Thursday, August 26, 2010

Be Prepared, For You Do Not Know The Day Or The Hour When The Lord Will Come.

Thursday of the Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Paul, called to be an Apostle of Christ Jesus
by the will of God,
and Sosthenes our brother,
to the Church of God that is in Corinth,
to you who have been sanctified
in Christ Jesus, called to be holy,
with all those everywhere who call upon the name
of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always on your account
for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus,
that in him you were enriched in every way,
with all discourse and all knowledge,
as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you,
so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift
as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
He will keep you firm to the end,
irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God is faithful, and by him you were called
to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Today we begin reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Christians in the southern Greek city of Corinth. Paul had gone there after his dismal failure with the sophisticated citizens of Athens. Here, in a city of very mixed population and with not a terribly good reputation for its morals, he did very much better. This letter is one of the most important documents of the New Testament and contains some of Paul’s most central teaching. So we will be staying with this letter up to the end of Week 24 – three and a half weeks altogether.

As is usual in letters of the period, Paul begins by identifying himself and numbers himself among the apostles called by God. In its original meaning ‘apostle’ means ‘someone who is sent on a mission or with a message to communicate’. In the New Testament the word can be use in a general sense about someone who is sent on a mission . More particularly it is used of the Twelve we meet in the gospels but was also applied later to Paul (who calls himself “the least of the Apostles”). The title is also sometimes given to a wider group including Barnabas, James “the brother of the Lord” and possibly Andronicus and Junias, whom we meet in the Letter to the Romans.

Paul uses the title of himself in most of his letters to affirm his authority as a messenger of Christ, an authority that was sometimes challenged. He reinforces his claim here by adding “by the will of God”. In other words, he is not self-appointed.

The greeting also contains the name of Sosthenes, who may possibly be the synagogue ruler who was attacked by his fellow-Jews in Corinth when their complaint against Paul was rejected by Gallio, the pro-consul of the local province of Achaia. (The story occurs in Acts 18 and also in the First Reading of Friday in the 6th week of Easter.) If it is the same person, then he must have become a Christian either while Paul was preaching in Corinth or during the ministry of Apollos.

Paul addresses his letter to the “church of God in Corinth”. “Church of God” is one of his favourite expressions and used only by him. It refers to the community of Christians gathered together, often in one of their homes. Its Old Testament counterpart is “assembly (or community) of the Lord”. At this stage there is no formal building or institutional structure.

He also calls them a people “sanctified”, made holy in Christ. This refers not so much to their behaviour – for, as Paul will not hesitate to point out, they had many faults – but because they had been called, with Christians in other churches, to be a people set apart, distinguished by their commitment to the Way of Christ. The word hagios, translated ‘holy’, means ‘set apart’ and the “saints” is a term used of all Christians in Paul’s letters and not just those outstanding in virtue.

The opening greeting ends with a blessing and prayer for the “grace and peace” of God the Father and the Lord Jesus, a greeting we now use in our Eucharistic liturgy.

“Grace” in Greek is charis and implies God’s love given gratuitously and not because it is deserved. No matter how good we are, God is never indebted to us. The first initiative of love always comes from God, never from us nor can we ever do anything to earn it. It is always there first waiting to be accepted by us.

The letter now properly begins with Paul uttering words of thanks for all the testimonies of God’s love, his “grace”, that have been showered on the Corinthians in Christ Jesus. He is especially thankful for the gifts of “speech and knowledge”, exemplified in their preachers and teachers. These are special gifts of the Spirit (mentioned later on among other gifts). ‘Speech’ is the gift of being able to proclaim the Gospel effectively. ‘Knowledge’ implies a deep understanding of the Gospel message and not just facts about the message.

The “witness to Christ”, which Paul gave to them, has not been at all in vain; on the contrary, it has clearly been confirmed by the gifts of the Spirit of Jesus which are evident among them. Those gifts of the Spirit enable them to serve the body of Christ, which is the Church, until the time when the Lord Jesus will be revealed at the end of time, the time of his final coming. Paul will speak at greater length about these gifts in chapters 12-14.

According to those chapters, a spiritual gift is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit enabling one to minister to the needs of Christ’s body, the church. The gifts are not intended for oneself but to enable one to respond to the community’s needs. There are different gifts for different needs. (Notice that Jesus’ final coming is no longer seen as imminent, as in the Letter we read earlier in the week.)

They will need these gifts as they wait for the full revelation of Jesus Christ, when the hidden plans of God are to be made known. Then Christ will reveal himself at the end of time, the time of his parousia and his Appearing. Before this, the “Man of Sin” will have ‘revealed’ himself, only to be destroyed by Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:3-8).

And it is God who will give them the help they need to remain “steady and without blame” until “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” when he will return to take all his own to himself. By God calling them, they are united in a special way with Jesus Christ. (The ‘day of the Lord’ and its various forms was mentioned in our reading on Tuesday.)

And, he says in conclusion, “our God is faithful”. He is a God who always keeps his promises. His love is unchanging no matter what we may do. And he is the One who has called us into fellowship with him through Jesus Christ, his Son and our Lord.

Paul will have many criticisms to make of the Corinthians in the course of his letter but for now he begins with words of thanks for all the genuine good that he sees among them.

We can so easily be aware of the shortcomings of individuals and groups inside and outside the Church and we are not slow to express our views when we get together with others to gossip. But it is important for us to be able to see the good in every person, in groups of people and even in ourselves.

Let us always begin by being thankful for our blessings, for all the good things that we see in ourselves and all those around us. It is sad when we are not able to give genuine words of praise and appreciation.

And let us especially today reflect on the graces that God has poured into our own lives. Let us, on the one hand, thank him sincerely for them and, on the other, ask ourselves how we have used them for his love and service and the love and service of our brothers and sisters. After all, that is why they were given to us in the first place. (We will see more about that later in this letter.)*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 145
I will praise your name for ever, Lord.
Every day will I bless you,
and I will praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the LORD and highly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.
I will praise your name for ever, Lord.
Generation after generation praises your works
and proclaims your might.
They speak of the splendor of your glorious majesty
and tell of your wondrous works.
I will praise your name for ever, Lord.
They discourse of the power of your terrible deeds
and declare your greatness.
They publish the fame of your abundant goodness
and joyfully sing of your justice.
I will praise your name for ever, Lord.
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Matthew 24:42-51
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Stay awake!
For you do not know
on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this:
if the master of the house
had known the hour of night
when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect,
the Son of Man will come.

“Who, then, is the faithful and prudent servant,
whom the master has put in charge of his household
to distribute to them their food at the proper time?
Blessed is that servant
whom his master on his arrival finds doing so.
Amen, I say to you,
he will put him in charge of all his property.
But if that wicked servant says to himself,
‘My master is long delayed,’
and begins to beat his fellow servants,
and eat and drink with drunkards,
the servant’s master will come
on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour
and will punish him severely
and assign him a place with the hypocrites,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
Eschatological discourse

We enter the final phase of our readings from Matthew which will conclude on Saturday of this week. We will see selected readings from chapters 24 and 25 which form what is called the “Eschatological Discourse”. This is the fifth and final discourse, each of which is a collection of the teachings of Jesus and which are a feature of Matthew’s gospel. This discourse is concerned with the end of all things and the second and final coming of Christ to bring all things together.

The earlier part of chapter 24 includes the foretelling of the destruction of Jerusalem, an event which for the Jews of the time (including those who had converted to Christianity) must have seemed like the end of the world (just as, later on, the collapse of the Roman Empire seemed to be the end of the world for St Augustine of Hippo and his contemporaries).

The early Christians had expected to see the Second Coming in their lifetime and the sacking of Jerusalem and the sacrilegious destruction of the Temple must have seemed the certain signs of the eschaton. But, by the time Matthew’s gospel came into circulation, that was already at least 15 years in the past. The end, although certain to happen, did not seem any more quite so imminent.

Matthew includes as part of the discourse a number of parousia (final coming) parables. Following a pattern we have seen in other parts of this gospel, they are seven in number. We have two short ones in today’s reading. Both consist of an exhortation for readiness to welcome the final coming of the Lord.

In the first we should be as alert in watching for the coming of the Lord as a householder would be to prevent his house being broken into and robbed. Like a thief, Jesus will come when we least expect him.

In the second parable, Jesus compares us to a servant who has been put in charge of the house while the master is away. This may refer to the community leaders in Matthew’s church and, by extension, to leaders of communities everywhere. It will be well for that servant when the master unexpectedly returns and finds his servant diligently doing his job. Readiness is measured by people consistently carrying out their responsibilities. On the other hand, the servant may think that there is no sign of the master (who had been expected to come earlier) and goes about beating up the other servants and leading a debauched life. It will be too bad for that servant when the master does suddenly appear on the scene.

The lesson is clear. Many of the Christians, who had expected the Lord to come soon, now see no sign of him and begin to backslide in the living of their Christian faith. We can be tempted to do the same thing. “Let’s have a good (that is, a morally bad) time now and we can convert later.” It is not a very wise policy. In the long run, the really good life, that is, a life based on truth and integrity, on love and compassion and sharing, will always be better than one based on phoniness, on selfishness, greed, hedonism and immediate gratification of every pleasure.

And the conversion day may never come or the chance to turn back to him who is the Way, Truth and Life. The wisest ones are those who consistently try to seek and serve their Lord at every moment of every day. They find happiness now and Jesus will not be a stranger when he comes to call them to himself.

They are the ones who are both faithful and prudent.*

The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

There are many elements in this Gospel reading that remind me of Our Lord's passion.

'Stay awake' is like 'Watch and pray' in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The thief reminds me that the guards came like thieves in the night to arrest Jesus, as though He was the thief. Then He was crucified between two thieves. The faithful and prudent servant, who is placed in charge of everything, reminds me of the suffering servant prophecies. Jesus, of course, is the One who is always in charge of everything.

The servant who beats his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards reminds me of how quick to violence the spiritual leaders of the Jews were at that time. Wine seems to stand for spiritual joy, so perhaps drunkenness stands for religious violence - beating one's fellow servants.

To an alcoholic, drink becomes like a cruel god to which every dear thing must be sacrificed. Sometimes religion itself becomes an inhumane idol. The connection in scripture with wine is perhaps there as a permanent warning to us of this danger.