Wednesday, June 30, 2010

To The Upright I Will Show The Saving Power Of God.

Wednesday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Amos 5:14-15, 21-24
Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
Then truly will the LORD, the God of hosts,
be with you as you claim!
Hate evil and love good,
and let justice prevail at the gate;
Then it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts,
will have pity on the remnant of Joseph.

I hate, I spurn your feasts, says the LORD,
I take no pleasure in your solemnities;
Your cereal offerings I will not accept,
nor consider your stall-fed peace offerings.
Away with your noisy songs!
I will not listen to the melodies of your harps.
But if you would offer me burnt offerings,
then let justice surge like water,
and goodness like an unfailing stream.
Today we have another appeal for people to act with a sense of justice. The passage begins with a rather generalised exhortation to “seek good and not evil”. To “seek good” is, of course, to seek the source of all Good, God himself and to stay away from everything that is contrary to his nature.

Then we can truly claim that “the Lord, the God of hosts” is with us. God, in a sense, is everywhere, in and through everything but for him to be fully in me, my heart must be fully open for him to enter and for me to experience the power of his love. And, if we do genuinely try to seek him, then he will truly be with us. But how that is to be done is yet to be spelt out by the prophet.

That spelling out begins when Amos says that to “hate evil and do good” means, among other things, to “let justice prevail at the gate”. In the cities of the time, local government functioned in the large open space inside the city’s gate. The implication is that justice does not always prevail. But only if the ‘remnant of Joseph’ can behave consistently with justice will they experience the Lord’s compassion. The ‘remnant of Joseph’ refers to those from the tribe of Joseph who are still remaining in the Northern Kingdom after it has been depleted by successive punishments from Yahweh, through the instrumentation of various invaders. This is the first mention of the ‘remnant’ of Israel in the prophets.

There is an implication that a change even now would benefit the individual survivors of the disaster, though the nation as a whole was doomed to perish.

In the second half of the reading, to make sure that there is no misunderstanding about what seeking good and seeking God entails, Yahweh, in the prophet’s name, denounces the plethora of feasts and liturgical festivals scattered throughout the year.

It is an attack against identifying religious with rituals and liturgical practices. The prophets often attack religious hypocrisy, the conviction that all is well, provided external forms like sacrifice and fasting are observed, even when the most elementary principles of social justice and neighbourly love are neglected. The Psalms lay emphasis on the inner dispositions that must lie behind acceptable sacrifice: obedience, gratitude, contrition; the Books of Chronicles, too, insist on the part played in sacrificial worship by the liturgical chant as an expression of inward sentiments; these authors also protest against a religion of mere form.

The Christian Testament will formulate the distinction even more definitively. In attacking the Pharisees who laid great emphasis on external ritual and the cleanliness of vessels used even in ordinary eating, Jesus had said: “Give what is in your cups and plates to the poor, and everything will be ritually clean for you” (Luke 11:41-42). “Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only those who do what my Father in heaven wants them to do” (Matthew 7:21). In John too, in speaking with the Samaritan woman, Jesus tells her that true worship is not in a particular place but only in Spirit and truth (John 4:21-24).

Amos puts it in even stronger language: “I hate, I spurn your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemnities.” These verses summarise and reject the current practice of religion in Israel. The institutions were not wrong in themselves; it was the worshippers and the way they worshipped that were wrong. The people had no basis on which to come to God, because their behaviour reflected disobedience of his law. What value then could be given to empty ritualistic practices?

Examples given are ‘cereal offerings’, samples of the harvest offered in thanksgiving; ‘stall-fed peace offerings’, specially fattened cattle also offered as thanksgiving for good herds and flocks; ‘noisy songs’ and ‘melodies of your harps’ accompanying the liturgical rites. On their own, these are of little value although there are many who believe that participation in these activities is equivalent to holiness and union with God.

But the only real holocaust the Lord wants is that “justice surge like water and goodness like an unfailing stream”. These are the prerequisites for acceptance by God but they are what Israel is rejecting. Justice is to flow like a never-failing stream in contrast to river beds that are dry much of the year. As plant and animal life flourishes where there is water, so human life flourishes where justice and righteousness are constantly practised.

On the one hand, it would be quite wrong to deduce from this reading that we go to the other extreme and to think that, provided we are engaged in acts of love and justice, we can dispense with all liturgical rites, that we can forget about our Sunday Eucharistic celebration.

On the other hand, there is a real danger that we can measure our service of God by our regular attendance at Mass, even daily Mass, and the regular saying of certain prayers or involvement in certain devotions and novenas. “He is a very good Catholic; he is a daily communicant.” That will only be true if, first of all, there is a genuine participation in a community-centred liturgy and, secondly, if church attendance is part of a life totally dedicated to the living of the Gospel, especially those parts of the Gospel which call for personal involvement in serving the needs of those around us and, indeed, of people in other parts of the world too, who are in need of any kind.

The sacramental liturgy plays an absolutely central role in our Christian lives but only when it is in close dialogue with lives based on love, justice and compassion. Each one reinforces the other.*
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Psalm 50
To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
“Hear, my people, and I will speak;
Israel, I will testify against you;
God, your God, am I.”
To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
“Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you,
for your burnt offerings are before me always.
I take from your house no bullock,
no goats out of your fold.”
To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
“For mine are all the animals of the forests,
beasts by the thousand on my mountains.
I know all the birds of the air,
and whatever stirs in the plains, belongs to me.”
To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
“If I were hungry, I should not tell you,
for mine are the world and its fullness.
Do I eat the flesh of strong bulls,
or is the blood of goats my drink?”
To the upright I will show the saving power 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?”
To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
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Matthew 8:28-34
When Jesus came to the territory of the Gadarenes,
two demoniacs who were coming from the tombs met him.
They were so savage that no one could travel by that road.
They cried out, “What have you to do with us, Son of God?
Have you come here to torment us before the appointed time?”
Some distance away a herd of many swine was feeding.
The demons pleaded with him,
“If you drive us out, send us into the herd of swine.”
And he said to them, “Go then!”
They came out and entered the swine,
and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea
where they drowned.
The swineherds ran away,
and when they came to the town they reported everything,
including what had happened to the demoniacs.
Thereupon the whole town came out to meet Jesus,
and when they saw him they begged him to leave their district.
Matthew’s version of this strange story is quite different from and much shorter than Mark’s. It is usual for Matthew to pare down stories just to the essential details while Mark tends to give a more dramatic presentation. In Matthew’s version, too, there are two possessed people instead of just one. (Similarly in his version of the Bartimaeus story told by Mark [10:46ff], Matthew [20:29ff] has two blind men.)

In the previous story about the calming of the storm we saw that Jesus and disciples were crossing the lake. They now come to their destination, a place known as the Gadarenes. It got its name from the town of Gadara on the south-east side of the lake.

Here Jesus was met by two people possessed by demons who completely controlled them. Unlike many of the ordinary people, the demons in these two men have an insight into Jesus’ identity although they may not recognise it fully. “What do you want with us, Son of God?” Jesus usually refers to himself as Son of Man and never as Son of God. “Have you come here to torture us before the time?”

There was a belief that demons would be free to roam the earth until the Judgment Day came. They did this by taking possession of people. This possession was often associated with disease, because disease was the consequence of sin and a sign of being in Satan’s power. That is why when Jesus expels a demon there is often a cure as well. By driving out these spirits Jesus inaugurates the Messianic age which many of the people do not recognise but which the demons do. Later Jesus will hand over this exorcising power together with the ability to effect cures to his disciples. We will see that in the discourse in chapter 10.

The demons then begged Jesus to let them go into a nearby herd of pigs. Jesus consented to this. As soon as they had entered the pigs, the whole herd rushed headlong over a cliff and into the water below. The swineherds rushed off to the nearest town to tell what had happened.

The townspeople immediately came out in search of Jesus and, not surprisingly, begged him to go somewhere else. It might seem rather high-handed of Jesus to destroy a whole herd of pigs in this way. We have to remember, however, that in Jewish eyes these pigs were abominably unclean. There was not a better place to put demons and it was they who really brought about the destruction of the animals. But, understandably, the owners of the pigs found it difficult to see things in the same way.

The purpose of the story, of course, is to focus on Jesus’ power to liberate people from evil influences which were destroying their lives. What these men were suffering could not be compared to the loss of the pigs’ lives and these would have ended up in a cooking pot anyway.

We, too, need to ask Jesus to liberate us from any evil influences or addictions which enslave us and prevent us from being the kind of persons he wants us to be.*

The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

“What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the appointed time?”

There is a strange similarity between these words and Our Lord's own words to His mother at Cana in John's Gospel. The relationship is questioned and there is the idea of an appointed time, which might be preempted by the One with authority. The eternal and supernatural have intervened in the world.

Perhaps this moment was for demons the equivalent of Cana for us. Both are a foretaste of what the Cross ultimately means.