Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B, June 17, 2018
For a king and his people, defeated in the Babylonian exile, the prophet Ezekiel speaks a hopeful allegory. Restored to Israel, they'll enjoy the leadership of a new king, described in language that reminds them of the great King David.
Responding to unfair criticism from the Christians in Corinth, suffering ill health and perhaps pondering his own death, Saint Paul asserts the source of his confidence. Some of these sentences are Paul quoting his critics, and some are Paul's rebuttals.
For a community too eager to accept only the easier parts of the gospel, Saint Mark describes Jesus as very careful to reveal his message and himself only gradually.
The Historical Situation: In the ancient Middle East, the powers of tribes and nations rose and fell unpredictably. People invoked their gods in the hope of getting divine protection for their nations, and, when the nation was weak or subject to another nation, concluded that they must have displeased their gods. (In some cases, they believed that the gods of the conquering nation had bested the gods of the defeated nations in an unseen struggle in the heavens. The earthly rivals just acted out the results of the heavenly contests, like marionettes on strings.)
The prophet Ezekiel had a more subtle grasp of things, that he expressed in the midst of the most wrenching social, political and military disaster that his people had yet suffered. Raised in a prosperous family of priests in Jerusalem, Ezekiel found himself and many of his fellow Judeans taken captive by Babylon's fierce King Nebuchadnezzar. When Babylon's fortunes in the region were ascendant, he had imposed a treaty on the king of weaker Judah. After a while, the king of Judah, with support from his people's other leaders, rebelled, breaking the treaty. The troops of the Babylonians swept in and carried off Judah's leading citizens, including Ezekiel, into Babylon. That was the Exile, or the Babylonian Captivity. Now they were 750 miles from home, and endured life there for two generations.
The Judeans were not wiped out, but much changed for them and their religion during the Exile. Cut off from the Jerusalem temple, its priesthood and sacrifices, they needed other ways to maintain their religion and national identity. Teachers arose among them, called rabbis, who helped them remember their heritage. Elders and teachers synthesized old stories, traditions and sources, which were not always in harmony, into the first five books of what is now our Bible. Prophets arose, including Ezekiel, the first to accept that calling during the Exile.
The editors of the Lectionary like Ezekiel; they scheduled passages from his oracles three times a year in our liturgy. The editor of Lector's Notes likes Ezekiel, too, for what he reveals of the rich complexity of Judean life evolving in exile, and for his courage. Ezekiel rebuked the feel-good court prophets (flatterers of Judah's royalty, even in exile), and pointed out the shallowness of aspects of Judah's folk religion, old beliefs clearly contradicted by current events and calling for an enlarged notion of God.
In today's passage he speaks a hopeful allegory. The shoot of the high cedar to be transplanted in Israel represents a future (post-exile) king there, from the ancient and revered lineage of David. By the other trees in the surrounding fields, he means the kings of neighboring nations, who will admire the king put in place by the real God. The trees stunted and withered may stand for the less-than-faithful kings of Judah, whose earlier foolish rebellions had provoked the Babylonians in the first place.
Your Proclamation: Ezekiel wanted to enchant his audience with the images he uses, and the adjectives. So speak slowly and clearly, emphasizing:
The Historical Situation of Paul and Corinth: As we noted last Sunday, Saint Paul had a rocky relationship with the Christians of Corinth. He had first come to them after an embarrassing debacle in Athens (see Acts 17 and Acts 18. There he had changed his tactics, relying not on his human eloquence but on the power of God working through him. The results were a flourishing Christian community. Paul left for other mission venues. The community was so flourishing that it got rather wild, and Paul wrote his first letter to them to correct some abuses. He promised another visit, but changed his plans. This earned him serious criticism and ridicule from some Corinthians, so his second letter to them is somewhat defensive. He asserts his authority as an apostle (always an issue, given his late conversion).
The Christians in Corinth had not matured to where they could integrate suffering into their following of Jesus. Paul himself had serious health problems that, to his critics, discredited his claim of apostleship. "If you were really an apostle, God wouldn't let you suffer this way," they thought. In later letters to other churches, Paul will write more and more profoundly of his identification with the crucified Christ. But for now, he just reasserts his confidence that his real judge, not his doubters in Corinth, will vindicate his works and his life.
The late John J. Pilch says that the phrase "when we are in the body we are away from the Lord" is not Paul's belief, but Paul quoting the position held by his critics. They thought of earthly life as an obstacle to life with God. Paul's more mature position is that he is moving (walking by faith), gradually but in the present, to deeper and deeper union with Christ. The translators whose works we use in our liturgies did not express the "you say ..., but I reply ..." character of this text. In fact, they make it sound like Paul's position. Maybe they don't believe it (maybe Pilch is wrong), or maybe the translators, burdened as they are under the yoke of "formal equivalence," just couldn't render it that way. That leaves the lector in a difficult spot. But you're a team player, and there's a preacher on your team, too, who may choose to sort it out for your assembly, using a few hundred more words than Paul.
Your Proclamation: You should at least sound hopeful about the growing union with Christ that Paul enjoys, and confident that your works won't bring you condemnation where it really counts. If you're feeling more dramatic, you could try to sound tired, worn out by the trials of apostolic work. Or combative, eager to correct the errors of your critics.
Credit for the picture at the top:
Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University. The picture reproduces a plate from The Holy Bible containing the Old and New Testaments, according to the authorised version. With illustrations by Gustave Doré. The image title is "Cutting Down Cedars for the Construction of the Temple," referring to 1 Kings 5, where Hiram, King of Tyre, sends cedars to Jerusalem for the construction of the temple. Click here for a larger version (548x694 pixels).
Pitts/Candler at Emory has digitized 124 images by Doré on themes from the Hebrew Scriptures.
Doré, French, lived from 1832 to 1883.
This page updated Jun 15, 2018, with proofreading help from Bob Ziegler of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, New Berlin, Wisconsin, U.S.A.