Feb 26, 2017: 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

but-to-fulfill-it-2

1st Reading – Isaiah 49:14-15

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.

Although today’s first reading consists of two short verses, it is an extraordinary exchange between God and the nation of Israel.

Zion said,

Although Zion is the name of the mount in Jerusalem upon which the Temple was built, in poetic passages it frequently referred to the entire nation, much as Washington, D.C. represents the government and actions of the entire United States today.

“The LORD has forsaken me;

Zion identifies God by YHWH, his divine name, and admits that he is her lord. The verb āzab, translated here as “forsaken,” presumes there was some kind of relationship in the past, but despite this, Zion has been abandoned.

my LORD has forgotten me.”

This second verb, shākah (“forgotten”) suggests disregard on God’s part.  While acknowledging that Yahweh is her lord and master, the lament is quite terse — a piercing cry.

Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? 

Though not explicitly stated in the text, it is God who speaks.  The metaphor of a mother and her nursing child is extraordinary, given that, like all societies of the time, ancient Israel was a patriarchal society dominated by male-centered values.  The imagery is striking in its intimacy and feminine nature; such a metaphor would have been considered presumptuous if not placed by the prophet into the mouth of God.

Even should she forget, I will never forget you.

It is improbable, but possible, that a woman would forget her own child.  Even still, God will never forget his people.  Therefore, though Zion may feel abandoned and forgotten, it is only a feeling; it is not a fact.  God’s attachment to his people will never be severed.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Brothers and sisters:
Thus should one regard us: as servants of Christ
and stewards of the mysteries of God.
Now it is of course required of stewards
that they be found trustworthy.
It does not concern me in the least
that 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 darkness
and will manifest the motives of our hearts,
and then everyone will receive praise from God.

As we conclude our journey through 1st Corinthians for this year, Saint Paul continues his argument against divisions in the Church.

Brothers and sisters: Thus should one regard us: as servants of Christ

The term used here for “servant” is hypērétēs, which originally referred to the “under-rowers” who worked the oars in the bowels of a ship.  It later came to denote the secondary servants of those in official positions.

and stewards of the mysteries of God.

Stewards (oikonómos) were the servants responsible for the administration of the household, including the equitable distribution of goods.  Paul uses this term to acknowledge that he and the other apostles are administering his master’s property and not their own.  They are charged with preaching divine revelation and not their own doctrines.  In other words, they are stewards, not lords.

Paul has already identified the death and resurrection of Christ as the mystery of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).  Here he is probably alluding to all the blessings that flow from that primary mystery.

Now it is of course required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.

The first and indispensable quality demanded of the apostle is that he be trustworthy, with a conscious devotion to God’s interests rather than his own.

“A steward’s duty is to administer well the things that have been entrusted to him. The things of the master’s are not the stewards but the reverse — what is his really belongs to his master.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392), Homilies on the First Epistle to the Corinthians 10,5]

It does not concern me in the least that 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.

Paul has committed himself wholeheartedly to the proclamation of the gospel, to the distribution of the mysteries of God, and he stands by this claim regardless of what others may think.

This might sound like Paul is exempting himself from judgment, but this is hardly the case, for he acknowledges that he is obliged to give an account of his stewardship.  The Lord will be his judge, and such judgment is bound to be much more demanding than mere human judgment.

Therefore do not make any judgment before the appointed time,

Paul cautions the Corinthians against censoriousness — the forward and severe judging of others.  He is not referring to those in authority, who pass judgment within the fulfillment of their office, nor of private judging concerning facts that are well-known.  Paul is referring to fellow sinners judging another person’s future state, or the motivations and principles of their actions, or about facts that are in doubt.  To judge in these cases, and give decisive sentence, is to assume the seat of God and challenge his prerogative.

The appointed time is kairós, or decisive moment of history when the Lord comes.

until the Lord comes,

This is likely a reference to the parousía, the coming of Christ at the end of time.  If so, it lends an eschatological dimension to the judgment that Paul is referring to.

for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts, and then everyone will receive praise from God.

This will be the time of ultimate revelation — what is now hidden will be disclosed.  Human beings can be wrong, but God knows the motives of the heart.

Gospel – Matthew 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.”

This week we continue our study of the Sermon on the Mount.

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.

The reading opens with a statement about absolute loyalty: no one can serve two masters.

Although we think of mammon today as being money, the Talmud uses the term also to describe possessions in general. In the New Testament, the word mammon appears only on the lips of Jesus and is always used to contrast earthly good with heavenly realities.

Taken together with verses 19-21 (not in this reading) and the passage which follows, the radical character of this teaching becomes evident. Material possessions are a false god that demands exclusive loyalty but we are to have only one God (the first commandment). This doesn’t mean that material possessions are evil and that we shouldn’t own anything — money and mere things are morally neutral.  However, any inordinate attachment to “things” must be totally and completely repudiated.

God must be first in our lives and the possessions we have we should always be willing to sacrifice to God.

“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?

“Worry” is more than simple thought and planning. Jesus is referring to the kind of worry which leads to a divided loyalty and ultimately to an exclusive concentration of possessions. Jesus is not naive about the reality of human needs (see verse 32: your heavenly Father know that you need them all), nor does he advocate passivity or laziness in the face of hard work.  He is teaching about having our priorities straight, appreciating humankind’s place in the natural world, and trusting in the goodness and providence of God.

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?

This is the first of two examples from nature to demonstrate his point, which is an instructional technique used universally by Wisdom teachers.

The audience to which these sayings are addressed is composed primarily of peasants and laborers — Jesus says nothing to invite them to abandon their life of incessant toil.  Passivity and laziness are at odds with the human drive to work for food and clothing and shelter.  But human beings must trust that God will provide opportunities for them to procure what they need.

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,

Here, Jesus uses the example of the wild flowers which bloom in profusion on the Palestinian hills; hills which are a dull brown most of the year. The bright display of color lasts only a few weeks, but it is very impressive while it lasts. Solomon’s clothing, the proverbial example of wealth in the Bible, did not endure much longer than the wild flowers in the overall history of God’s people.

O you of little faith?

Jesus is calling them out — their faith is not as deep as it should be (see also Matthew 14:31; 16:8; 17:20).

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.

To make the provision of food and clothing one’s major concern, an object of anxiety, is to live like the pagans who know no dedication except to the accumulation of goods in this world. We are reminded that we are precious in God’s eyes and we, even as we toil, must learn to trust in God’s providence.

Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”

This saying is rather paradoxical to modern ears, especially since we are urged by society to “save for our later years”. In fact, the Church encourages us to provide for our old age so that we do not become a burden upon our family and on society.

What Jesus is saying that all the worry in the world today can do nothing about the cares and problems of tomorrow.   Each day has enough trouble, or evil, of its own without compounding it with worry.

Connections and Themes

Servants and stewards.  During these Sundays of Ordinary Time we have been with the disciples in the presence of Jesus, listening to his instructions about discipleship.  Given the affection shown for us by God in the first reading, and the privileged roles assigned to us in the second, we may be tempted to boast.  What can be more noble that the upbuilding of the reign of God?  What could deserve our commitment more than the proclamation of the gospel?  And yet we must remember that as disciples, we work under the jurisdiction and direction of the master.  We are not independent agents; it is God’s kingdom, and we will always be accountable to God.

Do not worry.  Whatever exhilaration we may experience from our call to discipleship, and despite our great enthusiasm and genuine commitment, it doesn’t take long for the enormity of the task to become apparent.  We might begin to doubt ourselves or doubt the call itself.  Since upbuilding the reign is God’s plan in the first place, and since God knew our strengths and weaknesses and called us nonetheless, we should have confidence that God will see us through the task that has been given to us.  All is in the hands of God; for our part, we have only to trust.

Of course, this sounds much easier than it actually is.  Our limitations and sinfulness get in the way.  Society seems bent on undermining our every effort at discipleship.  Sometimes the obstacles seem to come from the Church, its structures, and its personnel.  In the midst of such darkness, we hear the voice of Jesus gently but firmly saying: Do not worry!  Trust!  God cares for the birds and the grass, surely God will care for you.

The God we trust.  In each reading, we are encouraged to trust in God.  Paul tells us that God is a loving master, and will be a righteous judge at the appointed time, bringing to light what is hidden in darkness.  Jesus tells us to trust in God and not to worry about tomorrow.

Perhaps the image that most instills trust in us is that of the woman who nurses the child to whom she has just given birth.  We are so used to masculine metaphors that many of us have to come to think of God as male, and we are shocked when female imagery is used.  But what better metaphor to speak of God’s total commitment to our needs than a mother suckling the child of her womb?  There is an intimacy here that can be compared with nothing else; there is a complete giving of oneself.  This is the kind of bond with which we are attached to God.  This bond is the basis of our trust. [Dianne Bergant, Preaching the New Lectionary]

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