Sunday, July 28, 2019
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Liturgical Color: Green
First Reading: Genesis 18:20–32
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 138:1–2, 2–3, 6–7, 7–8
Second Reading: Colossians 2:12–14
Gospel Acclamation: Romans 8:15bc
Gospel: Luke 11:1–13
A righteous man, Abraham, pleads the case for divine mercy upon the just citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah (if indeed they exist), in spite of the wickedness of many of its inhabitants, whose abuse and destruction of other human beings is graphically portrayed in the next chapter of Genesis. His nephew dwells among them, perhaps the only just man in Sodom, and Abraham does not want him to perish along with the depraved pagans. The general understanding of the times was that, if there were criminals or grave sinners among a certain tribe or people, the entire people would be deemed guilty and exterminated in revenge. But Abraham pleads that God not “destroy the innocent with the guilty.” Judgment should be on an individual basis, not based on one’s tribe or city. Abraham’s plea moves progressively from fifty righteous to ten, and each time God replies that his mercy will prevail, even if there are as few as ten righteous men in the city.
Nevertheless, as we will learn on another occasion, Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed for their sins. God has already removed Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and his family by night from the environs, thus maintaining his word of mercy given to Abraham for the innocent, while raining his justice down upon the guilty in the form of a violent volcanic eruption. Thus the Lord exceeds Abraham’s request by introducing the seed of individual judgment into the ancient culture of the Middle East. Four thousand years later, we see that this concept of justice has prevailed, at least in a legal sense. But the mind of the masses, ever inclined to evil, often contravenes: for instance, we are all aware that there are people who demand that all Muslims (or whatever cultural outcasts are in vogue) be banished or even killed, because a few of them are terrorists or otherwise seen as damaging to the local culture. Only a believer in God can appreciate the rightness of love of neighbor— even of love of enemies, as Jesus preaches in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:43–45). It is not just the life of Abraham’s nephew that is at stake; if there is any other righteous man, woman or child in those cities (or in our midst today), they too ought to be spared. That is what Abraham is concerned about. For the Lord is a God of righteousness and mercy.
The Psalm this week equally speaks of God’s justice and mercy: The LORD is exalted, yet the lowly he sees, and the proud he knows from afar. He sees the humble man in his distress, because he stands near to him, in support of his innocence. But he stands apart from the proud, wicked person, who thinks he can do anything he wants with impunity, as he pronounces the divine judgment upon such wickedness.
In this short passage, we see how God’s mercy works in the Christian dispensation. The Jews relied upon obedience to the Lord’s commands. This was good, as far as it went. But when the Messiah came, he opened a new path: circumcision and following the rules were augmented by inner faith and outward baptism, indicating a willingness to follow God wherever he leads (like Abraham, our father in faith), resulting in an inner transformation through the working of the Holy Spirit in the heart and soul of the believer.
We, who by means of [Christ] have reached God, have not been given fleshly circumcision but rather spiritual circumcision…; we receive it by the mercy of God in Baptism. – St. Justin (2nd century), Dialogue with Trypho 43.2, as quoted in the Navarre Bible Commentary
In this week’s passage from Colossians, Paul speaks of Christian baptism as the death of the “old man” with his sin and the resurrection of the “new man” in his innocence. The baptized Christian is not simply declared by God to be innocent because of his faith. That declaration comes because he IS innocent, made so by the power God has bestowed on the water of baptism, as Jesus relates to Nicodemus in John 3:5–6: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Circumcision was an outward sign for the Jews, of itself incapable of changing guilt into innocence, wickedness into justice. John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets, declared of his baptism: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me [the Messiah] is mightier than I…; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Baptism, too, is an outward sign, but by the will of God, it receives the divine power of forgiveness and accomplishes our adoption as children of God, because it is imbued with the Holy Spirit.
How is this inner transformation wrought? Through the sacrifice of one man for the redemption of the multitude, according to the mercy of the Lord, which has infinitely surpassed Abraham’s request by operating in the depths of the human soul.
The Mosaic Law, to which the scribes and Pharisees added so many precepts as to make it unbearable, had become (to use St. Paul’s comparison) like a charge sheet against man, because it imposed heavy burdens but did not provide the grace needed for bearing them. The Apostle very graphically says that this charge sheet or “bond” was set aside and nailed on the Cross — making it perfectly clear to all that Christ made more than ample satisfaction for our crimes. “He has obliterated them,” St. John Chrysostom comments, “not simply crossed them out; he has obliterated them so effectively that no trace of them remains in our soul. He has completely cancelled them out, he has nailed them to the Cross […]. We were guilty and deserved the most rigorous of punishments because we were all of us in sin! What, then, does the Son of God do? By his death on the Cross he removes all our stains and exempts us from the punishment due to them. He takes our charge-sheet, nails it to the Cross through his own person and destroys it” (Homily on Colossians, ad loc.). – Navarre Bible Commentary
In verse 12, then, Paul gives an image for us to ponder: that of a list of charges, such as was the Roman custom of nailing to the gibbet of a crucified criminal.
Debt was the prevailing image for sin during the period of Second Temple Judaism (from the return from exile and rebuilding of the temple in 515 BC up to the Roman destruction of the temple in AD 70). Paul’s picture of the Father not only erasing the text of the IOU but even nailing the blank parchment to the cross of Christ is perhaps the most vivid expression of the definitive nature of God’s forgiveness of our sins through baptism.
Reading this passage in Greek, one cannot help but notice a playful resonance between acheiropoiētos (“not administered by hand,” that is, administered by God) and cheirographon (“hand-written document,” in this case an IOU written by a debtor). The word for “hand” (cheir) refers to human hands. Paul wants his Greek audience to hear the sharp contrast between the merely human IOU, written by the hand of the debtor (i.e., the sinner), and therefore a transient thing, and the act of God in baptism. The cancellation of sin by God easily supersedes the human “manuscript” of our guilt. As Paul says in Romans, “Hence, now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). – Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture
I find the following reflection, summarizing this week’s Second Reading, a perfect way to envision how the Church’s liturgical symbolism illustrates the power and beauty of the Sacrament of Baptism through water and the Spirit:
The way this passage speaks of Christian baptism as a kind of circumcision serves as a helpful reminder that just as circumcision is for Jews an initiation into the covenant community (the current Jewish term for circumcision is bris, from the Yiddish version of the Hebrew berith, “covenant”), so the sacrament of baptism is also an initiation into the covenant community of the Church, the body of Christ. Further, the language of stripping off and putting on (Colossians 2:11; 3:9–10; Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 4:22–24) alludes to that part of the baptismal rite where the newly baptized person is dressed with a white garment as a sign of “putting on” Christ. While that symbolism pertains to the dignity and fresh innocence of the individual and the person’s intimate relationship to Christ, it also signifies putting off the old life and taking on a whole new way of life shared with all the baptized, as Paul will further elaborate in Colossians 3:1–16. – Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture
This week’s Gospel Reading is about prayer, but also about God’s benevolence towards his creation, especially mankind. This fits in with the First Reading, where Abraham is praying to God for mercy towards the innocent who live in the midst of the guilty. God, as a good father, grants Abraham’s request and, in fact, abundantly surpasses it. Now we see Jesus teaching his Apostles not only how to pray, but citing the manifold benefits that flow from true and persistent prayer.
Prayer is the great recourse available to us to get out of sin, to persevere in grace, to move God’s heart and to draw upon us all kinds of blessings from heaven, whether for the soul or to meet our temporal needs” (St. John Mary Vianney, Selected Sermons, Fifth Sunday after Easter).…
Our Lord uses the example of human parenthood as a comparison to stress again the wonderful fact that God is our Father, for God’s fatherhood is the source of parenthood in heaven and on earth (cf. Ephesians 3:15). “The God of our faith is not a distant being who contemplates indifferently the fate of men — their desires, their struggles, their sufferings. He is a Father who loves his children so much that he sends the Word, the second Person of the most Blessed Trinity, so that by taking on the nature of man he may die to redeem us. He is the loving Father who now leads us gently to himself, through the action of the Holy Spirit who dwells in our hearts” (St. Josemaría Escrivá, Christ is passing by, 84). – Navarre Bible Commentary
There is a specific trait in effective prayer that Jesus emphasizes, not only here, but in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:7–8). It is that one’s prayer ought to ask God for what is necessary, not only for material goods, but more especially for spiritual goods (forgiveness of sins, increase in virtue, intimacy with the Holy Spirit, etc.); it is thus that the pray-er will receive. Prayer should also seek God himself and strive after him; it is thus that the pray-er will find him and be at home with him. Thirdly, prayer should constantly knock at the door of faith, until God opens the proper door and floods the life of the pray-er with grace. Finally, prayer should be consistent, bold and unrelenting, just as Abraham kept insisting on a little more and a little more from God, after the bargaining practice even in our time common throughout the Middle East. For his part, God’s mercy continued to grow apace with Abraham’s prayer, until that prayer reached its goal and more.
For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
One more thing: There is an interesting passage in the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, based on some ideas advanced by Catholic theologian Brant Pitre, that suggests some Old Testament origins of the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father, as we Catholics call it), showing how Jesus himself brought the Jewish covenant into his definitive summation of prayer, and manifesting the unity and interdependence of the old and the new, through the fatherly relationship God has with his chosen people. Where some today speak of an abandonment of the original revelation to assume a new direction with a totally different revelation, Jesus himself, in teaching us to pray, indicates that God’s way is of a single piece from beginning to end. That there is no essential difference between what God said and did in earlier times and what he says and does in our own lives today. Here, then, is the passage:
Addressing God as “Father” recalls those verses where God is described as father when referring to Israel’s exodus: “Israel is my son, my firstborn.… Let my son go” (Exodus 4:22–23); and “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1). God’s children yearn for freedom (see Romans 8:19–23) — freedom even from the slavery of sin and death. The first petition, “Hallowed be your name,” echoes a text from Ezekiel, where the hope for Israel’s restoration from exile is described using the exodus theme of entry into the land: “I will sanctify my great name.… I will take you from the nations… and bring you into your own land” (Ezekiel 36:23–24 NRSV). The petition “Your kingdom come” may draw on Micah 4:8, another text for the return of the exiles. In these petitions, Christians thus pray that after this exile on earth they may together reach the promised land of God’s heavenly kingdom. The petition about “daily bread” recalls the manna given each day during the journey toward the earthly promised land (Exodus 16), thus pointing to the Eucharist, which is similarly food for the journey to heaven. The petition about forgiving debts recalls the Jubilee [when indebted slaves were to be freed], which itself was based on the liberty won in the exodus (see Leviticus 25:54–55). The end of the prayer asks for God’s deliverance — despite the times of testing (see Luke 22:40, 46) that recall the testings that occurred in the exodus (Deuteronomy 4:34; 7:19; 29:2) — so as safely to enter God’s kingdom.