11 August 2019 (C) nineteenth Sunday of Year

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: The theological virtue of faith

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Book of Wisdom 18:6-9). By the same act with which you took vengeance on our foes you made us glorious by calling us to you. The Book of Wisdom (or to give it its full title The Wisdom of Solomon) is the latest of the wisdom books of the canon. It was composed in Greek, in Egypt, probably in Alexandria about 30 B.C. The first section (1:1-11:1) is on wisdom proper, and is in good part a representative of Israel’s older wisdom tradition for the new situation, intended to strengthen Israel’s faith in her God and her pride in her wisdom tradition in face of temptations and attacks from a sophisticated Egyptian culture. The second part (11:2-19:22) is on God’s fidelity to his people in the exodus. The culmination of this was the first Passover night, with the death of the first-born of the Egyptians and the saving (passing over) of the first-born of Israel. This Passover night remained central to the Jewish religion and, in a new form, to Christianity. This present reading speaks poetically of this night, and is witness to Jewish concepts that already appear to have crystallized around it. The fathers (ancestors), most likely the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob), are presented as having foreseen this night so that they might rejoice in the knowledge of the fulfilment of promises made to them (see Genesis 15:13-14; 46:3-4, etc.). The destruction of the Egyptians (enemies, foes) was the expectation of the Israelites, what God’s people (the virtuous), were waiting for. The Israelites in Egypt, “devout children” of worthy men (the patriarchs), sacrificed and offered the paschal lamb in every household. This paschal sacrifice was possibly the divine pact, mentioned in this reading, binding Israel together in good times and bad. In the ending of the passage the author has anachronistically the Israelites of the first Passover recite the Hallel (Psalms 113-118 [112-117]), as regularly done in later Passovers.

The Passover, of which this reading treats, is about watching, vigil, which makes this reading apt to accompany the Gospel reading, which has the same theme.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 32[33]). Happy the people the Lord has chosen as his own.

Second Reading (Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19). Abraham looked forward to a city founded, designed by God. During the next four Sundays the second readings at Mass will be from the Epistle to the Hebrews, from the second part of the Epistle, from chapter 11 onwards. The first part was read as second readings last year (Year 2 of the three-year Sunday cycle) for Sundays 27 to 33. This present reading, and chapter 11 from which it is drawn, is an extremely important one in the message of the letter. The author has been addressing converts from Judaism who were tempted to return to their former religion and its liturgy. The author has been stressing that the Jewish liturgy is but a shadow of the real heavenly one, the true tent or temple into which Jesus, our true high priest, has passed. In the passage immediately preceding this one he reminds them that perseverance and endurance are necessary, citing the words of the prophet Habakkuk (2:3-4): “‘My righteous person shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him’. But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls”. He then goes on in the present chapter to instance “a great cloud of witnesses” of those who had faith. He retells the history of these men of faith from his own angle, emphasizing at the end (11:39-40) that they did not receive what was promised. That was to come with Christ.

            The text begins by a well-known definition of faith, which I give in the NRSV version: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, rendered in the Jerusalem Bible as: “Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of realities that are unseen”. The present reading concentrates on the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in particular Abraham, the model of faith. Faith means obedience to God’s call. Abraham at God’s call left his homeland. The reading stresses that it was an unknown land, but the land of inheritance for him and his descendants. The Promised Land would later be identified as Canaan. The patriarchs lived there in tents, as pilgrims, presented as looking forward to city founded by God. It is the heavenly Jerusalem. They were longing for a homeland, their heavenly homeland, for which reason God is not ashamed to be called their God. In the desert God identified himself to Moses (Exodus 3:15) as: “The God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob”. He was the God whose promise of a Promised Land was not just Canaan, but a city, the heavenly Jerusalem. Abraham’s faith in God is shown in many ways, in his belief against apparent evidence, and in his obedience to God, even to the readiness to sacrifice his only son Isaac. It is all intended is a model for readers of the letter and for believers of all ages, in any doubts and trials. Essential elements in faith are assurance and conviction, both gifts from God.

The Gospel (Luke 12:32-48). You too must stand ready. Reflection on this Gospel reading, and some of its hidden meanings and messages, invites us first of all to appreciate the distance in time and social culture between our day and that of Jesus, of Luke and the early Church. There are a number of different sections in this reading, some apparently addressed to different audiences. One message right through it is Jesus’ warning against the attachment to riches that endangers one’s human dignity and openness to God’s kingdom.

            In last Sunday’s Gospel, in the Bible immediately before today’s reading, Jesus addressed a parable to a man from the multitude of non-believers on the foolishness of selling one’s soul to riches, an example of one who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God. This, in last Sunday’s Gospel reading, is followed by a section, addressed to his disciples, to be detached from material things, after which the nations of this world seek. The listeners are invited to seek first the kingdom of God, and other matters will fall into line.

            After this, today’s reading follows, addressed to “the little flock”, given in the lectionary, but not in the biblical text itself, as addressed to the disciples. It is not clear whether by “little flock” all the disciples are intended, or just the closer group of the Twelve and possibly some others, more probably the former. To them is promised, or already given in the person of Jesus, the kingdom. Stress is laid, here as elsewhere, on the giving of alms.There follows a parable exhorting readiness for action, “loins girded” (bottom of long cloak tucked within the belt), and lamps lit awaiting the return of the master of the wedding feast. If the servants, or slaves, are found in readiness, the master is presented as acting in an unexpected manner, serving at table and waiting on the servants or slaves. It is more reminiscent of Jesus at the last supper, and of the visit of the risen Jesus in Apocalypse 3:20: “Listen, I am standing at the door and knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me”. The supper intended in the parable may be the messianic banquet, and the parable intended as addressed to the Church.The Lord does not answer Peter’s question as to whether the parable is intended for them (the disciples) or for everyone. Instead he gives another parable which seems clearly to be concerned with governance within the Christian community, with the special responsibility of the “steward”. Paul regards the apostles as “servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries” (1 Corinthians 4:1-2).

            There are at least two major thoughts for reflection from this Gospel reading: the danger of losing one’s soul to riches and the serious responsibility of bishops and church leaders, stewards of God’s mysteries.

B. Reflection & Dialogue: The theological virtue of faith

Today’s second reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews which reminds us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, invites us to reflect on how this text leads to dialogue with an active humanistic, atheistic movement in our own day. This question of the current clash between faith and humanism is so large that only bare essentials can be touched on here. Pope Benedict XVI had almost completed an encyclical letter on faith before his retirement. It was published (under the title Lumen fidei¸ “the light of faith”)in June 2013 by his successor Pope Francis. An English translation under this title is available on Google. The Pope notes (paragraph 2) that in speaking of the light of faith we can hear the objections of many of our contemporaries. According to them, in the view of modernity, that light might have been considered sufficient for societies of old, but was felt to be of no use for our times, for a humanity come of age, proud of its rationality and anxious to explore the future in novel ways. Faith thus appears to some as an illusory light, preventing mankind from boldly setting out in quest of knowledge. Faith was thus understood either as a leap in the dark, to be taken in the absence of light, driven by blind emotion or as a subjective light, capable perhaps of warming the heart and bringing personal consolation, but not something which could be proposed to others as an objective and shared light which points the way. The Pope goes on to say that there is need, then, to see once again that faith is a light, for once the flame of faith goes out, all other lights begin to dim.

            It will be for future discussion to return to points arising from this. For the moment, in keeping with the second reading, we may say that faith is not just a human opinion or human conviction. It is a divine gift, a theological virtue, giving assurance and conviction of things unseen. The certainty it gives comes from the divine light of God’s gift, which no human arguments can undo.

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