NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 12: 13-21
EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus,
“Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.”
He replied to him,
“Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?”
Then he said to the crowd,
“Take care to guard against all greed,
for though one may be rich,
one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
Then he told them a parable.
“There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest.
He asked himself, ‘What shall I do,
for I do not have space to store my harvest?’
And he said, ‘This is what I shall do:
I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones.
There I shall store all my grain and other goods
and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you,
you have so many good things stored up for many years,
rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’
But God said to him,
‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you;
and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’
Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves
but are not rich in what matters to God.”
It is unfortunate that Sunday’s text as assigned is not connected to the following paragraph in St. Luke, Jesus’ famous address about the lilies of the field. The “lilies” account is a counterpoint to our text at hand, which focuses upon the assemblage of material goods which, in the great scheme of things, do not provide the security of faith in the heavenly Father. In truth, this Sunday’s text is something of an intrusion into Jesus’ narrative about faithfulness in persecution. As Joel Green wonders, “What has this man’s inheritance to do with bearing authentic, Spirit-inspired witness to the Son of Man?” (p. 486)
For starters, I think it is important to remember that St. Luke, unlike the earlier evangelist Mark, for example, is attempting to serve two needs in his Gospel. The first is faithfulness to the Synoptic Gospel tradition of Jesus coming to earth to break the chains of Satan and ushering in the glorious final coming of the Kingdom of God; in other words, Luke strives to protect the apocalyptic flavor of his text, as we saw a few weeks ago when Jesus “set his face for Jerusalem” and the final showdown with official Judaism.
The second point, though, is Luke’s inaugural understanding that this glorious kingdom might not appear for years, centuries, even millennia (as has proved true), and thus the second purpose of his Gospel is a prescription of how to live the immediacy of Christ’s discipleship on a day-to-day or century-to-century basis. The Gospel text of Sunday opens with a left-field request from a man that Jesus settle a probate issue. Given his bigger mission, along with the fact that he probably knew nothing of the details of the case, Jesus sidesteps the request, but as Green points out, this unexpected interruption provides Jesus with an entrée to talk about present day conduct and ultimate destiny.
While he may have been brought up in Nazareth, Jesus was a successful tradesman (a carpenter in his time was the equivalent of a home builder today.) Biblical scholar John Meier believes that Jesus was conversant in multiple languages befitting a businessman and a devout Jew living under Roman occupation. His life had exposed him to the destructive consequences of greed and the risk taking that often resulted from it.
In Luke’s day the word “greed” was a collective term for both material goods and social standing. Greed for the pocket and greed for the psyche is another way to put it. Jesus draws from a hypothetical, a rich man with an enviable problem: his harvest is too big! The irony of Jesus’ story, though, is that the land owner is stressed for two reasons. The obvious one is storage of the extra grain. It is hard to imagine that there were no hungry Jews or Gentiles in the owner’s unspecified location, but he gives no indication of even passing benevolence to his neighbors in his dilemma.
The reason for this is his second stress, a more psychological one: assuring himself security for years to come, the kind that will let him relax, eat, drink, and be merry, in Luke’s words. The worries of the rich landowner parallel very succinctly the two dimensions of Luke’s Gospel: an attitude of prudent living now and concern for one’s destiny down the road. The land owner embraces the worst of all choices. He builds bigger barns—thus ignoring his ethical soul—in the mistaken belief that his goods will bring him peace of mind down the road.
Jesus quotes God as calling the man “a fool” for both practical and spiritual reasons. In Jesus’ narrative, God appears to the man and states that his death is imminent, in fact, that very night, the man’s life—including his moral narrative—would be demanded of him. All of his hoarded goods would go to probate, an ironic reference to the opening question of Sunday’s Gospel to the man who sought Jesus’ help in sorting out his family’s estate.
Jesus concludes his example with a telling remark. “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” This text calls for some explanation. “Rich toward God” is not a thinly veiled request for church or temple support. In fact, organized religion is not mentioned at all in Sunday’s Gospel. “Rich toward God” has two more immediate meanings. The first is benevolence toward God’s most beloved, specifically the poor, the foreigner, widows, orphans, children, the sick, those falsely imprisoned, those with no true constituency of support in general society except the heavenly Father’s.
“Rich toward God” has an equally concrete meaning in this sense: it refers to the good soul who believes that he or she is rich because God simply is. To the virtuous for whom God is a constant “player” in their conduct and outlook, there is a richness that no man can steal nor moth destroy, to quote another Gospel text. As Luke will write in successive paragraphs, if God is generous to the birds, the grass, and the lilies, how much more so to those who strive for his kingdom?
SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 11: 1-13
JULY 23-24, 2016
USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished,
one of his disciples said to him,
"Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples."
He said to them, "When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread
and forgive us our sins
for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us,
and do not subject us to the final test."
And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend
to whom he goes at midnight and says,
'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread,
for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey
and I have nothing to offer him,'
and he says in reply from within,
'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked
and my children and I are already in bed.
I cannot get up to give you anything.'
I tell you,
if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves
because of their friendship,
he will get up to give him whatever he needs
because of his persistence.
"And I tell you, ask and you will receive;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives;
and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
What father among you would hand his son a snake
when he asks for a fish?
Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?
If you then, who are wicked,
know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will the Father in heaven
give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?"
I looked back on this thread and noted that my last Gospel commentary was posted in June, when Jesus “set his face for Jerusalem” and began his journey to the holy city for his final showdown with the religious authorities of his day. Since then, most of the Masses I have attended have been in French (or they have been Nuptial Masses in the United States) but the good folks at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Quebec City or at St. Anne de Beaupre have provided English translations of the Scriptures so that I have remained current with the liturgical flow of St. Luke’s narrative.
Without benefit of my commentaries—as it was, there was barely room for me in the car—I had to actually do my own thinking about Luke’s texts this past month, and one thing that struck me right off the bat was this: for a man heading into the den of his enemies for his final showdown, Jesus is taking his good old time and providing his listeners then—and we his followers today—with some of his richest insight and example. Over the past few weeks the Sunday liturgies have celebrated the parable of the Good Samaritan and the “Martha, Martha” lesson about the things that are truly important. This weekend our Gospel at hand is the handing on of the “Our Father” formulary and the nature of praying without ceasing.
It is a curious ensemble for a man heading into battle, but it may be that, in describing the showdown of final forces of good versus evil, Luke is actually putting forth (1) the nature of true religious observance that Jesus wishes to restore to the Jerusalem Temple and its leaders and adherents upon his victory, and (2) the very weapons of the true disciple in every generation in his or her battle with the forces of evil. In today’s Gospel we have a lengthy discourse on prayer. This is not surprising if you have been reading the entire Book of Luke this year, for this evangelist describes Jesus as “in prayer” more than the other three Gospel writers.
Scripture scholar Joel Green writes much about Jesus’ life of prayer, but one quote in particular is telling: “…prayer is metonymic for a person’s dispositions and practices; that is, Jesus uses prayer to speak to the issue of what sort of people, with what sort of character and commitments as well as behaviors, are fit for the kingdom of God.” (644) Prayer is indicative of identity, so to speak, and in putting forward the “Lord’s Prayer” Jesus is actually describing the kind of people who will people God’s Kingdom. The frequency of Jesus’ own prayer makes him the model or paradigm of the fitting savior, the true prophet and Son of the Kingdom.
This Sunday’s text, Green observes, follows upon the story of Martha and Mary, where the latter has shown the greater wisdom in her silence and attention to Jesus’ words in profound humility. Here, as Jesus (yet again) prays, the disciples pick up upon Mary’s good example and ask Jesus to teach them to pray, too. Jesus begins with an acknowledgement of the greatness of the Lord, “Father, hallowed be your name.” Jesus is actually borrowing from the best of the Jewish tradition of prayer, notably a prayer called the Qaddish. “Exalted and hallowed be thy great name in the world which he created according to his will. May he establish his kingdom in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the household of Israel, speedily and at a near time.” (439)
While all the Gospels are future-oriented to some degree, Luke’s inclusion of prayer into the circumstances of daily life is new in the Gospels. Here he depicts Jesus as teaching about how to “live prayer in the moment” by asking for daily bread—an acknowledgement of humble attitude that without God we would have nothing. Moreover, Jesus goes on to address the conduct of forgiveness. Green is quick to point out that this text is not a simple matter of “let bygones be bygones.” The society of Jesus’ day collected chips, so to speak. A favor rendered, a grievance disarmed—all came with their cost of later reciprocity. Jesus, in the text of this prayer instruction, is calling for “clean transactions,” of the sort that his heavenly Father bestows, the kindness manifested in such stories as the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. Goodness for goodness sake.
This instruction is followed by an easily conceivable example from daily Palestinian life: a late night request for food to neighbor from neighbor. Green notes there is little or no hidden symbolism here in this text; families slept together in one-room houses on mats that probably left no room for ambulatory excursions in the dark. A late night request would waken everyone in the house, and probably the folks in structures on both sides as well. And yet Jesus assumes that the request would be honored because, well, this is what good men do for each other in the Kingdom of God. I might note here that there is a similar parable about the perseverance of prayer—the old widow who badgers the local judge till he grants in her favor—but in this context, according to Green, the Sunday Gospel treats of prayer as the character of the soul. And this is why Jesus has set his face for Jerusalem, to reestablish his Jewish faith as people of prayer, day and night. Thus, Jesus builds his case and arms himself with the weapons of righteousness as he proceeds to the Holy City.