Holy Spirit

ACTA  LECTIONARY COMMENTARY

 

Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Year C 

Year of Luke

Download: Twenty-Ninth Sunday of the Year C

 

READINGS

 

A reading from the book of Exodus                           17:8-13

Responsorial Psalm                             Psalm 121. R/. cf. v. 2

A reading from the second letter of St Paul to Timothy   

3:14 - 4:2

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke     18:1-8

A good place to start reflection on today’s readings is with a question.  Are we expected to rejoice that God, in answer to the prayer of Moses, assisted by his brother, empowered Joshua, the military man in Moses’ entourage, to cut to pieces Amalek and his people?  

    According to Genesis 17:8-16 Amalek was descended from Esau, the brother of Jacob, and uncle of Joseph of the multi-coloured dream-coat.  His people were probably nomads; certainly they inhabited the fringes of settled territories in the Negev and Sinai regions. The Bible gives plenty of space to these nuisance people.  The Book of Deuteronomy, written at least 500 years after the exodus from Egypt still recalls the hated Amalekites:

 

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God.

Deuteronomy 25:17-18

 

Look up Judges 3:13.  Judges 6:3-6 gives a vivid account of how big a nuisance these border raiders could be:

 

… whenever the Israelites planted crops, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East would come up against them. They would encamp against them and devour the produce of the land, as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel and no sheep or ox or donkey. For they would come up with their livestock and their tents; they would come like locusts in number—both they and their camels could not be counted—so that they laid waste the land as they came in. And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the Lord. 

    

These people and their desert allies even made it into the prayers of Israel:  

 

O God, do not keep silence;

 do not hold your peace or be still, O God!

 For behold, your enemies make an uproar;

those who hate you have raised their heads.

 They lay crafty plans against your people;

they consult together against your treasured ones.

 They say, “Come, let us wipe them out as a nation;

let the name of Israel be remembered no more!”

 For they conspire with one accord;

against you they make a covenant—

 the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites,

 Moab and the Hagrites,

 Gebal and Ammon and Amalek,

 Philistia with the inhabitants of Tyre;

 Asshur also has joined them;

they are the strong arm of the children of Lot.                              

                                                                        Psalm 83:4-9

 

The prayer of the psalmist is to the point: 

 

O my God, make them like whirling dust,

like chaff before the wind.

 As fire consumes the forest,

as the flame sets the mountains ablaze,

 so may you pursue them with your tempest

and terrify them with your hurricane.

Psalm 83:13-14

 

    Saul, the first king of Israel (to be followed by King David), was informed by the prophet Samuel that God wanted him to wipe out the Amalekites.  The king carried out the word of God’s prophet:

 

And Saul defeated the Amalekites from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of Egypt. And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive and devoted to destruction all the people with the edge of the sword.

1 Samuel 15:7-8

 

But Saul spared the king and shared the spoils of war, sheep and oxen and the like.  But Samuel insisted that God wanted no trace of the Amalekite king and his people to be left on this earth. The prophet insisted God wanted total annihilation.  So he took up Saul’s sword, cursed him, and killed the king of the Amalekites:

 

As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.

I Samuel 15:33

 

Samuel never spoke another word to King Saul and our holy Bible records that,

 

…the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel. 1 Samuel 15:35

 

   In Jewish tradition, long after these sordid stories were told, Amalek and his people came to stand as a symbol of all anti-Semite behaviour.

    Our Lectionary seems to be holding up the slaughter of Amalek and the Amalekite people as an answer to prayer.  The Responsorial Psalm seems to infer that the Lord, who made heaven and earth, will always be on Israel’s side: 

 

The Lord will keep you from all evil;

he will keep your life.

 The Lord will keep

your going out and your coming in

from this time forth and forevermore.

 

Even if it means slaughtering every man woman and child of the Amalekite people?  Is this revenge story about a partisan God what we need to hear, gathered around the community altar of praise and prayer?  And do we need a God who is hell bent on slaughter motivated by racial preference?



A reading from second book of Exodus                     17:8-13

Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword.

The word of the Lord.

 

There are dangers for the unwary in today’s reading from the Book of Exodus.  The Book of Exodus proclaims the deliverance of the slaves in Egypt by God - through the leadership of Moses, God’s appointed leader.  We hear of a God who answers the prayer of the great leader as he attempts to energise the faith of a tired and fearful people in God who brought them out of Egypt. We know that the pursuing Egyptian army had been drowned in the Sea of Reeds and that the Lord showered the reluctant escapees with bread from heaven to sustain them on their perilous desert journey (Exodus 16:1-36).  We know that water miraculously gushed out from the rocks when, at God’s bidding, Moses strikes them with his staff (Exodus 17:1-6).  We know, too, that the grumbling, complaining, quarrelsome people caused a frustrated Moses to give a name to a place dishonoured by such malcontents:

 

And he [Moses] called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarrelling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”                                               Exodus 17:7

 

    So what will God do for these cossetted people when desert brigands appear over the horizon?  The answer is that as long as Moses kept his arms outstretched in prayer, the hastily conscripted men have the upper hand.  The result is that God delivered the enemy into their hands and the forces of Joshua cut down King Amalek and his people.

   God comments on the event, not mentioned in our reading today, and promises unending destructive war upon the defeated Amalekites people:

 

The Lord will have war with the Amalekites from generation to generation.                                                     Exodus 17:16  

 

    Then there is the demand of Jesus of Nazareth who in God’s name calls upon those who would join him in God’s mission to the world:

 

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.       Luke 6:27-29

 

    There is a danger here that we will fall into the error of comforting ourselves with the belief that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a God of vengeance, while the God of the Christian New Testament is loving, forgiving, full of mercy and compassion.  Unfortunately, a sentence or two from the Book of Revelation will strip us of the delusion:

 

And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.                            Revelation 20:7-10

 

There will be room on God’s holy mountain for only 144,000 persons:

 

Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads.                      Revelation 14:1

 

     As for the rest, out of the sanctuary of heaven there will come seven angels with seven plagues in seven golden bowls “full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever” (Revelation15:7).  From the Temple a loud voice will boom out a message:


Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.                                                             Revelation 16:1

 

    If you can bear to read Chapter 16 of the Book of Revelation (and the four chapters following it) you will realise that the destructive horrors poured out of the seven bowls of God’s wrath make nuclear weapons look like damp squibs.  And all the while the destruction is carried out on creation, a hymn is to be heard emanating from the altar of God:

 

Yes, Lord God Almighty,

True and just are you judgments!

Revelation 16:7

 

Anyone whose name is not written in the book of life will be thrown into the lake of fire.

 

    A New heaven and a New earth?

 

It is a matter of uttermost importance to understand that our Bible is a complex collection of very different kinds of writings.  We need to realise that a The Lord is my Shepherd (Psalm 23) is a glorious hymn of happiness, contentment and assurance. But, we must know, too, that there are times when the only psalm to be sung is,

 

My God, my God!

Why have you forsaken me?

 

- appropriately the opening words of Psalm 22, before we get carried away by the comfort of Psalm 23.

 

    The human face of the Bible has many complexions.  It has complexions of hope and joy, of welcome and utter happiness, complexions of relief that all humanity is safe in God’s hands.  But the human face has complexions of fierce anger at what is done to the poor, of injustices multiplied, of righteousness abandoned when greed flourishes, of horror as wars inflict terror on the earth.  The words of Amos filled our ears but three Sundays ago and we must ask ourselves how quickly and how often they are forgotten:

 

Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory

 and stretch themselves out on their couches,

and eat lambs from the flock

 and calves from the midst of the stall,

 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp

and like David invent for themselves instruments of music,

 who drink wine in bowls

and anoint themselves with the finest oils,

but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!

 Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile,

and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.

Amos 6:4-7

 

    Eschatology

 

Eschatology is not word found in everyday speech.  But it is a word that expresses everyday concerns.  It comes from a Greek word, eschatos,  meaning “the extremity of things”. It can mean the highest (“the summit of a mountain”), the uttermost (the uttermost depths of the sea”), the worst (“the worst of all possible worlds”), the furthest (“the furthest place away from here”), and even the lowest (as in “the lowest depths of hell”).

    The word is borrowed by the Bible (and by theologians ever since) to speak about “the end of the world”, about “the last things”, often meaning death, judgment, heaven and hell. In a sentence, eschatology is a way of looking at the end of the world.

    The almost constant view of the Hebrew Scriptures concerning the final destiny of humanity is perfectly described in a word from the Book of Eccleiastes 7:2: 

 

the day of death … is the end of all mankind.

 

On the other hand, again, and again, and again, our Hebrew and Christian Bibles insist on the uttermost truth about God:

 

His steadfast love endures forever.

 

It is the profound teaching of Jesus of Nazareth that God so loved the world that God placed his Son into our safe keeping and humanity placed the Son on the cross of pain and death.  Yet still God’s steadfast love endures forever.

    Whatever we may think of Joshua and his raggle-daggle army wiping out Amalek and his people, we must believe that that was not the last God heard of them.   

 

Responsorial Psalm                              Psalm 121.R/. cf. v. 2

R/.    Our help comes from the Lord,

who made heaven and earth.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.

From where does my help come?

 My help comes from the Lord,

                       who made heaven and earth.                    R/.

 

 He will not let your foot be moved;

he who keeps you will not slumber.

 Behold, he who keeps Israel

                        will neither slumber nor sleep.                 R/.

 

The Lord is your keeper.

The Lord is your shade on your right hand.

 The sun shall not strike you by day,

                            nor the moon by night.                      R/.

 

The Lord will keep you from all evil;

he will keep your life.

 The Lord will keep

your going out and your coming in

from this time forth and forevermore.

 

R/.    Our help comes from the Lord,

who made heaven and earth.

 

Perhaps, if, instead of turning our eyes to the hills, we begin praying this psalm by lifting them up to the high mountains, we will touch its meaning the better.  Six times the word “guard” and “guardian” occur in this prayer. Threatened communities of people have throughout humanity’s brutal history looked to the mountains to be a guard against imperial, coercive, murderous armies.  Surely hearts turned to the God above the mountains, praying that the God in the highest heaven would be “the guardian of Israel”?  

    Surely Psalm 121 prayed by a fearful human being, suffering from God knows what danger—the sort that anyone might have to face in life’s journey— is a prayer of one looking up to the mountains and wondering, even hoping, that there is a God beyond the mountains who looks down in mercy and compassion?

     Notice the guardianship that assures that the prayer is heard, even over the tops of the highest mountains:

 

Your guardian will not slumber

 

The guardian of Israel does not slumber or sleep

 

The Lord is your guardian

 

The Lord will guard you from all harm

 

He will guard your life

 

The Lord will guard your going and coming 

now and forever

Psalm 121

 

A reading from the second letter of St Paul to Timothy   

3:14 - 4:2

But as for you, you must continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.

The word of the Lord.

 

Again, as in both letters to Timothy and in the letter to Titus, the anonymous writer impresses upon his readers and hearers what he believes to have been the teaching of St Paul himself.  He is, he maintains, emphasising “what you have learned and have firmly believed”.

    What is surprising and challenging is a claim that many Christians are unable to make today: 

 

… how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings.

 

In the earliest years of the Christian enterprise the Jewish Scriptures were at the heart of Christian proclamation and teaching, even as a routine part of children’s upbringing in the newfound faith of their parents.  For all—adults and children—deep knowledge concerning faith in Christ Jesus and the salvation that comes through him was explained by constant reference to the wisdom to be found in the words of Holy Scripture.

    This is an astonishing claim to make in a world where 90% of the population were illiterate and where scrolls and books were extremely expensive. That those who proclaimed the Scriptures in such circumstances were able to win hearts and minds and to inspire listeners to become and remain Jesus people is a wonder.  It is, too, a caution to those who proclaim the word of God in our Christian assemblies. They are called so to proclaim God’s holy words that, in our time and place, hearts and minds will be moved and confirmed in the faith of our mothers and fathers. 

    Equally astonishing is what sounds like an unnecessary reminder to the people who heard the words of this letter.  All Scripture, we are told, in an almost casual sentence, is inspired by God, as if it is so well-known and understood that it hardly needs to be said.  

   How then, we might well ask, were so many, especially Catholic Christians, forbidden to read God’s holy words?   How many generations were exposed to the Latin Vulgate of St Jerome’s fourth century translation of the Bible into Latin (still the official Bible of the Catholic Church), when neither the priest nor the congregation understood what was being read?  If the Bible, in the very first century of Christianity, was taught to children because it was held to be profitable for teaching, for refuting error, for correction, and for training in righteousness, how did it come to be a closed book for so many children of God? How can anyone be equipped for every good work without the strength that comes from what St Francis of Assisi called “God’s holy words”?  

    How can we obey the task laid upon us in today’s reading from Timothy “to preach the word, to be ready in season and out of season, to reprove, to rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching”, if through neglect we look up and are not fed?

 

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke     18:1-8

 

[Jesus] he told [his disciples] a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary. ’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’ And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

The Gospel of the Lord.

 

St Luke provides the meaning of this parable Jesus told his disciples. Indeed, Luke often begins a parable with a note of what occasioned it or with a note that helps in the parable’s interpretation. The parable we hear today is, St Luke tells us, about the need to pray continually and not to lose heart.  What we are offered is a story about a persistent widow and a pig-headed judge. The judge is plainly unfit for purpose: he neither fears God nor respects people. Before him stands a helpless widow demanding justice. What the judge possesses is a careless regard for the duties of his office. What the widow has is stickability.  That is what wears down the judge.  

    Jesus the Lord himself applies the parable to his disciples when they turn to pray.  God is not like the negligent judge in the story. God will “give justice to his elect, who cry out to him day and night”.  God will not delay, for justice delayed is justice denied. God will, as the poet said, act right speedily.

    However, the words of Jesus need some teasing out.  First, is God’s justice partial? Is justice given to none but “the elect”?  Who are these people who cry out “day and night” and are speedily given justice?

     The first reading next Sunday is taken from a book called The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach (or Eccleiasticus, its Latin name). There we will find the material that probably inspired Jesus’ parable about the unjust judge.  The reading from ben Sirach will provide at least a partial answer to the questions that arise as we attempt to unravel the comments Jesus makes on the parable he has shared with us today.  We must realise that the chief character in the parable is the judge, not the widow. The judge is taken by Jesus to be the very opposite of God. God is the one who will give justice, for God is a just God.  But the parable specifies that justice will be given to God’s “elect”, (or, as some English translations put it, to “his chosen”) “who cry to him day and night”. Is justice denied to those who do not walk with Jesus?  There is, too, the suggestion that God may delay. But justice delayed is justice denied, as the saying goes.  

    Then there is the question with which Jesus ends the discussion:

… when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

 

This strange question, that does not appear to have any connection with what has gone before, will benefit from consideration of the readings that challenge us next week.  We will find, as is often the case, that enlightenment comes when we pay particular attention to the Responsorial Psalm. For the psalm we sing is intended to be a bridge between the first reading and the Gospel reading.  Often enough it pinpoints the theme of the day and sheds light when difficulties and confusion come our way. Psalm 121 is utterly certain that God’s good care is for all. God’s good care will guard humanity’s coming and going, now and forever. 

 

Joseph O’Hanlon 




   

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