Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Always Prepared: Readings for the 19th Sunday in OT

My father once served as the chaplain for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.  (U.S. Navy chaplains also serve the Marines and the Coast Guard).  I have fond memories of that beautiful seaside city.  In any event, perhaps the only bit of Coast Guard culture that I absorbed during my dad’s tour of duty was the motto: Semper Paratus, “Always Prepared,” which seems an appropriate summation of the theme of this Sunday’s Readings, which stress vigilance in the Christian life.  In fact, these Readings feel like something we might get in November, closer to the Solemnity of Christ the King, but here they are coming to us in the middle of Ordinary Time.  Yet perhaps that’s appropriate, because it is not just at the end of our lives (or the liturgical year) that we need to be vigilant, but at all times—even and especially when its literally or metaphorically “summertime, and the livin’ is easy …”

1.  Our First Reading is Wisdom 18:6-9:

The night of the Passover was known beforehand to our fathers,
that, with sure knowledge of the oaths in which they put their faith,
they might have courage.
Your people awaited the salvation of the just
and the destruction of their foes.
For when you punished our adversaries,
in this you glorified us whom you had summoned.
For in secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice
and putting into effect with one accord the divine institution.

The Book of Wisdom shows up eight times on Lord’s Days or Feast Days, which is a pretty decent showing for an Old Testament book of its length.  I’d like to take the opportunity of this reading to discuss some of the background of the book.

The Wisdom of Solomon, one of the last Old Testament books to be written, provides perhaps the most thorough treatment of the final judgment, resurrection, and eternal life of any book prior to the Gospels.  Some see it as a canonical answer to the agnosticism of Ecclesiastes (which we read last week): if in Ecclesiastes Solomon expressed skepticism about the life to come and despondency over the prospect of death, in Wisdom he has found faith that death is not the final answer, and righteousness finds its reward in the life to come.

The Book of Wisdom was almost certainly written first in Greek, in the third or second century BC, probably in Alexandria, Egypt, the premier center of Hellenistic Jewish culture in antiquity.  Because of its late origin, Greek language, and Alexandrian connections, it was not received as canonical in Rabbinic Judaism, whose roots were in the Pharisee movement in Palestine.  However, it was received as canonical among Greek-speaking Jews in the diaspora and by the early Church.  Indeed, it was quite popular among the Fathers, who quoted it frequently and explicitly as Scripture.

In the Septuagint tradition, the book was called Sophia Salōmōnos (Wisdom of Solomon) and eventually found a stable place in the canonical order after Job, thus providing a robust vision of the life to come after Job’s struggles with the injustices of this present life.  In the Vulgate tradition, the book’s full title is Liber Sapeintiae Solomonis (The Book of the Wisdom of Solomon), and it was placed immediately after the “three books of Solomon” (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song) proper, because the pseudepigraphal nature of Wisdom was long recognized.  Falling in this order, the four books (Proverbs through Wisdom) present a kind of theological odyssey of the “canonical Solomon”:
in Proverbs, he attains the wisdom that leads to temporal success;
in Ecclesiastes, he despairs of temporal success because death renders it vain;
in the Song, he discovers that love is stronger than death (Song 8:6);
in Wisdom, he falls in love with Lady Wisdom (the Spirit of God) and so attains immortality.

The Book of Wisdom falls naturally into two main parts.  In the first (chs. 1-9), Solomon exhorts the “rulers of the earth” to love righteousness (1:1), which will enable them to become wise (1:4) and reign forever (6:20-21), following Solomon’s own example (chs. 7-9).  In the second part (chs. 10–18), the sacred author seeks to demonstrate his thesis about the connection of righteousness, wisdom, and immortal reign by tracing and justifying Wisdom’s actions through the sacred history of Israel, from Creation to the Exodus. One chapter covers Wisdom’s work from Creation up to the Exodus (ch. 10), whereas eight chapters are devoted to Wisdom in the Exodus itself (chs. 11-19). 

This Sunday’s Reading comes from this last section of the book, in which the sacred author discusses the plagues on Egypt and the Exodus.  He sees poetic justice in the fact that the Egyptians were punished by the darkness which heretofore they had loved as a cover for their wickedness (17:1-21), whereas the Israelites enjoyed light (18:1-4).  God’s justice was also at work in the Plague on the Firstborn, since the Egyptians themselves had long before plotted to slay all children born to the Israelites (18:5-19).  The Israelites also faced plagues of death in the wilderness, but were protected by righteous, priestly intercession (18:20-25).  By contrast, the self-destructive wickedness of the Egyptians reached its ultimate finale in the annihilation of Pharaoh’s pursuing armies at the Red Sea (19:1-5), while the people of Israel, crossing the Red Sea, experienced a virtually new creation, as they found nature assisting them in their journey toward the Promised Land (19:6-12).

This Sunday’s Reading, an excerpt of this larger discussion, stresses the vigilance of the Israelites on the night of the Passover, during which their sacrificial offerings in secret—namely, the Passover lamb that they were sacrificing and eating indoors in safety from the Angel of Death—protected them from the plague that afflicted the Egyptians.  In this episode from Israel’s sacred history, we see an example of vigilance, but also how vigilance is related to worship.  The Israelites kept vigil through the night of the Passover while they awaited their deliverance, and the vigil took the form of a liturgical sacrifice.  So it is with us.  We need to stay vigilant through the “night” of this life, and the one of our tools of vigilance is participation in the New Passover, the Eucharist.  By weekly or even daily participation in the Eucharistic liturgy, we stay spiritually awake and alert, conscious of sin and yet growing in holiness, contemplating the things of God as we await Christ’s coming. 

2.  The Responsorial Psalm Ps 33:1, 12, 18-19, 20-22:

R. (12b) Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.
Exult, you just, in the LORD;
praise from the upright is fitting.
Blessed the nation whose God is the LORD,
the people he has chosen for his own inheritance.
R. Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.
See, the eyes of the LORD are upon those who fear him,
upon those who hope for his kindness,
To deliver them from death
and preserve them in spite of famine.
R. Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.
Our soul waits for the LORD,
who is our help and our shield.
May your kindness, O LORD, be upon us
who have put our hope in you.
R. Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.

Our Psalm reiterates themes from the First Reading: the blessing of being part of God’s chosen nation; God’s care and deliverance for those who “hope” in him; the vigilance of God’s people as they “wait for the LORD.” 

3.  The Second Reading is Heb 11:1-2, 8-19:

Brothers and sisters:
Faith is the realization of what is hoped for
and evidence of things not seen.
Because of it the ancients were well attested.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place
that he was to receive as an inheritance;
he went out, not knowing where he was to go.
By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country,
dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise;
for he was looking forward to the city with foundations,
whose architect and maker is God.
By faith he received power to generate,
even though he was past the normal age
—and Sarah herself was sterile—
for he thought that the one who had made the promise was
So it was that there came forth from one man,
himself as good as dead,
descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky
and as countless as the sands on the seashore.

All these died in faith.
They did not receive what had been promised
but saw it and greeted it from afar
and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth,
for those who speak thus show that they are seeking a homeland.
If they had been thinking of the land from which they had come,
they would have had opportunity to return.
But now they desire a better homeland, a heavenly one.
Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God,
for he has prepared a city for them.

By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac,
and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son,
of whom it was said,
“Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.”
He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead,
and he received Isaac back as a symbol.

We have just finished a month of Readings from Colossians, and the Lectionary now moves into a three-week sequence from the Book of Hebrews.  For whatever reason, the Lectionary splits up the Book of Hebrews and reads the doctrinal portion (Heb 1-10) during the last several weeks of Year B (leading into Christ the King), but the exhortation portion (Heb 11-13) is read now, on Weeks 19-21 of Year C. 

In light of the theme of vigilance and preparedness as we wait for the Lord, this Reading from Hebrews has much to say.  The sacred author of Hebrews points out that the great saints of the Old Testament lived their entire lives in a state of “alert anticipation,” or “prepared patience.”  They waited in faith their entire lives for promises that were not visibly realized prior to their deaths.  Abraham, for example, was promised the land of Canaan but died owning only a single small plot of it.  Abraham and the other Old Testament heroes lived lives of faith, detached from the things of the world because they were nomads on the earth, journeying toward God’s promise but not settling down.  The sacred author asserts that ultimately their faith and hope were focused beyond this life, in God himself.  In this, they set us an example.

4.  This week’s Gospel is Lk 12:32-48:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock,
for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.
Sell your belongings and give alms.
Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out,
an inexhaustible treasure in heaven
that no thief can reach nor moth destroy.
For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

This first unit of the Gospel Reading emphasizes the theme of poverty that we discussed last week.  Jesus calls his disciples “little flock,” implying that he is the Shepherd, and thus drawing on much shepherd imagery and prophecy of the Old Testament.  We could mention Ezekiel 34, the great shepherd prophecy, or Psalm 23:

The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall lack nothing …

Psalm 23 is a particularly appropriate background text for Jesus’ teaching in this Gospel, because it is faith in Jesus the Good Shepherd who will provide everything we need that enables us to “sell our belongings and give alms,” that is, live a life of simplicity, poverty, and generosity.  There is a tremendous freedom and joy that comes from not being burdened down with too many possessions and the concern to maintain them all.

“Gird your loins and light your lamps
and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding,
ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.
Blessed are those servants
whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival.
Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself,
have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them.
And should he come in the second or third watch
and find them prepared in this way,
blessed are those servants.
Be sure of this:
if the master of the house had known the hour
when the thief was coming,
he would not have let his house be broken into.
You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect,
the Son of Man will come.”

In this next paragraph, Jesus moves into discussing the active vigilance that should characterize the Christian life.  The image of Passover lies in the background—the great liturgical vigil when Israel awaited the arrival of the LORD to take them away and betroth them to himself at Sinai.  Thus the imagery of staying awake on a wedding night. 

Jesus says the master will return and “wait” on the servants while they “recline at table.”  This was not ancient custom—no master would come home and then wait on his servants.  This is, however, Eucharistic and eschatological imagery.  We “wait” for the LORD  during the Eucharistic celebration, and at communion the celebrant “waits” on us and serves us the meal as we “recline” at the table of the LORD.  This in itself is a type and anticipation of the Heavenly Banquet, our eternal reward.

What does it mean to speak of the “coming of the Son of Man”?

In the first sense, it refers to Jesus Second Coming at the end of time, to judge all mankind.  No one knows when this will arrive.

In the second sense, this refers to Jesus coming for us at the hour of death, which likewise we do not know.

In the third sense, this refers to a “visitation” from the Lord in a season of testing, a time when Jesus may come to us to test our faith, as the LORD did to Abraham in Genesis 22 as mentioned in our First Reading. 

For all these “comings” of the LORD we need to be ready and alert, that is, not given over to indulgence of the threefold concupiscence: Lust of the Flesh (lust, gluttony, etc.), Lust of the Eyes (greed, avarice, attachment), and Pride.  A life of prayer, penance (like small mortifications and periodic fasting), and frequenting the Sacraments constitutes “vigilance.”  Such a lifestyle keeps the spirit from becoming sluggish due to indulgence of the flesh.

Then Peter said,
“Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone?”
And the Lord replied,
“Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward
whom the master will put in charge of his servants
to distribute the food allowance at the proper time?
Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so.
Truly, I say to you, the master will put the servant
in charge of all his property.
But if that servant says to himself,
‘My master is delayed in coming,’
and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants,
to eat and drink and get drunk,
then that servant’s master will come
on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour
and will punish the servant severely
and assign him a place with the unfaithful.
That servant who knew his master’s will
but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will
shall be beaten severely;
and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will
but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating
shall be beaten only lightly.
Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,
and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”

Is it just an accident that in response to Peter’s question, the Lord begins to talk about a “faithful and wise steward” who will be put in charge of all the servants?  Matthew 16:18-19, when read in light of Isa 22:22ff, demonstrates that Jesus appointed Peter as the royal steward of his kingdom.  For myself I am convinced that this portion of Luke 12 is St. Luke’s equivalent of Matt 16:18-19.  It is the passage of his Gospel that lays out the Petrine role in the Church. 

Peter and his successors are the “faithful and prudent steward” appointed over all the servants to “give them their food at the proper time,” that is, to provide the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist.  Yet we have had the bad popes (like the Borgias) that abused the servants and used their position for their own pleasures: they will face judgment. 

This whole parable gives us a picture of the role of papacy as we await the Second Coming.  The pope is the wise steward, the “head butler”, who keeps us rallied together and makes sure we’re all fed and carrying out our tasks while we wait for the master to come back.  Pope Francis has set an example of austere living and has urged us to practice the poverty and simplicity recommended in the beginning of this Gospel reading.  Pope Francis is very self-conscious of his role as “Peter.”  In his closing remarks to World Youth Day, he said he did not know if he would personally be present at WYD 2019 in Panama (for he is getting old), but regardless, “Peter” would be there. Pope Francis has a very strong sense of the continuity of the Church and the endurance of the Petrine charism of the papacy, even if the world and the Church itself often seem to experience turmoil. 

In our Gospel passage, the varying degrees of punishment referred to, based on each one’s knowledge and therefore culpability, may refer either to hell or to purgatory.  In any event, it teaches us that punishment in the afterlife will not be “one size fits all,” but the severity of punishment for wickedness in this life will be proportionate to the amount of revelation we have received.  The spiritual tradition refers to this as being “judged according to one’s lights”, that is, according to the “light” (i.e. revelation, information received about God and salvation) each one experienced.  How sobering, then, for those who are teachers, priests, superiors, professors, or other kinds of spiritual leaders!  They have had so much education: woe be to them if they pervert what they have received! Thus Jesus says “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42). It would be healthy to have a plaque made of this verse and have it hung in the theology departments of every Catholic school and university. Jesus had no encouragement or consolation to offer to authority figures who lead the young or the ignorant into committing sin. May none of us every do such a thing.

Most of us reading this blogpost have had a substantial formation in the Catholic faith.  We are those about whom Jesus says:

Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,
and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.

This Sunday’s Mass is an opportunity for us to make an examination of conscience concerning our fulfillment of our responsibilities.  Am I putting my knowledge of the faith to good use by sharing it with others, or am I “keeping it all to myself”? AmI generous in the use of my talents in my parish, diocese, or various apostolates? Will I be able to look Jesus in the face on the last day, with a clear conscience that I did what I could with the formation and talents that were entrusted to me, for the building up of the Church?

No comments: