Sunday, August 21, 2016

Year C Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa 66:18-21; Ps 117:1-2; Heb 12:5-7.11-13; Lk 13:22-30

This week we continue our journey with Jesus and his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem. Remember, in the synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the Lord makes only one journey to the holy city. The journey of Jesus and his disciples from their native Galilee to Jerusalem begins toward the end of the ninth chapter and concludes in the middle of the nineteenth chapter, when he makes his ascent up the mountain to the holy city from the east, thus, in some sense, entering the land via the same route as the ancient Israelites after their forty years in the desert.

The Journey Narrative is preceded by Luke’s Infancy Narrative, including the incident when Jesus was 12 and traveled with Joseph and Mary to Jerusalem for Passover, when they accidentally left him behind only to find him in the temple discoursing with the doctors of the law, his baptism by John in the Jordan, his forty days and nights fasting in the wilderness, and the beginning of his ministry in his native Galilee. It is then that Luke tells us: “When the day for his being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Our Gospel reading today begins with these words: “Jesus passed through towns and villages, teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem” (Luke 13:22).

Along the way, the Lord is asked a provocative question: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” His answer will no doubt spark the preaching of hellfire and damnation from many a pulpit this weekend. But such homilies are exercises in missing the point, not having what Jesus calls, “ears to hear” (Luke 8:8). Rather than restricting salvation and setting the bar improbably high, Jesus greatly expands the scope of salvation offered through him.

Our first reading from the last chapter of Isaiah provides us with something of an interpretive key for our Gospel reading. God, speaking through his prophet says, “I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory” (Isa 66:18). Perhaps most surprisingly, the prophet declares that God will enroll some gentiles as priests and Levites – “a far cry from what is found elsewhere in the [Old Testament]” (Coggins, The Oxford Bible Commentary, “Isaiah” 484).

The message of the passage from Isaiah is clear: salvation is not exclusively for Israel, as many Israelites supposed. God chose Israel in order to bring about salvation through them for everyone and not for them alone. This is why, when God called Abram to go from his home to the promised land, he promised him, “All the families of the earth will find blessing in you” (Gen 12:3b). God sending his only Son is the fulfillment of that divine promise.

In today’s Gospel Jesus, speaking to his fellow Jews, tells them that the patriarchs and prophets as well as some who “come from the east and the west and from the north and the south . . . will recline at table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). He warns them that if they do not strive to enter through the narrow door, which is him, but persist in their small-mindedness, they will not be so favored. Jesus nowhere says few will be saved nor does he confirm, even by way of implication, that few will be saved. Rather, he expands access to salvation through him to everyone. In the end, the people who are in trouble are not only those who think they will save themselves by their own righteousness, but those who seek to exclude others from God’s mercy.

Jesus’ words to his fellow Jews, or Luke addressing these same words to his fellow first century Christians, might sound harsh. Indeed, Jesus could be quite harsh, especially to those who were harsh with others. We often seem quite eager to inflict God’s punishment both on ourselves and on others, which is why when things go wrong we often wonder, “Why is God punishing me?,” or, when something bad happens to someone else, “What did s/he do to anger God?” These are very immature questions for a Christian to ask. Nonetheless, there are those who persist in saying that things like the flooding now happening in Louisiana are God’s punishments for this or that evil.

Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews clearly tells us that our trials are not punishments when it exhorts us to endure our “trials as discipline” (Heb 12:7). This is true whether our trials result from decisions we have made, or whether they come unexpectedly for other reasons. In his book Disappointment with God, author Philip Yancey, writing about Job, insisted that one of the main take-aways from that inspired book “is that you can say anything to God.” You can throw “your grief, your anger, your doubt, your bitterness, your betrayal, your disappointment” at him. God can absorb them all. Isn’t this what Christ did on the cross? The answer to suffering is Christ crucified, who, as St. Paul noted in his First Letter to the Corinthians is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 12:23b-24).

In her novel Absolute Truths, Susan Howatch, through her character Martin Darrow, a priest and spiritual director, who, like Bishop Charles Ashworth, with whom is conversing at this point, has recently gone through a self-induced personal catastrophe, tells the bishop how good it is, when going through a difficult time, to have a frank conversation with “someone who's gone through hell lately.” This leads Martin to say, “It makes all the difference to know there's someone else screaming alongside you - and that's the point of the Incarnation, I can see that so clearly now. God came into the world and screamed alongside us.”

Let’s not forget that Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem seemed to end with his crucifixion. While still in Galilee, that is, just prior to setting his face toward Jerusalem, after the twelve returned from their first mission, Jesus asked them who people were saying he was before asking them, “Who do you say that I am?” St. Luke wrote Peter’s response to Jesus’ question succinctly: “The Messiah of God” (Luke 9:20). After telling them not to divulge his identity to anyone, the Lord told them he “must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22).

After predicting his own passion, he then told them: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). Note the word “anyone.” Jesus invites everyone, without exception, to follow him on the road to the cross, which, paradoxically, is the way to life everlasting. As our reading from Hebrews insightfully tells us, “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it” (Heb 12:11).

Our experience of helplessness is not only our invitation to receive God’s mercy, but constitutes precisely how God saves us. God saves us through our experience, not apart from it. Our experience is our own journey to Jerusalem with Jesus and should lead us to extend mercy to others and not selfishly claim it only for ourselves, or those like us. As we read elsewhere in Scripture- “God wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). Because we are Jesus’ disciples, like those who trekked with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, we don’t walk the road alone with Jesus. We journey with companions. Let’s not forget that the word “companion” literally means “one who breaks bread with another.”

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