July 7, 2019: 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Isaiah 66:10-14c

Thus says the LORD:
 Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her,
 all you who love her;
 exult, exult with her,
 all you who were mourning over her!
 Oh, that you may suck fully
 of the milk of her comfort,
 that you may nurse with delight
 at her abundant breasts!
 For thus says the LORD:
 Lo, I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river,
 and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent.
 As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms,
 and fondled in her lap;
 as a mother comforts her child,
 so will I comfort you;
 in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort.

 When you see this, your heart shall rejoice
 and your bodies flourish like the grass;
 the LORD’s power shall be known to his servants.

The first reading for today is an oracle of salvation from the greatest of the Old Covenant prophets, Isaiah.  (When we speak of the prophets as “great,” or “major”/“minor”, we are referring to the length of their recorded works.)

This passage is from the section of Isaiah that scholars refer to as Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66).  Third Isaiah offered hope to those who returned to the holy land after the Babylonian exile. The returned exiles were faced with many hardships as they tried to rebuild Jerusalem, which had been ravaged by the Babylonians.

Thus says the LORD: Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her, all you who love her;

The reason for rejoicing is the future restoration of Jerusalem.

Exult, exult with her, all you who were mourning over her!

The ones called to rejoice are those who had previously mourned for the city.

Oh, that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort, That you may nurse with delight at her abundant breasts!

Interestingly, Isaiah adroitly employs the metaphor of motherhood to characterize the relationship that will exist between the city and its inhabitants, using dominant images of femininity.  Like a nursing mother, Jerusalem will give of herself, feeding her inhabitants from the fullness of her own body. This image suggests a privileged intimacy, a wondrous dependency, even a child’s first ecstasy.

The word for “comfort” (tanhûm), sometimes translated as “consolation,” comes from the root for “repent,” “regret,” “be sorry.” It would seem that the people will be sorry and repent, and the city will hold them to her bosom and comfort them.  The very city for which they had previously mourned will comfort them!  This is truly reason for rejoicing.

For thus says the LORD: Lo, I will spread prosperity over her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent. 

The touching maternal scene is interrupted for a moment, as God promises anew to lavish abundant blessing on Jerusalem, giving hope that that the city would be rebuilt to its former glory.

Using poetic parallelism and a second metaphor, the author once again depicts the city’s life-giving properties, which find their ultimate source in God.  Water is essential for life in any part of the world, but especially in arid climates.  Since the land of Israel was bound on several sides by deserts or barren wildernesses, the people would be keenly aware of their need for water.

Flowing water, or water that was constantly being renewed by its source, was considered living water and came to be a symbol for life itself.

As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap; As a mother comforts her son, so will I comfort you; in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort.

The author returns to the motherhood metaphor, demonstrating the loving care this relationship will provide.  Those who are accustomed to think of God in exclusively male terms might find this characterization bold, even shocking.  But what better way to describe the self-giving nature of God than as a nursing mother who protects and soothes and plays with her child?

The contrast between this Jerusalem and the city they had mourned for not so long ago highlights the scope of restoration accomplished by God.  Jerusalem has gone from devastation to abundance.

When you see this, your heart shall rejoice, and your bodies flourish like the grass; 

The poet returns to the eschatological oracle.  On the day Jerusalem is so transformed, the people will rejoice with their entire being, with their hearts and their bodies (‘esem), or “bones” in some translations.

the LORD’S power shall be known to his servants.

The prophet wants the returned exiles to rejoice in God’s power, already made known to them by the fact that they have been allowed to return to the holy land. The power of God will shine forth from the restored city, and the People of God will rejoice.

2nd Reading – Galatians 6:14-18

Brothers and sisters:
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
through which the world has been crucified to me,
and I to the world. 
For neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision,
but only a new creation. 
Peace and mercy be to all who follow this rule
and to the Israel of God.

From now on, let no one make troubles for me;
for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit,
brothers and sisters. Amen.

Judaizing preachers from Jerusalem caused problems in the various new Christian congregations which Paul had founded. For the most part, these communities were composed of converts from paganism. The Judaizers had succeeded in convincing many leading members of the Galatian community to submit to circumcision and other Jewish
rites. These false teachers succeeded all the more easily because uncircumcised Christians
were persecuted by Pagans and Jews alike, whereas the circumcised, being regarded as
Jews, enjoyed comparative peace. They believed that the observance of the Mosaic Law was something very pleasing to God.

Paul responded to this situation with his epistle to the Galatians, written around A.D. 54. Today’s reading is the conclusion of this letter.

Brothers and sisters: May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Although Paul has the authority to teach as he does, he does not boast in his authority.  He knows that his authority comes from God and that it is to be used for only one purpose: to bring others to faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul does, however, go out of his way to boast in the cross.  We may not realize how shocking this is unless we remember the deep shame and disgrace of crucifixion.  It was a degrading death reserved for slaves, violent criminals, and political rebels.  It was not only an excruciating death, it was also a sign of ultimate defeat.  Jesus died as a convicted felon, and it is in the sign of this death that Paul boasts.

The Judaizers, on the other hand, boasted of their circumcision. In the verses immediately preceding this passage, Paul pointed out that the only reason to be circumcised is to avoid persecution: Those who desire to make a good showing in the flesh try to compel you to be circumcised, simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For those who are circumcised do not even keep the Law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised so that they may boast in your flesh.

through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

Paul moves step by step through his argument, beginning by describing his new relationship with the world.  Although Paul uses “world” in several ways throughout his writings, here he means the aspect of the human experience that is opposed to God.  It is the old age of sin and rejection, as opposed to the new age of grace and fulfillment.

Having been joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul has struck a death blow to the world and its system of values, and that world is now dead to him.

A world where the cross is central is a world that has been turned upside down.

For neither does circumcision mean anything,

Next Paul treats the question of circumcision.  This was the ritual act that symbolized membership in the People of God.  It separated Jew from Gentile and men from women.  Here Paul insists that it really makes no difference whether one is circumcised or not.

nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation.

The age of fulfillment has come and brought with it a new creation.  Faith in the power of the cross of Jesus is the sign of membership in the People of God.  Thus, women and men from every race and ethnic origin are welcome in this community.

“Paul also mentions a new creation in his letter to the Corinthians. … The strict meaning of ‘new creation’ is the transformation of all things which will occur after the resurrection from the dead. For then the creation will be freed from sin’s burden and redeemed. Paul demonstrates that saving baptism is an image of things to come. In it we put off the old nature and put on the new. And we, ridding ourselves of sin’s burden, receive the grace of the Spirit. Yet neither the most holy baptism nor the life to come recognizes any difference between circumcision and uncircumcision. By ‘world’ he means the affairs of life – honor, glory and wealth. To these he declares himself dead.” [Theodoret of Cyr (ca. A.D. 450), Interpretation of the Fourteen Epistles of Paul, On Galatians 6:15]

Peace and mercy be to all who follow this rule and to the Israel of God.

Paul pleads for peace and mercy for all who accept this rule or principle.

Commentators disagree about the meaning of the conjunction “and” and therefore about the identity of the Israel of God.  Is it an appositive of those who accept this teaching (enlightened Christians?)?  Does it mean the Jewish community?  Mention of a new creation suggests it is a reference to the eschatological community.

From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.

In Paul’s time, the Greek word stigmata did not mean what the word often means in English today. In antiquity stigmata often designated the branding used to mark a slave or an animal as someone’s possession. Having suffered much for Christ’s sake, including illness (Galatians 4:13; 2 Corinthians 12:7), floggings (2 Corinthians 11:25), attacks from beasts (1 Corinthians 15:32), and affliction (2 Corinthians 1:8), Paul could speak of the evidence of such suffering as “brands” marking him forever as the “servant of Christ Jesus” (Galatians 1:10; Romans 1:1).

Of such “marks” in the flesh Paul gladly boasts to those who try to glory in a different mark in the flesh; that is, circumcision.

“Anyone who after Christ’s coming is circumcised in the flesh does not carry the marks of the Lord Jesus. Rather, he glories in his own confusion. But the one who was flogged  beyond what the law required, frequently was in prison, was beaten three times with rods, was once stoned and suffered all the other things that are written in his catalog of boasting (2 Corinthians 11:23-29) – this is the one who carries on his body the marks of the Lord Jesus. Perhaps also the ascetic today who keeps his body under control and subjects it to servitude so that he will not appear reprobate as he preaches to others may in some way carry the marks of the Lord Jesus on his own body.” [Saint Jerome (A.D. 386), Commentaries on the Epistle to the Galatians 3,6,17]

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. 

The passage concludes with a traditional prayer of benediction, which is also a profound christological statement.  It is a blessing of salvation that comes from Jesus Christ (the anointed one), who is the Lord.

Amen.

The blessing ends with the prayerful affirmation: Amen! So be it!

Gospel – Luke 10:1-12,17-20

At that time the Lord appointed seventy-two others
whom he sent ahead of him in pairs
to every town and place he intended to visit. 
He said to them,
“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few;
so ask the master of the harvest
to send out laborers for his harvest. 
Go on your way;
behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves. 
Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals;
and greet no one along the way. 
Into whatever house you enter, first say,
‘Peace to this household.’
If a peaceful person lives there,
your peace will rest on him;
but if not, it will return to you. 
Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you,
for the laborer deserves his payment. 
Do not move about from one house to another. 
Whatever town you enter and they welcome you,
eat what is set before you,
cure the sick in it and say to them,
‘The kingdom of God is at hand for you.’
Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you,
go out into the streets and say,
‘The dust of your town that clings to our feet,
even that we shake off against you.’
Yet know this: the kingdom of God is at hand. 
I tell you,
it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town.”

The seventy-two returned rejoicing, and said,
“Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” 
Jesus said, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky. 
Behold, I have given you the power to ‘tread upon serpents’ and scorpions 
and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you.  Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you,
but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”

Today’s gospel reading recounts the commissioning of the seventy-two, a story only found in Luke’s gospel.  It is symbolic of the ultimate mission to all the nations of the world (Genesis 10).  Although the reading alludes to the universality of the salvation Jesus brought, it is particularly concerned with the manner of life lived by the missionaries while on mission and the character of the success they experienced.

At that time the Lord appointed seventy-two others

“Others” meaning in addition to the Twelve, which calls to mind the time when Moses was overburdened with work and the Lord had him designate seventy-two elders to help him.

whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit.

Since two witnesses were necessary to verify any legal claim, they were to go in pairs (Deuteronomy 19:15).

He said to them, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.

Jesus uses two metaphors to represent the mission; the first is a metaphor of harvest, which connotes the readiness of the world for the ministry of the missionaries.  This is a positive image suggesting that planting and growing have been accomplished.  It only remains for them to gather up the fruits of the work of others.

The same saying occurs in Matthew 9:37-38 just before the call of the Twelve.

Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.

The second metaphor of lambs among wolves adds a sobering tone to the picture.  Although the harvest is ready, harvesting itself is a dangerous occupation.  The field of ministry is threatening, and the missionaries themselves are quite vulnerable.  The hope is, of course, that the wolves will not attack the lambs.

That being the case, the coming of Jesus has inaugurated a new era of peace and reconciliation, in which Isaiah foretold that the lamb will lie down with the wolf (see Isaiah 11:6; 65:25).

Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals;

The disciples are told to go into the world with only the bare essentials.  They are to trust in God and depend on the hospitality of those to whom they go.

See Luke 9:3, where the apostles are given similar instructions.

and greet no one along the way.

In addition to the metaphor of the harvest, which conveys its own sense of urgency, the disciples are also told to refrain from engaging in the kind of prolonged greeting that was commonplace in the ancient Near East at that time.  There is no time for social niceties.

Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household.’

Peace is the greeting of Christians, as well as our mark. This is the peace that the Lucan gospel associates with the salvation being brought by Christ, the peace that results from being freed from the power of evil.

The mission of peace begins with individuals, then radiates out to family, community, nation, and world.  Peace isn’t a given, but must be continually worked for.

If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you. 

Acceptance of such peace became the condition that determined the future of those to whom the disciples were sent.  This peace rested on some but not on others.

Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you, for the laborer deserves his payment. Do not move about from one house to another.

Since their housing was intended merely as a support of their ministry, they were not to haggle for better accommodations.  This removes the human tendency to continually have our eyes — and our hearts — on the “next thing.”

In other words, be satisfied with what is offered – do not shop around.

Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you,

They were also to accept whatever was offered in the way of food, even if there was some question about dietary purity.

cure the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand for you.’

The mission of this group was to proclaim the Good News about Jesus, whose coming had brought the kingdom near the kingdom of God.  It is brought even nearer as the missionaries preach and cure the sick, thus extending his missionary activity.

Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you, go out into the streets and say, ‘The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.’

A gesture of mutual repudiation – they shouldn’t even carry the dust from the town that rejects the peace of Christ. This is similar to our expression, “wash your hands of the matter.”

It also reinforces the sense of urgency: they do not have the leisure to cajole those who were not open to the message.

Note that Jesus does not tell them, “Continue to argue with people until you have proven you are right,” or “Be sure to get the last word.”  Instead, he consoles them (and us) by telling them in advance that there will be situations that we cannot fix or resolve.  Jesus permits us to shake the dust off our feet: the dust of failure, injustice, sin, even death itself.  Jesus himself is our happiness.

Revelation 21:4:  He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.

Yet know this: the kingdom of God is at hand. I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town.

See Genesis 19. Sodom didn’t have the opportunity for repentance that is being offered to
these towns.

The seventy-two returned rejoicing, and said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.”

Recall Jesus’ power over the demons in Galilee (Luke 8:26-39) and the power Jesus gave
the twelve in Luke 9:1-2. The seventy-two disciples share this same authority, and at the end of the mission they joyfully return with stories of success.  They had cured the sick and announced the advent of the reign of God.  In this, they had witnessed the power of God triumphant over the powers of evil.

There are two important things to note here.  First, the power they have wielded is God’s, not their own.  Second, while discipleship involves power, it’s not actually about power.  When sending them out, Jesus’ instructions put them in a position of needing help, of being vulnerable.  When those instructions were followed, their relationship with others became one of mutual gift-giving, not one of unbalanced power.

Jesus said, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky.

Jesus confirms their appraisal of their accomplishments.  Satan had indeed been cast down.

Behold, I have given you the power ‘to tread upon serpents’ and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you.

The gift has permanent value as the powers of evil, symbolized as serpents and scorpions, are continually attacked and overcome.

Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice
because your names are written in heaven.”

Jesus then puts the entire experience into context, warning them not to get too taken up with their power; we are to look to the real reward and avoid overemphasizing external feats.  As important as these wondrous deeds and accomplishments are, the real reason to rejoice was the fact that they are in right relationship with God.

Here, that right relationship is conveyed by reference to their names being inscribed in the heavenly book (Exodus 32:32f).

Connections and Themes

Once again we look to the image of Jesus in order to understand something about the nature of discipleship.  Here we see the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.  It is in this sign that we have been called; it is in this sign that we have been sent; it is in this sign that we understand our mission.

The cross of Jesus Christ.  The cross of Jesus Christ creates all things new.  It reorders our priorities; it refashions our identities; it puts us in opposition to the standards of the world.  No longer do we judge success or failure as before.  No longer do we separate people by gender or race of religious tradition.  A new reality has been formed, with peace and mercy as its identifying characteristics.  The cross is the standard of everything.  It is the cross that marks the disciple.

A life of discipleship.  Although the gospel story is a report of ministerial commissioning, it contains elements of discipleship in general.  Most obvious is the disciples’ dependence on Jesus.  They are not independent missionaries.  They are called by him; they are sent by him; it is to him they return and report.  To be a disciple is to be a follower.  A second point that should be noted is the communal dimension of discipleship.   While there is certainly a personal relationship between Jesus and each disciple, discipleship itself is not a singular privilege that one clings to while excluding others.

Disciples minister to the needs of others, whatever those needs may be and with whatever abilities the disciple may possess.  There are various kinds of healing.  A friendly smile, a word of gratitude, a soothing touch, can go a long way in a world where pain and suffering seem to reign.  We can teach the lessons of life in classrooms, in playrooms, in kitchens, in boardrooms.  There are many ways we can cast out the demons that hold our world by the throat, demons of poverty and oppression, demons of addiction and slavery, demons of disdain and neglect, demons of hatred and violence.  If they are not cast out by us, then by whom?

The sign of the cross.  A life of discipleship is not an unmixed blessing.  Because disciples are marked by the sign of the cross, they must expect suffering.  The gospel speaks of rejection.  Not everyone will welcome the message of the cross.  Not everyone will appreciate the new creation it brings.  Because they do not live according to the standards of the world, disciples will be judged as fools.  Some of them will be subjected to even greater suffering.  It makes one wonder who would even want to take on such a life.  It seems like one is constantly going against the tide.  And yet, if we are honest, we will have to admit that much what the world promotes really goes against the grain of what is truly human.  In the face of this, the disciple proclaims that true fulfillment is only found in God!  In reality it is the world that is upside down, not the life of discipleship.  And it is the cross that sets things right.

The first reading gives us a glimpse of what can happen when things are set right: the city is renewed, the world is rejuvenated, the prosperity of God is enjoyed by all, those who suffer are comforted.

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