Aug 11, 2019: 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Wisdom 18:6-9

The night of the Passover was known beforehand to our fathers,
 that, with sure knowledge of the oaths in which they put their faith,
 they might have courage.
 Your people awaited the salvation of the just
 and the destruction of their foes.
 For when you punished our adversaries,
 in this you glorified us whom you had summoned.
 For in secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice
 and putting into effect with one accord the divine institution.

The book of Wisdom is thought to date from the middle of the first century BC, which would make it the last of the Old Testament books to be written. Its literary beauty and depth of doctrine bring us to the threshold of New Testament revelation.

Believed to have been composed in Alexandria, Egypt, the author’s identity remains unknown. The most that can be said is that he was a devout, Greek-speaking Jew, acquainted to some extent with Greek philosophy and culture.

The book can be divided into two main parts: The first ten chapters appear to be a public address which sings the praises of Wisdom. The second part is midrash, a Jewish method of commentary which searches for deeper meaning in scripture, even in the most minute details.  The Jewish author is praising the wisdom of their ancestors, encouraging the Jews in Alexandria to be faithful to their traditions in a world that has become Hellenized (i.e., adopted the Greek culture).

Today’s reading is a midrash of the account of the deliverance of the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt; specifically, the events of the Passover.

The night of the Passover was known beforehand to our fathers, that, with sure knowledge of the oaths in which they put their faith, they might have courage.

Many of the details of the original story (Exodus 7-12) are presumed, though it does say the Israelites had been alerted in advance and so were ready.  They took a great risk in fleeing the place of their oppression, but they put their trust in the covenantal promises of God.

This is a very strong biblical theme: Past favors of God are remembered in order to instill trust that God will be no less provident in the present or future.

Your people awaited the salvation of the just and the destruction of their foes.

In this hope the people waited, not knowing for what they were waiting but knowing in whom they had put their trust.  The text suggests they knew they were to be saved while their enemies were destroyed.

Within the context of midrash, the author employs a Greek literary form known as the syncrisis, a rhetorical comparison that contrasts opposite persons or things.  This can be seen here in the side-by-side evaluation of the Israelites and the Egyptians.

For when you punished our adversaries, in this you glorified us whom you had summoned.

“Whom you had summoned,” i.e., chosen.

The author boldly moves beyond the simple comparison via syncrisis and claims that God reversed the fates of the two peoples and that the very means with which God punished the Egyptians in turn glorified the Israelites.

It is curious that God’s liberating action brought glory to the Israelites, because throughout its religious tradition, Israel always insisted the glory belonged to God.  Even when God performed wondrous feats, they were ultimately accomplished for the glory of God’s name, never for the glory of Israel itself.  For this reason, we can assume this verse probably means their deliverance would show the Israelites to be the chosen People of God.  This was a point of pride for them, but the glory always reverted to God, who delivered them.

For in secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice and putting into effect with one accord the divine institution.

The Jewish ancestors had been faithful to God when they lived in Egypt.  At the very time when the angel of God was moving through Egypt killing the firstborn of every household (i.e., the tenth plague of Egypt), the Israelites were offering a lamb in substitutionary sacrifice.  The blood of this lamb became their protection against the bloodletting suffered by the Egyptians.

The author of Wisdom wants his fellow Jews in Alexandria to do the same: to remain faithful to God while living in Egypt in a Hellenized culture.

2nd Reading – Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19

Brothers and sisters:
Faith is the realization of what is hoped for
and evidence of things not seen. 
Because of it the ancients were well attested.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place
that he was to receive as an inheritance;
he went out, not knowing where he was to go. 
By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country,
dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise;
for he was looking forward to the city with foundations,
whose architect and maker is God. 
By faith he received power to generate,
even though he was past the normal age
—and Sarah herself was sterile—
for he thought that the one who had made the promise was 
trustworthy.
So it was that there came forth from one man,
himself as good as dead,
descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky
and as countless as the sands on the seashore.

All these died in faith. 
They did not receive what had been promised
but saw it and greeted it from afar
and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth,
for those who speak thus show that they are seeking a homeland. 
If they had been thinking of the land from which they had come,
they would have had opportunity to return. 
But now they desire a better homeland, a heavenly one. 
Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God,
for he has prepared a city for them.

By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac,
and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son,
of whom it was said,
“Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.” 
He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead,
and he received Isaac back as a symbol.

Today we begin a study of the Book of Hebrews. The last time we studied Hebrews in any depth was the 27th through 33rd Sundays in Ordinary Time last year, in Cycle B. Today we take up our study essentially where we left off at that time.

The book of Hebrews is probably a homily rather than an actual letter; it was likely written around 67 AD.  The exact audience and author have long been disputed.  With the exception of 1 John, it is the only New Testament epistle that begins without a greeting mentioning the writer’s name. A reference to Timothy (13:23) suggests connections to the circle of Paul and his assistants.

In Hebrews, theological faith is closely linked to hope. With this lesson in mind, we hear today about the faith of Abraham.  Similar to our first reading, a Jewish ancestor is being held up as a model of faith.

Brothers and sisters: Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.

This verse is one of the best-known passages of Scripture.  It demonstrates the author’s position that faith is more openness of mind and heart than a set of theological propositions.

If the object of faith is seen or known by experience, it isn’t faith; but faith is more than mere opinion, because God’s own assurances are behind it. Even when we don’t understand the events of our lives, we have faith that God will fulfill his promises to us.

“‘Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen. Because of it the ancients were well attested.’ What an expression he uses! He says, ‘evidence of things not seen!’ It is usual to speak of evidence in regard to things that are very plainly seen. Faith, he says, is the full assurance that is had with things that are seen. Neither is it possible to disbelieve in things that are seen, nor again is it possible for there to be faith unless one is as fully persuaded about things invisible as he is about things most clearly seen. Since objects of hope seem to be unsubstantial, faith favors them with substance; or rather, it does not so favor them, but it is the substance. For example, the resurrection has not come, nor does it exist substantially, but hope makes it subsist in our soul. This is what he means when he says ‘the realization of what is hoped for.’” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 403), Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews 21,2(4)]

Because of it the ancients were well attested.

True faith is an old grace, and living lives of faith brought honor upon our ancestors.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go.

The author uses the tradition about the faith of Abraham to illustrate his case.  The story begins with Abraham’s call from God to leave the home of his father and go to a land God would show him, Cannan, a land he would receive as one receives an inheritance.

The original story (Genesis 12) says nothing about faith or obedience, while this version is riveted on those two themes and declares that it was because of his faith that Abraham obeyed.

By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise;

He left the familiarity of one land for the uncertainty of another, all because of his faith in God.

Abraham’s faith wasn’t according to the principle of most people, who, cautious and comfort-loving, put safety first; his faith first went into the unknown, where it couldn’t see the end of the path.

for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God.

The sojourn of Abraham is seen as more than a search for a place to settle.  The city is probably an allusion to the heavenly Jerusalem, which is the ultimate goal of all sojourners.  In a manner that today we would call anachronistic, the author credits Abraham with the desire he is trying to instill in his audience: that is, the desire for a heavenly home. In this way, the author links the religious journey of his Christian audience with the sojourn of their ancestor in faith.

By faith he received power to generate, even though he was past the normal age — and Sarah herself was sterile — for he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy.

Abraham’s faith became apparent once again at the time of Isaac’s conception.  Both he and Sarah were beyond their childbearing years, yet he believed the impossible was possible with God.

So it was that there came forth from one man, himself as good as dead,

An exaggerated description of Abraham’s advanced age at the time of Isaac’s birth.  His lack of reproductive powers rendered him “as good as dead.”

descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sands on the seashore.

God promised that this aged, infertile man would produce numerous descendants.  Abraham’s faith was rooted not so much in God’s power as in the promise God had made, and because of this faith he received generative powers.

All these died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar

Because they all died, the ancestors did not see the fulfillment of all the promises made to them.  Still they believed.

and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth, for those who speak thus show that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land from which they had come, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better homeland, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

The author returns almost immediately to the earlier point about a true and lasting homeland, stating the ancestors were strangers not merely in the land that had been given to them.  Like the Christians for whom this letter was intended, they were strangers on the earth itself.

“We all look toward the East when we pray; but few know that it is because we are looking for our own former country, Paradise, which God planted in Eden in the East (Genesis 2:8). On the first day of the week, we stand when we pray; but not all of us know why. The reason is that on the day of the resurrection, by standing at prayer, we remind ourselves of the grace we have received.” [Saint Basil the Great (A.D. 375), The Holy Spirit 27,66]

By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.”

Finally, Abraham’s faith was manifested in his willingness to respond to God’s further testing of his utter trust by sacrificing his only son, Isaac.  The foreseeable consequences of his compliance were shattering: Isaac was the child through whom descendants would continue.  To sacrifice him would be to nullify God’s initial promise and to forfeit the future of his household.  Just as faith led him to leave the blessings of his past when he journeyed to Canaan, so his faith leads him to relinquish the possibilities of his future.

Even though Isaac was not actually sacrificed, Abraham made a wholehearted offer of his son.  It was only at the last moment that God prevented him from going through with his sacrifice.

He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol.

Once again, Abraham’s faith is based on God’s ability to bring life where there is no life.  Could not God, who brought life through a man who was as good as dead, raise someone who was really dead?  Believing that God could bring about the first marvel enabled Abraham to believe that God could accomplish the second.

The author sees Isaac’s deliverance from death as a symbol, likely referring either to the resurrection of Christ or the resurrection of all at the end of time.

Gospel – Luke 12:32-48

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock,
for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. 
Sell your belongings and give alms. 
Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out,
an inexhaustible treasure in heaven
that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. 
For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

“Gird your loins and light your lamps
and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding,
ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. 
Blessed are those servants
whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival.  
Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself,
have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. 
And should he come in the second or third watch
and find them prepared in this way,
blessed are those servants. 
Be sure of this:
if the master of the house had known the hour
when the thief was coming,
he would not have let his house be broken into. 
You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect,
the Son of Man will come.”

Then Peter said,
“Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone?” 
And the Lord replied,
“Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward
whom the master will put in charge of his servants
to distribute the food allowance at the proper time? 
Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so. 
Truly, I say to you, the master will put the servant
in charge of all his property. 
But if that servant says to himself,
‘My master is delayed in coming,’
and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants,
to eat and drink and get drunk,
then that servant’s master will come
on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour
and will punish the servant severely
and assign him a place with the unfaithful. 
That servant who knew his master’s will
but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will
shall be beaten severely;
and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will
but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating
shall be beaten only lightly. 
Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,
and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”

Today’s gospel reading is a discourse intended for the disciples.  It consists of three parts: a teaching on possessions, a story that demonstrates the importance of watchfulness, and instruction on responsible leadership.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, 

Jesus’ address to his disciples reveals the tender nature of their relationship.  The metaphor of a flock suggests both intimate knowledge and wholehearted commitment on the part of the shepherd.  With this term of endearment, Jesus assures the disciples that his teaching, regardless of how demanding it may seem, has their best interests at heart.

for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.

The privilege of living in the reign of God is a gift.

Sell your belongings and give alms.

Jesus does not want the disciples to be afraid, or to think they are earning the kingdom; however, he does want them to know that their response to God’s love is very important.  He exhorts them to live lives that demonstrate their citizenship in the kingdom of God.

With one admonition he exemplifies the kind of total commitment required of citizens of the reign of God: to sell their belongings. This was probably not intended to mean selling everything they had, for total divestment would have turned the disciples into paupers, making them dependent on others for survival and sustenance.

Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

Jesus doesn’t denounce material possessions, but the amassing of them: he tells the disciples not to have money bags for carrying their surplus.  He knows that trust in riches can stand in the way of trust in God, so he tells his disciples to get rid of what they do not immediately need and to concentrate their energies on the things of God.

“Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.

Jesus punctuates his teaching with parables.  The first is about watchfulness, and includes a twofold admonition: 1) to tuck their flowing robes under their belts and prepare for strenuous activity (“gird your loins”), and 2) to light their lamps, suggesting they will have to be watchful even into the night.

Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. And should he come in the second or third watch and find them prepared in this way, blessed are those servants.

There are eschatological nuances here.  First, the householder was away at a wedding, a favorite image for the celebration of the end-time.  Second, the reward for watchfulness is a banquet, an allusion to the messianic banquet.

Note also that the master will be so pleased with the faithful servants that he will personally serve them at the banquet.  In the kingdom, power is used for service.

Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

The reference to guarding a house against thieves underscores the need for constant vigilance.  The eschatological tones continue with the link between the returning of the householder and the coming of the Son of Man.  Since there is no telling when he will arrive, loyal servants must be prepared at all times.

Then Peter said, “Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone?” And the Lord replied, “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute the food allowance at the proper time?

As usual, Peter is the spokesman for the group. Jesus does not give a direct answer, responding instead with a second story.

Similar to the first, this second parable describes not only the watchfulness required of disciples but also the way leaders or managers of the household (oikonōmos) are to carry out their responsibilities while the master is away.

Notice that it is Peter who has asked the question, and Jesus’ response is about those given positions of leadership.

Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so. Truly, I say to you, he will put him in charge of all his property.

If a servant is always faithful — that is, no matter whether the master is present or absent, all is done as it should be — then that servant will be entrusted with everything the master owns.

But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, to eat and drink and get drunk, then that servant’s master will come on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour and will punish him severely and assign him a place with the unfaithful. 

However, if a servant who has been given responsibility lords it over others and mistreats them, that servant will be punished severely.

The servant’s first mistake was to defy his master’s will while he was away; the second mistake was thinking that he had plenty of time to put things right before the master would return.  The lesson is also two-fold: do what is right, and do it now — we do not have as much time as we think.

That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly.

Even a servant who acts contrary to his master’s will because of ignorance will be punished, although not as severely.

Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.

The entire teaching ends with an explanatory saying: Everyone will be held accountable.  Those to whom much has been given will be accountable for much; those to whom more has been given will be accountable for more.

There is no thought here of having been given little.

Peter and the other disciples, who have been sent on mission and have been given a share of Jesus’ power (Luke 10:1-20) are being reminded, in front of the crowd, that they are accountable for the way in which they use their God-given gifts.  They have been given power, not that they can lord it over others, but so that they can serve others and participate in the coming of God’s kingdom, a kingdom that God wants to give God’s beloved people, God’s “little flock.”

“Indeed, the more superior is a rational nature, so much the worse is its ruin; and the more unbelievable is its sin, so much more the damnable it is. The angel, therefore, fell irreparably, because more is demanded of him to whom more is given… Adam, the first man, was of such an excellent nature, because that nature was not yet weakened, that his sin was much greater by far than are the sins of other men. Therefore his punishment too, which was the immediate consequence of his sin, seemed much more severe. It had been in Adam’s power not to die; but now he was immediately bound by the necessity of dying, and he was immediately sent away from the place of such great happiness; and he was immediately barred from access to the tree of life. But when this was done, the human race was still in his loins. … Thus all the sons of Adam were infected through him with the contagion of sin and were subjected to the state of death.” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 428-430), The Unfinished Work Against Julian’s Second Reply, 6,22]

Connections and Themes

In the middle of Ordinary Time, we are confronted with a theme normally associated with the end of the liturgical year and the season of Advent: vigilance in anticipation of the return of the Master.  This vigilance demands that we live lives of faith.

Vigilance.  We might think this call to be vigilant is a proleptic view of the future, a kind of long-range preparation for Advent.  However, the theme is probably placed before us today to remind us that we must be vigilant always, not simply at the beginning and the end of the liturgical year.  We must always stand ready for the return of the Lord, for we really do not know when he is coming.  This is true about waiting for the end of time as well as for the end of our individual life.  However, it is also true about other times, for we do not know when God will open the door or window of our existence and call us into a deeper realization of the sacred dimension of life itself.  Vigilance is a characteristic of a Christian at all times, for all times.

We must be ever vigilant so we can recognize the Lord in the people with whom we live and work.  We must be ever vigilant so we can recognize the advent of the Lord in the world events of which we are a part.  We must always be ready to respond to the call of discipleship, to serve where there is a need, to carry out our life responsibilities in a fair and equitable fashion.  We cannot be sure of the hour of our calling, because in a sense, every hour is the hour of our calling.  Therefore, we must be ever vigilant.

We live by faith.  While we live in the expectation of the full and ultimate coming of God in the future, we also live now in the presence of God.  This means that God is present with us now as a companion in our lives.  It also means that it is within God’s presence that we live; in fact, God’s presence is the context within which our lives unfold. However, until all things are brought to fulfillment we live in this presence by faith. The faith of Abraham caused him to leave familiar territory and later to consider sacrificing his only son.  The faith of Moses and the Israelites caused them to pull up stakes in the middle of the night and leave Egypt.  Jesus was the faith-filled person par excellence. To become like all of them, our faith must be renewed and deepened daily.  We battle constantly in the face of non-belief and apathy.

Faith is its own reward.  A life lived in faith is its own reward.  We are assured that we will be blessed, but we can never be sure of the exact nature of the blessing.  The Israelites were freed from bondage only to find themselves in the wilderness facing yet another test of faith. Abraham offered his son, not knowing the ultimate sacrifice would not be required.  Had he been assured that Isaac would be saved, it would not have been a question of faith.  A life of faith can guarantee only one thing, that we will be able to live by faith.  In faith, we put our trust in God and then carry out our responsibilities.  In faith we wait for the Lord, who is our help and our shield, not really knowing under what guise he will come to us.  Faith is both the cost of living as a disciple and the reward.

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