Friday, July 13, 2018

Unlikely Candidates for God's Service: The 15th Sunday of OT

Ancient Photo of Amos Found Among the Dead Sea Scrolls (colorized)
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).

To quote from my and Dr. Pitre's new book, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament, now shipping from Ignatius Press:

Amos is often thought to be the earliest of all the literary (writing) prophets, since his relatively short ministry probably fell in the decade 770-760 BC.  Amos 1:1 dates his prophecy to “two years before the earthquake” during the reigns of Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam II of Israel, an event that archeologists now estimate at c. 760 BC, ±25 yrs.  This would probably place his ministry just prior to Hosea’s longer career (c. 750-725BC).
         Amos, like Hosea, prophesied to northern Israel; but unlike Hosea, Amos was not a northerner himself.  He was a Judean from Tekoa, a village to the south of Jerusalem, an agricultural worker who raised sheep and tended an orchard of sycamore-figs (Amos 7:14). He was called by God to preach judgment to northern Israel at a time when that nation was wealthy, arrogant, and oppressive to their southern neighbors.  Amos clearly distances himself from the professional prophets who learned prophesying from their fathers and practiced it as a kind of family trade (see Amos 7:12-14).  He was not motivated by a desire to earn a living, but was impelled by a genuine commission from God (7:15).

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

Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, was an illegitimate political appointee who served 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 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.

Amos was not afraid to criticize the government of Israel in his day: a government that presumed to control religion, to tell people what was right and wrong, and set its own limits and rules for what qualified as worship.  “Never prophesy again in Bethel!  It is a king’s sanctuary and a royal temple!”  In other words, “Don’t you know you are on government property?  How dare you criticize state policies!  Who do you think you are?”  Fortunately, we all know that governments that seek to control the Church for political ends are long gone from our modern world, along with governments that presume to decide moral and religious issues for the populace, and to tell the Church what its rights are, and what they are not.  How fortunate we are that such things are never seen or heard anymore! But at other times and places in human history, this passage of Amos was very relevant and even poignant.

Interestingly, Amaziah projects onto Amos the same kind of utilitarian view of religion that Amaziah himself espouses.  Amaziah was a government functionary, a political appointee for whom serving as a priest was a way to support himself.  He assumes the same is true for Amos: “Flee to Judah!  There earn your bread by prophesying!”

But to view religion as a means to a temporal end, as a way to make money or support oneself, is always a gross distortion of one’s relationship to God.  St. Paul warns about “men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim 6:5).  Incalculable damage has been done to the Church through the ages by persons in the priesthood, religious life, or religious education who have lost their faith but continue in their roles because they have no other easy way to support themselves.  May God protect us from such persons, and keep us from becoming such persons ourselves!  This is a form of the “spiritual worldliness” against which Pope Francis has often warned us.  

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 realize.  Even physicists have discovered this: there are apparent “contradictions” in the material world that are nevertheless true.  For example, light behaves as either a wave of energy or a particle of matter depending on how human beings observe it, yet how this can be so is very difficult to imagine.

If anyone wishes to read more on the mysterious doctrine of predestination, I would recommend the book on the topic by Fr. Reginald Garigou-Lagrange, one of the greatest Thomistic theologians of the twentieth century.  Regardless of the precise view of predestination that one takes, St. Paul’s point in this passage is to glorify God for his wisdom and foreknowledge.  God is in control of history, and he guides all things toward the salvation of those he has chosen in Jesus Christ.  In fact, Jesus Christ is the final end of human history: God’s plan is to “sum up all things in Christ."

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.  Amos was a shepherd and tree-pruner.  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

This Gospel passage displays several themes that have been particular emphases of Pope Francis.  One is the reality of the demonic.  Again and again, early in his pontificate, Pope Francis emphasized the reality and personal character of the Devil.

Another important emphasis in Pope Francis’ ministry has been evangelical poverty.  On many occasions he’s called for a poor Church which is for the poor.  Poverty and detachment from material goods are always salutary for the soul.  Divesting ourselves of wealth clears our spiritual vision and frees us for ministry.  We are no longer concerned with the maintenance and preservation of all our possessions, but can devote ourselves to spiritual concerns.  “Take nothing for the journey but a walking stick …”  This is abandonment to divine providence!  Let’s pray for the courage to stike out to preach the Gospel, even if we do not know where the means to do so will come from!

Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you,
leave there and shake the dust off your feet
in testimony against them …

As an evangelism strategy, Jesus advises the disciples not to continue beating their heads against a wall when the local populace does not respond.  We cannot compel people to receive the Gospel.  Good use of our resources, as well as basic fairness, demands that we keep moving along to find who wants God rather than fighting with those who’ve had the offer and refused it.  This is a biblical basis for reviewing, periodically, whether there have been apostolic fruit from our evangelistic undertakings, and if not, moving on to address a different group or demographic.

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.  And for tips on how to share the Gospel as a lay person, let me recommend the resources of St. Paul Street Evangelization.


Want to go to the Holy Land and see where Jesus sent out the Twelve to preach and evangelize?  Join Dr. Bergsma's Pilgrimage to the Holy Land May 2019.  Info and sign up is here.

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