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NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: AMOS 7: 12-15
FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings here.
Amaziah, priest of Bethel, said to Amos,
“Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah!
There earn your bread by prophesying,
but never again prophesy in Bethel;
for it is the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple.”
Amos answered Amaziah, “I was no prophet,
nor have I belonged to a company of prophets;
I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.
The LORD took me from following the flock, and said to me,
Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
Today we reach back to the earliest days of prophesying in the classical sense, that is, a man called from his established way of living and filled with the Spirit of God to preach a return to the Covenant of Sinai. Father Lawrence Boadt (see home page) estimates that Amos of Tekoa undertook his preaching in roughly 760 B.C., which is over two centuries before Ezekiel, whose words were proclaimed last Sunday.
One of the more humorous points in Sunday’s text is Amos’ indignation at being called a prophet, for prophets were a common sight around holy places, men who danced and performed ritual prayers. The key point about prophesy before the “classical era” of prophets is the ritual predictability of temple prophets, “establishment characters” in the religion of the day. I strongly recommend that you look at the Book of Amos in its entirety to get a sense of how far the priestly cult and temple observance. In his opening salvo, Amos gives us a picture of city life around the temple filled with religious profanity, a corrupt judiciary, and a gross disregard of the poor. Little wonder his back goes up when Amaziah tells him to take his prophesying elsewhere.
Amos was not a metropolitan man. The text of this book tells us he was a sheepherder and a dresser of sycamores out in the country who was seized by the Spirit to excoriate the sinfulness of Israelite society; the city-country polarity runs throughout much of the Hebrew Scripture. Amos’ preaching crusade demonstrates polemic at its best. He begins by listing the sins of Israel’s neighbors and enemies, a ploy which wins him an eager hearing. Then, at the crest of his diatribe, Amos says, in effect, “let me tell you now about the worst nation on the earth—you!” He lays out an extraordinary catalogue of evildoing coupled with an assault on the blasé attitude of priests and people alike toward fidelity to God and the inevitable punishments down the road.
It is now that Amaziah seeks to quiet him and return him to the hinterlands, but Amos retorts that he himself did not seek this dangerous and distasteful ministry; rather, God had seized him from his flock and told him to prophesy in Bethel, the site of this reading. Implied here, of course, is the fact that God is very unhappy with what has been passing as religion, i.e., the house prophets and the priesthood itself. History does not tell us what became of Amos, and it is possible that he was killed or imprisoned.
Every commentary on Amos devotes great attention to his message, that Israel’s greatest sin is injustice to the poor and those who cannot buy influence. The Covenant and its attendant worship was intended to instill a pleasing brotherhood in the eyes of God. The absence of such a brotherhood was plain to Amos, as his sermons testify, but it was not plain to the residents of Bethel, busy with drinking and consorting with prostitutes. This theme of Amos would be picked up in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians where, writing about the manner of Eucharistic celebration, Paul expresses anger at the segregation of rich and poor at home celebrations. To eat and drink of the Lord’s Supper with such insensitivity was the equivalent of “eating and drinking a judgment unto one’s self.”
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: EZECHIEL 2: 2-5
FOURTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings’
As the LORD spoke to me, the spirit entered into me
and set me on my feet,
and I heard the one who was speaking say to me:
Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites,
rebels who have rebelled against me;
they and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day.
Hard of face and obstinate of heart
are they to whom I am sending you.
But you shall say to them: Thus says the LORD GOD!
And whether they heed or resist—for they are a rebellious house--
they shall know that a prophet has been among them.
The Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990), in its introduction to the Book of Ezekiel, describes the prophet as a pivotal figure in the history of Israel. Ezekiel grasped the integrity of faith in God’s covenant, pure worship, and observance of the Law, but he recognized that Israel’s life of faith would require acknowledgement of changing times and circumstances. He understands a future where the royal arrangement of Israel’s life might no longer be possible, and that the religion of Israel would (and probably would have to) set roots and live by the essence of God’s Revelation throughout the face of the earth, a reference to what would later be called the diaspora of “scattering.” As it happens, our house expert Father Lawrence Boadt (see welcome page) is the JBC’s commentator on Ezekiel, and he observes that “it is little wonder that Ezekiel is often considered the Father of Judaism” as we understand Jewish practice today.” (p. 305)
600 B.C. marked a turning point in Israel’s history. Since the kingships of Saul, David, and Solomon, four centuries of kings had governed Israel, none of whom measured up to the cultic memory of the beginnings of the dynasty. A king of Israel was not a deity, but neither was he a figurehead, either. While he exercised what we might call today statecraft, he was also bound by the Covenant Law and responsible for the quality of religious life, though the day-to-day religious leadership fell to the tribe of Levi (the Levites) and the Temple priesthood. The last of the Israelite kings worthy of the name appears to be Josiah (640-609 B.C.) and Father Boadt goes into considerable detail to explain the reforms undertaken by this remarkable king. Josiah called for (1) abolishment of foreign idols; (2) end of the cult of the stars; (3) end of worship of sun and moon; (4) termination of temple prostitution; (5) renewal of the Feast of Passover; (6) suppression of the Cult of Moloch, in which infant sacrifice was offered.
Josiah’s reforms, listed in 2 Kings, are very similar to the precepts of Deuteronomy (“second law’) and may have inspired the writing of the fifth book of the Pentateuch. But they also give us a grim picture of Israelite observance by the end of the seventh century B.C. The Encyclopedia Britannica’s biography of Ezekiel indicates that the prophet did not serve under the reign of Josiah, but later, under the reigns of Josiah’s successors who could not resist the advances of Babylon. In 597 B.C. Ezekiel, with other priests, was forcibly removed to Babylon, and several years later, after Israelite revolts, many of his compatriots joined him in what is well known as the Babylonian Captivity.
Ezekiel, as a priest, was well respected by his people, but he did not receive his call to prophesy until several years into the captivity. Sunday’s reading describes his call from God received in Babylon, making him the first Spirit-filled prophet to receive his call outside of the confines of the Israelite nation. God announces that he is “sending” Ezekiel to the Israelites—a curious phrasing since Ezekiel was already among Israelites. In this context God speaks as if he hardly knows Israel anymore; there is nothing of “my people” here. The Lord goes on to speak of the Israelites as a rebellious people, and God acknowledges that in their hardness of heart there is a very good chance they might reject Ezekiel’s preaching altogether. Nonetheless, God wants them to know that a prophet has been among them—an intimate presence of God’s spirit and truth—so that they can no longer claim that God has abandoned them.
Scholars who have worked with the Book of Ezekiel find two separate strains of thought. The first—Ezekiel’s early years—was a message that Israel’s neglect of its covenant with God was the cause of its current misery. Or, another way, you brought this on yourselves. Implied in this is the argument that no king—Josiah notwithstanding—can carry the full load of moral responsibility, a critical step toward a deeper sense of moral responsibly. As the years passed, and Ezekiel himself aged, his preaching turned toward consolation and hope. His last preaching is estimated to have occurred around 570 B.C., and he died long before King Cyrus of Persia released the Israelites to return home in 539 B.C.
This reading is paired with the Gospel narrative of Mark 6 in which the preaching and good works of Jesus in his home town are questioned and rejected by his presumed fellow neighbors in faith. One can imagine a literary parallel between the reception afforded Ezekiel when he tells his people that their misery is their own doing, and Jesus’ acting in the role of herald of the new kingdom to people who presumed they knew him. Interestingly, in Luke’s telling of Mark’s account here, he describes how the people tried to kill Jesus. A prophet is not without honor except…etc.
I was not happy with the limited posting I was able to do in June, and I feel like I left a lot of you hanging. One reason for the limited posts is several changes in my circumstances. Back in May I opened a free mental health service in the local Catholic Church here in my town. It is open Fridays all day, and in less than a month the available time slots were full. I am enjoying it very much, but I cannot do anything else on Friday, which eliminates another day I can devote to the Café. I continue to work Mondays at the Catholic Charities Clinic in Eustis, Florida; in fact, I will be driving over in an hour or two.
A second issue is the increasing demand for more reading prior to posting. There are several streams going at the same time which call for more research. Certainly, the Thursday stream on Luther and the Reformation is one; the nature of evil in the Monday Morality stream is another. This year I began commenting on the First Readings on the Sunday Mass, which meant a return to Old Testament studies, a discipline which is not one of my greatest strengths. When I started the Café four years ago, one of my goals was to introduce busy professionals to the best of new religious, catechetical, and theological works. This assumes reading the books first!
A third issue is retirement itself. Having turned 70 this year, I am finding that increasingly friends and family need contact and attention. Again, I am very pleased to become more involved in their lives, but this too devours the hours of the day. On the other hand, all the medical advice for seniors speaks of exercise and interpersonal interactions as means of maintaining a sound mind and a good spirit. This is a time of life to cultivate and enrich the relationships I already have, and perhaps engage in new ones. I know a fair amount of people who have outlived their friends and face their final years in an undesired solitude.
And, I am beginning to feel older. While I continue to be blessed with good health, I am no longer the young buck who could read till 2 AM. If I stay up that late, I will feel it the next day, like a hangover. When I was on retreat with the Trappists two weeks ago, I talked about all of this with a wise monk who reminded me that the senior population brings an example of transition and serenity, and he gently challenged me to stop running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
I have no intention of discontinuing the Café, because aside from the pressures of brewing up new flavors frequently, it is one of the more pleasurable enterprises in my life. Realistically it is probably best to say that the weekly grind of each stream will be tapered back to two weeks instead of weekly. On days when I am on the road, like family reunions, I may post with more spontaneity and less pedantic. Old bloggers don’t die, they just reign it in a bit.