Tag Archives: parable

30 July 2017: Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
 1 Kgs 3:5, 7-12  Ps 119:57, 72, 76-77, 127-128, 129-130  Rom 8:28-30  Mt 13:44-52

 

Parables about choices in discipleship

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings focus on God’s kingdom and our discipleship.

In the first reading from the book of Kings, Solomon asks God for wisdom, rather than riches or a long life. Wisdom (knowledge of God) should be valued above all else; the parables in today’s gospel depict the kingdom as a treasure beyond value.

In his letter to the Roman ekklasia, Paul describes God’s plan and care for a believer’s salvation. This passage has a complicated history; words like “predestined” and “justified” are sometimes freighted with meanings Paul didn’t intend. Paul’s point is simply that all things unfold according to God’s plan (God’s foreknowing). God designs (predestines) all humans to be able to be like (conformed to) Christ. God calls all to salvation through Christ. Those who accept God’s call, God “makes right” with God (justifies). Those who are “right with God,” God also allows to share now and in the future in the effects of Christ’s resurrection (glorifies). This is good news for disciples!

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus concludes teaching the crowds and disciples in parables. Jesus presents the kingdom as a hidden treasure, a merchant seeking pearls, and a dragnet. Jesus also directs a parable about a house-master to his disciples. In these parables, Jesus overturns his hearers’ expectations about how disciples come to God’s kingdom, who can enter, and how disciples understand and teach the kingdom.

  • A hidden treasure. Jesus’ hearers would expect that something as important as the kingdom to be visible and obvious. Instead, Jesus tells them it is hidden. The surprise is that the treasure is found by chance. The parable invites the hearers to imagine finding such a treasure and how they would react.
  • A merchant seeking pearls. Jesus’ hearers would expect that the kingdom would be easy to acquire. Instead, Jesus describes the merchant as actively seeking. The surprise is the way in which the merchant changes when he finds a unique pearl. Jesus says he sells everything he had; he is no longer a pearl merchant. The parable invites the hearers to imagine what would cause them to completely change their lives.
  • A dragnet. Jesus’ hearers would expect the kingdom to be exclusive, limited to holy people or to people with special knowledge. The surprise is that the kingdom gathers in everyone, the good and the bad together. Only when the net is full do the fishermen pull it in and sort its contents. The parable invites the hearers to think about a kingdom that is open to all, and their place in such a kingdom.
  • A house-master. Jesus directs this parable to his disciples who now know how to interpret parables. The disciples would expect the house-master to bring out only what is new. The surprise is the house-master brings out both new and old treasures. The parable invites disciples to think about the value of the Torah as well as Jesus’ new teachings in presenting the good news.

Today’s readings ask the believing community to consider how disciples discover the kingdom (by accident or by searching), who enters the kingdom, and how disciples understand God’s law. How we find the kingdom and find ourselves included isn’t important. It is our words and actions, rooted in God’s law, that make us disciples. Have we hidden our treasure or traded it away, or do we bring it out and share it?

—Terence Sherlock

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23 July 2017: Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
 Wis 12:13, 16-19  Ps 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16  Rom 8:26-27  Mt 13:24-43

Parables about the unexpected and surprising kingdom

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings focus on God’s nature and God’s kingdom.

In the first reading from the book of Wisdom, the author considers the paradox of balancing divine mercy with divine power: “Your mastery of all things makes you lenient to all (v 16),” “Though mighty, you judge with clemency (v 18).” The Lectionary editors chose this reading to compliment the kingdom’s descriptions in the gospel parables.

In his letter to the Roman ekklasia, Paul addresses the Spirit’s role in completing our prayer. Human prayer is sometimes imperfect in how we praise God or what we ask for. The Spirit comes to our aid to help us form our praise, petitions, and thanks, and present them to God. Paul anticipates John’s description of the Spirit as our paraclete.

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus continues teaching  in parables. Jesus presents the crowds and the disciples with three images of the kingdom of the heavens: a field of wheat and weeds, a mustard seed, and leaven. In these parables, Jesus overturns his hearers’ expectations about how God’s kingdom comes, how the kingdom is revealed, and who can enter. This reflection focuses on the most complex image, the wheat and weeds.

First-century feuding parties would often ruin each other’s crops. The practice was so common that a Roman law forbade sabotaging wheat fields with darnel, a poisonous plant that resembles wheat in its early growth. Jesus’ hearers would be surprised by the householder’s decision to wait until the harvest to separate the wheat from the weeds. In their honor/shame culture, they would expect that someone outwitted and shamed by his enemy would hide or remove the evidence of shame. The householder instead outwits (and shames) his enemy. By waiting, the householder saves his wheat crop, and gets the added benefit of using the weeds to fuel his oven.

This parable warns disciples about human judgement. The kingdom, which is already here, contains both the good and the bad. Disciples may too quickly label someone a “sinner” and judge that person excluded from the kingdom. But God alone judges the worthy and unworthy (see the first reading). A disciple’s work is to preach the kingdom and to encourage conversion (metanoia).

Today’s readings ask the believing community to consider how God’s kingdom comes, is recognized, and is encountered and lived. The mustard seed parable tells us the kingdom starts small, but grows large enough to encompass the whole world. The leaven parable tells us that the kingdom starts as a hidden thing, but becomes visible as it changes the world. The wheat-and-weeds parable reminds us that, although we have a role in bringing God’s kingdom, God alone, who is both just and merciful, chooses who will enter. As disciples, are we growing the kingdom by our words and actions? Do we reveal the kingdom daily by our example? Do we invite everyone to the kingdom without judgement or preference?

—Terence Sherlock

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16 July 2017: Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
 Is 55:10-11  Ps 65:10, 11, 12-13, 14  Rom 8:18-23  Mt 13:1-23

Disciples: seeds and sowers

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings focus on Jesus’ parable of the sower.

In the first reading, Isaiah reminds the people of the creative power of God’s word. The prophet poetically compares the power of God’s rain and snow to the power of God’s word. Both change the world and enable humans to thrive; both return to God only after they fulfill their work. Christians hear this reading as a prefiguring of Jesus as God’s Word and the power of the parables to deliver God’s message (see today’s gospel).

In his letter to the Roman ekklasia, Paul describes the believing community waiting now in the hope of God’s coming glory (the parousia). Paul links the created world’s destiny to the future glory that belongs to the believing community. All creation shares now in the corruption Adam’s disobedience caused; in the future, it will share in redemption’s benefits and the glory that comes from God’s ultimate liberation (Rom 8:19-22). Believers enjoy the firstfruits (the Spirit) now as a guarantee of the future liberation of their bodies from the influence of the rebellious old self (Rom 8:23).

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the crowds and the disciples the parable of the sower. A parable contains something that surprises the hearer to make him or her think. In this parable, the successful yield is the surprise: in Jesus’ time, a typical grain yield might be four- to eight-fold. A yield of thirty-, sixty-, or a hundred-fold would astound Jesus’ hearers and lead them to wonder who the sower is and what kind of seed this could be.

  • The sower. Jesus’ audience would know that Hebrew scripture presents God as a sower (Is 55:10-11; Jer 31:27-28). They would hear the parable simply as a message of God’s care and abundance (see the first reading).
  • The seed. Those who really understand the parable–who have ears to hear–would perceive Jesus as offering God’s powerful and transforming word, and that God’s word requires their response. That is, the seed is really about becoming Jesus’ disciples. Jesus explains how people fail as disciples (they don’t understand the message, they are not committed, they give in to competing priorities). He also describes the results of successful disciples (increasing God’s kingdom by thirty-, sixty-, or a hundred-fold).

Today’s readings ask the believing community to listen to God’s word. God’s word is the seed sown within us, full of power and potential to transform if we respond. We have many excuses about why we don’t allow God’s word in: it’s too hard, I’m distracted, I’m too busy. For those who hear God’s word and choose discipleship, God’s superabundance becomes evident in their lives. Like the sower in the parable, both Jesus and his disciples encounter failures and successes in their ministry, but ultimately success will outweigh the failures. As disciples, do we have ears to hear, or only excuses to offer? As disciples, what kind of soil do we provide for God’s seed?

—Terence Sherlock

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23 October 2015: Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Sir 35:12-14, 16-18 Ps 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23 2 Tm 4:6-8, 16-18 Lk 18:9-14

Prayer: considering the mystery of God’s grace

Green_banner_sm During 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 invite us to think about our prayers and God’s grace.

In the first reading from his wisdom book, Sirach tells us that God is “a God of justice who knows no favorites.” All prayer reaches God, and God does not delay in responding. God’s justice (and God’s corresponding mercy) is at the heart of today’s gospel.

In the second reading from the second letter to Timothy, the author uses a liturgical prayer image familiar to both Jews and Greeks: the pouring of a libation (offering) to God or the gods. The author, speaking as Paul, imagines his blood poured out in sacrifice as an act of worship. God awards all who “keep faith” the crown of righteousness.

Today’s gospel reading is the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, which is challenging for two reasons: (1) two interpretations surround the parable, and (2) Jesus’ interpretation can be translated three ways. The gospel consists of the following parts:

  • The parable (v 10-13). Jesus tells his disciples another parable about prayer, continuing last week’s theme. The Pharisee is a meticulous keeper of Mosaic law; the tax collector is an untrustworthy collaborator. Jesus’ first-century hearers would recognize these characters as stereotypes: the super-pious good person, and the cheating, Roman-collaborating bad person. Both go to the Temple to pray at the daily atonement service. Their prayers and attitudes are very different.
  • The first interpretation (v 9). Luke interprets the parable before he tells it. He says Jesus addresses the parable to those who believe they can do without God.
  • The second interpretation (v 14a) and saying (v 14b). Jesus interprets the parable after he tells it. Jesus’ interpretation turns on which person went home justified. The Greek word παρά (pah-RAH) can mean a position (“along with”), a causality (“because of”), or a non-correspondence (“rather than”). The possible translations are:
    1. The tax collector went home justified rather than the Pharisee [the Lectionary version]. Jesus’ audience would be surprised to hear that God rejects the Pharisee’s prayer but accepts the tax collector’s prayer. While they could understand God rejecting the tax collector because of his work, they would not understand God rejecting the Pharisee-his life is exemplary, even if his prayer is less so.
    2. The tax collector went home justified along with the Pharisee. Jesus’ audience would be more shocked to hear that God accepts the prayers of both men. This translation challenges Jesus’ hearers to realize that God gives grace to all. God decides whom to grace, even if we don’t think God is being “fair.”
    3. The tax collector went home justified because of the Pharisee. Jesus’ audience would be most shocked to hear that God accepts the prayer of the tax collector because of the prayer (and actions) of the Pharisee. This translation challenges Jesus’ hearers to understand that we are all involved in each other’s salvation. We do not “stand alone” or “stand apart;” our actions–good and bad–affect everyone else. God’s gives grace to all, and God’s grace acts on us all, through our interactions with each other.

Scripture scholars call the “whoever exalts himself…” saying a “floating statement” because it appears in several places (Lk 14:11, Lk 18:14, Mt 23:12); it is not uniquely associated with this interpretation.

A possible meaning: The parable presents two flawed humans: the Pharisee more than fulfills the Law but does not need or ask for God’s mercy. The tax collector asks for God’s mercy but does not show a need to live differently. The parable’s meaning is purposely ambiguous, forcing us to decide its meaning. If we hear “only the tax collector went home justified,” the parable is about intent of humans’ flawed prayers (something only God can judge). If we hear “they both went home justified,” the parable is about God’s graciousness rather than humans’ flawed prayers. If we hear “the tax collector went home justified because of the Pharisee,” the parable is about God’s graciousness to the community rather than individual humans’ flawed prayers.

Today’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to examine our prayers. Do our prayers express our need for God? Do we pray with or apart from the rest of the believing community? Do we recognize God’s grace and mercy that comes to us through others? Do we pray for ourselves, or for God’s grace?

—Terence Sherlock

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16 October 2016: Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Ex 17:8-13 Ps 121:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8 2 Tm 3:14-4:2 Lk 18:1-8

 

Prayer: more than persistence

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 invite us to think about God and prayer.

This reflection focuses on the gospel only. Today’s gospel reading includes the parable of the widow and the judge, which is challenging for several reasons: (1) two interpretations surround the parable, (2) the parable relies on an unfamiliar (to us) rabbinical interpretive technique, and (3) some critical words have different translations. The gospel consists of the following parts:

  • The parable (v 2-5). As we’ve seen in other parables, not all parable characters are exemplary. In today’s parable, both characters are unlikeable. The judge “neither fears God nor respects humans;” and the widow seeks “vengeance” against her opponent (not “a just decision” as appears in today’s translation). The judge finally grants the widow’s vengeance because he’s afraid she’ll turn violent (“strike me”). The Greek word ὑπωπιάζω (hoo-poh-pee-AHd-zoh) is a boxing term meaning “to give a black eye.”
  • The first interpretation (v 1). Luke interprets the parable before he tells it. He sees the widow as the main character, and tells us to be persistent like the widow, to “pray without losing heart.” Luke interprets the parable for his Greek hearers who wouldn’t understand parable’s rabbinical context.
  • The second interpretation (v 6-7) and the related saying (v8). The Lord interprets the parable after he tells it. He sees the judge as the main character and the key to the parable. Jesus uses a rabbinical interpretive technique called qal v’homer (“light to heavy”) to explain the parable. The judge’s actions provide a baseline (the “light” part): a flawed human judge renders a flawed judgement to a flawed human. Jesus then contrasts the parable’s flawed judge with God (the “heavy” part): God is a perfect judge who renders just and merciful judgements to flawed humans. To emphasize the contrast, in the Greek version of the gospel, Jesus describes God using the Greek word μακροθυμέω (mak-roh-thoo-MEH-oh), which means “patient.” That is, God judges us with patience despite our flaws and failures. (The translators of today’s gospel left out the word “patient,” obscuring the interpretation’s meaning.) Jesus closes by connecting God’s just actions with our faith. When the son of man returns, he may find a faith-less world, unable to accept God’s answers to its prayers. That is, God always answers our prayers, but sometimes we don’t like the answer.

A possible meaning: When we see the judge as the parable’s central character, we can begin to understand the parable’s possible meanings. Jesus calls the judge “unjust” because he renders his verdict out of fear, not out of justice. God is the just and patient judge who hears our petitions (prayers) and, despite our own failings, answers them justly. We may think that God sometimes answers us “unjustly;” this may cause us to lose faith. This is why Luke urges us to “pray without losing heart (faith).”

Today’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to examine our prayer life. Do we ask God for what is good and just for all, or do we pray for vengeance? Do we appreciate God’s patience with our selfish prayers? Do we accept God’s answer to our prayer, or continue to ask for what we want? Do we reject and punish God when we think God doesn’t hear us?

—Terence Sherlock

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2 October 2016: Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Hab 1:2-3; 2:2-4 Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9 2 Tm 1:6-8, 13-14 Lk 17:5-10

 

Discipleship: loyal living and faith-full acts

Green_banner_sm During 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 challenge our idea of faith.

In the first reading, the prophet Habakkuk complains to God that God ignores the unrighteous acts of Judah’s rulers against the people. God answers with a vision of Jerusalem–Judah’s capital city–destroyed, and its people taken as captives to Babylon. God tells Habakkuk that, in contrast to the unrighteous acts of Judah’s rulers, “the just (righteous) one will live because of his faith.” The just ones who remain loyal to God–who live their faith–God will save. The Lectionary editors chose this passage because its saying on faith echoes Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel.

In the second reading from the second letter to Timothy, the author looks back on Paul’s life and draws lessons from it; he also looks to the future and offers challenges and hopes to Timothy and his readers. “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice:” the Greek word δειλία (dih-LEE-ah) is better translated as “fear” to contrast with the gospel’s active faith that can uproot a tree and plant it in the sea.

Today’s gospel from Luke is part of four connected sayings about how a disciple acts (Lk 17: 1-10): Today’s reading includes only sayings 3 and 4:

  • Saying 3: Having faith (Lk 17: 5-6). The disciples ask Jesus to “Increase their faith.” In the ancient world, faith is an action, not simply “intellectual assent.” (The idea of faith as intellectual assent alone took root in western thought during the Enlightenment, in the 1700s AD.) The ancients understood faith as the actions of fidelity, or actions of loyalty, or of a lived commitment. The disciples ask Jesus to help them live their commitment or loyalty to him; Jesus responds with actions (“say,” “be uprooted,” “be planted”). If a disciple practices seemingly small faithful acts, God’s power can magnify their results.
  • Saying 4: Confusing discipleship with entitlement (Lk 17: 7-10). Jesus tells the disciples a short parable about a slave who serves his master (Lk 17: 7-9). The master expects the slave to serve him; the slave expects to serve the master. In this social structure, the master’s needs come first, and the slave’s needs come second. The parable’s meaning turns on the Greek word ἀχρεῖος (ahk-RIH-os), here translated as “unprofitable.” The root word χρεῖος connotes monetary utility or debt value. As a slave, the slave’s actions generate nothing of surplus or monetary value for the master; the slave’s only value is in serving the master. Taken together with the disciples request for increased faith, Jesus reminds his disciples that God works through their actions, and their results belong to God alone. When they fulfill discipleship’s demands, they are only doing their duty.

Today’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to consider our understanding of faith. God tells Habakkuk that practicing fidelity makes one just. The disciples ask Jesus to “increase their faith,” he tells them that their faith-filled acts can have outsized results. Jesus also reminds the disciples that the results of their faithful acts belong to God, not to the disciples. Do we think that faith is simply nodding our heads when asked about God? Or do we practice dynamic faith so that every our action affirms our loyalty to God and faithfulness to God’s Word?

—Terence Sherlock

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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 ekklasiais.

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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