By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
First Reading: Wisdom 18:6-9; Response: Psalm 33:1, 12, 18-19, 20-22; Second Reading: Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19; Gospel: Luke 12:32-48
Last Sunday’s first reading was from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Today it’s from the Book of Wisdom. Both were attributed to King Solomon, who died in 922 B.C. It was not unusual, in ancient times, to indicate as author of one’s writing a heroic figure of centuries earlier. It could also have been to honor that past figure or just plain hype. Solomon was an easy choice, since he had a reputation for wisdom. Note 1 Kings 4:30-31: “Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the peoples of the East, and all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than all other men….”
To claim that Solomon was the author certainly gave the contents increased importance. The approximate date of composition for Ecclesiastes was in the third century B.C. For the Book of Wisdom, it was first century B.C. Both are included within a category called Wisdom Literature. Like the author of Ecclesiastes, the author of the Book of Wisdom is unknown. He was probably active among the Jewish population of Alexandria, Egypt, sometime between 100-50 B.C. His purpose was to strengthen the faith of his fellow-Jews living in a heathen world of strange religions and gods, plus being exposed to philosophical systems that promised wisdom or salvation. Besides all these temptations, there was also anti-Semitism.
The reading we have for today’s liturgy is part of the conclusion of a section in which the author proclaims the faithfulness of God to his people in the Exodus from Egypt. He centers on the night of the first Passover Supper. The author notes that what was to happen in the Exodus was known to long-ago ancestors. God bound himself with promissory oaths that they could trust. Likely a reference to promises God made to Abraham (See Genesis 12:1-3; 15:5-6; 17:7-8). He claims that the ancestors in Egypt knew that their foes would be destroyed as they left Egypt. By punishing their adversaries, God glorified the Israelites, a people he had chosen as his own. When we read of the Israelites as God’s chosen people, we should keep in mind what the Lord said through the prophet Amos (Amos 9:7), 740 B.C.: “Are you not just like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? Did I not bring Israel from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, the Syrians from Kir?” The words of Amos should give pause to any nationality or race considering itself superior by divine choice.
Psalm 33 is a hymn of praise to God’s providence. The first verses continue, from the first reading, the theme of God having chosen a specific people for his inheritance. The Old Testament is full of this theme. It has been claimed in turn by Christians (See 1 Peter 1:2; 2:9). If properly understood as chosen to bring God’s plan of salvation to the world, such a belief causes no problem. If, however, it evolves into racism, discrimination and national arrogance, grave problems arise.
Attribution of authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews to St. Paul began with the Egyptian Church Father Tertullian, died c. 240, and spread throughout the western Church. This attribution has been generally abandoned. Authorship is anonymous. The contents do indicate that it was written to a group of Christians of Hebrew origin, perhaps of priestly origin. The contents assume a thorough knowledge of Old Testament sacrifices and priesthood. That is, however, not evident in today’s selection from Hebrews. The author praises the faith of Israel’s ancestors. Our reading limits the praise to Abraham, omitting the Letter’s praise of Enoch, Noah and others. Abraham’s wife Sarah gets only incidental mention as being sterile. Abraham may not have appreciated some unknown author coming along almost two millennia latter called him “as good as dead,” when through faith (at age 99) there came forth from one man (Where’s Sarah in this process?) countless descendants.
Chapter 12 of Luke’s gospel seems to be a gathering place of leftovers on his writing table when he had finished the rest of the gospel. Of course, he did not know it was chapter 12, since chapter numbers and verse numbers were not added by scholars or editors until the 13th and 16th centuries, respectively. The material of today’s gospel reading would fit well into Jesus’ final sermon about the end of time and his return as final judge. The Lord begins with a caution, “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father has decided to give you the kingdom.” Since Luke composed his gospel 50 and more years after Jesus’ departure, (in the 80s), we can ask why he chose these sayings of Jesus for his catechetical instruction. Luke’s gospel originated in what is today Southwest Turkey, then a part of the Roman Empire. Christians were aware of the possibility of persecution. Twenty years earlier, the Christians in Rome were subjected to murderous persecution by the emperor Nero. Persecution was sometimes understood as a sign of end times. Therefore, Luke adds another saying of Jesus. “Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags . . . that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven, that no thief can reach nor moth destroy.” Destruction by moth refers to the custom of investing in fine clothing to put into storage.
“Gird your loins and light your lamps, and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he arrives and knocks.” A wedding or marriage was a common metaphor for the end times and Jesus’ return (See Matthew 25:1-12; Revelation 19:7-8). To gird one’s loins: in ancient times men wore long tunics or supersized shirts down to the ankles. When preparing for work, flight or fight, the tunic was gathered knee high and tucked into a belt.
Thus, a metaphor of readiness for the return of Jesus. Luke adds a blessing on those servants who prepare themselves for the return of the Master. He will be so pleased that he will gird his own loins and serve them supper. That Luke is teaching about the end times now becomes clear. “You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will arrive.” Peter asks Jesus if this parable was meant for them or for everyone. Luke adds a Jesus-parable aimed directly at Church leadership. The servant whom the Master left in charge will be compensated according to his conduct with other servants – a promotion or a beating, “severely or lightly.” That’s scary!