Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year of Luke
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A reading from the prophet Amos 8:4-7
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 113.1-2. 4-8. R/. cf. vv. 1. 7
A reading from the first letter of St Paul to Timothy 2:1-8
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke
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Prophets are the conscience of the nation. Whatever about the world we live in, that’s what the prophets of ancient Israel were. The very name “prophet” is a giveaway as to the occupation of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. The Hebrew word navi means “one who is called”. The Greek word, in both the ancient Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek in which the New Testament was written is prophētēs, prophet, and that means “one who speaks on behalf of another”. Putting the two together, a prophet in ancient Israel was “one who was called by God in order to speak on behalf of God”. Prophets were not people whose essential concern was to predict the future, as if they were forecasters or fortune-tellers. Their job was to give the God’s eye view of the world in which they lived. They were the voice of God, especially when the voice of God was drowned out by those whose main concern was not the keeping of God’s Torah. Going to the Temple was fine and it did no harm at all to be seen there. But one had to look after the pennies and the pounds and observing the demands of God was often more a hindrance than a help. The temptations of power were more often honoured than the royal observance of the demands of Torah. The prophets, speaking on behalf of God, were loud in declaring that divine blessing did not come to those who made the fastest buck.
The prophets stood between God and the godless, between the rich and the poor, between those who exalted themselves at the expense of the humble poor. The phrase most often on the lips of the prophets was,
THUS SAYS THE LORD.
It echoes throughout all the books of the prophets, bringing home to anyone who would listen, that God hears the pain of the people and God will insist on having the last word.
Women, as well as men, spoke on behalf of God and are to be honoured in the hall of the prophets. When the chariots of Pharaoh were lost as the waves covered them, and the slaves walked through the waters into the safety of the desert, it was the sister of Moses who began the singing:
For when the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his horsemen went into the sea, the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon them, but the people of Israel walked on dry ground in the midst of the sea. Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. And Miriam sang to them:
Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea!
Deborah was not only a ruler over the people of Israel; she was a woman-prophet. She was the leader of the people who inspired a depressed people to stirring victory. Like Miriam, Deborah was given to singing (Judges 5:1-31).
Perhaps Huldah is the most important of the women who were prophets in Israel. She was a seamstress, the keeper of the royal wardrobe when the deeply religious Josiah was king of Judah (639-609 B.C.). When a scroll was discovered during repairs to the fabric of the Temple, she authenticated its contents as the word of God. What was found was a complete or partial or, what we might call, an early edition of the Book of Deuteronomy. This gave an impetus to preserve Israel’s religious traditions in writing, not just in the processes of oral tradition, and, in the end, led to what we know today as the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.
Noadiah, a woman who was regarded by some to be a prophet was condemned by Nehemiah for she seemed to have campaigned against his rebuilding programme after the return from exile to Jerusalem (Nehemiah 6:14).
There are two women prophets mentioned in the New Testament. Luke’s Gospel records the beautiful encounter of Anna with Joseph and Mary with the baby in the Temple. The aged Simeon took the child Jesus in his arms and thanked God for,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel,
Then an old woman approached. She is the first person publicly “to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Israel”, the first to preach Jesus to the world:
And there was a woman prophet, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty- four. She did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
There is an interesting account of another woman prophet, a woman with a famous name, who provoked the author of the Book of Revelation to a very angry condemnation of all who associated with the lady:
But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. Revelations 2:20-23
One thing we can learn from the condemnation of Noadiah and Jezebel is that there were true prophets and false prophets. The Book of Deuteronomy reasonably explains how tell one from the other:
But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die. And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken? ’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. Deuteronomy 18:20-22
We could have worked that out for ourselves.
Most ancient societies had prophets. The shaman in many societies today performs much the same tasks as that of the ancient prophets. In ancient Israel the task of the prophet was to try to ensure that society conformed to the will of God, to warn that failure to do so courted disaster. It was the prophet’s task to point out that there was a future, even when conquest and exile prevailed. But the surest and most secure path was the way of the Lord:
Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
One of the earliest of the prophets, and probably the first whose demands were written down, was Amos. To read Amos is to know what prophets are for and to know the God who sends them into our world to be the conscience that the world wishes to silence.
A reading from the prophet Amos 8:4-7
Hear this, you who trample on the needy
and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals
and sell the chaff of the wheat?”
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
“Surely I will never forget any of their deeds”.
The word of the Lord
There are only three readings from Amos in our Sunday Lectionary. That is a sadness, for the reluctant herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees (Amos 7:14) was conscripted by God. He was sent by God from Tekoa, a village near Bethlehem, to go to the northern kingdom of Israel, the bit that had broken off from the southern Judah after the death of Solomon, “to prophesy to my people Israel”. He preached “the word of the Lord” (Amos 7:16) around 750 B.C. He preached against the nations in the region of Israel and Judah, places like Damascus, Gaza, Tyre—places that are still with us. The people of God, who heard him condemn the behaviour of these foreigners, must have been delighted. “Give ‘em hell” must have been his applauding hearers. Until, that is, in the name of God, he raised his voice to point to their sins. Against Judah, his homeland, his word was direct and true:
… they have rejected the law of the Lord,
and have not kept his statutes,
but their lies have led them astray,
those after which their fathers walked.
So I will send a fire upon Judah,
and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem
Against Israel, the northern part of what was David’s united kingdom, he was especially detailed:
… they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
those who trample the head of the poor
into the dust of the earth
and turn aside the way of the afflicted;
a man and his father go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge,
and in the house of their God they drink
the wine of those who have been fined …
It is astonishing that words spoken 2,750 years ago by a humble agricultural worker from south of Bethlehem should echo so accurately to the world of our times. In case we miss the point, Amos tells it like it is:
For the Lord God does nothing
without revealing his secret
to his servants the prophets.
The lion has roared;
who will not fear?
The Lord God has spoken;
who can but prophesy.
The words of Amos given to us today are as apt as they were long ago and far away. For, in our time and in our place, there is, to use the words of Amos, a famine in our land, in our world:
… not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east.
Amos is a voice that hears the cry of the poor in our time and in every time and warns of its neglect.
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 13:1-2. 4-8. R/. cf. vv. 1.7
R/. Praise the Lord, who raises the poor.
Praise the Lord!
Praise, O servants of the Lord,
praise the name of the Lord!
Blessed be the name of the Lord,
from this time forth and forevermore. R/.
The Lord, is high above all nations,
and his glory above the heavens!
Who is like the Lord, our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth? R/.
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.
R/. Praise the Lord, who raises the poor.
Psalms 113 down to Psalm 118 are especially significant in the liturgy of Jewish synagogues. They are called the Egyptian Hallel, that is, they are full of the joyous cry Alleluia, Praise the Lord! because they refer to the deliverance of the slaves from the tyranny of Egypt. These psalms of praise are prayed on the feasts of Passover Shavuot, Sukkot, and Hanukkah, the major feasts throughout the year. The greatest joy of all runs through this collection of celebration songs, repeated again and again, and finally given the last words:
Oh give thanks to the Lord
for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
The psalm begins with an Alleluia, a single word that means Praise the Lord! It is a Hebrew word that has slipped into English but we must note that it is a command, the first and greatest of all commands. For it instructs us to look upon the Lord who creates us, who sustains us, who saves us, who redeems us whatever disaster falls upon us, whether it is sin or suffering. Our God is the God who from the rising of the sun to its setting is busy attending to our welfare. Looking down from above the earth and skies, seated on high, in the poet’s imagination, what concerns this mighty Lord? He raises the poor from the dust and he lifts the needy from the dung heap, and he places them among the princes of the earth. The woman who despairs of a child, God brings her a home and makes her a happy mother of sons. And all because God is God, the one whose steadfast love endures forever. Alleluia!
A reading from the first letter of St Paul to Timothy 2:1-8
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling.
The word of the Lord.
The reader at the lectern today will proclaim that the reading is “from the first letter of St Paul to Timothy”. Since the beginning of the 19th century many scholars have claimed that this letter was not written by St Paul. Indeed, the three letters, two allegedly from Timothy and one from Titus are not the work of Paul but of anonymous writers who assumed the mantle of Paul and wrote in his name. These three letters were formerly (and in many circles still are) regarded as The Pastoral Epistles, for they deal with many pastoral problems and concerns. But the problems and concerns seem to reflect a time after the death of Paul. There are a host of arguments and considerations that impress most scholars today that these letters were written by an author or authors who dressed themselves in the mantle of Paul but show little understanding of the teaching of the great apostle. The teaching of the letters lacks the passion and erudition of Paul. Paul shouted to the world “We preach Christ crucified” (I Corinthians 1:23). The cross is absent from the letters of Timothy and Titus, even though those two alleged authors were companions of Paul.
These are anonymous productions pretending to be from the pen of Paul, probably to enhance their status and to impress with the authority of Paul. Nonetheless these writings have enriched the faith of Christian communities from the time they were written to the present, and they will continue to do so. But future lectionaries would do well to remove the fiction that the Pastoral Letters were written by Paul of Tarsus.
The first chapter of I Timothy sets out to alert its readers and hearers to false teaching and false teachers, to peddlers of “myths and endless genealogies that promote endless speculations”. These false teachers try to pass themselves off as teachers of the Law, the Torah of God, but with little understanding. But the concern for Torah outlined here is far from the complex understanding offered by St Paul. For the writer of this letter, the Torah is just a list of rules, of “dos and don’ts”, as a guide to Christian behaviour.
What is said about Christ Jesus as the saviour of sinners and the giver of God’s mercy is fine but lacks the passion of Paul. In other words, what is said is fine and instructive. But what is lacking is the challenge of Paul of Tarsus, as he invites the world to embrace the risk of faith, the passion of hope, and the extravagance of love.
Chapter 2 begins with today’s reading. It sketches the kind of behaviour that must characterise Christian communities. Praying for kings and all in elevated positions is wise since they may leave such communities in peace. The motto seems to be pray for them and we will have “a peaceful and quiet life”. I cannot imagine Paul settling for a quiet life.
Today’s reading stops just in time at verse 8 (though I am concerned that the writer emphasises “that in every place the men should pray”. “Men” here means men, male persons, not people or human beings, definitely not women. His next few sentences, not in today’s reading, are worth quoting, if only to illustrate that the writer of this letter has given us much that sticks in the craw of modern perceptions. Or, at least, it should. Think on this:
[Also I desire] that likewise women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
Contrast this with a greeting to a husband and wife from Paul, as he lists his friends in Rome:
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsfolk and my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles, and also were in Christ before me. Romans 16:7
A husband and a wife can be apostles, and outstanding among those, like Paul, given that great vocation by God. So said Paul, a man very careful about who were apostles. Perhaps that is enough to convince people that Paul did not write the letter given us in today’s reading.
However this does not diminish the Pastoral Letters. Rather it situates them in conversations that were going on in the second or third generation of Christians. We can appreciate that these young churches had to meet organisational concerns and had to cope with a variety of developing beliefs, keeping an eye for beliefs and practices that were likely to disturb the peace and tranquillity of growing Christian communities.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke
[Jesus] also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager. ’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses. ’ So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master? ’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil. ’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty. ’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe? ’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat. ’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty. ’
The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.
“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.
The Gospel of the Lord.
The first, and utterly important, thing to notice is that this long parable is told to “the disciples”. From Chapter 10 to the end of Chapter 15 we have listened to parables told to a lawyer ((Luke 10:25), a Pharisee (Luke 11:37), a man in the crowd (Luke 12:13), to some Galilean people (Luke 13:1 and 13:6), to someone Jesus met as he journeyed to Jerusalem (Luke 13:22), to the guests at a dinner party (Luke 14:7), to the host at the same party (Luke 14:12), to another guest at the same party (Luke 14:15. The great parables of Chapter 15 were told to grumbling Pharisees and scribes (Luke 15:1). But what follows is a piece of private instruction to “the disciples”. It is always very important to identify the audience when we are seeking to understand the teaching of Jesus.
We need frequently to remind ourselves what the word usually translated “disciple” meant in the Greek language of the original New Testament. A sentence spoken by Jesus will readily serve our purpose:
A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. Luke 6:40
A disciple (μαθητὴς, mathētēs) is not above his teacher (διδάσκαλος, teacher), but everyone when he is trained will be like his teacher.
The “disciple” is, then, a student, a pupil, an apprentice. A disciple must have a teacher and undergo a programme of instruction. Only when that is accomplished can the disciple be regarded as a qualified teacher. A disciple is not a follower. A disciple is not an apostle. A disciple may come from the ranks of followers and engage with a teacher and, having successfully completed an appropriate course of training, earn the distinction to be called a teacher. In the Jesus school of teaching, a disciple when trained may become an apostle, one sent to proclaim all that had been learned at the feet of the teacher. Some disciples of Jesus were sent out on an apprentice-training scheme. Only then did they begin to shape up as likely apostles. Notice how Luke describes this part of the training programme:
And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. Luke 9:1-2
When we notice occasions when Jesus speaks privately to the disciples and when he draws them aside to clarify some teaching he has given to the crowds or to religious authorities such as Pharisees, scribes, or Sadducees, we must pay particular attention. For when the gospel-makers relate such occasions, they are in the business of teaching those for whom their Gospels were written. For each Christian is a potential apostle. That is the vocation of all who enter the school of Jesus through the baptismal waters of initiation. They have signed up for discipleship in order to become apostles. This may take a lifetime of instruction for times change, new challenges emerge, new horizons beckon, and new worlds are discovered. So discipleship is always an apprenticeship and an apostle is never above his teacher, a point St Matthew keeps before his readership:
A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.
Jesus is forever at the top of the class challenging his apprentices to prepare themselves for whatever is over the horizon.
So today’s Gospel takes us into the classroom of Jesus of Nazareth, head teacher. The parable he sets before us seems to be a lesson in how to avoid a sudden and rigorous audit of the accounts by some very neat skullduggery. Making friends by cooking the books is not reputable practice. But the “rich man” seems to commend the dodgy steward for his shrewdness.
But “the rich man”, our God in the story, is not holding up the dishonest steward for our admiration. The story of the dodgy steward is not so much a parable, more a cautionary tale. It is holding up the unsavory world of some business practices and recommending that we be as incisive in our pursuit of God’s vision and God’s hopes for the world. Disciples must become apostles, that is, they must have a clear, unromantic view of the real world and develop the ingenuity to change that world into one that endorsed and adopts the vision of Amos. Like Amos, we must have a clear and detailed understanding of the real world, have the courage to confront its evils, and the wisdom to set about changing our world into the kingdom of God. That is to say, we must have what it takes to do the will of God on earth “as it is in heaven”.
We know that we have the Lord Jesus walking with us on the way; we know, too, that the way often leads to the place of crucifixion. But we know that the last word will be with our God and that what God does is to create empty tombs.
It is always wise to allow Jesus to have the last word:
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Matthew 10:16