Mar 3, 2019: 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Sirach 27:4-7

When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear;
so do one’s faults when one speaks.
As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace,
so in tribulation is the test of the just.
The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had;
so too does one’s speech disclose the bent of one’s mind.
Praise no one before he speaks,
for it is then that people are tested.

Today’s first reading is a short collection of proverbs containing wisdom gleaned from life experience.

According to the prologue and other passages in the book of Sirach, the inspired author was a learned scribe, a humble and zealous man, who lived in Jerusalem. He opened a school to give moral and civic education to all comers; there, under the inspiration of God, he wrote this book.  The prologue states that Ben Sirach wanted to write this book for those living abroad “who wished to gain learning, being prepared in character to live according to the law.”

When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do a man’s faults when he speaks.

The first proverb teaches that appearances can be deceiving, using agricultural imagery.  When wheat is first cut, it contains the husk, some beard, and straw.  Only with some kind of threshing does this debris appear; so it is with people.

According to the author, that threshing in a person’s words.  When someone speaks, any facade falls away and the real person is revealed.

As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace, so in his conversation is the test of a man. 

The second proverb uses a different metaphor to teach the same lesson.  It is impossible to make pots that will endure without firing them in a kiln; however, too much heat will crack them.  The potter must know exactly how much heat the pottery can endure.

So it is with people: tribulation tests the mettle of the person, and that mettle is revealed in one’s speech.

The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so too does a man’s speech disclose the bent of his mind. 

Finally, the quality of the fruit reveals the degree of care given to a tree.  So it is with people: their speech betrays their thinking.

By their fruits you shall know them (Matthew 7:16).

Praise no man before he speaks, for it is then that men are tested.

This final bit of advice provides the point of all the preceding proverbs: Wait until you hear what people have to say before you praise them.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 15:54-58

Brothers and sisters:
When this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility
and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
then the word that is written shall come about:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?

The sting of death is sin,
and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God who gives us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters,
be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord,
knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Today we conclude our reflections on Paul’s teaching about the resurrection by considering Jesus’ vanquishment of death.

Brothers and sisters: When this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, 

Paul has repeatedly insisted that believers are joined to the risen Lord in faith and through baptism.  Therefore, what is perishable and mortal (because it was fashioned out of dust) takes on the imperishability and immortality of resurrection.

Although he uses the image of putting on garments, he is not suggesting this is merely a change in appearance.  It is a radical transformation.

then the word that is written shall come about: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

Paul combines and reinterprets two Old Testament texts: Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14.

This radical transformation will happen in fulfillment of the Scriptures, thereby establishing continuity between the cherished traditions of ancient Israel and the Christian faith.

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.

Paul cites the long-held conviction that death is the consequence of sin (see Romans 5:12).  He then moves on to the law which, regardless of its cherished value, not only directs people to righteous living but actually convicts people of sin (see Romans 5:13).

“Without the law sin was weak. It existed, to be sure, but it did not have the power to condemn, because although evil occurred, it was not clearly pointed out. Thus it was no small change which the law brought about. First, it caused us to know sin better, and then it increased the punishment. But if the effect of the law was to increase sin when it meant to check it, that is not the fault of the law but of the way which it was abused.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 392), Homilies on the First Epistle to the Corinthians 42,4]

But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

However, God has given us victory over sin and death through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Christ did not win the victory for himself but for our benefit. For when He became a man, He remained God, and by overcoming the devil, he who never sinned gained the victory for us, who were bound in death because of sin. The death of Christ defeated the devil, who was forced to surrender all those who had died because of sin.” [The Ambrosiaster (between A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

The instruction ends with an exhortation to be firm and steadfast, which suggests that his audience was facing conditions that could cause them to waver in their faith.  Paul tells them to place their hope in the power of the resurrection and to live lives of dedication to the Lord.  If they do this, they can trust that the risen Lord will bestow on them the blessings that flow from the victory that has been won.

Gospel – Luke 6:39-45

Jesus told his disciples a parable,
“Can a blind person guide a blind person?
Will not both fall into a pit?
No disciple is superior to the teacher;
but when fully trained,
every disciple will be like his teacher.
Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye,
but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?
How can you say to your brother,
‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’
when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye?
You hypocrite!  Remove the wooden beam from your eye first;
then you will see clearly
to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.

“A good tree does not bear rotten fruit,
nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit.
For every tree is known by its own fruit.
For people do not pick figs from thornbushes,
nor do they gather grapes from brambles.
A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good,
but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil;
for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”

Today’s gospel reading is the conclusion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain.

Jesus told his disciples a parable, “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?

Parables are structured so that the listener concedes a point which he at first does not perceive as applicable to himself.  The audience is drawn in by having their curiosity piqued and attracting attention; the listener is compelled to hear how the story ends.

No disciple is superior to the teacher; but when fully trained, every disciple will be like his teacher. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?

Jesus is exhorting his disciples to criticize their own behavior.  They are too quick to find fault with others while remaining blind to their own shortcomings.  Setting themselves up as judges in this way makes them blind people leading other blind people, rather than faithful disciples of Jesus who are quick to forgive rather than judge.

How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’ when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye. 

A hypocrite is one whose outer way of living does not conform to an authentic inner disposition.

“A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For people do not pick figs from thornbushes, nor do they gather grapes from brambles. 

Jesus turns to the natural world to illustrate his meaning.  A tree brings forth the fruit it is disposed to bring forth: a good tree, good fruit; a rotten tree, rotten fruit; a fig tree, figs; a grape vine, grapes.

Because “every disciple will be like his teacher” (verse 40), our union with Jesus makes us “good trees.”

A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”

He then applies the metaphor to human beings.  A good person brings forth good fruit; an evil person brings forth evil fruit.

Note that we don’t begin bearing good fruit in order to become good trees!  It’s the other way around: Actions flow out of the disposition of one’s heart.

Connections and Themes

Integrity of speech. It is unfortunate that we do not always value the integrity of speech as we might.  We may even extol our ability to deceive others, to lead them on for our own advantage.  We cannot take people at their word, not even those who hold positions of trust such as politicians, newscasters, lawyers, ministers, even parents.  We may not honor truthful speech as we should, but we still recognize the havoc dishonesty of any kind plays in a society.  Some of us may want to get ahead any way we can, but no one of us wants to be a victim of dishonesty.

The Wisdom lesson for today addresses the question of integrity.  We have learned from the experience of life itself that honesty is not merely “the best policy,” it is essential if a society is to survive and thrive.  We recognize that there must be a measure of integrity between speech with which we communicate and the values and aspirations that motivate us.  There must be a comparable measure of integrity between our speech and our deeds.  It is not by accident that the Hebrew word dābār means both “word” and “deed.” Words identify our deeds, and our deeds are expressions of the words that are formulated first in our minds and then on our lips.

Transformation: A work of God.  We must never forget that the transformation of life we seek is possible, not through our own efforts but through the death and resurrection of Christ.  It was through his own death that death itself has been swallowed up; it was through his resurrection that human life has been changed for all time.  He is the true Word spoken, the incarnate Word in the flesh.  What he says and what he does are one.  We are merely beneficiaries of the marvels he has wrought.  It is because of him that we are able to persevere in the work of God, which we have taken upon ourselves.  We can never forget that the good work we accomplished in and through this Lord.

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