Forty-fifth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Wisdom 18:6-9; Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19; Luke 12:32-48
As I’ve said before, faith is trust. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews calls faith “the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” – which is another way of saying “Faith is trust.” And one of the hardest parts of that trust is looking out across this earthly community of the mystical Body we call the Church and being secure in the knowledge that this is the way God wants it. For all of the flaws and foibles, for all the tendencies toward emphasizing the institution over the Institutor, for all the constant battle for balance between clergy and laity, between legality and conscience, between process and passion – at the end of the day, even the Church is part and parcel of the religion of the “both/and”: using earthly constraints to accomplish heavenly designs. God has done this since He first began to reveal Himself to us, and since the arrival of the Incarnation into history earthly and heavenly patterns are meant to co-exist, not simply to mirror each other but to reinforce each other for our ultimate good.
The First Reading gives us a glimpse of what this reality looked like for the Jewish people in the decades before Jesus’ birth. It speaks of “the holy children of the good” – the children of Israel – coming together long ago to effect “the divine institution” – the Passover. This memorial of the night the children of Israel were delivered from bondage in Egypt had been in place for over a thousand years by this point, and the author of this part of the Book of Wisdom restates the facts of this formative event by way of tradition and instruction. The people knew from Moses that God was coming in the night with the devastating final plague upon Egypt, and that it would result in their deliverance. And the people reacted, the author tells us, “with sure knowledge of the oaths in which they put their faith,” so that “they might have courage.” At this time when the province of Judea was awaiting a new deliverance from her external imperial masters – first Persia, then Greece, then Rome – the author spoke not just of their ancestors who trusted in Moses, but to all his people now who perpetuated the Passover institution in the same knowledge and faith, so that they too might have courage.
It was in this climate of fanatic expectation, with messiah seemingly under every tree, that Jesus spoke of the coming of the Kingdom of God, as He does in today’s Gospel reading. But He did so in strange ways – strange at least to this people anxious for a fight between their good God and the evil of the worldly powers around them. For Jesus, the Kingdom was already here; it simply had to be recognized. His parable of servants awaiting the return of their master can be seen in this light. The servants who are busy at their work, preparing for the master’s arrival, will never be surprised by his return no matter when he comes back. It is the ones who delay or forsake their duties who will never expect him. This parable, however, is different from most others, because when Peter asks Jesus to clarify its meaning – “Is this parable for us or for everyone?” – He does not interpret the imagery for them as He did for, say, the parable of the sower. Instead, He retains the servant/master language and re-emphasizes His original point in order to demonstrate the application of the parable. “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,” He warns His disciples, “and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” In other words: Yes, this parable applies to everyone, for all are servants of one Master, but it applies even more to you, My chosen ones, because you know better than the others what your Master requires of you.
You see, we’re not alone in this faith thing. We trust in God, but He’s entrusting us with Himself as well. This trust goes all the way back to Abraham, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us through the Second Reading. Abraham was promised to be the father of nations, with descendants as countless as the stars and the sand. These descendants were to come through his son Isaac, who was born to him and Sarah when they were very old – “as good as dead,” as the author says. This trust in God’s word did not waver even when Abraham was asked to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Whatever other reservations Abraham may have had about sacrificing his only son, the child of his old age, “[h]e reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead.” In other words, God would remain true to His word despite whatever would happen at the sacrificial altar. As we know, God halted the sacrifice once Abraham showed himself totally secure in his faith. But that security was a two-way street: the true nature of Abraham’s test in this regard was that Abraham and God had to be shown, in Abraham’s comprehension, to be secure with each other.
And in this security Abraham journeyed on, a stranger in a strange land, towards a promised home. The Israelites did the same in the Exodus, and even after their arrival they at the memorial Passover meal every year, dressed “like those who are in flight” as the passage says. Jesus’ Apostles did the same, even though Jesus had shown them the arrival of the Kingdom in their midst! Jesus showed them the Kingdom, but bid them all be ready for the arrival of the Master. “[T]hose who speak thus show that they are seeking a homeland.” All these – and we do it too! – act like pilgrims, strangers in a strange land, all walking towards the same place. The more we journey, the more we realize how far from home we are. The good news is that we don’t make this journey alone. Abraham had his family. The Israelites had their clans and their community. And now, through Jesus and His followers and those who followed them, we have the Church – the Kingdom, the great community of believers all joined together as the mystical Body of Christ. That’s why He gave it to us. That’s why we profess belief in it. That is why, despite its obvious and inevitable faults, it remains a holy unity. It’s the ship we ride across the ocean of life to the white shores of the West.
One final thought: one of the most reassuring lines in the Gospel today is Jesus’ reversal of the roles of the awaiter and the awaited. “[I]f the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.” For 2000 years, the Master’s earthly house has been attacked from the outside and torn at from the inside, but it still stands secure and its Master has all-seeing eyes, ready to act against any thief who wants to raid His house. Even Jesus has His instructions from His Father, and He is obedient and faithful to them: He will not lose any of those He has been given.