Saturday, July 24, 2010

Blessed Are They Who Dwell In Your House! They Go From Strength To Strength.

Saturday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Jeremiah 7:1-11
The following message came to Jeremiah from the LORD:
Stand at the gate of the house of the LORD,
and there proclaim this message:
Hear the word of the LORD, all you of Judah
who enter these gates to worship the LORD!
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel:
Reform your ways and your deeds,
so that I may remain with you in this place.
Put not your trust in the deceitful words:
"This is the temple of the LORD!
The temple of the LORD! The temple of the LORD!"
Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deeds;
if each of you deals justly with his neighbor;
if you no longer oppress the resident alien,
the orphan, and the widow;
if you no longer shed innocent blood in this place,
or follow strange gods to your own harm,
will I remain with you in this place,
in the land I gave your fathers long ago and forever.

But here you are, putting your trust
in deceitful words to your own loss!
Are you to steal and murder,
commit adultery and perjury,
burn incense to Baal,
go after strange gods that you know not,
and yet come to stand before me
in this house which bears my name, and say:
"We are safe; we can commit all these abominations again"?
Has this house which bears my name
become in your eyes a den of thieves?
I too see what is being done, says the LORD.
Today we read Jeremiah’s famous ‘Temple Sermon’. At the Jerusalem Temple itself Jeremiah preached against the shallow, superstitious trust in Temple sacrifices. True religion, he said, is on the inside and results in external works of justice and charity.

Today’s passage is the opening of a set of oracles dating mainly from the reign of King Jehoiakim, about 608 BC. The opening theme is true worship and today’s passage deals with worship in the Temple.

Later on, in chapter 26, Jeremiah will describe the events prompting this oracle. The belief that the Temple was made holy by the very presence of Yahweh in the Holy of Holies led to the conviction that it could never be destroyed by pagan enemies. This was further strengthened when Sennacherib was forced to withdraw in 701 BC because of the epidemic that decimated his army at the walls of the city. The sanguine belief now was that Yahweh would protect them again in some similar way.

But Jeremiah is going to shock his countrymen by telling them, as Micah did earlier, that their confidence had no foundation and that God could abandon his Temple. Ezekiel would also have a vision of the glory of Yahweh abandoning the sanctuary. This, of course, happened when Nebuchadnezzar razed Jerusalem and the Temple later, in 587 BC. It would happen in a far more significant way when, at the death of Jesus the Messiah, the veil of the Temple was torn apart, signifying that the Lord was no longer present in the Holy of Holies but in the Risen Body of Jesus - the Christian community.

So, at the instructions of the Lord, Jeremiah stood at the gate between the inner and outer courts of the temple (perhaps the so-called ‘New’ Gate) to proclaim God’s message to the people. The words are addressed to all those “who enter these gates”, that is, the gates leading from the outer courts to the inner courts (of the women and beyond that of the men). They are being given a very clear warning: if they want God to remain among his people in this land, then they must change their ways and abandon their sinful and immoral behaviour.

There is no use in their trying to reassure themselves by constantly taking refuge in the Temple and constantly repeating: “This is the sanctuary of the Lord, this is the sanctuary of the Lord…”, as if that were a guarantee that nothing could happen to them. This was the kind of meaningless prayer urged on them by false prophets, who raised false and optimistic expectations. Later, Jesus would also point out the uselessness of such superstitious babbling (Matthew 6:7).

The idea that God would not destroy Jerusalem simply because his dwelling, the Temple, was located there was a delusion, fostered in part by the miraculous delivery of the city during the reign of Hezekiah, when, as mentioned, Sennacherib’s army was struck down by a mysterious epidemic. In the light of Judah’s sinful rebellion against the Lord such an idea was “worthless”.

On the other hand, if they did change their ways and their behaviour, then God would stay forever with them in the land which he had given to their ancestors in perpetuity. The changes that Jeremiah suggests include treating others with justice, not exploiting foreign immigrants and outsiders, orphans or widows, not shedding innocent blood (as in the frightening example of King Manasseh, who “shed so much innocent blood as to fill the length and breadth of Jerusalem” [2 Kings 21:16]) and following alien gods who can only bring them harm.

However, they are instead putting their trust in deceptive words, the words of false prophets who had assured them that God would never allow Jerusalem to be destroyed because his house, the Temple, was there. This assurance had been strengthened, as we mentioned, by the miraculous delivery of the city during the reign of King Hezekiah. In Jeremiah’s eyes there was no justification for such confidence.

Why? Because on the one hand they stole, murdered, committed adultery, perjured themselves, worshipped the god Baal and other alien gods whose origin they hardly knew, behaviour which would result in their being carried off into lands they did not know. In this one sentence, Jeremiah includes the violation of no less than five of the Ten Commandments.

At the same time, the people brazenly entered the Temple, the house that bears God’s Name and where he is present, thinking that doing so would fully protect them from the effects of their behaviour. And just as robbers try to escape justice by taking refuge in caves, so God’s people treated the very house of God. Later on, Jesus would quote this sentence in accusing people of his own time of doing commercial business inside the Temple precincts. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations. But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17. The first half of this quotation comes from Isaiah 56:7).

It is very possible for us Christians to act in similar ways. There are even those who say by their behaviour, if not actually in words, “Let’s eat, drink and be merry; let’s have a great time and break all the rules. Later on, we can go to Confession and have it all straightened out.” It is a very foolish policy and a dangerous one. Remember the man in the Gospel who had made his pile and then sat down to enjoy it. He died that night.

We must be careful not to abuse the privileges and helps that our Christian faith and our membership of the Christian community give. Our only true guarantee of security is a life that is centred on God and totally in harmony with truth, love and justice. It is not just what we do in church that indicates our relationship with God but even more how in our everyday life we deal with our brothers and sisters, especially those who are in need of any kind.

Our worship is not a guarantee of protection but a sign of where the desires of our heart truly lie.*
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Psalm 84
How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, mighty God!
My soul yearns and pines
for the courts of the LORD.
My heart and my flesh
cry out for the living God.
How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, mighty God!
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest
in which she puts her young —
Your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my king and my God!
How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, mighty God!
Blessed they who dwell in your house!
continually they praise you.
Blessed the men whose strength you are!
They go from strength to strength.
How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, mighty God!
I had rather one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I had rather lie at the threshold of the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, mighty God!
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Matthew 13:24-30
Jesus proposed a parable to the crowds.
"The Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man
who sowed good seed in his field.
While everyone was asleep his enemy came
and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.
When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well.
The slaves of the householder came to him and said,
'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?
Where have the weeds come from?'
He answered, 'An enemy has done this.'
His slaves said to him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?'
He replied, 'No, if you pull up the weeds
you might uproot the wheat along with them.
Let them grow together until harvest;
then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters,
"First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning;
but gather the wheat into my barn."
This parable, which is only found in Matthew, is also about the planting of seed but the concern is quite different and again it reflects the experience of the early Church.

A man has sown good seed in his field but, unknown to him, an enemy has come and planted weeds among the wheat. As the plants come up the farmer sees the weeds growing all through his wheat. His slaves want to pull them out but the farmer tells them to wait until the harvest time. The wheat and the weeds are similar in appearance in the early stages and it will be much easier to differentiate them as they mature. In the meantime, let both grow side by side.

This is a picture of the Kingdom and also of the Church which is trying to be part of it. For the early Church more distressing in many ways than persecution from outside must have been betrayal and shortcomings on the inside. There would have been a strong temptation immediately to get rid of such people. But wiser heads prevailed. Wait. Let God be the judge and, in any case, people can change. The sinner of today may be the saint of tomorrow.

This has been a problem all through the history of the Church and today is no exception. There is always a strong temptation among those who feel themselves more committed to living out the Gospel to adopt an elitist approach to the faith. This can take two forms: either members who are seen as falling short of the Church’s requirements in faith and behaviour are got rid of, or, which may be more common, those who see themselves more committed form a relatively closed group, a church within a church. There has been a certain amount of tension over such situations with the appearance of a number of Catholic movements in recent times.

Today’s parable reminds us of something very important, namely, that the Church is and always will be a Church of sinners and for sinners. Our Church is, as Paul puts it, a vessel of clay, leaking and easily broken. At the same time, we have been called to help bring about the Kingdom in our world and we have constantly to try to do that. But we need to distinguish between the vessel and its contents, the weeds and the wheat, to distinguish between the Christian vision and the Church which tries to communicate it.

Some have been disturbed by so-called ‘scandals’ and some have left the Church because of them. This, I feel, is not to understand today’s parable. These scandals far from undermining the Christian vision only affirm it. That vision remains a shining ideal. But the Church, which is not to be identified with the vision, is the flawed and fragile bearer of that vision. It has always been so and always will be. The Church is called to proclaim the Kingdom but it has to struggle to realise that Kingdom in itself also.

Today’s parable is a call for tolerance, patience, compassion and understanding while not compromising on the vision that comes to us from Jesus.*

The Irish Jesuits

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