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Homily notes, 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C, 11 August 2019

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ  |  02 August 2019

Lectionary readings
First reading:
Wisdom 18:6-9
Responsorial Psalm:
32(33):1, 12, 18-20, 22
Second reading:
Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19
Gospel:
Luke 12:32-48

Link to readings

It is not easy to find a unifying thread running through this Sunday’s readings. I suspect the opening statement of the Gospel (Luke 12:32-40) comes closest to it: ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’. The word order of the Greek actually suggests something stronger: ‘Your Father has determined to give you the kingdom’. The implication is that the God whom Jesus proclaims is a God who longs to confer supreme benefits on human beings. Any blockage to the divine generosity comes entirely from the human side. All three readings, in their own ways, deal with this divine-human interaction.

Triumphant reflection

The First Reading, from Wisdom 18:6-9, sounds rather odd when taken out of it wider context which is inevitably the case as it appears in the Lectionary. It comes from the final part of the book, which is a triumphant reflection in midrash style upon Israel’s Exodus from Egypt.

The particular section seems to picture the Israelites celebrating the Passover just before their liberation. They sing the hymns of praise with great confidence, sure that the promises (literally ‘oaths’) of freedom that they have received from God would be fulfilled.

In this sense of being “on the way” to salvation not yet arrived, yet confident that, in God’s faithfulness, they will arrive they are in a similar situation to that of the faithful as told in the Second Reading, Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19.

Definitions of faith

The reading comes from the long instruction on ‘faith’ contained in this chapter of the letter. The author gives one of the classic ‘definitions’ of faith (‘the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen’) and relates this to the story of Abraham. Several times God promised Abraham that the land (the land of Canaan: Palestine) in which he was at that time wandering would be given to him and to his descendants. But Abraham never came into full and complete possession of the land. For his entire life he lived a wandering, ‘tent-like’ existence in it as a stranger, clinging to God’s promise of a true homeland.

The author sees in this a paradigm of Christian life. Through faith in God’s promise, believers have a sense that their true homeland is elsewhere something which lends to present life in the world an aspect of being strangers and nomads. Pressed to extremes, as it has been at times in Christian spirituality, this can induce an unhealthy alienation from present life in pursuit of a kind of ‘pie in the sky when you die’ idea. But that is not the real sense of the biblical text, which is focused rather on the generosity of God. Strangers and nomads can enjoy and treasure the good things of the land through which they are passing. At the same time, they can be so buoyed up by the promise of what lies ahead as to be able to leave a blessing, not disruption, in their wake. They will receive the good things of this world with gratitude, regarding them as tokens and pledges of far greater gifts to come.

The treasure in heaven

The rather disparate series of instructions and warnings that make up the Gospel, Luke 12:32-48, revolve around a similar theme. The really important ‘treasure’ is the one in heaven, the one that God purposes to give. The best thing one can do with present wealth is to use it to give alms to the poor. This converts it into heavenly ‘credit’, literally, ‘treasure in heaven’, the only credit that survives the barrier of death.

The remaining warnings play upon the familiar theme of watchfulness. Present-day believers hardly share the keen sense of the Lord’s return that was so strong in the early days of the Christian movement and has left such a strong impress upon the New Testament. But the sense of life as something for which we are always accountable remains. Like the servants awaiting their master’s return, we are responsible and accountable responsible for the welfare of others, especially the poor and disadvantaged, and accountable to God.

Grave responsibility

This sense of God as the One to whom we are accountable need not stand in opposition to the sense of God as the One who has ‘determined’ to give us the Kingdom. It is precisely because such riches are at stake that the responsibility is grave. Without endorsing slavery and above all the kind of punishments that defaulting slaves were accustomed to receive, the biblical text uses examples that its audience would recognise and respond to. We ought not allegorise the text and see in the examples patterns of the way God acts. The divine generosity is not in doubt. What needs to be attended to is the capacity and readiness of human beings to receive what God has in store.

 

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