Father David's Reflection for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Good News is For All
How do you feel about change in the Church? Does it upset you when they change the words of the prayers and hymns you grew up with? When they make changes in the way of celebrating Mass and actualizing the sacraments? In the way religion is taught? When phrases from foreign languages are added to the hymns at Mass to accommodate immigrants?
In the Entrance Antiphon we are really asking God to save, not just us, but everyone “who trusts in you” and “calls to you.” When we ask him to “have mercy,” we are aware that to have “mercy” means to “come to the aid of another out of a sense of relationship.” The readings will clarify the nature of authentic relationship with God.
In the Opening Prayer(s) we ask God to give us “lasting joy in this changing world.” We find joy in focusing on what lasts, without being upset by what changes. This is also what makes us “one in mind and heart.” Our true union is found in our “desire for what you promise.” We ask to find our joy in “hearing your word in every sound” that expresses the truth and love of God, no matter how foreign it may sound to us, and in “longing for your presence more than for life itself.” What we seek in the “life” we are used to is the presence of God — who is not restricted to the places where we are used to looking for him. We ask that every experience of difference and change will make us aware that, in contrast to the “attractions of a changing world,” whether good or bad, Jesus promises us the “peace and unity of his kingdom,” something “this world” and anything we cling to in it “does not give.”
The Responsorial Psalm translates all of the above, and both the readings, into action: “Go out to all the world and tell the Good News” (Psalm 117).
An Open Community:
Isaiah 66:18-21 presents God as an expansive God: life-giving, unitive, all-embracing: “I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.”
God is talking about sending out “fugitives,” survivors of the persecution that is falling on Israel, to bring into his holy People outlanders, strangers from “lands that have never heard of my fame or seen my glory.” People not brought up in Israel’s traditions, who do not know its history or share its common memories. People who are different.
This can be very upsetting to those who love their religion precisely because they feel comfortable with its laws and traditions, who find security in its stable worldview and manner of living. Those for whom the support and comfort they feel in community with others is identified with the “common unity” of shared expression: with belief formulated by all in the same words and mutually manifested in the same gestures, customs and practices. For people who understand “community” this way, the introduction of any foreign element can be disruptive.
But God says these foreigners are family! Those who invite them in will be bringing “your kindred” — your brothers and sisters — “from all the nations.” They will be brought in “as an offering to the LORD… just as the Israelites bring their offering to the house of the LORD in clean vessels.” Bringing in the strangers is no different from bringing in the ritual gifts already being offered to God. Except, we might add, bringing people to God is certainly more pleasing to him than bringing offerings of grain and animals.
God goes even further; “I will also take some of them as priests and as Levites, says the LORD.” This is a little much! It is one thing to let foreigners in; it is another thing to give them positions of authority and sacred ministry. And to be a Levite may have been hereditary! One theory is that they were the genetic members of the tribe of Levi (John McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible, “Levi”). What is God doing to the established structure of his holy People?
It should not disturb us if the Church makes changes to accommodate new or different people who are entering the Church. Not if we keep exulting in Christ’s commission: “Go out to all the world and tell the Good News!”
In Luke 13:22-30 Jesus shakes the complacency of those who identified themselves as members of the People of God because they followed all the established rules, used the recognized vocabulary, and conformed to the traditional customs of Israel. He says that at the “wedding banquet of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:6-9) they may hear God saying to them, “I do not know where you come from.”
Ironically, Jesus tells them to enter through the “narrow door.” These are the ones who, in the early Church, wanted to make the door too narrow for the Gentiles to enter unless they conformed to all the traditional Jewish customs (see Acts 15:1-29). In today’s Church it is those who want to make fixed rules and observances a “Procrustean bed” of orthodoxy to determine who is acceptable as a Catholic. Jesus tells them that if they exclude those who are “different,” they themselves will be excluded from the People and become “foreigners” to God.
Jesus said “People will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and will take their place at the feast in the kingdom of God. Some who are last who will be first,” while some who think they are in the first row of orthopraxis “will be last.”
What is the “narrow door”? It is very simple: a single-minded focus on the person of Jesus Christ. A desire to love God with our whole heart (see Deuteronomy 6:5; 10:12-13). If we do this, everything else will follow in proper order and subordination. But we have a choice. Jesus says “The gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it” (Matthew 7:13). This is the path traced by “boundary markers,” whether they are just the five Commandments on each side or rules that go into more details. The “wide” path can be more broad or more narrow, depending on how strict we make the rules. But the path it delineates is wide compared to the path of the Gospel, which is the narrowest path of all: a straight line.
There is nothing more narrow than a straight line, defined mathematically as “the shortest distance between two points.” Christians who truly “belong” set their course by the “fixed star,” which is the person of Jesus Christ.
John Paul II is radical about this. “Following Christ,” he says, is “the essential and primordial foundation of Christian morality.” And he explains: “This is not a matter only of [believing] a teaching and obediently accepting a commandment.” More radically, it involves “holding fast to the very person of Jesus…. Jesus' way of acting and his words, his deeds and his precepts constitute the moral rule of Christian life” (see The Splendor of Truth, nos. 18-21). Those who know Jesus, focus on Jesus, love Jesus and try to base their life on his attitudes and values will recognize and welcome anyone else who is doing the same thing, regardless of how differently they express their devotion to him. “Go out to all the world and tell the Good News!”
Make straight the path
The Book of Hebrews 12:5-13 urges us not to forget the “encouraging words” (also translated just “exhortation”) that urge us not to disdain or disregard the “discipline of the Lord.”
We may associate “discipline” with strict control or punishment. But the actual meaning of the word in Latin is “instruction” or “teaching.” It has the same root (discere: “to teach”) as “disciple,” which means a student” or “learner.” To be taught by the Lord, no matter what form it takes, is always a blessing. And always encouraging. Hebrews says it “brings forth the fruit of peace and justice,” or, in another translation, “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
So “lift up your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees,” Hebrews continues, “and make straight the paths you walk on, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” The fact of the matter is, there is only one right path. It is following Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). If we do not follow him, we will be lame because we are “out of joint” When we “straighten up and fly right,” we will be healed. That is encouraging. That is motivation.
What is the underlying unity of faith and devotion underlying all differences of expression among believers?
Invite someone who is “different” to come to Mass with you.