Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, August 7, 2016
In the reading that follows, a latter-day author describes the confidence and vigilance of the ancient Hebrew slaves in Egypt. The Lord was about to liberate them. The Hebrews sacrificed the first passover lambs and ate the ritual meal, as prescribed by Moses, awaiting their imminent release.
The letter to Hebrews tried to console Jewish converts to Christ over the things they had lost when mainline Judaism rejected them. The letter insists that what they have in Christ more than replaces the temple, sacrifices, priesthood and rituals that they missed. Today's passage appeals to the faith in God's yet unfulfilled promises exemplified by Sarah, Abraham, and other ancestors.
Today's gospel combines several of Jesus' sayings about readiness -- readiness to meet the Lord however he comes to us.
Our Liturgical Setting: Today's gospel, Luke 12:32-48, is about vigilance.
The Literary Background: Our first reading is a rather difficult essay on an example of vigilance from our heritage. The book of Wisdom was written about a century before the coming of Jesus, by a faithful, very literate Jew living in cosmopolitan Alexandria in Egypt. One of his purposes was to bolster the faith of fellow Jews living in a world indifferent, and sometimes hostile, to their beliefs.
A favorite theme of the writer is how the providence of God protected the chosen people throughout their history, especially during the time of their enslavement in Egypt and the Exodus therefrom under Moses. The author goes over these events in great detail. Our verses today interpret Exodus 11 and 12. There, while the angel of the Lord is striking down the first-born of Pharaoh and other Egyptians, the vigilant Hebrew slaves are both offering grateful sacrifice to the Lord and eating to fortify themselves for their coming escape. That night was the first Passover.
Verse by Verse: So when the author of Wisdom writes "The night of passover was known beforehand to our fathers," he means that the Hebrew slaves in Egypt on the eve of this passover knew what to expect.
These ancestors had "sure knowledge of the oaths in which they had put their faith." This means they were confident about God fulfilling the divine oaths made to Abraham and others, "I will be your God, you will be My people (My enduring, numerous people)."
The author of Wisdom then says "Your people awaited the salvation of the just" because all along, in grammatical terms, he's writing in the second person, praying to God. The phrase "when you punished our adversaries" refers to the plagues that the Lord had brought on Egypt, concluding with the deaths of their first-born. (By the way, the accent in "adversaries" is on the first syllable; so it's pronounced "AD ver sair ees." Small point, to be sure, but I've heard it done incorrectly by a lector.)
Finally, the "holy children of the good" secretly offering sacrifice refers to the passover sacrifice of lamb (see again Exodus 12), and the "divine institution" is the whole passover ritual as ordered by God (and as celebrated annually even now).
The Lector's Proclamation: Whew! Now you know what the words mean. How can you convey this to the assembly gathered to hear God's Word this Sunday? Start by giving them the thumbnail sketch of the setting from the "twenty-seconds digest" above, even if your liturgy committee has not decided to use those digests regularly. This reading just demands that.
To be faithful to the author's intentions, understand his motives and methods. He adopted the literary device of writing out his prayer to God. But the words themselves were meant for human readers, for people who needed to be reminded of God's reliable providence. For people needing that reminder today, the reading's latter details may be irrelevant. But we can all benefit from remembering the promises of God in which we've put our faith, that we might have courage. Speak of them with confidence.
The Historical Background: This is the first of four Sundays on which we'll read from the end of the Letter to the Hebrews. Today's passage, like our first reading, tries to bolster faith by appealing to the example of ancestors. The ancestors are praised for believing unfulfilled promises. The readers were fretting about promises that God seemed to have withdrawn. The readers were Jews (Hebrews) who had come to believe in Jesus as the fulfillment of their Jewish hopes. This got them ostracized from the institutions (sacrifices, priesthood, rituals) of mainline Judaism. To bolster their faith, the author writes a complex treatise showing that their new life in Christ more than compensates for what they have lost, and the promises to which they are now heirs exceed the promises of old. (A measure of the letter's magnitude: The lectionary devotes seven Sundays of year B, and four of year C, to this letter, as if it's too much to take in at once.)
The Details: Chief exemplar of strong faith is the patriarch Abraham. A wealthy but childless pagan in Ur of the Chaldees (modern Iraq), Abraham heard the voice of God summoning him to a different land, where God promised to grant him many descendants. Despite obstacles and setbacks, Abraham stayed obedient, "for he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy." (There's a sentence to emphasize in your proclamation.)
In verse 13, "All these [who] died in faith" refers to several ancients before Abraham whose fidelity is described in Hebrews 11:1-7, verses left out of our Lectionary selection. What they all hoped for is described as a city or a homeland. These the author sees as pre-figuring the heavenly homeland awaiting his audience.
All That the Reading Asks of the Lector: To proclaim this properly, try to take on the frame of mind of the author. Your audience is having trouble keeping the faith. But they know their history. So tell them the familiar story of their ancestors Sarah and Abraham, how hard it was for them to believe God's promises, how faith sustained them. Tell it as a dramatic story of struggle, of ups and downs, of the contention of hope with despair.
In the paragraph beginning "All these died in faith," get more philosophical. These are long, difficult sentences, so you must go over them carefully until you see the structure formed by the various clauses. The gist is that the ancients could have chosen not to believe God's promises. But even though many of them did not enjoy the fulfillment of those promises (they saw the promised homeland only from afar, remaining "aliens" where they were), they kept believing. So God is proud to be called their God.
In the last paragraph, the author of Hebrews tries to get inside the head of Abraham as he struggled with what seemed like the calamitous breaking of God's original promise. "One son, Isaac! Just one son, after all these years, and now you want me to sacrifice him? Yet you are God, and even from the dead you must be able to fulfill your promise." This faithfulness, the author of Hebrews says, is what God rewarded by staying the sacrifice and returning Isaac to his father. You should sound amazed that Abraham "was ready to offer his only son." The author offers as the reason for Abraham's willingness his faith in the promise. Abraham's belief in that promise is depicted as even stronger than his love for his son, and the author retrojects onto Abraham the reasoning that God could "raise [the promised descendants] even from the dead." Make it sound as amazing as it is.
Still from a youtube video of the author's cousin, Varnus Xaver, playing Franz Liszt's Consolation on the organ in the Farkas Street Presbyterian Cathedral, Cluj Napoca, Transylvania, published May 25, 2016. Click here for the video.
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 June 23, 2016