Friday, July 16, 2010

The Son Of Man Is Lord Of The Sabbath.

Friday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Isaiah 38:1-6, 21-22, 7-8
When Hezekiah was mortally ill,
the prophet Isaiah, son of Amoz, came and said to him:
"Thus says the LORD: Put your house in order,
for you are about to die; you shall not recover."
Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall
and prayed to the Lord:

"O LORD, remember how faithfully and wholeheartedly
I conducted myself in your presence,
doing what was pleasing to you!"
And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah:
"Go, tell Hezekiah:
Thus says the LORD, the God of your father David:
I have heard your prayer and seen your tears.
I will heal you: in three days
you shall go up to the Lord's temple;
I will add fifteen years to your life.
I will rescue you and this city
from the hand of the king of Assyria;
I will be a shield to this city."

Isaiah then ordered a poultice of figs to be taken
and applied to the boil, that he might recover.
Then Hezekiah asked,
"What is the sign that I shall go
up to the temple of the LORD?"

Isaiah answered:
"This will be the sign for you from the LORD
that he will do what he has promised:
See, I will make the shadow cast by the sun
on the stairway to the terrace of Ahaz
go back the ten steps it has advanced."
So the sun came back the ten steps it had advanced.
Today we have the story of a good man who faithfully followed God’s will. It is our last reading from this part of the Book of Isaiah. The other parts of the book will be read at other times in the readings cycle.

The story told today seems to have taken place some time before the Assyrian invasion by Sennacherib in 701 BC. Isaiah plays a central role in the king’s dialogue with God.

It begins by the prophet telling the king, who is terminally ill, that it is time for him to put his affairs in order for his approaching death. The prophet Elisha similarly predicted the death of the Syrian king, Ben-Hadad (2 Kings 8:9-10).

The king turned his face to the wall, not of his bedroom but more probably of the Temple, God’s dwelling house, and prayed that God would remember the good things he had done in the service of Yahweh during his life. Among a line of kings who were steeped in idolatry and immorality, Hezekiah stood out for his goodness.

It is possible, too, that he had has yet no son or successor to take over from him and so he wept bitterly. To think that he was going to die without an heir was perhaps the greatest pain of what seemed a terminal illness.

But his prayer clearly pleased the Lord for Isaiah was sent with the good news that Hezekiah would be cured and in three days’ time would be able to go up to the Temple. More than that, he was promised that another 15 years would be added to his life and that Jerusalem would be protected from the Assyrian king. (We saw yesterday how Sennacherib’s army, about to lay siege to Jerusalem, was decimated by a plague which killed more than 180,000 soldiers and thus forced Sennacherib to withdraw.)

Finally, Isaiah ordered that a poultice of figs be applied by the court physicians so that the king could recover from an illness that was originally (verse 1) believed to be terminal. Figs were often used for medicinal purposes.

Hezekiah, for his part, asked for some sign to confirm that he would be healed and that he would be able to go to the Temple and make a sacrifice of thanksgiving. It is not clear what sign he was requesting but it might simply have been the healing of what is described as a ‘boil’.

His request was granted and the sign promised was that the setting sun would go back by ten steps, as indicated by its shadow on the “steps of Ahaz”. The meaning is not clear and the phrase may refer to a sundial. In any case the promised sign took place. It may have been a miracle or it may simply have been caused by the refraction of light.

Here we see how a good man approaches the news of his death. His main concern is that God should be aware of the kind of life he had led. At first he does not ask to be healed, rather that he experience final salvation with God. God then gives him what he had not actually asked for, namely, that he be healed and many more years of life be given to him. This is his reward for his fidelity to Yahweh during his reign.

When we are confronted with serious sickness, our own or that of people close to us, we too need that kind of attitude that accepts fully what God wills for us at this time. Perhaps it is the end of our time and earth and we have to bid farewell to it and go forth to meet our God face to face. Or it may be that our time has not yet come and we will be called to live on, either totally or partially healed, for some time to come. In that case, our healing is a call for us to greater service of God and our neighbour. It is also an opportunity to re-orientate our lives where that is necessary. Strange to say, a spell in hospital is not infrequently a grace-filled time to reflect on the meaning and direction of one’s life. Better even than a retreat!*
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Isaiah 38:10-12 16
You saved my life, O Lord; I shall not die.
Once I said,
"In the noontime of life I must depart!
To the gates of the nether world I shall be consigned
for the rest of my years."
You saved my life, O Lord; I shall not die.
I said, "I shall see the LORD no more
in the land of the living.
No longer shall I behold my fellow men
among those who dwell in the world."
You saved my life, O Lord; I shall not die.
My dwelling, like a shepherd's tent,
is struck down and borne away from me;
You have folded up my life, like a weaver
who severs the last thread.
You saved my life, O Lord; I shall not die.
Those live whom the LORD protects;
yours is the life of my spirit.
You have given me health and life.
You saved my life, O Lord; I shall not die.
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Matthew 12:1-8
Jesus was going through a field of grain on the sabbath.
His disciples were hungry
and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them.
When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him,
"See, your disciples are doing
what is unlawful to do on the sabbath."
He said to the them,
"Have you not read what David did
when he and his companions were hungry,
how he went into the house of God
and ate the bread of offering,
which neither he nor his companions
but only the priests could lawfully eat?
Or have you not read in the law
that on the sabbath
the priests serving in the temple
violate the sabbath and are innocent?
I say to you,
something greater than the temple is here.
If you knew what this meant,
I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
you would not have condemned
these innocent men.
For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath."
Today’s story follows immediately on yesterday’s words of Jesus inviting those carrying heavy burdens to come to him for comfort and relief. Those burdens were understood to be the yoke of the Law which could weight so heavily on the ordinary person. Today we see what kind of burdens it entailed.

Jesus and his disciples are walking through a cornfield. The disciples were feeling a little hungry so they began plucking ears of corn to eat. Nothing wrong with that. Gleaning, especially where the poor were concerned, was not regarded as stealing. “When you go through your neighbour’s grainfield, you may pick some of the ears with your hand, but do not put a sickle to your neighbour’s grain” (Deuteronomy 23:26).

Yet the Pharisees criticised the disciples’ behaviour before Jesus. They were not upset by the plucking of the corn but because it was done a sabbath day. Most manual work was forbidden on the sabbath, including for instance, reaping. So we read in Exodus: “For six days you may work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; on that day you must rest even during the seasons of ploughing and harvesting” (Exodus 34:21). The question that would come immediately to the legalistic mind would be what exactly constituted harvesting. In the minds of the Pharisees, who would put the strictest interpretation in order to be on the safe side, what the disciples were doing contravened the Sabbath requirements.

Jesus would have none of this nonsense. He gave two examples which the Pharisees would find difficult to criticise:

First, David’s soldiers, because they were hungry, went into the house of God and ate the loaves of proposition, that is, bread which was laid out as an offering to God. According to the law, only the priests were allowed to eat this bread.

Second, he pointed to the priests on temple duty who not only worked on the sabbath but did more work than usual on that day (like priests today!). Yet no one found fault with them.

Jesus has two further and more powerful arguments:

- He calls his accusers’ attention to a saying from the prophet Hosea (6:6): “I desire mercy , not sacrifice.” What this means is that the measure of our behaviour in God’s eyes is not our observance of law but the degree of love and compassion we have for our brothers and sisters. Laws are for people; people are not for laws. That is why a truly loving act always transcends any law. If the Pharisees had fully understood the meaning of Hosea’s words, they would not have “condemned these innocent men”.

- Finally, Jesus simply says, “The Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath."  Jesus as Lord is not bound by even the God-given laws of Israel. If, in the eyes of Jesus, his disciples are innocent, then they are innocent.

Every time we read texts like this we have to look at how we as Christians behave both individually and corporately. Legalism and small-mindedness can very easily infect our Catholic life. We can start measuring people - including ourselves but especially others - by the observance or non-observance of things which really have little to do with the substance of our Christian faith. Of course, we can also go to the other extreme of having no rules at all.

There is a very demanding law to which we are all called to subscribe and that is the law of love. It allows of no exceptions. But its practice can only benefit both the giver and the receiver.*
The Irish Jesuits

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