Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Thus Says The LORD: Unless Your Faith Is Firm, You Shall Not Be Firm.

Tuesday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Isaiah 7:1-9
In the days of Ahaz, king of Judah,
son of Jotham, son of Uzziah,
Rezin, king of Aram,
and Pekah, king of Israel, son of Remaliah,
went up to attack Jerusalem,
but they were not able to conquer it.
When word came to the house of David that Aram
was encamped in Ephraim,
the heart of the king
and the heart of the people trembled,
as the trees of the forest tremble in the wind.

Then the LORD said to Isaiah:
Go out to meet Ahaz,
you and your son Shear-jashub,
at the end of the conduit of the upper pool,
on the highway of the fuller's field,
and say to him:
Take care you remain tranquil and do not fear;
let not your courage fail
before these two stumps of smoldering brands
the blazing anger of Rezin and the Arameans,
and of the son Remaliah,
because of the mischief that
Aram, Ephraim and the son of Remaliah,
plots against you, saying,
"Let us go up and tear Judah asunder,
make it our own by force,
and appoint the son of Tabeel king there."

Thus says the LORD:
This shall not stand, it shall not be!
Damascus is the capital of Aram,
and Rezin is the head of Damascus;
Samaria is the capital of Ephraim,
and Remaliah's son the head of Samaria.

But within sixty years and five,
Ephraim shall be crushed, no longer a nation.
Unless your faith is firm
you shall not be firm!
The reading seems to describe mainly a historical situation but there is a lesson which is brought out at the end.

The incident refers to what is known as the Syro-Ephraimite War which probably took place in the years 735-34 BC. Razon was king of Aram (Syria) and Pekah (752-732 BC) was king of Ephraim, another name for Israel or the Northern Kingdom. Syria and Israel were trying to persuade King Ahaz of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, to join them in an alliance against the powerful king of Assyria who had eyes on land lying to the west of his empire. Israel was afraid that Ahaz might go into a counter-alliance with Assyria which was not an unlikely possibility.

When the news reached “the house of David”, that is, King Ahaz, in Jerusalem that Syria and Israel-Ephraim were on his doorstep, he “and the hearts of the people shuddered as the trees of the forest shudder in front of the wind”. Their fear was justified because Ahaz had earlier been soundly defeated by the Syrian-Israel alliance.

It is at this point that Isaiah is told by God to meet Ahaz at an aqueduct where the king was probably inspecting the city’s water supply (rather important if a siege was in the offing). Its exact location is not now known. The Washerman’s (or Fuller’s) Field refers to a place where the citizens did their laundry. Clothes were cleaned by trampling on them in cold water and using a kind of soap (soda) or bleach called ‘fuller’.

With him Isaiah brings one of his sons, Shear-jashub. Each of Isaiah’s sons was given a symbolic and prophetic name and this one means ‘A remnant will return’. It indicates a prophecy that one day a small number of Jews would return to Israel and escape the punishment which most of the population has deserved.

Isaiah has words of comfort for Ahaz. The two countries threatening him, powerful though they seem to be, are merely “smouldering stumps of firebrands”. Their fire has gone out; only the smoke of dying embers remains. And, in fact, Damascus, the capital of Syria (Aram) was overcome by Tiglath-Pileser III in 732 BC and Israel, the Northern Kingdom, was badly defeated in the same year. Isaiah was issuing no empty threats.

Although the Syrian-Israel alliance intends to put the “son of Tabeel” (probably a courtier from Syria) on Ahaz’s throne, it will not happen, says Isaiah. Tabeel is an Aramaic name sometimes linked with the “land of Tob”, on the east side of the Jordan.

Isaiah then proceeds to make a prophecy indicating that Syrian-Ephraim alliance will not succeed. “This shall not stand, it shall not be!”

At this time, the capital or ‘head’ of Syria was Damascus and Razon head of Damascus; Samaria was the capital or ‘head’ of Ephraim (Israel) and the son of Remaliah the head of Samaria (Ephraim/Israel). The irony of the words is that mere men head these territories while the real king of Judah-Jerusalem is not Ahaz but Yahweh the Lord God.

“Six or five years more” and Ephraim (Israel) will be no more, says God through his prophet. And indeed in the year 722 BC the city of Samaria fell. Later still, about 670 BC, the Assyrian king settled foreign colonies in Israel. The intermarriage of these settlers with the Jewish remnant resulted in the “Samaritans”. The northern kingdom was no longer a separate and distinct nation.

All of this is a warning to Ahaz that the same fate awaits Judah unless he stands firm. “If you do not stand by me, you will not stand at all.” The message is clear: Ahaz is to put his firm trust and confidence in the protection of Yahweh, who alone has the power to save him and his people. Unfortunately, the message will not be heeded.

In the prophets, faith is not so much a theoretical belief in the existence and uniqueness of God as an attitude of confidence based on God’s choice of Israel: he has chosen Israel, he is Israel’s God, he alone has the power to save his people. This unconditional trust, a guarantee of salvation, excludes all reliance not only on human agency but still more on false gods.

We, too, cannot expect God to stand by us if we do not stand by him. This is not to be interpreted as saying that God is touchy and vindictive and that, if he feels insulted or ignored, he will abandon us or bring some terrible punishment on us. It means that only when we are fully on his side, when his way is fully assimilated into our lives will we find the life he promises. If we insist on going our own way, he will not stop us but he will not be able to help us either. We will have shut ourselves off from his loving help.*
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Psalm 48
God upholds his city for ever.
Great is the LORD and wholly to be praised
in the city of our God.
His holy mountain, fairest of heights,
is the joy of all the earth.
God upholds his city for ever.
Mount Zion, "the recesses of the North,"
is the city of the great King.
God is with her castles;
renowned is he as a stronghold.
God upholds his city for ever.
For lo! the kings assemble,
they come on together;
They also see, and at once are stunned,
terrified, routed.
God upholds his city for ever.
Quaking seizes them there;
anguish, like a woman's in labor,
As though a wind from the east
were shattering ships of Tarshish.
God upholds his city for ever.
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Matthew 11:20-24
Jesus began to reproach the towns
where most of his mighty deeds had been done,
since they had not repented.
"Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!
For if the mighty deeds done in your midst
had been done in Tyre and Sidon,
they would long ago have repented
in sackcloth and ashes.
But I tell you, it will be more tolerable
for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment
than for you.

And as for you, Capernaum:
Will you be exalted to heaven?
You will go down to the nether world.

For if the mighty deeds done in your midst
had been done in Sodom,
it would have remained until this day.
But I tell you, it will be more tolerable
for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment
than for you."
After the apostolic discourse of chapter 10, Matthew goes back to narrative. In two passages preceding today’s Jesus reassures the disciples of John the Baptist that he is indeed the “one who is to come”, that is, the Messiah and Saviour-King.

This is followed by a passage where Jesus complains of those who close their minds to God’s word. John the Baptist led the life of an ascetic in the wilderness and they did not listen to him. Jesus socialised freely with all kinds of people and they accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard.

So today Jesus warns three towns where he spent much of his time: Chorazin, Bethsaida and especially Capernaum. If Jesus had done in the pagan towns of Tyre and Sidon what he had down in these predominantly Israelite towns, they would have converted long ago. Even Sodom, the biblical image of the very worst in immorality, would have done better.

It is important for us to realise that, in today’s Gospel, Jesus is primarily speaking to us today. If many non-Christians had been given the opportunities that we have received through our membership of the Christian community, they could very well be living much more generously than we do. To what extent are we listening to God’s word? How much of it do we try to understand? And how much of it is reflected in our lifestyle? Are we clearly and obviously followers of Christ and his Way?*

The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

'But within sixty years and five,
Ephraim shall be crushed, no longer a nation.
Unless your faith is firm
you shall not be firm!'

Ephraim is to be an object lesson for Judah, showing how weakened the chosen people are if their faith weakens.

Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum were also given clear signs, but their faith was not firm enough. Just as Ephraim became 'no longer a nation', these towns also ceased to be towns. Ephraim was a warning to Judah; the archeological sites of these 3 towns are perhaps a warning to us.