ACTA LECTIONARY COMMENTARY
Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year of Luke
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A reading from the prophet Isaiah 36:18-21
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 117. R/. Mark 16:15
A reading from the letter to the Hebrews 12:5-7. 11-13
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 13:22-30
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Each of the three readings proclaimed today will surely give rise to more questions than answers. Isaiah announces that the day will come when the Lord will gather the nations of the world “to witness my glory”. What is the meaning or meanings of the word “glory”, as used in the Bible (358 times)? When will the people Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, Tubal and Javan hear of “my glory”? And where are they? When will these new brothers set out “on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and dromedaries” to make their way to “my holy mountain Jerusalem? And, on their return with the nations, how will they all fit on Mount Zion, a bit of a hill in Jerusalem where the Temple stood? And after all that travelling who is going to clean all those vessels that are going to be used to carry their offerings to the altar? And then there is the matter of God making priests and Levites out of non-Jews, who are not descended from Aaron or of the tribe of Levi? And that is just the first reading.
A glance at the reading from Hebrews throws up a host of “discouraging words”: “discipline”, “weary”, “reproved”, “chastises”, “endure”, “painful” and, ominously, “trained”.
The Gospel reading offers us a “narrow door”, unanswered “knocking”, a “shut door”, and a shout of “I do not know where you come from”. Not to mention a “Depart from me” to those who are “cast out”, and the ultimate sentence: “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last”.
To all of this, and without blinking an eye, the reader in church will declare “The word of the Lord” and, everyone will (joyfully?) proclaim, “Thanks be to God!” But thanks for what? Where is the good news in today’s readings?
The Bible is a library of the word of God. The Bible is a library of human words. Each of these statements is true. When we declare that the authors of the books that make up our Bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit, we do not mean that they ceased to be human beings writing books. They do not write mysteriously in a trance or so possessed by the Spirit that they cease to have limitations or even to suffer from bad grammar or the occasional misspelling.
So how do we know what is the inspired word of God and what isn’t? The answer lies with the communities who, under the guidance of the Spirit, accept that what is in our Bible is the work of the Holy Spirit. It took hundreds of years before the Jewish community decided what books were to be regarded as Holy Scripture. This was not completed until well into the Christian era. But today Jews recognise 39 books as Tanakh, the name that describes the content of their sacred Scriptures recognised by Jewish communities.
The early Christians took to writing not long after the death of Jesus. The first impetus seems to have been the desire for missionaries like Paul and his companions, to keep in contact with the house-churches or groups of house-churches they had founded. Letters were a means of encouragement and correction, and a means of education in the demands of the gospel of God.
Someone called Mark got the idea of telling a story to show who Jesus is and what is demanded of those who have committed themselves to following him. He wished to give to help to a community that badly needed help. His little booklet—really a pamphlet—inspired others to attempt the same kind of thing. Soon there were four Gospels (Matthew, Luke, and John), each depending to a greater or lesser extent on Mark, but each independent in character and each written to address specific aspects of Christian existence and teaching. By the end of the second century there was general agreement on what books were to be regarded as Christian Scripture and what were not, with some variations here and there.
God’s Word/Human words
What everyone who regards the Bible as the Word of God must realise is that the language we use about God and about God’s teaching and God’s activity in human affairs is always human. That is, humans use human language to describe what they perceive to be the words and actions of God. The writer of Genesis writes about Adam and Eve shortly after eating the forbidden fruit,
And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”
It would be wrong to picture God strolling in the garden in the cool of the evening breeze, perhaps smoking a pipe of excellent tobacco. It would be wrong to think that God didn’t know where the man and woman were hiding among the trees. I know God shouts, “Where are you?” but I do not believe that God did not know where they were. After all, God is God. But the writer has to tell the story and the demands of storytelling insist that there must be tension, surprise, and revelation. The image of God in the story must somehow be made real. Even though the story is not an account of an historical event but an imaginative effort to explain why human beings have to struggle to survive, the writer has to be realistic and dramatic. After all, talking serpents are pretty rare.
The problem always is to describe God appearance on the human stage. God is utterly spirit—whatever that means—and we can’t see spirits. We have to describe in human words everything we know, everything we experience, and everything we love and hope for in relation to God because that is the only language we have. Who God is, what God is, how God is, where God is are all partially known to us and we must use human words to try to say what we wish to say about God and God’s dealing with the human family. When in today’s first lesson we read that people shall come “and shall see my glory”, what exactly do they see? When you sing Glory to God in the highest, precisely what do you mean? What are you “offering” to God “in the highest”? Where, if anywhere, is “the highest”?
The King of glory
So the first task we must undertake in reading the Bible is to realise that we are reading picture language. Try this:
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever’
Now God can’t sit on a throne because God has no bottom. God is not a king, unless we mean that just as a king in the ancient world had absolute authority, so the Lord has absolute authority over all humanity and over all creation. But we need to be careful because in history, human kings and emperors were mostly a pain in the neck. So when we call the Lord a king we have to make many reservations and rule out the negative aspects of kingly behaviour.
But read the next two lines of the Psalm 29:
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!
Here is prayer that is utterly realistic and conforms to all that we know about God. God does give strength to help us to bear what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Every day we pray for peace but, as the poet W. B. Yates reminded us, “peace comes dropping slow”. But we feel it in our bones when God’s help gets us safely through and we know what peace is when, all too rarely, we come across it in this war-torn world.
So in our imagination we have God sitting on a royal throne looking every inch a king, indeed, the Kings of kings. This may be our way of saying that God is the supreme authority in our understanding of the world. Yet we must not let our imagination run riot when it comes to God. There are some very odd Christians who believe that God spends a lot of time stoking the fires of hell.
When we listen to Isaiah today we must try to extract the message from the medium. Prophets mostly spoke in poetry and gave very free rein to their imaginations when praising God or chastising God’s people. Our reading today is not a piece of poetry but it is a very imaginative piece of writing. Understanding the piece is made harder to decipher by the fact that half of the paragraph in Isaiah is left out of our Lectionary reading.
A reading from the prophet Isaiah 66:18-21
Thus says the Lord:
The time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.
The word of the Lord.
The book of Isaiah covers a span of three hundred years. It begins in the eight century B.C. dominance of the Assyrian conquerors (chapters 1 to 39). This is followed by a period when Babylon ascendancy succeeded the Assyrian domination, itself falling to the might of the Medes and the Persians (chapters 40 to 55). The final section (chapters 56-66) is thought to have come from the time of the very slow restoration of Jerusalem undertaken by a very demoralised and disillusioned remnant who were permitted by the Persians to return from exile and rebuild.
There is, however, a unity within this diversity. The three centuries that are suggested by the political turmoil outlined in the book seem to have been written by devoted successors of the ancient prophet, the eight-century B.C. Isaiah. There are a number of themes developed throughout the whole of the work that gives it a unity. The various periods of foreign domination, exile and return to the land of their fathers provide the basis for reflection: what are the consequences of being a people called to dedicate their lives to faith in their God? What are the consequences of infidelity? What must be done to re-restore everyone to the faith of their fathers? A safe return to and resettlement the land can only be maintained if there is a strong faith in God. Above all God’s people must be a light to the nations.
Today’s reading ends the long struggle throughout the whole book to come to a realisation of the true vocation of God’s people. It is an extravagant vision of hope. A missionary impetus will go out and call the nations (exemplified by the list of foreign places). The nations will come and they will experience the glory of God to the extent that some of their number will be ordained to be priests and Levities - an unlikely proposition, if one recalls God’s address to Aaron on the duties of priests and Levites:
And you and your sons with you shall guard your priesthood for all that concerns the altar and that is within the veil; and you shall serve. I give your priesthood as a gift, and any outsider who comes near shall be put to death.
The poetic exuberance of to-day’s reading of the last sentences of this vast book may account for the preposterous suggestion that Gentiles might be ordained and be permitted to offer sacrifice on “my holy mountain Jerusalem… in the house of the Lord”.
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 117. R/. Mark 16:15
R/. Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel.
Praise the Lord, all nations!
Extol him, all peoples! R/.
For great is his steadfast love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord
R/. Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel.
Psalm 117 is the shortest of all the psalms. To this uniqueness the psalm adds an unusual feature in that it is addressed, not to the people of Israel, nor to an individual, but to all the nations on earth. They are bidden to praise the Lord, the God of Israel.
What should encourage the nations to praise the Lord is the wonder of God’s steadfast love for the people of Israel. This Lord of steadfast love is utterly faithful, utterly dependable, and utterly to be acknowledged by all peoples. The only fitting response to such love, such fidelity, is a resounding Alleluia, a deafening Praise the Lord!
The Response, taken from St Mark’s Gospel, is meant to encourage followers of Jesus to proclaim the gospel of God with all the enthusiasm of Israel’s invitation to the nations.
A reading from the letter to the Hebrews 12:5-7. 11-13
Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly
the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?
For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.
The word of the Lord.
This extract from the letter addressed to Jewish Christians comes from the final part that deals with conclusions. That is, it is concerned to draw lessons from all that has gone before. If those to whom the letter was addressed have listened carefully, then they must respond to what they have heard.
The first thing to realise is that they have been undergoing an education, an education given by God. God is their Teacher and they must pay attention. While they must submit themselves to the disciplines of teaching, yet they must remember what distinguishes God the Teacher:
Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. Deuteronomy 8:5
To be sure, God teaches through the experiences of life, through our sorrows and joys. But, as God outlines how he will teach David to be a good king, we learn the quality of this Teacher:
I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him 2 Samuel 7.14-15
The Preacher quotes from the Book of Proverbs where he had discovered a reference that recommends the quality of God the Teacher. That book is an instruction in the attainment of wisdom. That the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom is a central theme. But what the Bible means by this seemingly depressing statement is far from its superficial meaning. The “fear of the Lord” is equivalent to another favourite Bible phrase: waiting for the Lord means living in hope and expectation that God will accomplish all that is promised. It means living in full confidence that love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness will be victorious over every terror, every destruction, every evil that corrupts human life. The pain of the world must not be endured in utter despair. In the end, God will be victorious over the sin that destroys all that is good.
With a poetic voice, Proverbs recommends subjecting oneself to “the discipline of the Lord”. It is helpful to understand that the word “discipline” comes from “disciple”. The word “disciple” means “a learner”, “a pupil”, “an apprentice”. If we apprentice ourselves to God, then be assured we will have the best of teachers. We will secure, says the Preacher, “the peaceful fruit of righteousness”. We will become what we are created to be. Just as a fully-fit athlete emerges from the discipline of arduous training, so it will be with those who submit to the discipline of God’s love. There is a phrase from Isaiah that may have been in the mind of the preacher as he penned these sentences:
then shall the lame leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 13:22-30
[Jesus] went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from’. Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets’. But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Just a brief remark on the introductory sentences to today’s Gospel reading. Notice that Jesus was making his way through towns and villages and that, on the way, he was intensely engaged in teaching. But all this hurrying has a destination: he was making his way to Jerusalem. There is a plenty of teaching and a definite objective. We know what awaits in Jerusalem. There will be a death. But there will be a defeat of death, and there will be hearts burning at the opening of the Scriptures and there will be recognition in the breaking of the bread.
What we have here, if you think about it with an imaginative heart and mind, is a description of what churches, that is, Christian communities are for. Little parishes are about teaching the ways of God, known to us by listening to Jesus. Yet doing so, in the sure and certain hope that struggle and pain, disappointment, and even despair, will be overcome.
That’s the way Luke’s Gospel works. He is constantly asking us to look at what Jesus is doing for he is God’s Teacher educating us in what we must become, instructing us as to how learners become proclaimers.
It is worth recalling the key sentence that reveals what Luke is about:
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. Luke 9:51
Notice that Luke does not, at this stage, lay the emphasis on the death of Jesus. Rather he speaks of his being “taken up”. That, of course, is the ascension when “he was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51). After the ascension the Holy Spirit will come to empower those in that upper room to emerge as proclaimers of the gospel of God. So we are invited to read ourselves into the story. We are called to make their story our story.
A few who are saved?
The man’s question is,
Lord, will those who are saved be few?
Is the answer “yes” or “no”?
On next Sunday, the 22nd Sunday of the Year of Luke, the Gospel reading concerns a parable Jesus tells over a meal in the home of one of the leading Pharisees (see Luke 14:15-24). The parable is about a wedding feast where the invited guests refuse to turn up, offering very poor excuses. An exasperated host sends out a slave to invite every Tom, Dick, and Harry to come. That parable, as we shall see, helps in trying to discover the answer to the question asked by the man in today’s Gospel.
In order to understand what today’s Gospel is about we need to spread our wings and hunt down some facts that the man who asked the question and the listeners to the reply of Jesus would have known well.
First, if the man who asked the question knew his Bible, he may have had texts such as these in mind:
Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
whom he has redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
.He will raise a signal for the nations
and will assemble the banished of Israel,
and gather the dispersed of Judah
from the four corners of the earth
Fear not, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you.
I will say to the north,
and to the south,
Do not withhold;
bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the end of the earth,
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.
In times of oppression and foreign domination the hope that the sons and daughters of Israel would, in the end, all come safely home and enjoy the glory of God was often difficult to believe. Is the man asking the question a Jew and concerned about the deliverance of all his people? Will God fulfil the hopes so often announced by the prophets of Israel? Or is the man concerned to know the destiny of all humanity?
Either way, Jesus does not answer the man’s question directly. Jesus does not say what God will do. Rather he points to what the man himself must do and to what all must do to enter “the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:28). Those who would “recline at the table on the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29) must strive so to live that they will have an assured place at the table.
Whether Jew or Gentile, entrance is only permitted at “the narrow door” (Luke 13:24). Some will claim that they have eaten with Jesus, that they have heard him proclaiming the word in the streets. But that will not guarantee admission. The words of Mary might here clarify the words of her son:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
The “workers of evil” (Luke 13:27) will not prosper. They will not be permitted to sit down with God. No matter where they come from, the doors will not be open if they cannot squeeze through the narrow gate. To take one’s place beside Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to avoid “that place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Luke 13:28), what is required is not great expectations but a reversal of all expectations. One would hardly expect that this was the narrow gate:
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.
That’s the way the last will become the first and the first are ushered down to the end of the queue. We have much to learn about the final destiny of humanity as imagined in our Bible. We may be familiar with the four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell. But we must ask ourselves if the expanse of God’s steadfast love, a love that endures forever, can be embraced by four catechism words that end in “hell”. We must be aware that human words are often wide of the truth and somehow be sure that even the waifs and the strays are brought to the wedding feast. Watch this space.