Monthly Archives: September 2016

25 September 2016: Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Am 6:1a, 4-7 Ps 146:7, 8-9, 9-10 1 Tm 6:11-16 Lk 16:19-31

 

The entitlement and isolation of riches

Green_banner_smDuring Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ stories and teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings tell us to change the way we act toward those who suffer.

In the first reading, the prophet Amos complains about Israel’s conspicuous consumption. Judgement is coming, he warns, in the form of the Assyrians. Israel’s opulent lifestyle parallels the rich man’s actions in today’s gospel; he also faces justice.

In the second reading the author of the first letter to Timothy charges Timothy to uphold his baptismal and apostolic mission. While the author appears to address Timothy specifically, some scholars understand this passage as addressed to the ordained ministers in Timothy’s ekklesiais.

In the gospel, Jesus tells the Pharisees the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

  • The characters: (1) A rich man, with resources like Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, or Jeff Bezos, wears purple clothes and fine linen underwear. Jesus tells us that this ultra-rich man “has a feast every day,” meaning that he doesn’t keep sabbath. (2) A poor man, who suffers with full-body sores, is too weak to walk or to work. Jesus tells us the poor man’s name–Lazarus (in Hebrew: Eliezer), which means “God helps.”
  • The social context: The poor man’s family, knowing the rich man is the only person in the community with resources to help, place Lazarus at the rich man’s gate every day. In Hebrew culture, the Law (Dt 15:11) requires the rich to help the poor, and the prophets (like Amos) constantly remind the rich of their obligations. In Greek and Roman society, the social culture of patronage required the rich to help the poor.
  • What happens: Lazarus dies. In the afterlife, Abraham greets Lazarus with a banquet, with Lazarus as honored guest, seated next to Abraham. The rich man dies. In the afterlife, the rich man, now in the underworld (“hades”), sees Abraham and Lazarus feasting in paradise. He demands Abraham’s help and expects Lazarus to be his slave. Jesus’ hearers would be surprised that the rich man even knew Lazarus’ name and would expect him to beg forgiveness for ignoring Lazarus “daily at his gate.” Instead, the rich man speaks only to Abraham, while continuing to ignore Lazarus. Abraham answers the rich man kindly (“my child”) and reminds him he had “good things” in his earthly life, but Lazarus had “bad things.” Abraham is saying the rich man had the means to help Lazarus but did not. The rich man treats Abraham as his inferior, arguing with him. Failing to hear what Abraham says, the rich man remains unchanged. The rich man’s sin is not that he was rich; it was that he was indifferent to the suffering poor man in front of him.
  • An interpretation: “Reversal of fortune” stories are common in all ancient cultures. This parable goes further, describing the danger of wealth. It asks: Can a rich person can enter heaven? In other places Jesus answers “yes,” but wealth makes it difficult, and great wealth makes it almost impossible. Riches can insulate and isolate us.

Today’s parable asks RCIA participants and the believing community to examine our engagement in the kingdom. Baptism and discipleship require us to bring God’s kingdom through caring and compassionate acts. God’s gifts to us provide us with the means to act. Are we complacent in riches that can isolate and entitle us; or do we hear the scriptures’ cry to see and to serve the ones who suffer, who may be at our own doors?

—Terence Sherlock

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18 September 2016: Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Am 8:4-7 Ps 113:1-2, 4-6, 7-8 1 Tm 2:1-8 Lk 16:1-13

 

Discipleship: trust God, use possessions

Green_banner_smDuring Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ stories and teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings ask us to examine our attitudes about God and our use of God’s gifts.

In the first reading, the prophet Amos describes his fourth vision: God promises to destroy the northern kingdom (Israel) because the rich cheat the poor. The Lectionary editors chose this reading because the theme of defrauding correlates with the steward’s wrongdoing in today’s gospel.

The second reading continues the letter to Timothy. After Cyrus freed the Jews from captivity in Babylon, the Jewish community prayed for their pagan rulers. Following that tradition, the Timothy author asks prayers for “kings and civil authorities” so that the Christian community may continue in a “quiet and tranquil life.”

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples a parable about a wily steward whom Jesus praises for his wisdom. While Jesus’ first century hearers easily understood the message, we twenty-first century hearers don’t get it. Here’s what we miss in the parable:

  • The characters. The parable has four actors: (1) A rich man who owns multiple tenant farms. (2) An unjust steward. (3) The debtors of the rich owner. (4) The community who brings the charge of “squandering the owner’s possessions” against the steward.
  • The set up. The community tells the owner that the steward has been cheating him. The owner calls the steward, fires him, and orders him to return the account books.
  • The steward’s actions: The steward is silent before the owner. Jesus’ audience would expect the steward to deny the charges and to negotiate with the owner. His silence implies he is guilty, and that he can’t manipulate the honorable owner. After some reflection, the steward comes up with a plan that will shame the owner and get the steward another job. While he still has the owner’s account books, the steward illegally and unjustly conspires with the debtors to change the books and bills. As co-conspirators and beneficiaries of the steward’s stealing, the debtors can’t report the steward’s cheating. The steward returns the account books to the owner, and the debtors return to the community, telling everyone about the kind steward who convinced the generous owner to reduce their debts.
  • The owner’s options and choice: The steward leaves the owner with only two options: (1) Tell the community that the debtors’ reductions were illegal and the debtors must pay in full. (2) Accept that he’s been duped, enjoy his increased status as a generous rich man, and let the steward go unpunished. He chooses the honorable second option, and praises the steward for acting “prudently” or wisely. The steward’s wisdom was in understanding the owner’s honor and relying on his characteristic mercy and generosity.

Today’s parable asks RCIA participants and the believing community to examine our relationship with God and possessions. Jesus applauds the steward’s trust in the owner’s honor and mercy. Like the steward, we trust that God treats us with mercy and generosity, no matter how we squander God’s gifts (possessions). Do we take God’s mercy for granted? Do we act as if possessions will save us? Have we convinced ourselves that our private actions have no communal consequences?

–Terence Sherlock

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11 September 2016: Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Ex 32:7-11, 13-14 Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19 1 Tm 1:12-17 Lk 15:1-32

 

The God who actively searches for the lost

Green_banner_smDuring Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ stories and teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings confront us with God’s active mercy and its effect.

In the first reading, the Exodus writers show that God’s mercy is always present to the Israelites, no matter what they do. God sought out Abraham and made a covenant with him long before God delivered the Israelites from Egypt. Moses reminds God to remain faithful to the covenant and to show mercy to the people have broken it. The Lectionary editors chose this reading to compliment Jesus’ three parables of loss-and-finding.

The second reading is from the first letter to Timothy, which we will hear for the next several weeks. The section immediately before today’s reading instructs Timothy on his duty to restrain false and useless teaching. In the section we hear today, the author (speaking as Paul) gives his own experience as a “blasphemer and persecutor” to show that even those opposed to sound doctrine can be converted through the “abundant grace of the Lord.” God’s abundant grace exists for us even before we know we need it.

The gospel presents three parables about people who experience loss: the shepherd who lost a sheep, a woman who lost a coin, and a father who lost a son.

  • What is a parable? The Greek word παραβολή (pah-rah-boh-LAY) means “to throw one thing next to another thing” to create a comparison. Parables are not allegories; they do not have only one interpretation. Parables are ambiguous–they ask more questions than they answer. When Jesus tells a parable, he challenges his hearers to compare their actions or attitudes with those in the story.
  • The audience and context. Jesus addresses today’s parables to the Pharisees and scribes–good Jews who kept the covenant laws. Jesus tells these parables after the Pharisees and scribes criticize Jesus for “welcoming sinners and eating with them.”
  • An interpretation. The three parables focus on the actions of a person who has lost something or someone–how the shepherd, the woman, and the father react to the loss. The person who loses the sheep, coin, or son first searches. Only after finding the sheep, coin, and son, does the person rejoice, gather friends, neighbors, and family, and celebrate the finding. Jesus seems to be asking the Pharisees and scribes why, as recognized religious people, they don’t act: search out the lost and restore the “sinners” to God and the community. These religious leaders instead criticize Jesus, who searches out the lost, and, on finding them (“welcomes them”), rejoices and celebrates (“eats with them”)–offering mercy, discipleship, and a place at the table in the God’s kingdom.

Today’s readings remind RCIA participants and the believing community that we are in a relationship with a God-who-searches. After humans initially broke this relationship, God searched and found others (Abraham and his descendants) to continue the relationship. The Timothy author describes God’s overflowing abundance of grace, from God who sought out Paul. Through parables and actions Jesus tells the Pharisees and scribes (and us) that God’s mercy is active, not passive. God doesn’t say, “You know where to find me,” or “Call me when you’re ready to talk.” God actively searches for the lost. As disciples of the God-who-actively-seeks-the-lost, we also must practice active mercy and active searching. Do we search out the ones whom we know are lost, or do we wait for the lost to find us? If we don’t search and find, how can we rejoice and celebrate?

—Terence Sherlock

 

Author’s note
To read more about the parable of the father who lost a son, see the reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C.

 

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4 September 2016: Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Wis 9:13-18b Ps 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14-17 Phmn 9-10, 12-17 Lk 14:25-33

 

Discipleship: warnings about its difficulty

Green_banner_smDuring Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ stories and teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings warn would-be disciples about how difficult it is to follow Jesus.

In the first reading, book of Wisdom’s author describes how difficult it is for humans to know God’s mind. Unless God sends us wisdom, we are unable to “search out things in heaven.” The Lectionary editors chose this reading to parallel the difficult discipleship messages in today’s gospel.

In the second reading, Paul writes to Philemon about his runaway slave Onesimus. While Paul is in prison (probably in Ephesus), he met and baptized Onesimus. Paul asks Philemon to take a social risk in service to the gospel: to receive Onesimus back without reprisal, to refuse financial reparation, to go farther in generosity and free Onesimus, and to recognize Onesimus as a brother through baptism.

In the gospel, Luke shifts abruptly from Jesus talking to dinner guests in the Pharisee’s house (last week’s gospel, Lk 14: 7-14) to Jesus addressing “great crowds travelling with him” about the difficulties of being Jesus’ disciple. Luke gives three sayings and two parables from Jesus about discipleship:

  • Saying 1: Hating (renouncing) family and life (Lk 14:26). Luke uses the Greek word μισέω (mih-SHEH-oh), translated here as “hate.” μισέω can also mean “disregard” or “to regard less than.” Would-be disciples must put Jesus ahead of family and social ties–one’s very life. In tight-knit Middle Eastern society, choosing to align with someone outside the family carried risk: loss of family, loss of status, and possibly loss of personhood.
  • Saying 2: Carrying a cross (Lk 14:27). Choosing Jesus over family means losing not only social ties, but also economic ties–the usual way of earning a living. Would-be disciples will encounter personal suffering and economic uncertainty (and, in later times, persecution)–hard burdens for anyone to carry.
  • Saying 3: Renouncing possessions (Lk 14:33). Choosing Jesus means giving up all earthly possessions of family, status, and the security of ownership. Luke warns would-be disciples to consider carefully what Jesus asks. He tells two short parables about discipleship’s risks and costs.
  • Parable 1: Building a tower (Lk 14:28-30) and Parable 2: Strategizing for war (Lk 14:31-32). Would-be disciples must gage their level of commitment. If a would-be disciple lacks commitment–lays a foundation but is unable to finish the tower–he will be ridiculed and shamed. Would-be disciples without sufficient resources–to win the battle–will lose everything.

Over the last few weeks, Jesus described the kingdom’s bounty and feasts. Today he paints a realistic picture of discipleship’s personal costs. God’s kingdom is not yet here; the disciples’ mission is to bring God’s kingdom. Paul challenges Philemon to start bringing the kingdom by changing his relationship with Onesimus. Jesus challenges his hearers to follow him only if they are willing to lose themselves. Many oppose God’s kingdom (and Jesus’ disciples) because God’s kingdom means an end to their personal earthly kingdoms. Do we have the wisdom to give up our personal kingdoms and become disciples committed to bring God’s kingdom?

—Terence Sherlock

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