Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, June 18, 2017
Neighboring tribes always offered the Jews tempting religious alternatives. This story reminds them of their uncommon and excellent religious origin, to be in covenant with God who calls the whole nation to be holy.
Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome were arguing about how to be sure they were pleasing to God. Saint Paul's letter to them makes them ask the question in a new way.
Matthew portrays Jesus as compassionate toward suffering people, busy about meeting their needs and practical about making sure his mission can continue.
The Historical Situation: Read the reading first. Then turn to these notes. Remember the political context in which God makes this promise: The people addressed are runaway slaves who have yet to reach a place where they can settle. In terms of earthly power and status, they have nothing and they are nobody. Yet God promises to make them "dearer to me than all other people." When you proclaim this phrase, make it sound as emphatic and remarkable as it is. Your voice should capture the contrast between the Israelites' present status and the promised future.
The Theological Background: And now a note about the religious context in which God makes this promise: All ancient religions assumed that the gods were distant from and indifferent to humans. The best they could hope for was that a few members, their priestly class, could deal with the gods on their behalf. This provided two advantages: the majority of folks could leave the religious struggles to the delegated priestly class, and the priestly class could congratulate itself on its authority in the community. In this reading, God overturns that class distinction. God wants a kingdom of priests, not just a cadre. God expects a whole holy nation, not just a few holy members performing sacral duties for the rest.
Proclaiming It: God is attempting something new here. There was no need for God to start another religion like all the others; people were doing that for themselves all the time. But a religious community in which all the members are to be holy was a stunning innovation. Here again is a place where, by your use of your voice, you can make this revolutionary insight clear. Emphasize the words kingdom and nation in the last sentence.
A Theological Reflection: This teaching was last reiterated for Catholics at Vatican II, in The Constitution on the Church, Chapter 5, The Universal Call to Holiness in the Church, paragraphs 39-42. This is high ground, and hard to hold. We'll always need leaders and servants with special responsibilities. But we forfeit our birthright, the promise God is making in this Scripture passage, if we divide ourselves into the holy and the ordinary. To do so is to settle for the low ground, up from which God first called the Israelites.
The Theological Background: This reading, too, is full of contrasts that challenge your oral interpretation. Paul's point is that we were quite unworthy of the gift God gave us in Christ. Notice all the expressions of this unworthiness: helpless, ungodly, still sinners, enemies. It's the contrast between our unworthiness and God's gracious generosity that is so remarkable.
In the first reading God wanted Israel to distinguish itself from all other nations by accepting the call to holiness; in this reading Paul distinguishes the gracious God of our Lord Jesus Christ from that common notion of a god who will only give you what you deserve. Indeed, Paul had tried to placate such a god for a long time, until his conversion to Christ. (See, for example, the autobiographical passage Philippians 3:5-11)
Proclaiming It: In Romans, Paul is arguing against Christians who believed they had to keep old Jewish laws in order to be righteous before God. If you study the passage thoroughly and fix its contrasts clearly in your mind, you can proclaim it with an argumentative tone. That would sound just right. After all, you're trying to convince people that God is more gracious and generous than they dare believe. You have to pull out all the stops.
Extra! Each Sunday passage from Romans in context: Click here to see a table summarizing the readings from Romans from the 9th to the 24th Sundays of Ordinary Time, this year.
The Painted Garden of the Villa of Livia (Detail), Wall frescoes, Villa of Livia semi-subterranean chamber, (Prima Porta, near Rome); 30-20 BCE. Palazzo Massimo Museum, Rome, Italy. From the Facebook page of I Require Art. Click here for a larger version
Lector's Notes should be easily readable on any device, including small-screen ones like cell phones and tablets. This is among the first of a few hundred pages to be converted to a responsive format (responsive to the kind of screen you are using). So when you're not serving as lector, and you arrive at church and mute your cell phone, you can brief yourself on the readings you're about to hear. Format conversion is a work-in-progress and will be so until maybe April of 2018.
This page updated May 6, 2017