:3-14
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.
This Second Reading is rich and - on a personal note - is one of my favorite passages in the whole New Testament. 

I might add, if I had to pick one, this is perhaps my favorite sentence in the New Testament. I say that a bit tongue in cheek, for, though the English translation obscures it, in Greek it is all one sentence! In fact, it is the longest sentence in the whole New Testament. 

While much could be said, let me highlight a few main features of the text. 

Before moving on, let me just say that I'm not going to address the issue of authorship of Ephesians. Read this post for more on that. 

Trinitarian Blessing

In his fine commentary on Ephesians, Peter Williamson notes a Trinitarian structure to the blessing contained in Ephesians 1. 
1. The Father’s Plan:He [the Father] chose us. . . In love [the Father] destined us for adoption to himself (1:3).2. Fulfillment in the “Beloved” Son: In him [Jesus] we have redemption by his blood. . . to sum up all things in Christ” (1:7, 10)3. Inherited in the Spirit: sealed with the promised holy Spirit, which is the first installment of our inheritance” (1:13–14)
. . . he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world. . . (Eph 1:4)
The passage begins by affirming the predestination of believers. Some might find it strange to hear a Catholic talk about "predestination". Though the term is often linked to Calvinist soteriology, it also has an important place in Catholic theology since, as is clear from this passage, it is a biblical concept. 

Here is not the place for an in-depth reflection on the topic. Two points should be made though up front. First, for Catholic teaching, belief in predestination does not negate human free will. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it this way:
When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of “predestination,” he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 600).
Second, for Catholic tradition, "predestination" does not mean that God positively predestines certain individuals to hell. How does that work? There are different theories which I can't fully explain here. Perhaps the finest treatment of the issue remains that offered by John Paul II's doctoral supervisor, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., in, Predestination (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1939). [Here's a link]. 

Despite the differences of opinion, all Catholic attempts agree on one key idea: salvation is the result of God's initiative of grace. Again, to cite the Catechism of the Catholic Church: 
Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2010).
In Catholic teaching, the doctrine of predestination should not lead us to fear (i.e., "what if I'm not among the elect"?). Some of the spiritual writers of the Church actually suggest that if you are especially anxious over the issue of your election, that's an indication you are probably among the elect. 

The point is, this side of heaven, only God knows. But his divine foreknowledge knowledge does not impinge on our free will. God is not forcing anyone to go to hell. Although it puts things rather crudely (again, read Garrigou-Lagrange for a more sophisticated treatment), there is an essential truth in the old line: "If you go to heaven, it's because of God's grace; if you go to hell, it's your own damn fault." 

(I use the word "damn" here in the most appropriate sense of the term!)

Rather than being a fearful prospect, predestination is actually a consoling thought: God's grace cannot be overcome by the designs of the world or by the evil one. Note that for Paul the God who predestines is "Father" who intends to make us "sons" in the "beloved", Jesus. 

In short, God's plan unfolds according to his love and mercy. That is a plan we can trust.

. . . a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth. (Eph 1:10)
Here we hear about God has a single plan for all time that is ultimately fulfilled in Christ. The plan specifically involves uniting all things in heaven and earth in Jesus. There are two important terms here that are worth highlighting. 

First, the term translated "plan" in Greek is oikonomia, a term the fathers picked up and used in reference to the divine plan for salvation (the "divine economy"). Etymologically, the word comes from two Greek words: oikos, meaning "house", and nomos, meaning "law". The oikonomia refers to the "law of the house" or, perhaps better, the way a household is administered. 

Above we saw how the divine plan is associated with God the Father. In short, the divine economy, i.e., God's plan for salvation history, is not simply a strategy for managing humanity--it is nothing less than the expression of God's love for his people. 

The second term worth mentioning here is the Greek word translated "sum up": anakephalaioĊ. Drawing on this passage, the great early Christian father Irenaeus spoke of the way God "recapitulates" his plan in Christ. "Re-capitulate" literally means, "to re-head" (capita, is the Latin for "head"; i.e., to "de-capitate" is to sever a head from a body). In fact, within Ephesians 1 this reading makes sense, since the passage goes on to explain, 

. . . God has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:22–23; RSVCE.)

As Irenaeus would explain, all creation is now placed under the headship of Christ. Moreover, all salvation history is "summed up" ("recapitulated") in him - he is the New Adam, who succeeds where the old Adam failed; the New Isaac, the "beloved" son, who is sacrificed so that all nations might be blessed; the New Moses, who leads us out of slavery (to sin) and to the true promised land (i.e., the heavenly Jerusalem). 

GOSPEL: 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.
The Gospel reading--as usual--is related to the First Reading. In the former, we heard about the calling of Amos, who was sent by the Lord to prophesy to the people of Israel. In the Gospel, Jesus summons the twelve. Note, they do not simply select themselves. They don't even fill out an application! Again, as in Amos' case, ministry is the result of a calling not simply a career choice.

Jesus' directions to the apostle (e.g., "take nothing") indicates their need to rely on God's providence. Their ministry is the result of a divine calling; God will support it. Like Amos, they are to go out and preach a message that, if unheeded, will lead to judgment: "Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them."

As many scholars have noted, that Jesus chose "twelve" apostles is significant. As prophets such as Amos in our First Reading predicted, judgment fell upon the northern tribes when the Assyrians defeated them and carried them off into exile. This exile continued the "disintegration" of Israel that began after the ten northern tribes broke away from the kingdom of David after Solomon's death.

In fact, many have highlighted the way Jesus’ ministry in the northern territories of the land of Israel (Galilee, Samaria, etc.) seems related hopes for the restoration of the once twelve tribe confederation of Israel. New Testament scholar Sean Freyne, for example, noted that the Galileans were northern Israelites of non-Jewish (=Judahite) stock.[1] As the son of David, Mark seems to depict Jesus as restoring the united kingdom of David and Solomon through his ministry. After all, the kingdom of David was originally composed of all Israel—i.e., the northern tribes and those in the southern kingdom of “Judah” (the “Jews”).

Of course, for Mark, this involved more than political maneuvering--this involved a spiritual battle. In proclaiming the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus' coming the apostles "drove out many demons". 

Moreover, Mark tells us that they cure the sick with "oil". This element has typically been understood in Catholic tradition against sacramental theology and seen as a foreshadowing of the sacramental ministry of the Church. 

The twelve apostles not only represent the Church but specifically are understood as the first ministers of the New Testament. Indeed, going back as far as 1 Clement it was understood that the apostles passed on their authority to successors: 
"Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry" ( 1 Clement 42:4–5, 44:1–3).
If Amos was given a prophetic ministry that primarily concerned coming judgment, the apostles are entrusted with a ministry that primarily involves repentance of reconciliation (though certainly judgment is a component of their proclamation of the Gospel as mentioned above). Amos announced the exile and punishment for sin that would come upon the northern tribes. The apostles, sent into the same region, are to announce that the time of restoration has dawned. 

Of course, that same message of repentance is announced in the liturgy, which, through the sacramental ministry of the Church, brings healing to our souls. There we approach Jesus and, with words inspired by the Centurion who also looked for a miracle of healing, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed."

[1] Galilee, Jesus and the Gospels: Literary Approaches and Historical Investigations (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 130–31; 170–71.


joeboyleboys said...

You say, "Sin, however, undoes whatever "status" previous righteousness has established.", and I nod my head in agreement; this is truth in my experience.

Peace, Joe

PS - glad you are back. Hope Steubenville was awesome!

Cheech said...

Much to think about! I try and not to get anxious about predestination and will leave that concept in the things I just can't get. Thanks for all of your insights.