Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time, September 1, 2019
Jesus ben Sirach was a Jerusalem sage living about 200 years before Jesus of Nazareth. This is from his book of moral instruction and proverbs.
The Hebrews addressed in our second reading were Jewish converts to Christ. They suffered because they were cut off from the dear religious comforts of their past, and were persecuted. The author contrasts some images from their old religion with promises from the new.
An important theme in Saint Luke's gospel is the dignity of the poor. Here Jesus urges his followers to enhance their own dignity by associating with the poor.
Our Liturgical Setting: Jesus gives a somewhat crafty lesson about status-seeking in today's third reading. He enjoins humility, or at least the appearance of it. The first reading gives a similar lesson.
The Historical Background: The book of Sirach has an interesting history which one can read in the introduction supplied in the New American Bible. The lector should know that it's a book of moral instruction and wise sayings by a devout Jerusalem sage, from about 175 years before the time of Jesus. It's part of The wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures; as we've said elsewhere in these Notes, wisdom is what the Jews got around to writing when their major political and theological questions had been settled.
Your Proclamation: Notice the consistent structure of coupled clauses. They have a nice rhythm that you should bring out in your proclamation (and it doesn't go on so long that it will sound boring):
|My child, conduct your affairs with humility,||and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.|
|Humble yourself the more, the greater you are,||and you will find favor with God.|
|What is too sublime for you, seek not,||into things beyond your strength search not.|
|The mind of a sage appreciates proverbs||and an attentive ear is the joy of the wise.|
|Water quenches a flaming fire||and alms atone for sins.|
Here's how I imagine the sage imparting this wisdom, and what links it to the crafty character of Jesus' wisdom sayings in today's gospel: The sage might wink at you when he says "and you will be loved ..." and when he promises, "and you will find favor with God." Neither Jesus Ben Sirach nor Jesus of Nazareth is proposing totally disinterested altruism here. Make it sound a little cunning.
Knowing the Background Makes All the Difference: If you declared "I am the Babe Ruth of lectors," any contemporary American would know what you meant (well, anybody who knows what a lector is). But using the baseball hero's name as a metaphor for greatness won't work where baseball is unknown. You'd get some blank stares. So it is with the metaphors beginning today's second reading. The original audience for this letter knew what the writer was referring to. And if you don't know yet, you soon will.
The First Recipients of the Letter, and Their Background: The first people to hear this letter were Jews who had become Christians. Their conversion cost them their membership in familiar Jewish circles, so the author persuades them that they have an even better, if yet unfamiliar, membership in Christ.
In their tradition were some very vivid images attached to stories about how the Lord had dealt with their ancestors while Moses was leading them from slavery in Egypt to nationhood in the Promised Land. Exodus, chapters 19 and 20 and Deuteronomy, chapters 4 and 9 are the main sources of these images. There the Lord came down upon a mountain several times. The people and their livestock were forbidden to touch the mountain. Sometimes a blazing fire and smoke enveloped the mountain. At other times, loud trumpet blasts accompanied the Lord's approach. Or an unbearably loud voice was heard. Some of this terrified even Moses.
To all these frightening, disturbing manifestations of God, the author of Hebrews contrasts his audience's peace-filled experience of the nearness of God in Christ in the community of believers. They have drawn near to what he describes in new metaphors:
The Lector's Proclamation: Contemporary translations of verse 18 seem a bit muddled. The 1971 New American Bible reads "You have not drawn near to an untouchable mountain and a blazing fire, nor gloomy darkness ..." The NAB for Catholic liturgical use in the United States now has it "You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness ..." Well, could that old mountain be touched or not? Verse 20 (not in the Catholic lectionary), quoting Exodus 10:13, certainly makes it seem untouchable. On the other hand, my careful Protestant friends on the Web translate verse 18 just like the new NAB does. I pick at this nit not because it makes a big difference, but because readers of these Notes study carefully the translations they are to proclaim. If the sound of this verse fails to make sense to you, you're not alone. Enough said.
So there's a lot packed into these few sentences, and you have to get it across to your congregation, most of whom won't know what the metaphors refer to. Make sure your voice expresses the contrasts as vigorously as the text does.
A painting by Mike Holdinghaus, American, born 1951, Goofing on Gaudi. Used with permission, and chosen for this page in view of last week's choice of a photograph from inside the church that inspires Mike. Click here for a larger version.
This page updated July 15, 2019