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ACTA  

LECTIONARY COMMENTARY

Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Year C 

Year of Luke


Download: Twenty-Seventh Sunday of the Year C

READINGS

 

A reading from the prophet Habakkuk               1:2-3. 2:2-4

Responsorial Psalm                      Psalm 94:1-2. 6-9. R/. v. 9

A reading from the second letter of St Paul to Timothy

     1:6-8.13-1

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke   17:5-10

 

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Prophets are best understood if we regard them as teachers.  They are men and women schooled by God in the ways of God and their vocation is to teach the world to sing, even if the songs are often sad songs.  That is why prophets for the most part are poets and storytellers.  

    Prophets speak first to the heart; they are inspired by God in order to inspire those who listen.  They seek to lift up our hearts, to raise them up to the Lord. Prophets are instructed by God first to, 

                                      strengthen their heart.           Psalm 10:17

 

The morning prayer of a prophet is this:

 

Let the words of my mouth

and the meditation of my heart

be acceptable in your sight,

O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Psalm 19:14

 

Their prayer is that their prayer becomes our prayer, that our hearts sing their song, and their purpose is that their “redeemer and rock” becomes our “redeemer and rock”.  That is why their words, for the most part, come to us in glorious poetry. How beautiful the sound and how encouraging the word when it comes from the mind, from the heart, and from the imagination of a poet;

 

I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord,

the praises of the Lord,

according to all that the Lord has granted us,

and the great goodness to the house of Israel

that he has granted them according to his compassion,

according to the abundance of his steadfast love

Isaiah 63:7

 

Does the hope God has in us, the tenderness of God’s steadfast love, not bend our hearts to love in return?  The angel of God’s presence is our watchful guardian angel:

 

For he said, “Surely they are my people,

children who will not deal falsely.”

And he became their Saviour.

In all their affliction he was afflicted,

and the angel of his presence saved them;

in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;

he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Isaiah 63:8-9

 

Of course, there is anger, disappointment, frustration, when the heavenly Lord observes our iniquities: 

 

But now, O Lord, you are our Father;

we are the clay, and you are our potter;

we are all the work of your hand.

Be not so terribly angry, O Lord,

and remember not iniquity forever.

Behold, please look, we are all your people.

Isaiah 64:8-9

 

No matter how far we run from God, God will find a way to bring us back, and to save us from even the worst of our betrayals:

 

Thus says the Lord:

We have heard a cry of panic,

of terror, and no peace.

Ask now, and see,

can a man bear a child?

Why then do I see every man

with his hands on his stomach like a woman in labour?

Why has every face turned pale?

Alas! That day is so great

there is none like it;

it is a time of distress for Jacob;

yet he shall be saved out of it.

Jeremiah 30:5-7

 

As with all poetry, you have to embrace the words and hold them to your heart and tease them till they speak:

 

Thus says Lord:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,

lamentation and bitter weeping.

Rachel is weeping for her children;

she refuses to be comforted for her children,

because they are no more.

Jeremiah 31:15

 

How can the broken heart of Rachel weeping for her children be unbroken?  This woman who struggles to bring Joseph into the world and died as she gave him a brother, Benjamin, how can her pain speak to us?  As generations of children are walking away what can we learn from the tragedy of beautiful Rachel:

 

Thus says the Lord:

“Keep your voice from weeping,

and your eyes from tears,

for there is a reward for your work,

declares the Lord,

and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.

There is hope for your future,

declares the Lord,

and your children shall come back to their own country.

I have heard Ephraim grieving.

Jeremiah 31:16-18

 

    You have to have read the account of Jacob and Rachel’s love story to understand how her broken heart could stand as a metaphor for a broken people.  It begins in Genesis 29:6 at a well and ends with a burial in Bethlehem (Genesis 48:7). 

    The Bible is often described as a patriarchal domain but its poets, its prophets, do not dwell in that particular prison.  Jerusalem was the city of God’s Presence. The Temple was the place of God’s home on earth. It was a city ravaged by war and yet was the City of Peace, for the God who dwelt within its walls was and is a God of peace, and shalom is what comes from heaven to earth.   Consider the birth of the city:

 

Before she was in labour

she gave birth;

before her pain came upon her

she delivered a son.

Who has heard such a thing?

Who has seen such things?

Shall a land be born in one day?

Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?

For as soon as Zion was in labour

she brought forth her children.

Shall I bring to the point of birth

and not cause to bring forth?”

says the Lord;

“shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb?”

says your God.

Isaiah 66:7

 

With a difficult birth a city is born, a child of God, a cause for joy:

 

Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,

all you who love her;

rejoice with her in joy,

all you who mourn over her;

that you may nurse and be satisfied

from her consoling breast;

that you may drink deeply with delight

from her glorious abundance.

Isaiah 66:10-11

 

Even in its darkest days, Jerusalem, in the poet’s mind, is forever a place of Presence, a city of hope, and a promise of peace:

 

For thus says Lord:

“Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river,

and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream;

and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip,

and bounced upon her knees.

As one whom his mother comforts,

so I will comfort you;

you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.

You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;

your bones shall flourish like the grass;

and the hand of the Lord shall be known to his servants,

and he shall show his indignation against his enemies.

Isaiah 66:12-14

 

A city born to be a city of peace was and is a city of war, a city often destroyed and often rebuilt.  A pilgrim to the city, a poet at heart, when he came to the top of the Mount of Olives and saw its glory spread out on the opposite hill, wept bitter tears as he contemplated the future:

 

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.

Luke 19:41-44

 

    We read the prophets and, indeed, the whole of God’s holy Scriptures, if we are to enter into the poetic minds who gave them birth.  The words of that strange book, the Book of Habakkuk occur only twice in our Lectionary. But we catch a glimpse of a poet’s mind and heart, that ponder the deepest of all questions: how can God be a just God if evil people are allowed to destroy the people that God claimed to be his own.  



A reading from the prophet Habakkuk               1:2-3. 2:2-4

 

O Lord,

how long shall I cry for help,

and you will not hear?

Or cry to you.

“Violence”,

and you will not save?

Why do you make me see iniquity,

and why do you idly look at wrong?

Destruction and violence are before me;

strife and contention arise.

 

And the Lord answered me:

 

“Write the vision:

make it plain on tablets,

so he may run who reads it.

For still the vision awaits

its appointed time;

It hastens to the end

- it will not lie.

If it seems slow, wait on it;

it will surely come;

it will not delay.

Behold! His soul is puffed up;

It is not upright within him,

But the righteous one shall live by faithfulness.

 

The word of the Lord.

 

    The power of poetry is not confined to warming the heart, to lifting the spirit, or to singing songs of joy.  The poetry of the prophets often challenges our perceptions, opposes our platitudes, and commands our repentance. They are, perhaps more often that not, disturbers of what too often passes in our world for peace. Indeed, they frequently engage with God to bring to God’s mind the ungodly state of human affairs. The prophets who speak on behalf of God frequently question the God who employs them.  

    In his first line Habakkuk declares for all to hear that he is a prophet and that he heard the words so clearly that they appeared as a vision before his very eyes. But since he is about to the challenge God, he wants his hearers and readers to know that every word is underlined by his prophetic authority.  He is claiming the right to question God.  

    Our reading skips all but two sentences of Chapter 1 and omits the consequences of God’s neglect:

 

So the Law is paralyzed,

and justice never goes forth.

For the wicked surround the righteous;

so justice goes forth perverted.

Habakkuk 1:4

 

God allows divine justice to be twisted by wicked men so that God’s true justice never comes to the rescue.   Invaders come with their chariots; they march through the length and breadth of the land. Habakkuk’s description of an invading army is worth quoting, for though written about 600 years before the time of Jesus, it might have been written today and, sadly, written for all our tomorrows:

 

They are dreaded and fearsome;

their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.

Their horses are swifter than leopards,

more fierce than the evening wolves;

their horsemen press proudly on.

Their horsemen come from afar;

they fly like an eagle,

swift to devour.

They all come for violence,

all their faces forward.

They gather captives like sand …

They laugh at every fortress,

they pile up the earth and take it.

Then they sweep by like the wind

and go on,

guilty men,

whose own might is their god.

Habakkuk 1:7-11

 

The question put to God is a question for our time, indeed for all time:

 

Why do you remain silent

when the wicked swallows up

the man more righteous than he?

Habakkuk 1:13

 

    Our Lectionary omits the bald statement of Habakkuk’s complaint and hastens to the word of the Lord that advises patience and faithfulness.  “Living my faith” does not mean “just hanging in there and hoping something will turn up”.  It is not advising that we adopt the strategy of Mr. Micawber. “Living” in the Bible’s view of the matter, means living in God’s Presence and in the utter conviction that God’s steadfast love endures forever.  In a similar assurance of God’s fidelity, an earlier prophet than Habakkuk gave a most exciting view of God’s intent:

 

And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord.                                                         

Hosea 2:18-20

 

    The Psalms frequently appeal to God quickly to come and relieve the pain of the people:  

 

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I take counsel in my soul

and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

Psalm 13:1-2

 

There is a lovely image, but still a heartfelt appeal, in Psalm 74:11, where someone, arms outstretched in prayer, begs God to take his hands out of his divine pockets and do something against cruel enemies:

 

Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?

Take it from the fold of your garment and destroy them.

 

Psalm 89:46 reminds God that life is short and asks how long hope is expected to last, and what use is it to be burning with anger but doing nothing:

 

How long, O Lord?

Will you hide yourself forever?

How long will your wrath burn like fire?

Remember how short my time is!

 

Such psalms and the voice of Habakkuk teach us to engage with God in our pain, our frustration, our deep disappointments that God does not come to our aid.

    But the sheer beauty of faith and the determined hope that brings Habakkuk’s complaints to an end, the wonder of his joy in the Lord, despite present afflictions, reach out over the years and inspire our hearts to join in his song:

Though the fig tree should not blossom,

Nor fruit be on the vines,

The produce of the olive fail, and the fields yield no food,

The flock be cut off from the fold,

And there be no cattle in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord;

I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

God, the Lord, is my strength;

He makes my feet like the deer’s;

He makes me tread on my high places.

Habakkuk 3:17-19

 

Habakkuk has not discovered why God does not come to his aid; nor is he assured that God’s delay will ever end.  But he has learned to live without the answer to his questions and still to rejoice in the God whose splendour covers the heavens - and the earth. 

 

Responsorial Psalm                       Psalm 95:1-2. 6-9. R/. v. 9

 

R/.   Today, if you hear his voice,

do not harden your hearts!

 

Oh come, let us sing to the Lord;

let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;

       let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise.    R/.

 

Oh come, let us worship and bow down;

let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!

For he is our God,

and we are the people of his pasture,

                           and the sheep of his hand.                       R/.

 

Today, if you hear his voice,

do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,

as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,

when your fathers put me to the test

and put me to the proof

though they had seen my work.

 

R/.   Today, if you hear his voice,

do not harden your hearts!

 

Psalms 93 to 99 are songs of praise.  They are shouts of acclamation in wonder and thanks to God for all “his hands have made”.  Psalm 95 sings praise to the creator who holds the whole world in his hands, whose word brought humanity into being.  More than that, the poet proclaims that we God’s people, the people God tends as a shepherd tends the flock.

    

But God’s people do not always heed God’s voice.  Like the ungrateful people emerging from slavery in Egypt and making their way to a promised land, so every generation is given to hard-hearted dismissal of the God who ways they failed to recognise and whose mercy they forgot.

    

The names of the places where the Israelites began their complaining mean Dispute (Meribah) and Testing (Massah) and these became the typical images of rebellious behaviour down through the ages (the initial story is in Exodus 17).  Though God had delivered them from slavery, they were constantly complaining about what they regarded as deficiencies in God’s care. This “murmuring” was a constant tendency even to the day Jesus went into the house of Zacchaeus to eat with the wealthy tax collector. Luke tells the story in chapter 19:1-10.  The people gathered around and “murmured” against the outrageous behaviour of the man from Nazareth who went to stay in the house of a man who was the chiefest of tax collectors. 

    

Today we pray that stony hearts in our world and in our Church might be softened into compassion and transformed to become an image of God’s sacred heart.



A reading from the second letter of St Paul to Timothy     1:6-8.13-14 

 

I am reminding you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self- control.

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.

     Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

The word of the Lord.

 

The Second Letter of St Paul to Timothy is as the first.  It is a letter written by a disciple of Paul and imagines that the great apostle is writing to his devoted young and fellow apostle from his prison in Rome.  The wise old Paul is presented as a father giving kindly advice to this child. Paul is coming to the end of his life, the writer imagines, and seeks to strengthen the faith of his “beloved child” (II Timothy 1:2).  Imprisonment, for whatever cause, was a matter of public disgrace and Paul does not wish his young friend to be discouraged and to lose faith in God on that account (see Philippians 1:12-30, where Paul himself tries to explain that his imprisonment, far from being a disgrace, was a sign of his steadfast faith in the truth of the gospel).

   The practice of laying on of hands as a symbol of the imparting of the Spirit was a feature of some early Christian communities as the Acts of the Apostles witnesses:

 

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.

Acts 8:14-17 

 

   Just as Paul’s sufferings bear witness to his faith and love that come to him in Christ Jesus, so ought Timothy be aware that he shares that very same Spirit and must keep faith.  The three Pastoral Letters might be summed up in three words: Keep the Faith.   

 

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke         17:5-10

 

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

“Will any one of you who has a servant ploughing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.

The Gospel of the Lord.

 

Like the prophets before him, Jesus had the mind and the ear of a poet. He, too, could challenge his listeners with exciting images of God that force them to think.  Where not those who heard him compare a woman who lost a coin with God, in danger of losing a sinner? Who, then and now, can cope with a son who “has never disobeyed your command” being left out in the field, unable to join in the party?  Who would want to join someone who demands that any who would wish to follow him must take up his cross? Who would have thought that a bent manager was a model to follow? 

    

The images in today’s Gospel reading are as challenging as any Jesus ever offered.  The challenge is to apostles, to everyone sent to proclaim the word of the Lord.   The priest or deacon may hold up a book and announce: The Gospel of the Lord.  But the book is just a book and it is not the Word of the Lord.  For what has been given us is not a collection of words on a page.  What is given us is the Person who is Present in the Word. That is why our response is not to a pile of words we have just heard.  It is a response to a person we have come to us, a person who is the Word. Listen:

 

PRAISE TO YOU, LORD JESUS CHRIST.

 

We are responding to a Person.  We are welcoming the Word and opening our hearts to its claims upon us.  Just as we receive the Presence in the Bread and in the Cup, so in the Word we are embraced by the One who comes to us in order to send us out to proclaim what he has spoken.

    

A little faith, Jesus explains, can uproot mulberry trees and replant them in the sea. But the force of the illustration Jesus uses to emphasise his point is somewhat diminished by those translations that insist on “servant” rather than “slave” in the story.  The Greek word doulos means a “slave” and that is the translation that makes sense in today’s reading (and so it should be in Luke 12:41-48, a response to Peter’s question).

   The man in the little parable Jesus tells, is a small farmer with a single slave.   Though the slave has worked all day in field and fold, he is not excused from slaving away even at the day’s end.  He is commanded to prepare supper and to serve it before he is allowed to eat. The slave, because he is a slave, cannot expect to be thanked for he is a slave.  He is a chattel owned by the master and generosity, gratitude and good manners are not part of the treatment dished out to slaves.

     

The point Jesus is making is that those who are apostles must be totally bound to the service of the gospel of God.  Even when one has done all that this vocation demands, one has done no more than what is required.  

   

Of course, Jesus is speaking with the freedom of the poet, not exaggerating, but insisting that there can be no restraint, no compromise, not diminution of the gospel.  There must be no tailoring to meet the cut of prevailing fashion. Those who are enslaved to God’s service must not look for time off.  

    

Recall the story of the army officer whose slave had fallen grievously ill and who sent Jewish friends to intercede with Jesus on behalf of the slave. Jesus set out immediately: 

 

When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my boy be healed. For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave well.                                                                    Luke 7:6-10 

 

It is that kind of faith that Jesus demands.  In a prayer that St Francis didn’t write, we are to work looking for no reward save that of knowing that we do your will, O Lord. 

 

Joseph O’Hanlon 

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