Saturday, July 17, 2010

Behold My Servant Whom I Have Chosen; In His Name The Gentiles Will Hope.

Saturday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Micah 2:1-5
Woe to those who plan iniquity,
and work out evil on their couches;
In the morning light they accomplish it
when it lies within their power.
They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and they take them;
They cheat an owner of his house,
a man of his inheritance.
Therefore thus says the LORD:
Behold, I am planning against this race an evil
from which you shall not withdraw your necks;
Nor shall you walk with head high,
for it will be a time of evil.

On that day a satire shall be sung over you,
and there shall be a plaintive chant:
"Our ruin is complete,
our fields are portioned out among our captors,
The fields of my people are measured out,
and no one can get them back!"
Thus you shall have no one
to mark out boundaries by lot
in the assembly of the LORD.
Today we have the first of three readings from the prophet Micah.

Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah but we know nothing of his life except that he came from an obscure village in the foothills of Judah. Like the other prophets he attacked those who exploited the poor, merchants who cheated, corrupt judges, priests and prophets. The cities of Jerusalem and Samaria were particular targets.

The verses we read today are directed mainly against rich landowners who are oppressing the poor. According to the prophet, they lie in bed wondering what their next money-making move will be. Micah, however, describes their plans as plotting evil and planning mischief, “working out evil as they recline on their opulent couches”. As soon as dawn breaks, they get up to put their plots into action. The rich, exploiting classes continue to get rich at the expense of the poor because they control the power structures of their society. “They covet land and simply take it over as their own whatever catches their fancy.”

Covetousness alone was a violation of the 10th Commandment. Land monopoly, also denounced by Isaiah, was a chronic vice in Judah. To protect the poor against it, a man’s inheritance, his ancestral property, was supposed to be inviolate. According to the Law, land was the permanent possession of a family. But the wealthy in their greed were enslaving poor landowners for their debts and thus taking over the land in payment.

(We saw something of this when Queen Jezebel engineered the death of Naboth as a way by which the king, her husband, could have the vineyard he coveted, cf. reading for Monday of 11th Week.)

And then they would take over the house as well, presumably as collateral for a debt that had not been repaid. In this way the already rich landowners could increase their ownings with the least outlay (and the greatest injustice). It all sounds so contemporary!

But the prophet warns that they are not going to get away with their exploitation of the poor and weak for long. “I am planning against this race an evil from which you shall not withdraw your necks.” Little do they know that the invader is about to strike and carry off all, both rich and poor, into bitter exile.

On that day the rich will sing remorsefully of how all are being stripped of everything, of how all the possessions they had robbed from the poor are now being measured out and shared and given to the idolatrous invading forces.

“You shall have no one to mark out boundaries by lot in the Lord’s assembly.” The oppressing classes, the monopolists will be excluded from the division of the land in the restored kingdom. They will be cut off from all the promises of the covenant people. ‘Marking by lot’ is an allusion to the initial distribution of the land of Palestine among the Israelites when they entered the Promised Land. The appropriate punishment of those greedy for land will be loss of their land to their enemies, a loss that will be irrevocable.

But in the “community of the Lord”, in the Kingdom that is to come, that Kingdom of justice and peace, there will be a true sharing out in which all will get their due share. However, there will be no share for those who greedily tried to monopolise all material wealth into their own hands and brought suffering on the poor and needy.

Our societies today are no strangers to the exploitation and robbery of the poor by the already rich. It can be one individual against another, one society against another, one nation against another or even one continent against another. Sometimes, such exploitation may even be according to the law and be defended in court but the injustice remains. In spite of unprecedented prosperity, we live in a world of scandalous inequality. Let us not be part of it.*
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Psalm 10
Do not forget the poor, O Lord!
Why, O LORD, do you stand aloof?
Why hide in times of distress?
Proudly the wicked harass the afflicted,
who are caught in the devices
the wicked have contrived.
Do not forget the poor, O Lord!
For the wicked man glories in his greed,
and the covetous blasphemes,
sets the LORD at nought.
The wicked man boasts, "He will not avenge it";
"There is no God," sums up his thoughts.
Do not forget the poor, O Lord!
His mouth is full of cursing, guile and deceit;
under his tongue are mischief and iniquity.
He lurks in ambush near the villages;
in hiding he murders the innocent;
his eyes spy upon the unfortunate.
Do not forget the poor, O Lord!
You do see, for you behold misery and sorrow,
taking them in your hands.
On you the unfortunate man depends;
of the fatherless you are the helper.
Do not forget the poor, O Lord!
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Matthew 12:14-21
The Pharisees went out and took counsel against Jesus
to put him to death.

When Jesus realized this, he withdrew from that place.
Many people followed him, and he cured them all,
but he warned them not to make him known.
This was to fulfill what had been spoken
through Isaiah the prophet:

Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved in whom I delight;
I shall place my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not contend or cry out,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory.
And in his name the Gentiles will hope.
Jesus is becoming a figure of controversy. We saw yesterday how he was accused by Pharisees of condoning the breaking of the sabbath on the part of his disciples. Far from apologising, Jesus defended his followers and implied that he himself was greater than the Law. Immediately afterwards he went to a synagogue and, in spite of a challenge about healing on the sabbath, went ahead and cured a physically handicapped man.

At the end of this story, Matthew says, “The Pharisees went out and took counsel against Jesus to put him to death."

He was seen as a severe threat to their authority. And that is where our reading begins today.

Jesus was fully aware of their plotting and so he disappeared from sight for a while. We should be clear that Jesus did not go out of his way to confront and attack people. Still less was his behaviour deliberately designed to create trouble for himself. There are people like that; they go out of their way to make trouble for others and for themselves. Jesus never behaved in such a way. He did not want to attack or be attacked by certain people. He did not deliberately engineer his own sufferings and death; quite the contrary. So now, as things get hot for him, he withdraws for a while.

At this point, Matthew, who, we remember is writing for a Jewish readership, shows how Jesus’ behaviour corresponds to a prophecy in the Old Testament. This is something he does a number of times.

The passage is from the prophet Isaiah (42:1-4) and it shows Jesus as full of the Spirit of God campaigning for justice for peoples everywhere. He is the servant whom God has chosen, “my beloved in whom I delight”. He is no demagogue shouting from a soapbox. “He will not contend or cry out, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.” He moves around quietly and, at the same time, is tolerant and understanding of the weak. His behaviour is described beautifully as, “The bruised reed he will not crush; the smouldering wick he will not quench.”

We, too, are called to live and proclaim the Gospel without compromise but to do so without any taint of arrogance or bullying and, at the same time, with patience and understanding for those who are not yet ready to answer Jesus’ call.*

The Irish Jesuits

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