Monday, July 12, 2010

Jesus Said: "Do Not Think That I Have Come To Bring Peace On Earth. I Have Come To Bring Not Peace But The Sword."

Monday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Isaiah 1:10-17
Hear the word of the LORD,
princes of Sodom!
Listen to the instruction of our God,
people of Gomorrah!
What care I for the number of your sacrifices?
says the LORD.
I have had enough of whole-burnt rams
and fat of fatlings;
In the blood of calves, lambs and goats
I find no pleasure.

When you come in to visit me,
who asks these things of you?
Trample my courts no more!
Bring no more worthless offerings;
your incense is loathsome to me.
New moon and sabbath, calling of assemblies,
octaves with wickedness: these I cannot bear.
Your new moons and festivals I detest;
they weigh me down, I tire of the load.
When you spread out your hands,
I close my eyes to you;
Though you pray the more,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash yourselves clean!
Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes;
cease doing evil; learn to do good.
Make justice your aim: redress the wronged,
hear the orphan's plea, defend the widow.
Last Saturday we saw Isaiah’s call to be a prophet of God taken from the sixth chapter.

We now go to the beginning of the book and from now on will have selected readings from chapters 1-39 which are really part of Isaiah’s own ministry. The rest of the Book of Isaiah (Parts 2 and 3) is now attributed to other writers.

Isaiah pulls no punches in communicating his message. “You rulers of Sodom…” and “You people of Gomorrah” are not addressed to the peoples of those cities which were long ago destroyed. He is speaking to the rulers and people of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah of which it is a part.

Today’s reading is a severe attack on religious hypocrisy. It is part of an oracle presumably uttered in the Temple at the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry. Like Amos, Isaiah castigates ritual divorced from morality. The sincerity of the worshipper, not the number of his religious activities, is most important.

On the face of it, the people seem deeply religious: “endless sacrifices…holocausts of rams…specially fattened cattle…the blood of lambs, calves, goats…”. God finds no pleasure in a mere multiplicity of offerings. He does not even expect them: “When you come in to visit me, who asks these things of you?” Their offerings are not really directed to God but are a form of self-adulation. “How good we are! How pious and dedicated we are!”

The air filled with the smell of incense has become loathsome to Yahweh. He has no time for all their “new moons”, which were celebrated at the beginning of every month. Special sacrifices and feasts were part of the observance.

All their efforts at religious celebration and observance are in vain. When they spread out their hands in prayer, Yahweh hides his eyes. “When you stretch out your hands I turn my eyes away… You may multiply your prayers, I shall not listen.” Why? Because their hands are covered with blood - on the one hand, with the blood of sacrificial victims, coupled with that of the poor and weak who have been exploited and abused.

At first sight, it all seems to contradict everything we have heard about our merciful, forgiving and compassionate God. We remember, too, how Jesus taught us to pray incessantly. But here the prayers are so hypocritical. They consist of purely external ritual devoid of any real commitment to Yahweh’s will.

Their prayers can never be heard until they emanate from deep within the heart. Their prayers will be heard when people’s lives are seen to change radically. When they cease to do evil things and concentrate on what is good.

They need to wash themselves clean and put away their misdeeds, which no amount of sacrifices and holocausts will cover up. They must have only one aim: “Redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.” When they search for justice and reach out to the oppressed, when they treat the widow and the orphan with justice, love and compassion, then and only then will their sacrifices be truly acceptable to the Lord.

In a society which knew nothing of social welfare, where the needy depended on support from the family, the widow and the orphan were particularly vulnerable to abuse and neglect. The widow might very well be relatively young, having lost her husband through disease, accident or war. She had no future as no man would want to marry her. If she was childless she was of no interest to her father’s family or even her own. The orphan, too, was left exposed to destitution or having recourse to prostitution, male or female.

Applying this reading to our own situation is not difficult. We can see people devoting a great deal of energy to religious activities, devotions, pilgrimages, novenas… We can see them obsessed with keeping commandments and regulations and external observances but in their daily lives there is often widespread lack of charity, compassion and a willingness to forgive, to tolerate, to understand. There is often a wide dichotomy between what they proclaim in church and what they do in their daily lives.

“Don’t speak of love; show me!” exclaimed Eliza Doolittle to Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. That could well sum up what God is saying to his people in today’s reading.*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 50
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.
"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.
"When you do these things, shall I be deaf to it?
Or do you think you that I am like yourself?
I will correct you by drawing them up before your eyes.
He that offers praise as a sacrifice glorifies me;
and to him that goes the right way
I will show the salvation of God."
To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Matthew 10:34-11:1
Jesus said to his Apostles:
"Do not think that I have come
to bring peace upon the earth.
I have come to bring not peace
but the sword.
For I have come to set
a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one's enemies will be those of his household.

"Whoever loves father or mother more than me
is not worthy of me,
and whoever loves son or daughter more than me
is not worthy of me;
and whoever does not take up his cross
and follow after me is not worthy of me.
Whoever finds his life will lose it,
and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

"Whoever receives you receives me,
and whoever receives me
receives the one who sent me.
Whoever receives a prophet
because he is a prophet
will receive a prophet's reward,
and whoever receives a righteous man
because he is righteous
will receive a righteous man's reward.
And whoever gives only a cup of cold water
to one of these little ones to drink
because he is a disciple –
amen, I say to you,
he will surely not lose his reward."

When Jesus finished giving these commands
to his Twelve disciples,
he went away from that place
to teach and to preach in their towns.
We come to the final part of Jesus’ apostolic discourse in chapter 10.
At a first reading, today’s passage could be puzzling, not to say highly disturbing, to some. Jesus seems to contradict everything that he has said and done so far. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth: it is not peace I have come to bring but the sword.” But do we not call Jesus the Prince of Peace? Does Jesus not say during the Last Supper discourse in John’s gospel that he has come to give his peace to his disciples, a peace that no one will ever be able to take away from them? (John 14:27)

And Jesus goes on to apply to himself a passage from the prophet Micah (7:6):For I have come to set ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be those of his own household’.” It sounds a terrible thing for Jesus our Saviour to be saying. But it expresses not what he wants to happen but what he sees as an inevitable outcome of his message of love. It says more about us than about him.

Unfortunately, what Jesus says has only been confirmed again and again. We have mentioned before the paradox that the message of Jesus about truth, love, justice and freedom for people everywhere is seen by some as highly subversive and dangerous. And people who subscribe to this vision of Jesus and try to implement it in their lives are likely to run into headlong opposition with those who have a totally different vision of life and who see Jesus’ vision as a real threat to their interests. In a world of conflicting ideologies, philosophies, cultures, traditions, ethnic and religious identities, to declare that one is opting for the Way of Jesus is often to invite opposition, persecution and even death.

What Jesus says here is a fact - and was already a known experience when this gospel was written. Christianity divided families and, in some places, it still does. But people who see and understand and accept the vision of life that Jesus offers know they have no choice but to follow it, even if close family members object. To go with Christ is to enter a new family, with new bonds. A family which, for its part, does not at all reject those who reject it. The Christian may be hounded and hated and expelled by family members but that is not the way he or she is going to respond to them. On the contrary, the dearest wish of the new Christian is that his family members will be able to see what he sees and, until they do, he will pray for them, bless them and love them.

Jesus then goes on to lay down the conditions necessary to be a genuine disciple. “Anyone who prefers father or mother to me is not worthy of me.” In many cultures - in Asia for instance - this is a hard saying and seems to fly in the face of the filial piety and respect for the authority of elders which is at the heart of such societies.

It is not, in fact, in conflict. Love and respect for family members is a very high value for the Christian but there are even higher values which may take precedence. Filial piety and parental authority can be very inward-looking, too centred on just this group of people. Racial, national and religious identity can also be very narrow and intolerant in its understanding.

Christianity is outward-looking and realises that there are people out there whose needs are even prior to those of my family. To the Christian his blood family are only some among many brothers and sisters who have to be loved, served and cared for. One is also never bound to follow family requirements which would be against truth, love, justice, honesty… As a Christian, I cannot obey a parent or other family member who practices dishonesty in business, who cheats, who sexually abuses, who practices racism or narrow-minded nationalism and the like and urges me to do the same.

Jesus, as the Word of God, stands for a level of truth and integrity and love which is the ultimate measure of all that I do and say. I cannot conform to the wishes of anyone, however close, who falls short of that measure. But my Christian love and concern for that person will not be diminished, in spite of how I may be treated.

To live like this can at time involve pain, separation, intense suffering and even death. This, I think, is what Jesus means when he says that I am not worthy of him unless I am willing to take my cross and walk with him. There is a price to be paid for being true and loving and just. This also is what he means by ‘finding’ live and ‘losing’ my life. To ‘find’ life is to take the easy way of accommodation and compromise, not to mention material gain and pleasure; to ‘lose’ is to let go and let Jesus take charge.

Of course, as Jesus points out, in the long run it is the ‘losers’ who find and the ‘finders’ who lose.

The discourse ends with some advice about finding Jesus in other people, especially his own followers. Anyone who welcomes a follower of Jesus, whether that person is a ‘prophet’ (a missionary) or a ‘holy man’ (an ordinary Christian) welcomes Jesus himself and welcomes the Father also. Even to give a cup of cold water to a Christian because he is a Christian will not go unrewarded.

The discourse is then clearly brought to an end by Matthew saying, “When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples he moved on from there to teach and preach in their towns.”*

The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

'When you spread out your hands,
I close my eyes to you;
Though you pray the more,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash yourselves clean!'

Hands outspread, full of blood - this brings to my mind the image of Our Lord on the cross, with blood from the nails in the palms of his hands. How do we wash our hands clean of blood? Lady Macbeth famously found this question difficult too.

With some 'stubborn stains', we find that like cleans like. For example, if you spill red wine on a table cloth you can stop it staining by pouring a splash of white wine on top. So the blood of Christ on His hands can cleanse the blood guilt on our hands - 'wash yourselves clean!'.