By Father Donald Dilger
Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
First Reading: Isaiah 66:18-21; Response: Psalm 117:1, 2; Second Reading: Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Gospel: Luke 13:22-30
We have become more aware of differences of opinion and of principle within our Church since Vatican II, but such differences have always been there. In fact, we find the same situation in the New and Old Testaments. On this Sunday, the first reading is from the third part of the Book of Isaiah. The date is the late 6th century B.C. in Jerusalem. If there had been an ecumenical movement in those times, Third Isaiah would have been leading it. If designations then, for better or worse — usually worse – had been as they are now, this prophet would be left-wing in theology and despised by his opponents as a Liberal. Contrary to Levitical opinions in Deuteronomy, this prophet is a universalist. He welcomes Gentiles into the People of God. What did Deuteronomy proclaim? The Israelites are set apart as a sacred people. What are Israelites to do with the Gentiles who are in the way when they come into what we call the Holy Land? The Lord God is described as clearing away the nations before them. “You must utterly destroy them, make no covenant with them, show no mercy to them.” All of this is attributed to the direct command of the Lord God through Moses. The learned scribes responsible for the composition of Deuteronomy were guarding against the attractions of idolatry (See Deuteronomy 7 and 23:3-6). Some results: racism, ethnic cleansing.
There are Old Testament documents that strongly disagreed. Examples: Ruth and Jonah. So does Third Isaiah. Through him, the Lord says, “I come to gather nations of every language. They shall come and see my glory. I will send fugitives (missionaries?) to the nations that have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory, and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations. They shall bring your brothers and sisters from all the nations as an offering to the Lord . . . just as the Israelites bring their offerings . . . . Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the Lord.” Third Isaiah dates about a century after the composition of Deuteronomy. What a change! Interesting is the fact that Church history and current observation reveal that opposites have existed in Christianity throughout, and are as current as can be. All this fits perfectly into the universal theology of Luke’s gospel, as we shall see below in the gospel reading of this Sunday.
Psalm 117 is the shortest in our Book of Psalms. It was selected to respond to the first reading because it also displays a universalist outlook. “Praise the Lord, all you nations. Glorify him, all you peoples.” The people’s response, though not part of the Psalm, does the same. “Go out to all the world and tell the good news.”
Last Sunday’s commentary on the second reading noted that the group addressed by the author was under some pressure or persecution to return to their former way of life before their conversion to Christ. In today’s reading, the author places this persecution in a category of discipline from the Lord. He adopts the style of Old Testament Wisdom Literature, such as we find in Sirach, where the author often addresses his students as “My son . . . .” In this case, the quote is from Proverbs 3:11-12: “My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when reproved by him. For whom the Lord loves, he disciplines. He scourges every son he acknowledges.” The author cannot let go of comparing the plight of his addressees with the advice of Proverbs. He devotes so many words to explaining it that one is reminded of a stolid German trying to explain a Teutonic joke. Finally, he adds a combo of Isaiah 35:3 and Proverbs 4:26. “So strengthen your drooping hands and weak knees, etc.” Perhaps the author has a sense of humor, and knows Sirach 25:23, “Drooping hands and sagging knees indicate a man whose wife makes him unhappy.”
In our gospel reading, Jesus is enroute to Jerusalem from Galilee in the north to Judea in the south of the Holy Land. Many of us have encountered zealous young people who run up to us and, with an in-your-face question, demand to know, “Have you been saved?” Jesus endures a similar question in our gospel. “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answers, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will try to get in but will not be strong enough.” Considering Luke’s penchant to proclaim universal salvation, this answer seems rather limiting. Let’s see if he can get us out of this dilemma. But before he does, Luke injects sayings of Jesus that continue to limit salvation and serve as a warning to people who delay entering that narrow gate. He notes that, after the owner of the house locks the door, they will stand outside knocking and saying, “Lord, open the door!” A harsh answer, “I don’t know where you are from.” The latecomers remind the Lord that they used to eat and drink with him, plus the fact that he taught in their streets. He repeats his rejection of them, and adds an insult, “Depart from me, you evildoers!” That is end-time language, and should be part of Jesus’ last discourse instead of part of his journey to Jerusalem.
Even worse, from one of Luke’s sources, a fire-and-brimstone-preacher type, he concludes, “There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves cast out.” That really seems out of place here, but Luke may not have had the benefit of an editor’s hand. The original setting of this condemnation would have been an attack against Jewish opponents of the Christian message. To Luke, however, quoting this saying of Jesus will lead to a favorite part of his proclamation of the Good News — universal salvation. Therefore, he adds, “People will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.” Finally, Luke adds a caution to Christians who might think themselves secure, as in “been saved.” “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Even the last are not excluded, just put into their place. So we end up with a somewhat confusing catechesis, but we need to dwell on the infinite mercy of God in Jesus, who welcomes the repentant prodigal son; who forgives those who crucified him; who grants salvation to the bandit on the cross.