Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Trust in God the Father alone: The Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

In the beautiful encyclical letter, Lumen fidei, a letter begun by Pope Benedict XVI and finished by Pope Francis, faith is contrasted with idolatry.

The temptation of that sin was great, the popes explain. Why?
In place of faith in God, it seems better to worship an idol, into whose face we can look directly and whose origin we know, because it is the work of our own hands. Before an idol, there is no risk that we will be called to abandon our security, for idols "have mouths, but they cannot speak" (Ps 115:5). (Lumen fidei, no. 13)
Faith involves "risk". Better said, it involves trust.

As Lumen fidei explains, faith involves recognizing that God himself is faithful. The encyclical cites St. Augustine, "Man is faithful when he believes in God and his promises; God is faithful when he grants to man what he has promised" (Lumen fidei, 10; citing Augustine, In Psal. 32, II, s. I, 9: PL 36, 284).

This quote essentially sums up the message of the readings this Sunday. Let us take a closer look at them.

Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me;
my LORD has forgotten me.”
Can a mother forget her infant,
be without tenderness for the child of her womb?
Even should she forget,
I will never forget you.
Zion here is an image for the people of God. In context, Zion is in mourning because of the suffering of the exile. Zion appears to have been left abandoned.

In other passages, Isaiah describes the future hope of a return to Zion of both God and the exiles. Yet, awaiting that future day, it seems that in the interim Zion has been cast aside.

Here the Lord speaks with great love for his people, using the language of maternal love. The exile resulted from Israel's infidelity, not God's. The LORD has not forgotten his people or his covenant.

And, yet, during the time of suffering, that is exactly how it can feel. The psalmist will famously cry out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Ps 22:1).

Indeed, while Israel as a nation turned away from God and merited punishment, we must also assume that some of God's people sought to remain faithful. For such individuals, Psalm 44 might have become a sort of anthem:

All this has come upon us,
though we have not forgotten thee,
or been false to thy covenant.
Our heart has not turned back,
nor have our steps departed from thy way,
that thou shouldst have broken us in the place of jackals,
and covered us with deep darkness. (Ps 44:17-19)
Again, this is not to say that an Israelite could claim to be perfectly holy. Still, it certainly would have seemed to those who sincerely sought to follow the LORD that the intense suffering they were forced to endure was "deep darkness".

Why would the LORD allow it? As Abraham put it:
Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25)
Interestingly, the psalmist goes on to say:
"for thy sake we are slain all the day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter" (Ps 44:22). 
Scholars recognize a passage here that sounds a great deal like the Suffering Servant prophecy of Isaiah 53, a passage that I contend is in the background of the imagery used in the Second Reading:
"He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth" (Isa 53:7). 
Of course, Isaiah goes on to explain that the Servant's sufferings are ultimately redemptive. 

Notably, both passages come together in the writings of Paul. Paul seems to apply the Suffering Servant passage to Christ in Romans. This is probably most clear in Romans 4:25, where we read that Christ was "put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification." New Testament scholar Dale Allison says that passages such as this one "no doubt allude to Isa 53" (Constructing Jesus, 414).

That Paul also alludes to Psalm 44 in Romans 8 is also significant (cf. Rom 8:36). For Paul, believers share in Christ's suffering in order to be glorified with him, explaining that we are children of God and "if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him." (Rom 8:17).

The point is that even in periods where we feel most abandoned, God is faithful. On the cross, Jesus, quoting from Psalm 22, cries "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Yet Christ surely knew how that particular psalm ends: with the righteous being vindicated.

The righteous suffer. However, by doing so in faith, their suffering is redemptive.

This is the message of the First Reading. Even in the midst of our darkest hour we must remember that God is faithful. . . even when we are not.

RESPONSORIAL PSALM:  Psalm 62:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
R/ (6a) Rest in God alone, my soul.Only in God is my soul at rest;
from him comes my salvation.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
my stronghold; I shall not be disturbed at all.
R/ Rest in God alone, my soul.Only in God be at rest, my soul,
for from him comes my hope.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
my stronghold; I shall not be disturbed.
R/ Rest in God alone, my soul.With God is my safety and my glory,
he is the rock of my strength; my refuge is in God.
Trust in him at all times, O my people!
Pour out your hearts before him.
R/ Rest in God alone, my soul.
The psalm picks up the theme of the first reading: trust in God. 

However, the psalm goes on to emphasize a further point: Only in God be at rest, my soul. 

The imagery of "rest" evokes the Sabbath. Of course, the Sabbath itself is a sign of faith, of trust in God. Idolatry is worshipping the "work of your hands". Faith, therefore, consists in recognizing that our work is ultimately not the source of our security.

The Sabbath involves a rest from work. In essence, it means laying our efforts aside and trusting in God alone, i.e., not in ourselves. Our work is inadequate.

In this psalm, attributed to David by the superscription, this idea is applied to warfare. God is the "stronghold", literally, the "fortress". David will have victory by not trusting in his own military might or strategic genius. Ultimately God is his "rock"--i.e., his sure foundation.

However, the battle many of us fight is laying down our arms on the Lord's Day. Ceasing from gainful work can be difficult. We always need more money. The psalmist, however, is teaching us that we need to lay down our arms and, ultimately, trust in God.

We need God and time with our family even more than we need money. Learning that kind of detachment is a key part of the Gospel reading: we cannot serve God and money.

Brothers and sisters:Thus should one regard us: as servants of Christand stewards of the mysteries of God.Now it is of course required of stewardsthat they be found trustworthy.It does not concern me in the leastthat I be judged by you or any human tribunal;I do not even pass judgment on myself;I am not conscious of anything against me,but I do not thereby stand acquitted;the one who judges me is the Lord.Therefore do not make any judgment before the appointed time,until the Lord comes,for he will bring to light what is hidden in darknessand will manifest the motives of our hearts,and then everyone will receive praise from God.
This is a rich passage and much could be said about it. Let me simply focus on a few key ideas.

Servants of Christ. Paul says that his readers should regard him not as "celebrities" but as "slaves". The language here of "servants" might allude to the "Suffering Servant" of Isaiah. Elsewhere Paul will describe how he shares in Christ's sufferings (see above). I think an allusion, therefore, is likely.

Despising the opinion of the world. Paul cares not how he is judged by men. This, of course, coheres with the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: "Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets" (Luke 6:26).

John Chrysostom writes eloquently on this point:
“Let us not, therefore, seek the praises of men. For to do so is to offer an insult to God, as though we counted His praise insufficient, and so passed Him by, and strove for that of our fellow-servants. For as those who contend for the mastery in a small arena seek for themselves a larger, because they think that the other is not large enough to display their prowess, so do they who contend in the sight of God pass by the larger arena, when they seek for the applause of men, and heap up for themselves punishment through their lust for the lesser good. Everything has been perverted, the whole world overturned, by this desire of ours to do everything for the sake of men, by our want of diligence in good works, by our disdaining the praise of God, and seeking only that of our fellow-servants. In our crimes, again, we despise God, and fear man; for if man were present we should abstain from fornication, and even though our lust burnt more fiercely its violence would be held in check by very shame lest we be seen by man. But when none but God sees us, we not only are guilty of adultery and fornication, but we have dared and still dare to commit far more heinous wickedness. Would not this alone be enough to bring down upon us God’s avenging thunders? Hence it is that all our woes have sprung, because in our disgraceful actions we fear not God but man.” (cited in Lapide, at 1 Cor 4:3).
Faithful but not presumptuous. Paul here emphasizes that he lives by faith in Christ, not in himself. This is an important point. Catholics are often challenged by non-Catholic Christians about their "assurance" of salvation. Many Protestants subscribe to a view of "eternal security", i.e., "once-saved-always-saved."

I would contend that Paul, however, doesn't speak that way. He writes, "I am not conscious of anything against me but I do not thereby stand acquitted. . . do not make any judgment before the appointed time".

Sin has a way of deceiving us. As Paul explains in Romans 1, it "darkens" the intellect--it makes us stupid. We might think we are righteous. . . and not be.

Faith means constant conversion.

Moreover, faith is not about asserting one's own salvation, but trusting in the promises of Christ.

Stewards must be trustworthy. Stewards, Paul explains, should not be regarded as anything more than servants--and they must be trustworthy. The Greek word here is pistos, "faithful". Again, to have faith is to be faithful.

Stewards and the household of God. That Paul specifically identifies himself as a "steward" is significant. The term, oikonomos, is used to describe the servant who was put in charge of the master’s house (cf. Luke 12:41). The community of faith is ultimately a family. 

In fact, Paul elsewhere identifies himself as a father: "For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (1 Cor 4:15).

God is Father and the church is his family. Yet God has also established "stewards" over his family; father figures. 

And so the community of faith is ultimately a family. God is faithful because he is our Father. . . A point Jesus brings home in the Gospel reading. 

GOSPEL: Matt 6:24-34

Jesus said to his disciples:
“No one can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and mammon.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life,
what you will eat or drink,
or about your body, what you will wear.
Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds in the sky;
they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns,
yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are not you more important than they?
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?
Why are you anxious about clothes?
Learn from the way the wild flowers grow.
They do not work or spin.
But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor
was clothed like one of them.
If God so clothes the grass of the field,
which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow,
will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?
So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’
or ‘What are we to drink?’or ‘What are we to wear?’
All these things the pagans seek.
Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given you besides.
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.
Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”
The Gospel reading ties together all of the themes we have emphasized above. Specifically, Jesus explains what it means to have "faith"; it means to trust in God the Father.

No one can serve two masters. Above we saw how Paul described himself as a "servant". Jesus uses similar imagery. We are either a slave to this world or we serve God. We cannot, however, have it both ways. Paul rejected the opinion of the world. So too must we reject the world.

Here Jesus speaks of "mammon", a phrase that essentially means "wealth". You can't serve God and wealth. We either trust in God or we trust in your own resources.

God is Father, not just Master. But Jesus goes on to emphasize that we are not only called to be servants of God, he wills for us to become his children.

Over and over again, Jesus describes God as "your heavenly Father". The first reading emphasized that God loves his people with maternal tenderness. Jesus, however, makes a further point. If Isaiah describes how God loves his people like a mother, Jesus emphasizes that God is Father. The imagery is not simply poetic. God truly loves us as his children.

Greater than Solomon. The reference to Solomon here is, therefore, not coincidental. In the Old Testament, Solomon, the son of David, is identified as the "son of God" (cf. 2 Sam 7:14). Yet divine sonship is not something merely reserved for the powerful elite. In fact, the contrary is true: those who are truly sons of God are those who have faith in him to provide even for the basic necessities of life.

Poverty is linked to holiness. Make no mistake about it, riches are not advantageous for eternal life; at the very least, Jesus describes them as an obstacle.  More pointedly, he directs others to specifically embrace poverty.

"But, but, but. . . Don't we need to work hard to have money to live on?" Of course, but what do we really need in order to live? Jesus says not to be anxious about "clothes", "food" or "drink". God will provide.

Those of us in the West should feel challenged here (cf. also Luke 12:15-21). Stockpiling goods is not exactly what Jesus has in mind here. Essentially, Jesus is calling us to simplicity.

Why is poverty linked to holiness?

Once again, it comes back to trust.

Do we trust in God or do we trust ourselves? Do we worship God or the work of our hands?

And so, if you trust in God, why we you need that excess money in our bank account? Do we really need that extra TV or gadget?

Rather than saving it up for a rainy day, should we not use it to help others in greater need than ourselves?

Who do we trust? Because we can't serve God and wealth. I think this is a theme Pope Francis would have us especially meditate upon this Sunday.

Hopefully it will still be on our mind long after we hear the Gospel. . . specifically, when the collection basket comes along.

Among other things, remember that God the Father is working through our spiritual fathers. . . and their ministry is in ever greater need of our financial support.

One more shameless plug: please prayerfully consider donating to a school like John Paul the Great Catholic University (JP Catholic University). Many students enjoy the benefits of a faithfully Catholic university education because of the donations of others. You can help a student today who may be on the brink of having to walk away from a great opportunity because they can't figure out how to make ends meet. We also have big plans for the future including building projects and conferences. If you're interested in helping the school, contact tvandamm[at]jpcatholic[dot]com.

Always eager to hear your thoughts in the comment box.


Francisco Espinoza said...

I have read the explanation of the bible readings and I found them very helpful to understand what God wants us from me. I´m peruvian, I live in Huancayo by the andes mountains. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Thank you Dr. Bergsma & Dr.Barber ! These posts are helping Catholics all over the world immensely.

Deacon Jim said...

Thanks so much for your thoughts and commentary. I have borrowed your focus quote from Lumen fidei in my homily for the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time. That post can be found at after 3:00 EST today.

Thanks again.


Dcn. Jim Miles
St. Thomas the Apostle
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Diocese of Lansing

phatcatholic said...

"So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek."

I don't understand why food, drink, and clothing are things that the pagans seek. Those questions seem to me to be from a person who is trying to address basic needs, not from someone who is trying to hoard the things of the world. Can you explain that part for me?