Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Many Who Are First Will Be Last, And The Last Will Be First.

Tuesday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Ezekiel 28:1-10
The word of the LORD came to me:
Son of man,
say to the prince of Tyre:
Thus says the Lord GOD:

Because you are haughty of heart,
you say, “A god am I!
I occupy a godly throne
in the heart of the sea!”—
And yet you are a man, and not a god,
however you may think yourself like a god.
Oh yes, you are wiser than Daniel,
there is no secret that is beyond you.
By your wisdom and your intelligence
you have made riches for yourself;
You have put gold and silver
into your treasuries.
By your great wisdom applied to your trading
you have heaped up your riches;
your heart has grown haughty from your riches–
therefore thus says the Lord GOD:
Because you have thought yourself
to have the mind of a god,
Therefore I will bring against you
foreigners, the most barbarous of nations.
They shall draw their swords
against your beauteous wisdom,
they shall run them through your splendid apparel.
They shall thrust you down to the pit, there to die
a bloodied corpse, in the heart of the sea.
Will you then say, “I am a god!”
when you face your murderers?
No, you are man, not a god,
handed over to those who will slay you.
You shall die the death of the uncircumcised
at the hands of foreigners,
for I have spoken, says the Lord GOD.
The message of the reading is very clear and as relevant now as it was then.

It is not fully clear whether Ezekiel is personally attacking King Ittobaal, ruler of Tyre at the time, or the whole city.

Tyre was a Phoenician city on the coast of the Mediterranean in what is now Lebanon. The Phoenicians were famous in ancient times as traders and for their skill in seafaring. Tyre (and/or its king) is being attacked for placing itself on the same level as God.

It bases this claim on its wisdom. “Oh yes, you are wiser than Daniel,” says the prophet rather mockingly. This claimed wisdom was, it was believed, the source of the city’s enormous wealth and power. Daniel, like Solomon, was a byword for wisdom in the Old Testament. Not so much the Daniel who is the hero of Daniel 1-12 but rather the Daniel of chapter 13, who solved the case of the alleged adultery of Susanna.

However, the prophet says, with growing wealth and power has come increasing pride and arrogance, a sense of omnipotence. The empty base of this sense of security will soon be shattered when the city is attacked by foreigners who are even more powerful - referring to the Babylonians. They will bring death and destruction. Then, what will become of the claims to divine power?

“No,” says God through his prophet, “you are a man and not a god”, helpless in the clutches of their murderers. They will die the same death as the “uncircumcised”, the most uncivilised of barbarians. (The Phoenicians, like the Israelites and the Egyptians, practised circumcision.)

Times and attitudes have not changed very much. There are still people in our own time and in our own society who believe that a high level of education, wealth and power give a kind of invincibility. It includes those who have great such wealth and power and those who struggle all their lives to get some of it. With money, anything can be bought; everyone has his price.

Yet, the lives of all, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, powerful and marginalised, can all be snuffed out in the twinkling of an eye. But our destiny is in Other hands and the sooner we realise that the better for our happiness and peace of mind.*
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Responsorial Psalm
Deuteronomy 32
It is I who deal death and give life.
“I would have said, ‘I will make an end of them
and blot out their name from men’s memories,’
Had I not feared the insolence of their enemies,
feared that these foes would mistakenly boast.”
It is I who deal death and give life.
“‘Our own hand won the victory;
the LORD had nothing to do with it.’”
For they are a people devoid of reason,
having no understanding.
It is I who deal death and give life.
“How could one man rout a thousand,
or two men put ten thousand to flight,
Unless it was because their Rock sold them
and the LORD delivered them up?”
It is I who deal death and give life.
Close at hand is the day of their disaster,
and their doom is rushing upon them!
Surely, the LORD shall do justice for his people;
on his servants he shall have pity.
It is I who deal death and give life.
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Matthew 19:23-30
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, I say to you,
it will be hard for one who is rich
to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
Again I say to you,
it is easier for a camel
to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich
to enter the Kingdom of God.”
When the disciples heard this,
they were greatly astonished and said,
“Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said,
“For men this is impossible,
but for God all things are possible.”

Then Peter said to him in reply,
“We have given up everything and followed you.
What will there be for us?”
Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you
that you who have followed me, in the new age,
when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory,
will yourselves sit on twelve thrones,
judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
And everyone who has given up
houses or brothers or sisters
or father or mother or children or lands
for the sake of my name
will receive a hundred times more,
and will inherit eternal life.
But many who are first will be last,
and the last will be first.”
Today we have another parable of the Kingdom. And it is not unrelated to the previous story of the rich man. At a first reading we might be strongly inclined to side with the grumblers in the parable. After all, it did not seem at all fair that those who only worked for one hour should get exactly the same as those who had worked from early in the morning and through the heat of the day.

Even though all had agreed to work for a stipulated amount, still in all fairness and decency, one feels that the early comers should have been given more or the latecomers less. However, if we find ourselves talking like this then it shows that our thoughts are human thoughts and not God’s. A little further reflection will make us feel grateful that God works like the employer in the vineyard.

The story seems, as often happens in the Gospel, to reflect the situation of the early Church. The first Christians were all Jews. Before their conversion they had been trying to live according to the requirements of their Jewish faith. They belonged to a people who had thousands of years of religious history, they were God’s own people. Then Gentiles began to be admitted into the community. Some of these people probably came from totally pagan environments. They may have lived very immoral lives and yet, once accepted and baptised, they enjoyed all the privileges of the community. Somehow, it did not seem right.

But this is the justice of God which we need to learn. He gives his love, all of his love, to every person without exception who opens himself to it. It does not matter whether that happens early or late. One reason for that is that that love can never be earned, only accepted. And, as the previous story indicated, the genuine needs of all should be met. The fact that the latecomers were only employed at the last hour does not make their needs any less than those who came earlier. God’s justice is measured by our needs not by mathematical divisions.

What each of the workers received was a symbol of the love of God, who is the vineyard owner. All - early arrivals and latecomers - got exactly the same, the love of their Master and Lord. There are not various degrees of that love. It is always 100 percent. God is Love; he cannot not love and he cannot not love totally. He cannot and will not give more of that love to one than another.

This is indeed something we should be grateful for. Because it can happen - perhaps it has already happened - that I move away from God and his love. I may move very far. But I know that at whatever time I turn back to him, be it at the 11th hour, he is waiting with open arms.

Thank heavens for the justice of God!*

The Irish Jesuits


Elizabeth Mahlou said...

I have always liked this parable. It comforts me. As a convert from five decades of atheism, I am one of those late comers who has 'stolen' into the church at the last hour. While I have been accepted with open arms and loving hearts by my fellow parishioners, I always feel a little guilty about getting the same love from God in spite of the late arrival -- until I realize that those who come early actually have gotten more: they had all those decades of knowing God's love, and that is a significant blessing.

Sarah in the tent said...

'They shall draw their swords
against your beauteous wisdom,
they shall run them through your splendid apparel.'

Wisdom is like splendid apparel: lovely to wear but not much protection against the cold hatred and envy of enemies.

I suppose the Phoenicians had the fastest boats and so could get goods to market first. Maybe they had canny venture capitalists and a dynamic financial services market to fund these voyages. Perhaps they also had the advantage of Damascus steel in their swords to protect their cargoes. The people of Gaza were celebrated weavers - gauze comes from Gaza. Skills in weaving and metallurgy and the will to trade helped bring about the industrial revolution in Europe many years later, and it is still reverberating around the world.

Perhaps the people of Tyre were a little like people today. We trust scientists to solve our problems and sustain us and sometimes this trust looks like a kind of religion: scientism. Many of us have to thank doctors for our survival, but who or what was it that motivated these people to give up their youth to study for the benefit of others? I think that, fundamentally, all the great things people have achieved are gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Anonymous said...

When Ezekiel speaks, he begins with the phrase "Son of man". In the NT, Jesus is called "Son of Man".

Would you explain a bit about this term?

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

In the Old Testament, the expression “son of man” is a translation of one of two Hebrew phrases: ben ‘adam or ben ‘enosh. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the expression means “human being”, as in Numbers 23:19: “God is not a human being [‘iysh] that he should lie, nor a son of man [ben-adam] that he should change his mind.

The Book of Ezekiel is unique in the Hebrew Scriptures, as the phrase “son of man” is used nearly a hundred times, always introduced by the phrase: “The word of the LORD came to me…” Here, “son of man” is a title referring to the humanity of the writer; it is not title of honor, but a humbling phrase, a usage which is consistent throughout the Book of Ezechiel.

In the New Testament, the phase “son of man” [in Koine Greek “o uios tou anthropou”] occurs 82 times in the Gospels, and is found only in the sayings of Jesus himself, and reminds us of the truth that the second person of the Trinity is at the same time, Son of God, sharing divine nature with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and Son of Mary, sharing human nature with all of us who are children of earth, which is why one of his titles is “the second Adam”.