Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, July 14, 2019
For a later audience facing various religious choices, this is a story of the ancient Moses. He contrasts the public, accessible, sensible nature of the Law with the mysterious and obscure alternative beliefs of Israel's pagan neighbors.
Some early Christians believed strongly in complicated hierarchies of angels mediating our relationship with God. Saint Paul insists that Christ is superior to the whole lot.
The gospel, too, is about keeping things simple and straightforward. Where Jesus does the unexpected is in his choice of the hero in the story he tells.
The Historical Situation: Though it describes events set in the time of Moses, Deuteronomy was written much later, during the Exile, 587-539 B.C.E. (also known as the Babylonian Captivity). Internal corruption and external pressures had brought the people to the brink of extinction. Kings, priests, prophets, and temple had all failed to hold them together. The writers responded to this crisis by re-interpreting ancient legal traditions, putting them in the mouth of the great lawgiver Moses, in the hope of setting the Jews on a viable course for their future. On the surface, it's a story of origins. In its real purpose, Deuteronomy is about starting over, hoping to get it right and keep it going this time, where "it" is national identity expressed through loyalty to God's law.
The Literary Method: Deuteronomy retells history told in other books, punctuating the narrative with powerful speeches by Moses. Just as Deuteronomy's audience was having a very hard time holding on to faith and identity, so, the book reminds them, it was a struggle for their predecessors, ancient Israelites, to achieve or to maintain their strict belief in the one, true and invisible God. Elements of their past and enticements from pagan neighbors combined to tempt them. (And we're tempted to say, "The more things change, the more they stay the same.") In this passage, Moses's religion is contrasted with the deliberately obscured alternatives that offered themselves to the people. Many purveyors of religion have believed, or at least persuaded others, that true religion is mostly inaccessible, that it can be had only through the mediation of specially selected persons, by acquiring secret knowledge, by performing bizarre rituals or by using hallucinogenic drugs. The Israelites were surrounded by some such believers, and often tempted to join them. Moses wanted to cut through all that. What God wants of you, he says, is written in the book of the law. It's right in front of you. Don't look up in the sky or across the sea. Look into your own hearts. (In post-apostolic times, the Fathers of the Church made a similar point about the gospel. Contrasting Christianity with the mystery religions of their day, they boasted that the gospel was public, and that the Church had nothing to hide, but rather much to proclaim.)
The Lector's Proclamation: This and other ways of distinguishing his people's religion from those of pagan neighbors were points of pride for Moses. When you proclaim his words, sound proud and persuasive. Emphasize the word "this" in "this book of the Law," as if you're showing the evidence in plain sight. That suggests the "lawyer's summation before the jury at the end of a trial" motif for your proclamation.
The Apostle's Argument Outlined: Here in paraphrase are Paul's assertions about Christ:
The Lector's Proclamation: So, as lector, deliver this piece as a polemic. In the sentence "For in him were created ...," emphasize in him and then rattle off the titles of the inferior spirits rapidly and dismissively, as if to say "I don't know how many kinds of these things there are, but they're all way behind Jesus." Bring it back to earth with "He is the head of the body, the church," which to the Colossians meant their earthy and earthly community of believers. Say "preeminent" slowly and carefully, because it's a word your listeners don't hear often.
Your listeners probably won't know the context, but they should know that Paul and you are emphatic and uncompromising about Christ's place in the universe, in all of history, and in your hearts.
This is a reflection on complexities, natural ones and artificial ones. The people surrounding the ancient Jews created some artificial religious complexities (see above), and the writer(s) of Deuteronomy labored to free their people from these silly burdens. The author of Colossians does the same for an early Christian audience (see above again). Saint Paul did it for the Galatians in the readings we heard a few weeks ago. Today we hear Saint Luke's version of the question put to Jesus, "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" The subtext is that there are hundreds of commandments, and the society had created jobs for various kinds of advisers—and rivals—on how to navigate these complexities. The evangelists concur that Jesus cut through it all with straightforward answers like today's most memorable parable. Even his choice of a Samaritan as the hero of today's parable reflects the artificial complexities that grew up in the religion and politics of the Jews.
In pointing out that these complexities are all artificial, I'm not asserting that everything is simple. It is not. Life in any kind of community is full of natural complexities. It is on these that we should shine the light of the gospel, to these that we should direct our honest discernment and our selfless love. We all bring our wounds and fears, our prejudices and resentments, our rivalries, as well as our virtues, to church. They make things naturally complex. They're the authentic challenge of life in community. We should be honest about them.
There are people who would like us to fret about artificial complexities, too. Those absorb our energy, distract us and fatigue us, so we cannot tackle more substantive issues, and we remain passive. For example: Some would have us spin our wheels over the question, "Is the translation of the Roman Missal sufficiently reverent?" Others worry us by asking, "We can't allow any bureaucrat to violate the Second Amendment (to the U.S. Constitution), can we?" There's even a television network dedicated to wasting our energy on the likes of this one: "Are we certain that President Obama was not born in Kenya?"
A church community, by its nature, is a safe place to deal with complexities. Here the assumption is that grace and mercy are abundant (unlike the dog-eat-dog outside communities where your gain is always someone else's loss). God is in charge. So we're among friends. So we can be honest about our desires, our offerings to the community, our jealousies, our talents, and our limits. If something from the realm of darkness comes to light, the light will vanquish it. So we're safe. But we should start by simply dismissing the artificial, so we can concentrate on the real complexities.
The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix) by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890. This wikipedia article describes why Van Gogh made reprises of other artists' work. The work is in the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands, which invites you to click here to see it.
This page updated July 2, 2019