Monday, July 26, 2010

I Will Open My Mouth In Parables, And Announce What Has Been Hidden From The Foundation Of The World.

Memorial of Saint Joachim and Saint Anne,
parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Reading I
Jeremiah 13:1-11
The LORD said to me: Go buy yourself a linen loincloth;
wear it on your loins, but do not put it in water.
I bought the loincloth, as the LORD commanded, and put it on.
A second time the word of the LORD came to me thus:
Take the loincloth which you bought and are wearing,
and go now to the Parath;
there hide it in a cleft of the rock.
Obedient to the LORD's command, I went to the Parath
and buried the loincloth.
After a long interval, the LORD said to me:
Go now to the Parath and fetch the loincloth
which I told you to hide there.
Again I went to the Parath, sought out and took the loincloth
from the place where I had hid it.
But it was rotted, good for nothing!
Then the message came to me from the LORD:
Thus says the LORD:
So also I will allow the pride of Judah to rot,
the great pride of Jerusalem.
This wicked people who refuse to obey my words,
who walk in the stubbornness of their hearts,
and follow strange gods to serve and adore them,
shall be like this loincloth which is good for nothing.
For, as close as the loincloth clings to a man's loins,
so had I made the whole house of Israel
and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the LORD;
to be my people, my renown, my praise, my beauty.
But they did not listen.
Today’s passage presents the symbol of the loincloth. It describes not something that actually happened but a symbolic vision. The meaning is clear: Israel, whom Yahweh had fastened as close to himself as a loincloth round his waist, had broken away and contracted the corruption of Babylonian idolatry. Not infrequently the prophets like to present the Lord’s message in the form of symbolic images, something like parables.

The prophet is told by Yahweh to purchase a linen loincloth and put it round his waist and he does so. Linen was the material from which the robes of the priests were made and was symbolic of Israel’s holiness as a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6). So the linen loincloth or belt was a symbol of the formerly close relationship between God and his people. Jeremiah is also told not to put the loincloth in water, a symbol perhaps of the sinful pride of Judah, which did not want to be washed clean.

Later Jeremiah is told to take the loincloth around his waist and to hide it in a hole in a rock near the Perath, another name for the River Euphrates. The river Euphrates which flowed through Babylonia is here a symbol of the corrupting Assyrian and Babylonian influences which began during the reign of Ahaz and which brought about Judah’s abandonment of Yahweh for the idols of their conquerors.

The Perath may, however, refer to Parah (see Joshua 18:23), which was near the modern Wadi Farah, three miles northeast of Anathoth (Jeremiah’s birthplace). Since in other contexts the Hebrew for Perath refers to the river Euphrates, it serves as an appropriate symbol of the corrupting Assyrian and Babylonian influence on Judah that began during the reign of Ahaz. It is more likely that Jeremiah would have been told to put the loincloth in a place easily accessible to him. In any case, the symbol has the same connotation.

Jeremiah hides the loincloth, as instructed. After a considerable length of time Yahweh tells the prophet to retrieve the loincloth. The hiding of the loincloth for a long time beside the river represents the period of exile of the Jewish people in Babylon.

When Jeremiah found it, it had become filthy dirty and was fit for nothing, least of all to be worn. Clearly it had become dirty from contamination with the place where it was concealed.

The meaning of the symbol of the loincloth is then spelt out clearly:
The people of the southern kingdom of Judah and its capital Jerusalem are going to be punished for their arrogance and pride. “I will allow the pride of Judah to rot, the great pride of Jerusalem… This evil people who refuse to listen to my words, who follow the dictates of their own hard hearts, who have followed alien gods, and served them and worshipped them, let them become like this loincloth, good for nothing.”

That had not been God’s idea originally. He had wanted the whole House of Judah to be in close and intimate relationship with him as a loincloth clings to a man’s waist. They were “to be my people, my glory, my honour and my boast”.

Unfortunately, in their arrogance and pride, they refused to listen. Now they will pay the price of their infidelity. They will be carried away by the very creators of the idols they worshipped.

Once again we are being asked to reflect on the idols in our own lives. What are the things, what are the desires and ambitions which come between us and our relationship with God? Do we try to compromise, to sit on the fence, try to have our cake and eat it? Do we try at the same time to serve God and ‘mammon’, something Jesus said was impossible?

Where your treasure is, there your heart is too, Jesus said on another occasion. Where and what is my treasure in life? How close am I to my God and his ways?*
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Deuteronomy 32
You have forgotten God who gave you birth.
You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you,
You forgot the God who gave you birth.
When the LORD saw this, he was filled with loathing
and anger toward his sons and daughters.
You have forgotten God who gave you birth.
"I will hide my face from them," he said,
"and see what will then become of them.
What a fickle race they are,
sons with no loyalty in them!"
You have forgotten God who gave you birth.
"Since they have provoked me with their 'no-god'
and angered me with their vain idols,
I will provoke them with a 'no-people';
with a foolish nation I will anger them."
You have forgotten God who gave you birth.
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Matthew 13:31-35
Jesus proposed a parable to the crowds.
"The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed
that a person took and sowed in a field.
It is the smallest of all the seeds,
yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants.
It becomes a large bush,
and the 'birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.'"

He spoke to them another parable.
"The Kingdom of heaven is like yeast
that a woman took and mixed
with three measures of wheat flour
until the whole batch was leavened."

All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables.
He spoke to them only in parables,
to fulfill what had been said through the prophet:

I will open my mouth in parables,
I will announce what has lain hidden
from the foundation of the world.
Parables of the Kingdom (continued):

Two short parables which reflect both the experience of the early Church and also highlight features of the Kingdom. Considering when they were written, they exude an extraordinary level of trust and confidence in God’s power, a trust which was not disappointed although the results were not seen for generations.

The first is the parable of the mustard seed.

The mustard seed is not actually the smallest seed known today, but it was the smallest seed used by Palestinian farmers and gardeners. Nor did it, strictly speaking, produce the largest of trees but, under favourable conditions, it could reach some 10 feet (or 3 metres) in height, big enough to provide shelter for birds.

The early Church, scattered in tiny communities, largely cut off from each other, all over the Mediterranean area must have felt very small, very vulnerable. The idea that in time it would become the central cultural influence all over Europe, Roman and barbarian, must have been beyond the wildest dreams of those early Christians. But that tiny seed did become a large tree providing shelter and comfort to millions and, from the Mediterranean, spread to every corner of the world.

The parable of the yeast in the dough is similar but with a different nuance.

In the Bible, yeast is usually a symbol of that which is evil and corrupt. Jesus warned his disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees (Mark 8:15). Similarly, at the Passover, the Jews eat unleavened bread, that is, bread free from leaven or yeast. In this parable, however, it is presented as a symbol of growth.

A tiny amount of yeast put into a large batch of dough produces striking results. (The 3 measures would produce enough to feed 100 people!) A dough batch, over a matter of hours, can swell to twice its original size as the process of fermentation takes place. The effects of the yeast, quite invisible, reach to every corner. Again, when this was written, that was not yet the case. The Church had made very little impact on its surrounding societies. But, over the years, its influence grew until Christianity became the prevailing faith and cultural influence of the whole of Europe and then continued to spread out to other parts of the world.

This parable points to a very important element in the life and work of the Church. It only exerts its influence when it is totally immersed in the society it wishes to reach and influence. And it can do this while still being only a small part of the whole. While never identifying itself with many of the prevailing ideologies and values of our societies, Christian communities must at the same time never separate themselves from their surroundings. There is a danger that we become inward-looking and spend most of our energies on the already converted. There is a strong evangelising element in this parable which cannot be ignored.

We need to remember that these are primarily parables of the Kingdom and not just of the Church, which is the imperfect sign of the work of the Kingdom going on in our world. And what these parables say applies first of all to the work of building the Kingdom in our world - it is a work which will go on inexorably, because it is based on truth, love and justice, and which slowly penetrates every corner of every society.

We can become aware to the point of depression at the amount of evil that we see around us and yet there is a gradual forward movement at all levels. But, as the previous parable reminds us, the wheat has always to co-exist with the weeds - both inside and outside the Church, both inside and outside the Kingdom.

Today’s reading concludes with a repetition of the statement that Jesus only spoke to the crowds in parables. And Matthew sees this as the fulfilment of a prophetic text from the Old Testament. It is in fact a quotation from Psalm 78:2 - “I will open my mouth in a parable.”*

The Irish Jesuits

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Joachim and Anne, how blessed a couple! All creation is indebted to you. For at your hands the Creator was offered a gift excelling all other gifts: a chaste mother, who alone was worthy of him. Joachim and Anne, how blessed and spotless a couple! You will be known by the fruit you have borne, as the Lord says: “By their fruits you will know them.” The conduct of your life pleased God and was worthy of your daughter. For by the chaste and holy life you led together, you have fashioned a jewel of virginity: she who remained a virgin before, during, and after giving birth. She alone for all time would maintain her virginity in mind and soul as well as in body. Joachim and Anne, how chaste a couple! While leading a devout and holy life in your human nature, you gave birth to a daughter nobler than the angels, whose queen she now is. -

from a sermon by Bishop Saint John Damascene

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