August 14, 2022, Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time
The prophet Jeremiah insisted that his nation's defeats were due to bad faith on the part of their rulers. This reading describes an episode of their wrangling over how to punish the prophet.
The letter to the Hebrews bolsters the faith of Jewish converts who missed the rituals and institutions of Judaism. Today the letter imagines them as athletes in a stadium. The fans cheering for them are ancestors who struggled for the faith in the past.
This gospel passage reflects the fact that Jesus' early followers had to recall his words about how loyalty to his teachings would cause conflict and division.
Our liturgical setting: As usual, the first reading warms us up to hear today's gospel, Luke 12:49-53. There Jesus speaks with prophetic bluntness about how his mission will divide those who accept him from those who don't.
The history: The prophet Jeremiah lived from about 650 B.C. to perhaps 580 B.C. Most of his work was in Judah's capital Jerusalem. He tried to keep the people and several kings faithful to God amidst an atmosphere of political intrigue and backstabbing like that which prevails in our own capitals today. Jeremiah was blunt about what was right and what was not, and he suffered at the hands of the powerful because of his outspokenness. Judah's defeats at the hands of foreign enemies were the result, Jeremiah insisted, of the bad faith of the king and other leaders among the people.
Even more specifically, the late scholar John Pilch wrote, "Jeremiah's unwavering prophetic message was that Judah should surrender to Babylon and live rather than resist and die. It ran counter to governmental policy, indeed was considered treason. Jeremiah believed this was the will of God which he discerned." The princes, who held the real power, were still reluctant to kill Jeremiah outright, so they got the king to order Jeremiah thrown into a pit and kept there. Then someone else got the ear of the wishy-washy king, and successfully argued for Jeremiah's release.
Your proclamation: Out of its context, it's not a very interesting story, is it? But you can still proclaim it in a way that gets the attention of your congregation, and perhaps wins their sympathy for the prophet. Start by working on the tone of voice you'll use for those who want to silence the prophet. When you describe their appeal to the king, make them sound indignant and pious and hypocritical. Make the king sound like the wimp he is when he says "He is in your power."
Then pause, for the scene changes (and the Lectionary leaves out a verse of the original text). When Ebed-melech speaks to the king in Jeremiah's favor, his voice through yours should sound like a public defender tearing apart the prosecution's flimsy case against an innocent defendant.
The origin of the Letter: This letter was written for the sake of Jews who had become Christians, and who were promptly rejected by other Jews. Kicked out of synagogue and cut off from family and old friends, from the comforting rituals and institutions they had known, these folks needed their faith bolstered. So the previous chapter, covered in last Sunday's second reading and Lector's Notes, praises a long list of faithful Jews from the past, particularly Abraham, detailing some of the difficulties they faced. Those heroic figures are the great cloud of witnesses mentioned in today's passage.
The author wants his audience to think of themselves as athletes in a race in a stadium, where the witnesses are like spectators surrounding them and cheering them. Jesus, on the other hand, is not a cheering witness, but the supreme example. The sentences describing his fidelity are not just images; they're strong and direct statements.
Proclaiming it: To get into the mood to proclaim this, think of how you might counsel one of your children who has to work up the courage to do something difficult and unpopular. A youngster might know he should be kind to the kid in class that the others like to tease. A more mature child might know she has to break up with an unsuitable boyfriend. You, the wise parent, are sympathetic to your child's torment, but you want her or him to do what's right. While sounding accepting and not judgmental, you give all the encouragement you can. That's what the author of Hebrews was doing.
If you'll grant that contemporary living Christians can be that crowd of spectators (reading 2), here's a way to cheer today's faithful competitors: invite one or more of them to speak in your community. My diocese allows missionaries (priests and lay persons) to speak (and to try to raise funds) in our parishes, one speaker per parish per year, preaching at Sunday mass. More fruitful would be an informal gathering, on couches with coffee, with questions and answers. Maybe that Sunday visitor can stay an extra hour. Or the local Catholic Worker house could send you someone conversant with social justice issues in your area. Your diocese's mission office knows the locals, lay, religious & clergy, who have put in years of mission work. Similarly, the human rights commission or justice and peace office. Or perhaps there's a parish with struggles different from yours that can send you an articulate staff member who can widen your horizons.
Gulf of Mexico and beach of Estero Island, city of Fort Myers Beach, Florida, U.S.A. Photo by Joseph Ponder. Click here for Joe's original (May require login to Facebook).
This page updated August 8, 2022