Aug 25, 2019: 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Isaiah 66:18-21

Thus says the LORD:
I know their works and their thoughts,
and I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory.
I will set a sign among them;
from them I will send fugitives to the nations:
to Tarshish, Put and Lud, Mosoch, Tubal and Javan,
to the distant coastlands
that have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory;
and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations.
They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations
as an offering to the LORD,
on horses and in chariots, in carts, upon mules and dromedaries,
to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the LORD,
just as the Israelites bring their offering
to the house of the LORD in clean vessels.
Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD.

Today’s reading from Third Isaiah, which offers hope to those who returned to the holy land after their exile in Babylon.  This passage is from the conclusion of the entire book and tells of a great ingathering of people from every nation.

Thus says the LORD: I know their works and their thoughts, and I come to gather nations of every language;

These are not Israelites returning home from the Diaspora; they are pagans (gôyim), probably from surrounding lands.  During the exile, some of the Israelites moved to various places in the then-known world, taking their knowledge of God with them.  Through the exiles, those in other nations came to know God.

they shall come and see my glory.

They are not captives of war who have been forcibly brought in to serve as slaves; rather, they are brought in by God. To them he will reveal his glory.

This is reminiscent of Isaiah 40:5: Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.  It possibly refers to an object of pilgrimage in the temple.

I will set a sign among them; from them I will send fugitives to the nations:

God will send some from this group, from “nations of every language,” to proclaim his glory to the world.  The strange names of the various peoples come from Genesis 10, the “Table of Nations.”

to Tarshish,

A Phoenician colony in southern Spain.

Put and Lud,

Most likely nations in Africa.

Mosoch, Tubal

Nations southeast of the Black Sea.

and Javan,

A Greek colony, probably in the Ionian Islands.

to the distant coastlands that have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory; 

The nations listed were known for their exploits in war and trading (see Ezekiel 27:10, 13; 30:5) but who had never heard of the God of Israel.

and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations.

This prophetic vision is surprising, because Israel was not a nation that engaged in much missionary activity.  Most of its Scripture shows it to be quite ethnocentric, concerned with its own needs and development.  Such isolationism is understandable for a relatively small nation that had to struggle for survival in the midst of larger and more powerful neighbors.

They shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the LORD,

Even more peculiar is the idea that foreign nations would bring in other, additional foreign nations to Jerusalem.

on horses and in chariots, in carts, upon mules and dromedaries, to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the LORD,

Warriors come on horses, the wealthy come on chariots, women are carried on carts, the poor ride mules, and merchants come on dromedaries (camels).

just as the Israelites bring their offering to the house of the LORD in clean vessels.

Israel had an all-consuming concern for ritual purity.  In its desire to worship God in as perfect a manner possible, it developed stringent laws that separated what was considered clean from what was judged unclean — and foreigners in general were considered unclean.

Yet here we have foreign peoples joined with the Israelites at the Temple in Jerusalem, where both groups offer sacrifice to the Lord.  The specific type of sacrifice mentioned is the minhâ, a cereal offering.  While the Israelites seem to have brought an actual cereal offering (“in clean vessels”), the foreigners bring new recruits as a symbolic offering.  Truly an extraordinary picture.

Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD.

Perhaps the most amazing feature of this passage is the possibility that this last verse refers to the foreign people as candidates for priests and Levites.  It is not exactly clear who the “some” are, but Gentiles are included in the previous verse.

Formerly only men from priestly or Levitical families were accorded the honor of these roles; those who were chosen were then responsible for all the cultic regulations pertaining to purity.  The idea that these ethnic privileges and cultic regulations would be set aside would have indeed been radical, especially if it is taken to mean that God would choose not only non-Levite Israelites as priests, but foreigners as well.

2nd Reading – Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13

Brothers and sisters,
You have forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as children:
“My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord
or lose heart when reproved by him;
for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines;
he scourges every son he acknowledges.”
Endure your trials as “discipline”;
God treats you as sons.
For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline?
At the time,
all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain,
yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness
to those who are trained by it.
 
So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees.
Make straight paths for your feet,
that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.

The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews seem to have been undergoing some form of misfortune that could not be explained.  In today’s reading, the author encourages the believers to regard their sufferings as the affectionate correction of the Lord, who loves them as a father loves his children.

Brothers and sisters, You have forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as children:

The author begins by rebuking them for forgetting the teaching found in their own religious tradition.

“My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.”

A quote from Proverbs 3:11-12.

Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline?

Both the original proverb and the author of the letter attempt to soften the view of suffering by drawing an analogy to a parent/child relationship.  The Greek word for discipline (paideía) does not mean punishment, but instruction or training.  It is from pais, the word for child, and connotes everything that adults want to pass on to their children: formation, culture, civilization, education.  It is out of love and concern that parents discipline their children.

Since the Wisdom tradition was primarily anthropocentric (human-centered), we should not be surprised that an androcentric (male-centered) society would view universal human concerns from an exclusively male point of view — a bias which is clearly shown here.  However, this does not prevent us from reinterpreting the teaching more inclusively.

At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.

Suffering is the rigorous training God puts us through so that we might be strengthened for life itself.  There may be pain now, but there will be joy later for those who are trained (gymánzō) in it.  If they accept their difficulties in this spirit they will grow stronger.

So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. 

The verb gymánzō continues last week’s theme of physical exercise.  It is further developed here by drooping hands and weak knees, symptoms of exhaustion.

Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed.

In the Wisdom tradition, an individual must choose one of two paths: the way of the wise or the way of the foolish.  Within the athletic theme, the author advises the runners (i.e., the believers) to make sure the path is straight to prevent any mishap during the race.

Suffering, then, can be compared to the training a concerned parent provides for a beloved child or to an athlete’s discipline to prepare for a race.

Gospel – Luke 13:22-30

Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem.
Someone asked him,
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
He answered them,
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door,
then will you stand outside knocking and saying,
‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply,
‘I do not know where you are from.
And you will say,
‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you,
‘I do not know where you are from.
Depart from me, all you evildoers!’
And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth
when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
and all the prophets in the kingdom of God
and you yourselves cast out.
And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.
For behold, some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.”

The teaching in today’s gospel account contains both soteriological and christological elements.  Its literary form can be divided into three parts: an initial question to introduce the issue, an illustrative allegory, a judgment scene, and a concluding saying.

Jesus passed through towns and villages, teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to fulfill his mission via his passion and death.

Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”

The questioner is not identified.  There seems to have been various opinions in Jewish thinking of the time about the number of those saved; there is no reason to think that the question was an attempt at entrapment.

However, this is the wrong question.  The right question is, “How do you get to be saved?” As we will see, Jesus does not directly answer the question asked, but addresses the right question instead.

He answered them, “Strive to enter

The word used for “strive” (agōnízomai) connotes the strenuous energy put forward during athletic competition.  Salvation requires effort.

through the narrow gate,

This does not imply that salvation is only open to a few, but rather that some will not make the necessary effort.

for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.

Jesus is telling his hearers to struggle for the prize, to commit themselves wholeheartedly, for the task before them is not an easy one.

Jesus then tells a story to illustrate how difficult it will be for some to be saved, using the familiar analogy of a great banquet for salvation.  Rather than suggest that salvation is only open to a few, it will show that some do not make the necessary effort to get into the banquet hall.

After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.’

Many will be too slow to respond to the invitation, arriving late.  We should seize the present moment.

And you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’ Then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’

Others wrongly presume that casual association with the master (i.e., Jesus), rather than genuine commitment, is adequate.  One cannot simply be acquainted with Christ and his message, they must share his life, and in so doing, in his suffering.

And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out.

In both cases, those who expect to be admitted are turned away.  They weep in disappointment and gnash their teeth in envy.

And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.

Adding to their dismay, some who are looked down on as outsiders will be brought in to the festivities while they remain outside.  No one should be smug about salvation: those who are will be surprised to find at the table the very ones they would have excluded.

The people from the four corners are probably the righteous Gentiles who will be invited to dine with the heroes of Israelite history. In his graciousness, God opens the banquet to all peoples, who now form the reconstituted Israel in the New Jerusalem.  This echoes our first reading, where God brings people from all the nations to the holy mountain of Jerusalem and all are invited into God’s covenant.

Although Jesus does not directly answer the question about how many will be saved, he seems to imply that this answer is “many.”

For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

Luke sounds his familiar theme of surprising reversals that the reign of God will bring forth.  Salvation is not promised exclusively to one group, and there will be surprise at who is saved and who is not.  Insiders will be kept out, and outsiders will be brought in; Jews will be barred from the banquet while Gentiles feast; outcasts will be welcome, religious elites will not.

While these reversals will be true only of some members in each group, the reversals themselves will startle many.

Connections and Themes

Universal salvation. The readings from Isaiah and Luke are astounding in their inclusivity, showing that God’s saving grace is unbounded.  It reaches out to those whom the People of God may not only distrust but sometimes even despise.  From their (or our!) point of view, only those who have been faithful deserve salvation.  Only those who belong to the right religious groups, who believe the correct religious doctrines, and who follow an approved way of life should be gathered into the company of the saved.

There is something dangerous about being smugly convinced of one’s own salvation.  Usually when this is the case, it is because we ourselves have followed the rules.  They are important rules to be sure, but they are rules nonetheless.  When we are so sure of ourselves, we can easily fall into the error of being as sure of the moral failures of others as well.  The gospel warns us against such judgment.  Our claim of knowing the Lord is not adequate for entrance into the banquet hall, and salvation comes from God — not from anything we might have done.  Our entrance into the banquet is a free gift from God, and anyone who strives to receive it as freely given will be welcomed.

The gathering.  The first reading describes God sending fugitives back home to get their relatives.  People come from all over because someone is sent to get them.

Today that command is directed to us.  We are the ones who are being sent out to bring others to God.  Every eucharistic liturgy ends with this commission, to which we (may unthinkingly) respond: “Thanks be to God!”  The readings for today shake us awake to this responsibility.  After Mass, we are all sent back to the people and circumstances of our lives, there to be the ambassadors of the saving grace of God.  Others will hear of and see the glory of God only through us.  We are sent to be the light shining on the hill for all to see; we are sent to be the yeast that enables the dough to rise.  The way we live proclaims to the world in which we live that salvation is for all, and we are evidence of this.

The need for discipline.  Unfortunately, there are many people who do not believe they are fit to be evangelists.  They feel that they lack the assertiveness or theological training to go out and bring others to God.  They may think the work they do or the lives they live do not lend themselves to the task.  What they don’t realize is that all Christians are called and sent; this is not an option, it’s a responsibility.  They may not be professional ministers, but they are ministers nonetheless, proclaiming the message of salvation in everything they do and in the way they do it.  The Christlike life of Christians is the fundamental proclamation of the gospel.  This is what draws others into the community of believers.

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