Thursday, July 1, 2010

Which Is Easier To Say: "Your Sins Are Forgiven" or "Stand Up And Walk"?

Thursday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Amos 7:10-17
Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent word to Jeroboam,
king of Israel:
“Amos has conspired against you here within Israel;
the country cannot endure all his words.
For this is what Amos says:
Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel shall surely be exiled from its land.”

To Amos, Amaziah said:
“Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah!
There earn your bread by prophesying,
but never again prophesy in Bethel;
for it is the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple.”
Amos answered Amaziah, “I was no prophet,
nor have I belonged to a company of prophets;
I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.
The LORD took me from following the flock,
and said to me,
‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
Now hear the word of the LORD!”

You say: prophesy not against Israel,
preach not against the house of Isaac.
Now thus says the LORD:
Your wife shall be made a harlot in the city,
and your sons and daughters shall fall by the sword;
Your land shall be divided by measuring line,
and you yourself shall die in an unclean land;
Israel shall be exiled far from its land.
Today we see Amos expelled from the sanctuary of Bethel, which, as mentioned, was in Israel, the Northern Kingdom.

The reading begins with Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, telling Jeroboam, king of Israel, about the things Amos has been saying against the king: “Jeroboam will die by the sword and Israel shall surely be exiled from its land.” By “Jeroboam” he means the royal house, where the king’s name also represents the dynasty. In fact, Jeroboam will die a natural death (2 Kings 14:29) but his son and successor Zechariah will be assassinated (2 Kings 15:8,10).

By any standards, these would be regarded as treasonable words and they were seen as such. The fact that they would be proved true was not relevant at this time. And, as far as Amos was concerned, he was simply transmitting words of warning from God to his people.

Amaziah the priest, who comes across as someone more interested in his personal position and career with the king than in the service of God, is determined to get rid of this trouble-maker. “Off with you, visionary!” sums up the contempt that Amaziah feels for Amos. Amos is never again to prophesy in the shrine at Bethel, which Amaziah describes as the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple. Amaziah’s allegiance is to the King of Samaria rather than to Israel’s heavenly King. Amos is dismissed as a prophet for hire who need not be taken seriously.

Amos, however, makes no claims to being a member of a school of “professional” prophets. He is neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son. He denies any connection with any school of prophets or their disciples. No one had hired him to announce judgement against Jeroboam and Israel.

He says that he was a simple shepherd (although the unusual Hebrew word could mean he tended cattle also) and a “dresser” of sycamore trees. The “sycamore” here was a large tree which bore a fig-like fruit and also provided good timber. In order to ensure a good crop, the gardener had to slit the top of each fig and this is presumably implied by the rare word “dresser” of sycamores.

“The Lord took me from following the flock, and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel’.” If Amos was prophesying, it was simply in response to instructions which God had given him. He has been made a different kind of shepherd for a flock that is straying far from the Lord.

He then proceeds to utter a savage prophecy against the priest Amaziah, even though Amaziah had told Amos not to prophesy, which was, in fact, telling the prophet to disobey God.

There are four points in his prophecy:
     1: Amaziah will be exiled to Gentile, “unclean” and idolatrous territory where his ceremonial purity as a priest will be defiled,
     2: his sons and daughters will be slaughtered,
     3: he will lose his family estate,
     4: his wife will be reduced to prostitution in order to survive.

And he repeats again the prophecy he had made earlier: the people of Israel will be driven into exile, repeating exactly the words Amaziah had attributed to Amos at the beginning of the reading. All of these things, of course, took place.

The reading epitomises the challenging but indispensable role of the prophet. His responsibility is to speak out clearly the truths he sees, however unpalatable they may be. He is bound to arouse hostility against himself by those who do not want to hear what he has to say. Yet prophets are absolutely essential; we need them, even if we do not like their messages.

There is a distinguished line of prophets in the Old Testament, of whom Amos is an excellent example. But there are also prophets in the New Testament. Jesus was a prophet as was John the Baptist (although usually regarded as the last of the OT prophets). Both died because of the messages they gave in word and deed.

The letters of Paul rank ‘prophets’ very high in the list of charisms in the Church, immediately after ‘apostles‘. “You are Christ’s body and individually parts of it. Some people God has designated in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets… (1 Corinthians 12:27-28).

Down the centuries there has, thankfully, been a long list of prophets, some of whom fell victims of the Church itself. Even some of those regarded as heretics were prophets in their own way and, while much of what they said was regarded as not in harmony with tradition, they often forced the Church into changing direction. Without Luther and the other Protestant reformers would there have been a Council of Trent? Would there have been a Counter-Reformation?

The Second Vatican Council, too, produced many prophetic voices which led to insights not dreamed of by its first organisers. One example was Bishop Helder Camrara of Recife in Brazil. He was once credited with saying: “When I give help to the poor, people call me a saint; when I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.” Bishop Camara was a prophet.

One thinks, too, of Bishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador or of the Baptist pastor, Martin Luther King. In one case, a prophetic voice for the downtrodden poor and, in the other, demanding equality for the black people of the United States.

Who are the prophets in our Christian communities today? Do we recognise them? Do we listen to them? May we have many more of them.*
+++    +++    +++   +++
Psalm 19
The judgments of the Lord are true,
and all of them are just.
The law of the LORD is perfect,
refreshing the soul;
The decree of the LORD is trustworthy,
giving wisdom to the simple.
The judgments of the Lord are true,
and all of them are just.
The precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
The command of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eye.
The judgments of the Lord are true,
and all of them are just.
The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever;
The ordinances of the LORD are true,
all of them just.
The judgments of the Lord are true,
and all of them are just.
They are more precious than gold,
than a heap of purest gold;
Sweeter also than syrup
or honey from the comb.
The judgments of the Lord are true,
and all of them are just.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Matthew 9:1-8
After entering a boat, Jesus made the crossing,
and came into his own town.
And there people brought to him a paralytic
lying on a stretcher.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic,
“Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.”
At that, some of the scribes said to themselves,
“This man is blaspheming.”
Jesus knew what they were thinking, and said,
“Why do you harbor evil thoughts?
Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’
or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?
But that you may know that the Son of Man
has authority on earth to forgive sins”—
he then said to the paralytic,
“Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.”
He rose and went home.
When the crowds saw this they were struck with awe
and glorified God who had given such authority to men.
After the cure of the two demoniacs (yesterday’s Gospel) Jesus and his disciples now re-cross the lake and come into his own town. This refers not to Nazareth but to Capernaum, which is the centre out of which he operates in Galilee.

As usual with Matthew, he just gives the bare bones of a story which is told in a much more interesting way by Mark. Matthew concentrates on what Jesus says and does. He leaves out the details.

Some people brought a paralysed man lying on a mat to Jesus. Moved by their faith in him, Jesus says to the man, “Have courage, son, your sins are forgiven.” In Mark’s version the degree of the man’s faith is indicated by him being carried up on to the roof of the house by some friends and being let down through the roof at the feet of Jesus. Matthew says nothing about this.

The man was probably not expecting to hear Jesus mention his sins. As far as he was concerned, that was not the reason he had come to Jesus. Some scribes nearby were surprised too and even shocked. “The man is speaking blasphemously,” they thought.

Fully aware of what they were thinking, Jesus asked them: “Which is less trouble to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Stand up and walk’.” Obviously, it is much easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” How can you know if it has taken place? But Jesus goes on: “To help you realise that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” - he then spoke to the paralysed man - “Stand up! Roll up your mat, and go home.”

And the man did just that: he rolled up his mat and walked out of the house to his home.

The people around were awestruck and praised God for giving such authority to human beings. They did not yet fully recognise the identity of Jesus but they did realise that God was acting before their very eyes. The scribes for their part were reduced to silence. Matthew’s use of the word ‘men’ seems to point to the power of Jesus being passed on to his followers - his power to heal and to forgive.

To understand this story we need to be aware of the close links that the people of the time saw between sickness and sin. Sickness, especially a chronic sickness, was often seen as a punishment for sin, either the sin of the person himself or of a parent. We remember, in John’s gospel (chapter 9), how the people asked Jesus if the man was born blind because of his own sin or the sin of his parents. Similarly, after Jesus had healed a man crippled for 38 years, he told him not so sin again, for fear something worse might befall him (John 5:14).

In telling the paralysed man that his sins were forgiven Jesus was going to the root of his problem. We can probably say that sin in some form or other is at the root of all our problems. Jesus had been challenged for telling the man his sins were forgiven. To prove that he had the power to do this, he cured the man’s paralysis, which, in the minds of the onlookers, was the result of his sin. If there was no more paralysis, which was caused by sin, then the sin had been taken away too.

Nowadays, we do not see something like paralysis or a physical handicap as a punishment from God. We do not believe that God works like that. On the other hand it is likely that many health problems which we have can be linked with a disharmony in our lives arising from a conflict between what we are truly meant to be and what we tend to be. We refer to some sicknesses as ‘dis-eases’. They are the result of harmful stress when we are out of harmony with ourselves, with other people and with our environment. In that sense, we can see a clear link between sin and sickness.

Perhaps if we looked at our own lives we might see that some of our physical and mental ailments are due to a lack of harmony between God and others and our surroundings. Let’s think about that today.*

The Irish Jesuits

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