AUGUST 21ST, 2016: TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Thus says the LORD:
I know their works and their thoughts,
and I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory.
I will set a sign among them;
from them I will send fugitives to the nations:
to Tarshish, Put and Lud, Mosoch, Tubal and Javan,
to the distant coastlands
that have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory;
and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations.
They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations
as an offering to the LORD,
on horses and in chariots, in carts, upon mules and dromedaries,
to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the LORD,
just as the Israelites bring their offering
to the house of the LORD in clean vessels.
Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD.
Brothers and sisters,
You have forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as children:
“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.”
Endure your trials as “discipline”;
God treats you as sons.
For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline?
At the time,
all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain,
yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness
to those who are trained by it.
So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees.
Make straight paths for your feet,
that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.
Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem.
Someone asked him,
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
He answered them,
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door,
then will you stand outside knocking and saying,
‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply,
‘I do not know where you are from.
And you will say,
‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you,
‘I do not know where you are from.
Depart from me, all you evildoers!’
And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth
when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
and all the prophets in the kingdom of God
and you yourselves cast out.
And 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.
For behold, some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.”
Most of us don’t like to hear the word “discipline,” especially when it’s applied to us. We presume it’s geared to take away our freedom, and in the long run always comes with some sort of punishment. Yet a typical dictionary definition of the term says it’s simply the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior. So when the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes about the “discipline of the Lord,” he’s simply talking about the unique rules and behavior patterns the risen Jesus expects us to obey.
Growing up Catholic, I methodically learned all the dos and don’ts my catechism listed. But being a typical, concrete thinking child, I concentrated on the don’ts, especially since they were hooked up to the fiery punishments of purgatory and hell that scared the bejeebers out of me. Unlike the dos, the don’ts were hard to forget. Though the Hebrews’ author reminds us that “whom the Lord loves, he disciplines,” not only didn’t I feel much love coming out of the pages of my catechism, I secretly envied my Protestant friends who didn’t seem to be restrained or burdened by any fear of committing mortal sins.
Yet listening to today’s first and third readings, it’s clear that the discipline to which both sacred authors refer doesn’t restrict our behavior; it expands it.
Active shortly after Israel’s 6th century BCE Babylonian captivity, Third-Isaiah is concerned not only with encouraging the recently freed Jews to return to the Promised Land, he wants them to come back to their ancestral home with a new mentality toward Gentiles. No longer are they to regard them simply as “non-Jews:” people incapable of having a meaningful relationship with Yahweh. God’s now including these foreigners in his/her plan of salvation. Unbelievably, some will even be included in the special category of priests and Levites: individuals who were granted their special ministry and privileges by birth. No one went to the seminary to become a priest or Levite; they were born that way. Yet now Yahweh’s saying that some Gentiles are by nature just as important as some Jews. I’m certain a number of holy, pious Jews would have petitioned the Holy Office – had one existed back them - to have Third-Isaiah officially declared a heretic. Such openness certainly wasn’t the divine discipline they’d learned and followed as children. The prophet was now demanding they expand their behavior to now be open to Yahweh working with all people, not just the Chosen People.
Because of our emphasis on the don’ts of our faith, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the historical Jesus demanded similar discipline from his followers. Today’s Lucan pericope leaves us little wiggle room. “There will be wailing and grinding of teeth,” Jesus warns, “when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out.” The “saved” will include people we presumed were nowhere near being listed in that category. Neither belonging to the “true church,” saying the right prayers, or knowing all the rules and regulations will save us. Our only hope is to imitate the mentality of Jesus.
“People will come from the east and the west,” Luke’s Jesus insists, “and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.” His salvation rule of thumb can be easily summarized: “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Ironically the “narrow gate” for entering God’s kingdom among us revolves around our developing a very broad mind, something many of us conveniently forgot when we were studying Jesus’ dos.