Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time, October 23, 2016
The late Wisdom writer Sirach reminds the poor and humble of another way that God's preferences and assumptions differ from ours.
In ancient times, a libation was a ritual pouring of a liquid over the victim in a sacrifice ceremony. Though he escaped condemnation in an earlier trial, Saint Paul is realistic about his prospects in a coming trial.
Saint Luke is the evangelist most emphatic about God's mercy and preference for the poor and humble. Jesus contrasts the empty accomplishments of the self-righteous with the modesty of those who depend only on God.
Our liturgical setting: Today's gospel is Jesus' familiar, and, I daresay, comforting parable of the Pharisee and the publican (tax collector) at prayer. To prepare us for this, the church proclaims as first reading a lesson about how God hears the prayers of the "little people."
The historical, theological background: By this time in Israel's history (Sirach is from around 175 BCE), Israel's great theological battles about monotheism are over, the kings have come and gone, and the Exile is a distant memory. The prophets have been silent for a long time, and many Jews are living in cities where pagans are the majorities (although Sirach was written in Jerusalem). In these circumstances, writers asked how one should live a good life, what moral and spiritual choices should one make, what behavior is honorable in a religious person?
The lector would do well to read all of Sirach, chapter 35, for it begins with a discussion of what kind of sacrifice is truly acceptable to God. Early, primitive, materialistic religion had assumed that gods are pleased only with perfect material sacrifices. So there is the spotless lamb, the firstfruits of the harvest, and, in extreme cases, firstborn sons and virgin daughters. Ancient Israel grew out of this immature stance, realizing that God could not be comprehended in mere physical terms, nor placated by mere physical sacrifices, no matter how excellent.
The specifics: In the book of Sirach, what does chapter 35 call worthy of sacrifice to God?
What are unwelcome on the altar of God (the physical altar or any figurative one)? Bribes and the fruits of extortion (verse 11).
Your proclamation: It can be a pitfall of the poor and simple to assume they're not as good as the prosperous and stylish, and to feel that God favors them less than the rich. You might ask whether you spontaneously feel that way yourself sometimes. Sirach the wisdom writer, like the prophets before him, knows better. He wants to reassure the ordinary believers that God hears their prayers. That should be the lector's goal today, too.
Note the one-two, one-two rhythm of these sentences, common in Sirach:
|Though not unduly partial toward the weak,||yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.|
|He is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,||nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint;|
|He who serves God willingly is heard;||his petition reaches the heavens.|
|The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;||it does not rest till it reaches its goal,|
Only the last sentence of today's selection diverges from this pattern. So pronounce the last sentence differently, with a sense of finality in your voice.
The literary and historical background: As we've seen for several weeks recently, Saint Paul (or someone writing in his name) loved the young churchman Timothy and gave him encouragement and various instructions in at least two letters. Today's is the last passage we'll read from this source this year. It's a kind of farewell from the senior apostle, and should be read thoughtfully, slowly, solemnly, and triumphantly (if the lector can manage all four of those at once).
The Theological Details: All the wisdom of Sirach notwithstanding, Saint Paul sees his imminent martyrdom in terms of sacrificial worship. That's what he means by the expression, "I am already being poured out like a libation." The New Jerusalem Bible (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1985) says in a footnote to this verse, "Libations of wine, water or oil were poured over the victims not only in gentile sacrifices but also in Jewish ones, see Exodus 29:40; Numbers 28:7."
The second paragraph is about Paul's temporary vindication in a first trial. He gives the glory to God, and exults that even Gentiles got to hear the gospel by way of his testimony on that occasion. But, though saved once from the lion's mouth, he's realistic in predicting that he's bound for the Lord's heavenly kingdom.
Your proclamation: Knowing the author's mindset and purpose, try to sound like he would sound either dictating this to a scribe or speaking it to its original audience (in this case, a young bishop and his congregation in a still young church).
Photo by Dorothea Lange, American, 1895–1965; Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (U.S.A.), 1936. The adult has been identified as Florence Owens Thompson. See more about the photo here at the site of the Saint Louis Art Muesum.
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 October 17, 2016