Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A, October 15, 2020
In few, if any, ancient societies, did aliens have rights. In few ancient religions did gods care for widows and orphans. The way of life of God's people was to be different.
Saint Paul greets a community who had received the gospel eagerly and set a good example for other churches. They were all expecting God to bring the world to an end very soon.
The scriptures of the Jews contained over 600 laws, of varying detail. It was customary to argue over how to summarize them, and how to weigh their relative importance. Here they are the subject of a contest between Jesus and one of the groups that would later persecute Matthew's community.
Our Liturgical Setting: This year, we've been making our way through the chapters of Saint Matthew's gospel every Sunday of Ordinary Time. The editors of the lectionary usually pick a first reading that resonates with the day's gospel. In today's gospel, Jesus sums up the Law of God in a formula you'll surely recognize. This passage from Exodus prepares us to hear that.
The Historical Situation: This passage is part of a long narrative, Exodus, chapters 19-24, in which the Hebrews, liberated from Egypt, have wandered into the desert of Sinai. At the risk of oversimplifying things, let us summarize: God announces his desire to enter a covenant with the people. Moses is the mediator. God manifests himself in terrifying thunder, lightning and clouds. God gives the terms of the covenant in various paragraphs, on several occasions. The people assent to the terms. These include the familiar Ten Commandments, and paragraphs that elaborate the commandments in great detail, ritual prescriptions and much more. This is the context of today's first reading.
The Law which God gave through Moses was, in its time, revolutionary in a way that modern people usually underestimate. To put it simply, the Law civilized these people. In few ancient societies did anyone have the courage to say it was wrong to oppress an alien or take advantage of the poor. Nor did other ancient people fancy that their gods cared for widows and orphans. The behaviors codified in this law really liberated these people, and allowed them to begin to build an excellent, humane society. We should not overlook this when we find reading the code so tedious. Humans and their societies will never be without sin, but the Law lifted this society out of barbarism. And so it was a great gift.
Proclaiming It: So when Moses spoke these words the first time, he really got people's attention. When you proclaim them again, speak as if you expect the same, because you appreciate the stature of the Law you are announcing.
You might do this if you want to emphasize the revolutionary character of the Law, as described above: Emphasize the word you every time it occurs. Think of how you would address a child who wants to do something foolish because "all the other kids are doing it." "And if they all jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?" When God spoke the Law, Israel should have heard implied "I expect more of you than, sadly, I can yet expect of other peoples." (There would come a time, of course, when God's favor, and high expectations, would be shown to extend to all peoples, but we're not there yet. We're only in the Sinai a few weeks out of slavery.)
The Historical Situation: Paul is congratulating his audience on the positive effects of their example. They received the gospel with ready faith, and withstood persecution with joy. Those actions bolstered the faith of Christians elsewhere who heard about them.
A Little More History Evident in the Passage: First Thessalonians is the earliest letter we have from Saint Paul. As we'll see in the weeks ahead, Paul and these earliest Christians believed that Jesus would come again very soon. This is what Paul means when he congratulates them because they "turned to God from idols ... to await his Son from heaven," the Son who "delivers us from the coming wrath." That "wrath" means the judgment they expected God soon to visit upon the earth, much to the detriment of the non-believers. Their conviction was that God was soon to bring history to its end with the return of Jesus in glory. This expectation fades over the years during which the New Testament scriptures were composed. Some gospel passages, for example, show evidence of original composition by believers who expected Jesus to return very soon, then later editing by believers who realized that Jesus' return was indefinitely delayed. How the early church switched gradually from that short-term readiness to a long-term vision is a noble part of our heritage.
Proclaiming It: Achaia, what is modern Greece, is pronounced a KI yuh, with a long I sound in the second syllable. To decide what inflections to give the pronouns, notice this: the Thessalonians imitated Paul and the Lord, then the Macedonians and Achaians imitated the Thessalonians. That there are three parties ("us," "you," and "them, the Macedonians and Achaians," should be clear to those listening to your proclamation. It might help you capture the spirit of Paul's letter if you imagined yourself introducing the guest of honor at a testimonial dinner. How positive and enthusiastic would you want to sound?
Clown making up the face of a young girl, Eugene (or Portland), Oregon, U.S.A., ca. 1974. Photo by the author. The scene was a Children's Art Festival in a city park. Two adult clowns were offering makeup, but almost all the children acted afraid of the clowns. This girl worked up the courage to let herself be transformed. She inspired more children to take the chance, and they inspired still more.
This page updated August 24, 2020