July 15, 2018: 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

 Shake the dirt off your feet. (1)

 1st 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.”

Amos is the oldest of the books of prophetic literature, dating around 760
to 750 B.C. He appears to have been a layman with no special training for the religious
ministry. Amos wrote during the reign of Jeroboam II of the Northern Kingdom (i.e., Israel). It was a time of peace and prosperity but also a period of social and religious corruption.

Amos was from the town of Tekoa in the Southern Kingdom (i.e., Judah), which is about five miles south of Bethlehem, but he delivered his oracles in the Northern Kingdom, usually near the royal shrine of Bethel, just north of the border.

Today’s reading is an excerpt from the middle of a shouting match.  Amaziah, a priest of Bethel, is throwing out Amos, telling him to go home and make a living.

Amaziah, priest of Bethel,

Bethel means “house of El (God).” It is located about 14 miles north of Jerusalem. It was an important shrine in the Northern Kingdom.

Amaziah was not a priest of Yahweh, but an official employee of the crown.

said to Amos, “Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah!

Amaziah calls Amos a “seer” (hōzeh) rather than a prophet (nābî’).  This may have been intended as a slight insult, but probably not, since the two terms were often used interchangeably.

A seer usually was recognized for special personal gifts, and so was typically set apart from the community.  Prophets were frequently attached to a shrine or to the court and served the crown by prophesying prosperity for the king and his people, and disaster for the enemies of the nation.

In that sense, Amaziah may have been recognizing Amos’ special gifts while simultaneously asking him to leave, to return to his native land of Judah in the southern kingdom.

There earn your bread by prophesying,

This suggests that various religious leaders (like prophets) were either directly employed by the shrine or else supported themselves by donations of those who frequented there.

but never again prophesy in Bethel; for it is the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple.”

In the verses immediately preceding today’s reading, Amaziah sent a message to Jeroboam II reporting what Amos has said: “Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land.”

Essentially, Amos was prophesying against the king in the temple precincts, and Amaziah does not want the king to be insulted at the shrine under his own jurisdiction.

Amos answered Amaziah, “I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets;

The literal translation of the Hebrew is, “No prophet I, nor the son of a prophet.”  The likeliest interpretation is that Amos is claiming to not have been a prophet until the Lord called him (v. 15).  An alternative view is that he rejected the very title of “prophet.”

Regardless, the point Amos is making is that he is not a professional prophet, as Amaziah has implied by telling him to “there earn your bread.”  Nor does Amos belong to a guild of prophets, an example of which is seen in 1 Kings 22, with the story of Micaiah ben Imlah.

Amos is claiming his status as an independent agent: he does not depend on a king or a priest for support, and so was not beholden to them.  His only concern was doing the will of God.

I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.

Amos led a self-sufficient life as a shepherd and farmer before his calling; he didn’t become prophet out of necessity.

The sycamore tree bears fruit that resembles figs, which had to be tended in order to prevent insects from destroying it.

The LORD took me from following the flock, and said to me, Go, prophesy to my people Israel.

Amos defends his call from God, and in doing so, his right and responsibility to prophesy in Israel.

His vocation as a prophet is not by his choice or inheritance or training, but due to the personal intervention of God.  Amos has not chosen, he was chosen.

2nd 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.

Ephesians is the great Pauline letter about the worldwide church.  It is not known if the Ephesians were the first or only recipients of this letter; there is evidence that it was a type of encyclical, or “circular letter” that was sent to a number of churches in Asia Minor. (For example, the words “who are at Ephesus” (Ephesians 1:1) do not appear in the earliest Greek manuscripts.)  The letter to the Ephesians bears a strong parallel in both form and content to Colossians and may have been written to develop the teaching contained therein.

Today’s reading is a hymn of praise to God for the plan of salvation he has devised and brought to fulfillment for the benefit of men and all creation. In the Greek it is one long
complex sentence full of relative pronouns and clauses which give it a designated unity.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 

The blessing which begins here is akin to a Jewish barekah, rich in images almost certainly drawn from hymns and liturgy.

A trinitarian structure is recognizable in references to God and Father, our Lord Jesus Christ, and later (v. 13), the Holy Spirit.

who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens,

As is always the case in Christian theology, the blessings of God come to us through the agency of Christ.  This point is mentioned in every verse of the benediction, indicating its importance.

as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world,

Salvation in Christ is not an afterthought; it was God’s plan from the very beginning, “before the foundation of the world.”

to be holy and without blemish before him.

The concepts of being chosen and “without blemish” clearly reflect Old Testament theology.  In the Old Testament, the victim offered to God had to be unblemished, blameless (Genesis 17:1).

As Christians, all the baptized are called to live a sacrificial, holy life. Holiness is, therefore, a gift of God which implies an obligation to further its development.  In other words, salvation is the cause, not the consequence, of righteousness.

“It is asked how anyone can be saintly and unblemished in God’s sight. … We must reply (that) Paul does not say He chose us before the foundation of the world on account of our being saintly and unblemished. He chose us that we might become saintly and unblemished, that is, that we who were not formerly saintly and unblemished should subsequently be so.” [Saint Jerome (A.D. 386), Commentaries On The Epistle To The Ephesians, 1,1,4]

In love he destined us

Not individual predestination, but God’s choice for all mankind to share in his covenant life (see Romans 8:15).

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.

This introduces a recurrent theme in Ephesians: mankind, understanding God’s plan, should praise him and give thanks.

“So that our love for Him may become more fervent, He desires nothing from us except our salvation. He does not need our service or anything else but does everything for this end. One who openly expresses praise and wonder at God’s grace will be more eager and zealous.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392-397), Homilies On The Epistle To The Ephesians, 1,1,6].

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.

As we were destined for adoption through Christ, so also have we been redeemed from sin by his blood.  Christ paid the ransom for our sins out of the riches of his grace.

“Forgiveness of sins follows redemption, for there would be no forgiveness of sin for anyone before redemption occurs. First then we need to be redeemed, to be no longer subject to our captor and oppressor, so that having been freed and taken out of his hands we may be able to receive the benefit of remission of sins. Once our wounds have been healed we are called to live in accord with piety and the other virtues.” [Origen (post A.D. 244), Commentaries On Ephesians].

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.

Adoption, redemption, forgiveness of sin, and the gifts of wisdom and insight are all pure grace, gifts from God, bestowed through Christ.  Paul is insisting that all of this was done so that God’s plan would be brought to fulfillment, the plan to bring all things together in Christ.

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 this last section, Paul makes a distinction between two groups: “we who first hoped,” and “you also who have heard.”  The former is probably Jewish Christians, the latter, Gentile converts to whom the letter is addressed.

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,

The Gentiles who came afterwards were no less a part of the unity accomplished by Christ.  They too were sealed by the Spirit (probably a reference to their baptism).

which is the first installment of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s
possession, to the praise of his glory.

Paul refers to the first group as being chosen for the praise of God’s glory, and to the second group as the first fruits (arrabōn) of the inheritance of the first group. This might be an indication that they were second generation Christians.  Whoever they were, they too were called “to the praise of his glory.”

“He shows how great are our expectations. This grace is already being given, through which miracles were worked: the dead were raised, lepers cleansed and demons driven out. All of these and similar things have the status of a pledge, so it will become obvious that the faithful will enjoy in the future a much greater grace.” [Theodoret of Cyr (ca. A.D. 425), Epistle To The Ephesians, 1.14]

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.

This gospel reading is an account of the first missionary journey of the Twelve.  It immediately follows last week’s reading, when Jesus was rejected by his own people.

Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out

Note that the apostles are not invited, they are commissioned: sent out as someone with authority would send delegates or envoys.

two by two

Two witnesses are required in any life and death situation (Deuteronomy 19:6), and preaching the gospel of Jesus the Christ is preaching about spiritual life and death.

and gave them authority over unclean spirits.

The mission of the apostles is an extension of Jesus’ ministry of teaching, healing, and
exorcizing. It is clear that they can only do this through Jesus’ authority.

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.

Jesus requires them to be free of any form of attachment, relying on God’s providence and the hospitality of others.

The sandals and the stick helped ward off animals and protect them from snakes.  A sack or bag would have allowed them to carry things they receive along the way; the lack of one would communicate to those they encounter that they do not hope in any way to benefit personally from their ministry.

He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave from there.

They are instructed to accept the first invitation they receive, and stay there until they depart from that area. This prevented the appearance of searching for better quarters or trying to take advantage of the generosity of others.

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

Jesus is preparing them for rejection and failure.  When this occurs, they are simply to move on.

To shake the dust of a place from their sandals was the symbolic act that Israelites performed when returning from a foreign land — a precaution that no unclean substance should profane the Holy Land.  Any Jew who received this “testimony against them” would understand it as a reminder that they are subject to God’s judgment.

This lifestyle seems strange and even harsh to us today, and it was not really normative even in the early church.  Jesus is instructing his apostles to model his own behavior, to re-present the actions of Jesus in their own lives, even when he is not with them.  This is a stark reminder for modern Christians, amid endless meetings, projects, and escalating signs of wealth.

So they went off and preached repentance.  They drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

They were to perform a combination of words and deeds: preaching repentance, performing exorcisms, healing the sick.

In Jesus’ time, people saw illness and demons as concrete evidence of evil in the world; healings and exorcisms were seen as victories of God’s power.  These events lent credence to their message of repentance.

At this point, the mission of the apostles closely parallels that of Jesus.  They are preaching repentance, not salvation through Christ, as there has not yet been a resurrection.

Mark is the only evangelist who speaks of anointing with oil. Oil was often
used for treating wounds (Isaiah 1:6, Luke 10:34), and here the apostles also use it for the
miraculous cure of physical illnesses by virtue of the power (authority) given them by
Jesus.  This provides a hint of the sacrament of the sick, where anointing cures wounds of the soul and – if appropriate in God’s plan – bodily diseases as well.

Connections and Themes

  • This week we continue our examination of the prophetic life.  All three readings point us to an awareness of God’s call, the need to travel light, and boldness in the face of rejection.
  • Again and again, God chooses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.  Amos was a shepherd and farmer.  Many of the apostles were fishermen.  Paul was a tentmaker (Acts 18:3).  None of them had any ministry experience or formal training.
  • We too are called.  Our brokenness, vulnerability, or insecurities might make us reluctant prophets, like Amos.  However, Paul reminds us in the second reading that through our baptism, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit.  Not only that, but every spiritual blessing in the heavens has been bestowed upon us — a tremendous statement about the resources and strength that has been given to us for this task.
  • We must remember to travel light, as Jesus did. Disordered concern with worldly things serves only to weigh us down and distract from our mission.  This is true not only for material wealth, but also power, privilege, and ideologies.  We must constantly ask ourselves, am I merely collecting the benefits of my ministry, and serving my own desires?  Or am I truly serving the faith?
  • We must also risk rejection, as Jesus did.  Amos was thrown out of Bethel for pronouncing God’s message.  Paul was exiled and imprisoned for preaching the gospel.  Jesus was rejected as a “prophet without honor” by those who knew him best.  What are we to do when this happens?  Like the apostles, we shake the dust from our metaphorical sandals… and then move on.
  • In fact, Amos models this instruction quite well.  We see in Amos 8:4 that after being thrown out of Bethel, the prophet moves on and delivers his strongest message of all, denouncing those who “trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to ruin.”

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