Monday, June 28, 2010

To Them That Go The Right Way, I Will Show The Salvation Of God.

Monday of the Thirteenth Week In Ordinary Time
Memorial of Saint Irenaeus, bishop and martyr
Reading I
Amos 2:6-10, 13-16
Thus says the LORD:
For three crimes of Israel, and for four,
I will not revoke my word;
Because they sell the just man for silver,
and the poor man for a pair of sandals.
They trample the heads of the weak
into the dust of the earth,
and force the lowly out of the way.
Son and father go to the same prostitute,
profaning my holy name.
Upon garments taken in pledge
they recline beside any altar;
And the wine of those who have been fined
they drink in the house of their god.

Yet it was I who destroyed
the Amorites before them,
who were as tall as the cedars,
and as strong as the oak trees.
I destroyed their fruit above,
and their roots beneath.
It was I who brought you up
from the land of Egypt,
and who led you
through the desert for forty years,
to occupy the land of the Amorites.

Beware, I will crush you into the ground
as a wagon crushes when laden with sheaves.
Flight shall perish from the swift,
and the strong man shall not retain his strength;
The warrior shall not save his life,
nor the bowman stand his ground;
The swift of foot shall not escape,
nor the horseman save his life.
And the most stouthearted of warriors
shall flee naked on that day, says the LORD.
For the next eight weeks we shall be reading from Old Testament prophets. The first of these is the prophet Amos. He was a shepherd from Tekoa in the southern kingdom of Judah. From there he travelled north to Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and to the great cult centre which was the shrine of Bethel. There around 750 BC he scolded the people for their hypocritical religious devotions while ignoring the demands of social justice around them. He was finally expelled from the sanctuary by the priest in charge.

His poetry is filled with imagery and language taken from his own pastoral background. The book we have is an anthology of his oracles and was compiled either by the prophet or by some of his disciples.

Amos is a prophet of social justice. He is strongest of all in his condemnation of those who make ostentatious displays of religious piety while acting abominably with their less fortunate brothers and sisters. For a small amount of wrongdoing, the prophet says in God’s name, God’s promises will not be revoked from his people. But he then goes on to list what seems to be widespread and outrageous behaviour, especially towards the more vulnerable members of society.

They are willing to sell an otherwise good man into slavery just for the money they can get and they will sell off a poor man and be happy to take just a pair of sandals as payment or sell him into slavery when he could not repay a debt for which his sandals had been given in pledge. They constantly trample on the poor and the weak and hold them in utter contempt.

The avarice of the already rich and of men in power is a constant preoccupation of the prophets. That avarice is still with us. To care for the poor and the oppressed and to protect them from injustice were clearly commanded by Israel’s law and, indeed, throughout the ancient Near East, kings were supposed to defend such people.

He further charges that there are cases where both father and son have sexual relations with the same woman. She might have been a slave in the household or perhaps a temple prostitute. Sacred prostitution was a feature of Canaanite worship which contaminated Israel.

Or it may even have been an incestuous relationship: father with wife and daughter, son with mother and sister. According to the law, to have sexual relations with a woman meant an obligation to marry her, while father and son having sexual relations with the same woman was strictly against the law and there were severe sanctions for such behaviour.

Clothes which have been taken as a pledge against borrowed money are then worn by the lender during religious ceremonies. There may even be an implication here that the borrower was left with nothing to wear. The law prohibited keeping a man’s cloak overnight as a pledge, or taking a widow’s cloak at all.

Wine demanded of those against whom (perhaps false or extortionate) charges of damages were made is then piously drunk at the ceremonial banquets following the offering of sacrifices. The “house of God” then is effectively reduced to the “house of their god”.

Such behaviour, Amos says, is a flagrant act of ingratitude to their God who helped them wipe out the Amorites, that is, the inhabitants of Canaan, on their arrival in the Promised Land. It is a display of thanklessness to Yahweh who brought them out of slavery in Egypt and led them to the land of Amorites after accompanying them for 40 years in the desert. God’s care and providence for them should now be reflected in their care and providence of their community, most of all, the weak and the vulnerable.

Because of their shameless behaviour, they can expect the worst to happen to them. They will be crushed as a heavily laden wagon of corn crushes what is beneath it. Those who can run fast will find they cannot escape from the approaching disaster. The strong will find themselves weak. The soldier will lose his life and the archer be unable to release his arrows. Even the bravest of warriors will not have time to dress and will flee the approaching threat naked.

“On that day” - the day God comes in judgement, as he as he did through the Assyrian invasion that swept the northern kingdom away never to recover.

Obviously, the prophet is saying that there is a remedy and that is to heed the prophet’s warnings and to change their ways.

This is a very powerful passage and is as meaningful today as when it was first written. Allowing for some changes of time and place, there is a distressing familiarity with the prophet’s accusations for things have not changed very much in nearly 3,000 years (this was written about 750 BC).

At least, let us look into our own lives and see if any of these accusations could even be remotely thrown against us. And, where we can, let us work together with others to remedy the situation. Our relationship with God is not measured just by our attendance in church or the carrying out of religious obligations. There can be no love of God, there can be no true religion where there is no practice of justice and loving concern for the weak and marginalised.*
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Psalm 50
Remember this, you who never think of God.
“Why do you recite my statutes,
and profess my covenant with your mouth,
Though you hate discipline
and cast my words behind you?”
Remember this, you who never think of God.
“When you see a thief, you keep pace with him,
and with adulterers you throw in your lot.
To your mouth you give free rein for evil,
you harness your tongue to deceit.”
Remember this, you who never think of God.
“You sit speaking against your brother;
against your mother’s son you spread rumors.
When you do these things, shall I be deaf to it?
Or do you think that I am like yourself?
I will correct you by drawing them up before your eyes.”
Remember this, you who never think of God.
“Consider this, you who forget God,
lest I rend you and there be no one to rescue you.
He that offers praise as a sacrifice glorifies me;
and to him that goes the right way
I will show the salvation of God.”
Remember this, you who never think of God.
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Matthew 8:18-22
When Jesus saw a crowd around him,
he gave orders to cross to the other shore.
A scribe approached and said to him,
“Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus answered him,
“Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
Another of his disciples said to him,
“Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”
But Jesus answered him, “Follow me,
and let the dead bury their dead.”
There are times when Jesus goes out of his way to meet the crowds. On one occasion we are told he was filled with compassion because he saw them as sheep without a shepherd. But today, he gives orders to cross the lake apparently to avoid the crowds pressing in on him.

The crowds represent two kinds of people: those in real need of teaching and healing and those who are simply driven by a kind of curiosity for the unusual. Jesus is not particularly interested in the second kind; they represent a false interest in Jesus. For them he is just a sensation, a wonder-worker, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.

Similarly, when a scribe approaches Jesus and says, “Teacher, wherever you go I will come after you.” It seems like a generous offer but Jesus reminds the man of just what that may entail. “Foxes have lairs, birds in the sky their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

To follow Jesus means, like him, to be ready to have nothing of one’s own. As Jesus said earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, we cannot at the same time serve two masters. To be with Jesus is to accept a situation where we may have nothing in the way of material possessions. Our security will be elsewhere.

We do not know whether the scribe took up the challenge or not. It does not really matter. Jesus’ words are recorded mainly for us to hear them. What do I think when I hear them? Have I made the choice between having Jesus and having things? Or do I think I can have both? Do I want to have both?

Another person, described as being already a disciple, asks for permission to go and bury his father first before following Jesus. It seems a fairly reasonable request and Jesus’ reply sounds rather harsh. “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.” Both the Jewish and Hellenistic world regarded this as a filial obligation of the highest importance. (I knew a man who asked to delay his becoming a Catholic until he could give his father a Buddhist burial; in the event he never did become a Christian.)

There are two ways we can understand this reply. In one case, the man is asking to postpone his following of Jesus until his father dies and he can bury him. But to follow Jesus is to enter a new family with a new set of obligations. It is not that the man should not honour his father but, in the meantime, there are other things of much greater importance that need to be done. In the new family, of which his father is just one member, there are more pressing obligations. It is another way of Jesus letting us know that our following of him has to be unconditional. We cannot say, “I will follow you if…” or “I will follow you when I am ready…” When he calls we have, like the first disciples, be ready to drop our nets, our boats and even our family members.

Another way of understanding Jesus’ words is to see his call as a call to a way of life. Those who want to go their own self-seeking ways belong to the spiritually dead. Leave the burial of the dead to them. The rituals of society, including burial, have their place, an important place but for Jesus the call to the Kingdom represents a commitment to a more important set of values.

We must put all these statements in their context. They make clear that following Jesus involves a radical commitment but it does not mean that that we act in ways that are inhumane or unreasonable. Soon after Peter and Andrew had abandoned their boats and their nets to follow Jesus, we find Jesus in their house tending to their mother-in-law who had fallen sick (Mark 1:29-31). There was a time when some religious sisters were not allowed to attend a family funeral. That has now changed - and rightly. At the same time, the call of Jesus still involves a total commitment.*

The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

The first part of the reading from Amos seems to show how lack of love for one's neighbour is linked to the loss of love for God. The place of worship ends up like any prostitute's boudoir and the priests extort offerings from the people.

It is hard to know if we truly love God, because we cannot see Him. However, we can see our neighbour. So if we look honestly at our treatment of our neighbour, we can get a clearer idea of where we stand with God.

'Let the dead bury the dead' is such a striking phrase. Superficially it is completely nonsensical, but at a fundamental level it drives home the absolute division between death and life. We, of course, must choose life every time.

Looking for a connection between these readings, perhaps these statements of Our Lord's could also be seen as subtle criticisms of the religious establishment. The fact that the 'Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head' could imply that God has no home in the Temple any more. 'Let the dead bury the dead' could imply that even death rites have become spiritually dead.