Sunday, August 18, 2019
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Liturgical Color: Green
First reading: Jeremiah 38:4–6, 8–10
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 40:2, 3, 4, 18
Second reading: Hebrews 12:1–4
Gospel Acclamation: John 10:27
Gospel: Luke 12:49–53
The complaint of the princes of the court against Jeremiah is based on two misinterpreted incidents. Earlier in the siege of Jerusalem by the Babyonian army, Jeremiah had need to visit his homeland to attend to his relatives. But this homeland was behind enemy lines, forcing him into a perilous journey. The princes, meanwhile, thought that Jeremiah was conniving with the enemy. Then, when he returned, Jeremiah was telling everyone, including the king, that the Israelites should surrender to the invaders, that they would be treated less harshly than if they continued to resist. Again, the princes misinterpreted this to be disheartening counsel, another sign that Jeremiah was on the side of the enemy. What the inhabitants needed to hear, so they thought, was words of encouragement, so that they would bear up under the suffering caused by the siege. This is why they wanted Jeremiah killed.
King Zedekiah, a weak and wavering ruler, was unable to control even those of his own household and those under his command. So the princes did as they pleased, placing Jeremiah in the deep mud at the bottom of a cistern and leaving him to die.
Enter a foreigner, an Ethiopian slave, to rescue the prophet. He acts as the otherwise despised Good Samaritan to Jeremiah by obtaining permission from the king to pull him out of the cistern and hide him from those who would have him dead.
God knows what the People of God are going to do, for he sees the heart of a man. The punishment later suffered by the king and the princes was deservedly severe, for they chose to ignore the word of God. Meanwhile, meek Jeremiah, the prophet, protected by slaves and peasants, escaped the bloodshed. That is so like God!
It is also a lesson to us that God and his goodness must come first. We cannot rely on our own prudence, because our vision is faulty and our human resources inadequate, as the king and the princes sadly found out. To listen to God’s word and obey it is the secure way to safety.
Even King Zedekiah heard Jeremiah’s counsel. His mistake was discounting God’s word in favor of his own counsel and resources. Fear and wavering are the traitors here. Either way, Jerusalem was going to fall. But many lives would have been spared if the king had heeded his prophet. After all, wasn’t this the reason he consulted the prophet?
For just as it is in vain that the workers toil, when the Lord builds the house, so also it is in vain that the soldiers defend the house, when it is the Lord who is strong to defend the people. Faith is what saves, not human prudence. Eternity is important; the creaturely expedient is not. This is why the words of Psalm 40 are so apropos in the sequence of this liturgy:
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
Last week, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews gave us a list of some of the heros of faith. This week, as we enter the next chapter, he begins with a monumental “therefore,” indicating that the faith demonstrated by our spiritual forebears should insire us, today, to do what we must to set aside our reliance on natural means to sustain us in our present trials and press on toward our Christian goal. The Apostle Paul, several times in his letters, uses the metaphor of a footrace for the life of virtue. The athlete must train strenuously, trimming off excess weight and getting rid of every physical and psychological hindrance, which is the symbol he uses for sin. Running a long race — the years of our life — requires determination and perseverance. It also requires inspiration, which we can only gain from the Lord, who has run the course ahead of us, marking the trail we must follow, the pitfalls we are to avoid. The words “pioneer and perfector” are an oblique grammatical reference to their root words in Greek, which mean “alpha and omega” — the first and the last.
Jesus, who refers to himself as the Alpha and the Omega in the Book of Revelation, endured the shame and pain of the cross in view of the joy of heaven, which the Father proposed as his “finish line” and inheritance. Now that joy has become our goal, too. Unlike him, we have so far not suffered martyrdom for the cause of God’s goodness. That sacrifice may or may not be required of us; it depends on God’s design for us, not on our own will. But it is something that we should desire, and not fear, if we are called to it.
Again, obedience to God’s word is the key to our salvation. As this week’s Gospel Acclamation puts it: “My sheep hear my voice, says the Lord; I know them, and they follow me.”
“There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! Jesus is willing — yes, eager — to suffer and die for our salvation. That is his “baptism,” his “cup.”
His baptism is not, as with us, a mystical death and resurrection, but a tangible one. In the same way, his baptism will definitely have repercussions in our human world that ours may ore may not have, depending on what we do with it. The death of the Savior of mankind, the one everybody says came to bring peace to the world, will in fact have just the opposite effect for many. Why? Because of sin. The trouble with us humans is that we, through our own sins, become hosts to that very Satan whom we claim to reject in our profession of faith.
God has come into the world with a message of peace (cf. Luke 2:14) and reconciliation (cf. Romans 5:11). By resisting, through sin, the redeeming work of Christ, we become his opponents. Injustice and error lead to division and war. “Insofar as men are sinners, the threat of war hangs over them and will so continue until the coming of Christ; but insofar as they can vanquish sin by coming together in charity, violence itself will be vanquished” (Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et spes, §78). – Navarre Bible Commentary
When you think about it, in the moment that we commit sin, we become other Satans. We oppose God in the same way as he, and we go on to obstruct the path of others who would dare to approach God. By defying God, we harm our neighbor, bringing down all of humanity.
By standing in the breach between God and sinful man, as Moses did for the Israelites, Jesus, the Son of Man, becomes a sign of contradiction. This is the origin of our Lord’s warning in this week’s Gospel reading: He is telling us that contention and division are sure to come as the truth of the Gospel becomes known. It is the Gospel’s unyielding stand against sin that makes it intolerable to those habituated to sin. Isn’t this why they make war against anyone who actually tries to follow Christ?