Friday, December 11, 2009

Wisdom Is Vindicated By Her Works

Friday of the Second Week in Advent

First Reading         Isaiah 48:17-19

Thus says the LORD, your redeemer,
the Holy One of Israel:
I, the LORD, your God,
teach you what is for your good,
and lead you on the way you should go.
If you would hearken to my commandments,
your prosperity would be like a river,
and your vindication like the waves of the sea;
Your descendants would be like the sand,
and those born of your stock like its grains,
Their name never cut off
or blotted out from my presence.

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In a passage where Isaiah speaks of Cyrus, King of Persia, as God’s chosen instrument to free his people from captivity in Babylon, and enable them to return to their homeland, we find today’s short reading, a prophesy inserted in the text. It is a reflection on what the destiny of Israel might have been if she had remained faithful to God’s calling. The sufferings of the Exile are seen by the writer as a punishment which Israel rightly deserved.

If they had heeded the commandments, their prosperity would have been “like a river”, and their integrity “like the waves of the sea” – symbols of free-flowing abundance. If they had remained faithful, they would have enjoyed the fruits of the promises the LORD had made to them long ago. Instead of a dwindling remnant, “your descendants would have been like the sand, and those born of your stock like its grains.”

This passage echoes the prophecies made to Abraham by the LORD: “I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth; if anyone could count the dust of the earth, your descendants too might be counted” (Genesis 13:16). “I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore” (Genesis 22:17). It is a promise that is repeated throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, especially in Deuteronomy and in the Prophetic books.

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Gospel                   Matthew 11:16-19

Jesus said to the crowds:
“To what shall I compare this generation?
It is like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance,
we sang a dirge but you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said,
‘He is possessed by a demon.’
The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said,
‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard,
a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
But wisdom is vindicated by her works

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Today’s Gospel follows immediately upon yesterday’s passage about John the Baptist, whose mission is to prepare the way for the Messiah, which ended, “Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

In today’s reading, Jesus chides the crowd for not paying attention, comparing them to children in the marketplace who complain to their playmates: “We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge, but you did not mourn.” When John came, in great austerity, fasting and wearing a garment of camels hair, people said that he was possessed by an evil spirit. On the other hand, when Jesus came “eating and drinking”, they said, “Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”

If we do not want to hear what God is telling us through the people who surround us, and the situations in our life, it is easy for us to rationalize, and in the process reject the Gospel as well, which is actually rather illogical. “A priest growled at me when I went to confession, so I don’t go to church anymore.” That’s rather like rejecting the democratic form of government because some elected officials are corrupt.

We need to be very clear about the distinction between the image of the Kingdom that Jesus left to us, and the ways in which that vision has been lived out through the centuries. It was Paul who said that we, the people of God and the disciples of Christ, carry the gospel message in clay pots, which tend to be leaky and are easily broken. We must get used to the notion that God can – and does – speak to us through quite unexpected agents. Some of the greatest saints had serious weaknesses; in fact, many of them became saints because of their weaknesses. Consider for example 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, where the Apostle gives thanks to God for working through his weaknesses, rather than freeing him from them.

It is important, as Jesus reminds us, that we try to grasp the essence of what Jesus left us, his vision of the Kingdom. It is virtually impossible for any of us to hear the message without filtering it through our own personal history, and our individual idiosyncrasies. As a preacher, I learned long ago that when I am speaking to a congregation of 100 people, they hear 100 different messages. It took a bit longer to discover that if I am speaking to two people – a parent and a teenager, for instance – the two of them tend to hear what they want to hear. What is important is that each of us tries to hear what God is saying, and not block our ears to things we do not want to hear. [By the way, that applies to the preacher as well as to the congregation!]

Today’s gospel is well summarized in the last phrase, “Wisdom is vindicated by her works.” Jesus is the embodiment of God’s Wisdom. He needs no justification beyond the evidence of his life, show in all that he did and said, and in particular with the ultimate manifestation of loving obedience to the Father’s will, loving sacrifice for the sake of his brothers and sisters, shown on the Cross of Calvary. The same commitment – but not necessarily the same consequence – can and ought to be made by each of us.

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