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August 28 2016 (C) Twenty-Second Sunday of the Year

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

B. Reflection & Dialogue: The Values of the Kingdom

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

First Reading (Ecclesiasticus 3:19-21, 30-31). Behave humbly and then you will find favour with the Lord. Today’s first reading is taken from the Book of Ecclesiasticus. Exceptionally for a biblical work, we know who the author of this was. He was Jesus ben Sira, who wrote this work in Hebrew about the year 180 BC. He is named, and his person described, by his grandson in the preface he added to his translation his grandfather’s work into Greek. His grandson tells us that Ben Sira had reflected deeply on the Law, the Prophets and the other writings of the canon and had decided to share his thoughts with his students and readers. Ben Sira belonged to the learned Hebrew wisdom tradition. He has a school in Jerusalem for the upper class, or middle class, in which he shared his vast learning with his students, and then with readers of his work, encouraging all to reflection. This is clear from the ending of today’s reading: “The heart of a sensible man will reflect on parables, an attentive ear is the sage’s dream”. His learning did not lead to pride, and in this reading he reflects on the importance of gentleness and humility.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 67[68]). In your goodness, O God, you prepared a home for the poor.

Second Reading (Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24). You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God. In keeping with the aim the author had throughout this letter, namely to convince his readers and their audiences, not to turn from belief in Christ to Judaism and its liturgy, he stresses again that the Jewish liturgy is but a shadow of the true liturgy in heaven, where Christ the true High Priest now is. God’s people have no lasting city here on earth, but seek the heavenly Jerusalem. Today’s passage, which comes at the end of the letter (the chapter which follows is really an appendix), contrasts the giving of the Old Law to Moses on Sinai, and as such the ratification of the old covenant, with the New. The Lord’s people’s encounter with God at the foundation of the first covenant was an awesome event, described in this reading as recounted in the book of Exodus (Exodus 19:16, 18) and Deuteronomy (4:11). While the author is writing to believers still on earth, he addresses them as if they could imagine themselves already in heaven, in the communion of saints and angels. One is reminded of a medieval Irish belief and expression of an encounter on certain occasions (for instance Easter Sunday) of believers on earth with the citizens of haven (meeting of the people of heaven and earth). That is the belief we have in today’s reading. Believers are already united with Christ in Mount Zion, that is, the heavenly Jerusalem, with the angels, and the “assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven”, that is Christians, coheirs with Christ, the first-born from the dead, and with “the spirits of the righteous/just made perfect”, probably the saints of the Old Testament, and with God himself and with Jesus the mediator of a new covenant. This is a tremendous statement of the communion of saints, and it was towards this goal, the heavenly Jerusalem, that all the author had to say in this letter was directed. This goal would be the end of the race run and all the trials endured by Christ’s followers on earth. Contemplation of this vision of heaven should have served as a joy and an encouragement for the first readers of the letter and for those of succeeding generations.

The Gospel (Luke 14:1, 7-24). All who exalts themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. The Pharisees are central to this reading, as they also are in the section omitted (verses 2-6). The omitted section concerns a healing worked by Jesus on the Sabbath, at which he asks the lawyers (scribes) and Pharisees whether it was lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not. They remained silent, probably because they agreed that it was. Ordinarily in the gospels the Pharisees are presented in an unfavourable light, something not quite true of Luke’s gospel. (See Luke 7:16 and the note on it for the 11th Sunday of this year.) Apparently Jesus got an invitation to a meal in his house from the Pharisee, and a meal stands as background to this passage and that which follows it. For the meal in question, it appears that the invited guests could take the position of their choice, but that the person who invited them could invite a guest to take a higher position. Every meal, lunch, great dinner or wedding feast could bring the image of the great messianic feast to the mind of a pious Jew, Pharisee or other. This is clear from the end of this section, serving as an introduction to that which follows, in which a person, on hearing Jesus’ words says: “Blessed is the one who eats bread in the kingdom of God”. In the first part of today’s reading Jesus gives advice on taking the lowest place at a wedding feast, with the saying “the first shall be last” at the end. This “parable”, or wisdom teaching, spoken by Jesus in today’s reading may have a connection with the kingdom of God, in which God is host and can allot places.

            In the second section of this reading Jesus refers to the invitation he received, and speaks to his host, not by way of censure but availing of the situation to give his view on his own and God’s concern for the poor and marginalized. In the culture of Jesus’ day, and indeed of every age, the expected response to an invitation to a meal or feast would be a return invitation to a meal of the same level. Jesus presents a different view. The invitation would not be for friends or others who could repay in kind, but rather to the poor and marginalized of different sorts – a theme beloved of Jesus and one stressed by Luke in his gospel. It would be an invitation not repaid in kind in this world, but on the last day, at the resurrection of the just/righteous. Bodily resurrection at the end of time was a belief dear to the Pharisees.

            While Jesus’ suggestion, or teaching, on invitation to lunch or dinner may not prove acceptable by society standards, it is central to the gospel message, and calls for response at different levels.

B. Reflection & Dialogue: The Values of the Kingdom

The German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (19th century) is often accredited with the saying that no nation could run its foreign policy in accord with the Sermon Mount. On the other hand Winston Churchill is reported to have said on one occasion: "What a happy world this would be if we all lived according to the Sermon on the Mount!" Reports also have it that in reply to a question, after the sad state of the world after World War II, as to where to begin reconstruction, a noted statesman said: “We begin with the Sermon on the Mount”. Echoes from this Sermon, and from Gospel values, have been felt down through two thousand years of history. Today’s Gospel reading presents us with an opportunity and incentive to reflect on all this.

            It is clear, I believe, that neither a nation state or religious order could implement what Jesus has said in today’s Gospel reading on whom should be invited to lunch or dinner. But the lesson to be drawn from Jesus’ words will always remain. Blessed are the poor, the poor and marginalized in so many ways, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. They are God’s friends, and if God’s friends a central message of the Gospel is that their needs and persons should be attended to. Throughout history the Holy Spirit has inspired certain persons to give new life to what Jesus has said on poverty and care for the poor, such as St Francis of Assisi and Popes of our own day.

            And with regard to humility and Gospel simplicity -- the values of the kingdom have greatly influenced New Testament teaching (Gospels and Epistles) and Church teaching as well. Gospel values inspire social equality. As Paul reminds the Christians of the early Church in Rome (Romans 12:16) “Do not be haughty (or: high-minded), but associate with the lowly”. Paul’s letters, and other New Testament writings, are full of such teaching, which has behind it the person of Jesus as an example and a teacher.

            These Gospel values have had a great influence on western thought, and in part practice. They have become part of Christian doctrine. And in our own day, when many want no mention of a Christian inheritance, they remain as values, described as ethics rather than Christian values, even by humanists, unbelievers and atheists.