Scripture notes – 21st Sunday of the year (C) – 25th August 2019

There is no obvious theme linking the readings today, though we might trace the idea that God’s love is for all and not a chosen few. The psalm response is usually a selection of verses from one psalm, but today we have all the psalm, but with only two verses it is the shortest in the Bible.

The readings are available online here.

Isaiah 66:18-21
This reading comes near the end of the book named for Isaiah, but which includes various unnamed prophets of later times as well. The extending of God’s call beyond the Israelites was a frequent theme of these prophets, and is emphasised in this selection. The names of the countries listed are not used today, and may sound exotic now. All were neighbouring areas known to the Hebrews. With our knowledge of global geography, it would be in the spirit of the prophet to think of our known world including the two American continents, the Far East, the islands and lands of the Pacific, and southern Africa. None are beyond God’s loving concern. Besides these Gentiles, the prophet imagines the Jews of the Diaspora also coming to Jerusalem, as the symbolic place of God’s presence.

The most radical idea for that time comes in the last verse. Under the old Law, only descendants of Aaron were eligible for the Jewish priesthood. In the prophet’s vision, not only are all peoples called as God’s chosen people, but from these ‘foreigners’ God will also make priests and others dedicated to his service.

Psalm 116/117
Robert Alter calls this a ‘zero-degree psalm of thanksgiving’ and translates it as just one sentence Almost just an outline of a hymn with a call to praise the LORD, the reason given is one of the most frequent messages of the Old Testament: a short phrase in Hebrew variously translated to stress God’s faithful, steadfast or enduring loving-kindness. Addressed to all nations, however, and not just Israel, it fits well with the previous reading.

Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13
The unknown author of this letter is full of calls to be faithful to God no matter what the circumstances. Here he finds a good comparison for times when we are finding it rough going. He uses the comparison of parent’s discipline to point out that we often learn more and achieve more when we have to struggle. It may be help to refine our goals, teach us to rely more on God and less on our own ideas and desires. Difficulties, which some may take as rejection by God, are actually to be seen as a sign of God’s love, for by going through them we are led to greater ‘peace and goodness’. It is a proof that we are ‘children of God’ to have a parent who helps us grow into all we can be.

Luke 13:22-30
This section of Luke is a sobering one but it is not to be taken as saying that ‘some are doomed from the very start, despite their persistent effort to be saved.’ (Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P.)

We begin with a reminder of Jesus being on his journey to Jerusalem, the place his ministry on earth will come to a bloody end. He knows, although most of his listeners do not, that the time they will have to hear him is drawing to a close. Thus the sense of urgency in his words today.

One unidentified person asks a question which was of some debate at that time: who will be saved? Jesus does not actually answer this question. Instead he gives an instruction. This is similar to the parable of the Good Samaritan with the question of ‘who is my neighbour?’ In both cases, the questioners are seeking a debate, but Jesus refuses to be drawn into theological or philosophic speculation which can distract people from what they are called to do. Where he wants the focus to be is: what do I need to do now? He uses some simple parables or comparisons to stress that for all his listeners, now is a time for them to act on God’s call.

The gate or door to God’s kingdom is ‘narrow’ perhaps in several senses. Most will choose to follow their own inclinations, or worse, choose sinfulness; compare Matthew 7:13-14. That many of his listeners will not accept him and his message of love and life is a sorrow for Jesus that the gospels mention in various places. For those who do try, the ‘narrowness’ may symbolize that, rather like the London Underground turnstiles, we cannot carry through the narrow gate the ‘baggage’ of self-indulgence or neglect of others – compare this to the ‘discipline’ in the previous reading. The Greek word translated here as ‘try’ has the idea of strenuous efforts – salvation is worth working hard for.

The next parable takes the image of the master of a big establishment, who locks up in the evening: the time of openness will come to an end. The people in the parable claim that their superficial contact with Jesus should be enough. There is no real commitment expressed, they don’t claim to have followed him as disciples. At that time, some of the Jewish listeners counted on being part of the ‘chosen people’ without concern for the deeper matters of seeking first the love of God. They expected Gentiles to be excluded. Luke, says Nicholas King, may also have been thinking of some is his own community at the time of his writing. It can be easy for Christians to assume being part of the church is enough and they were not required to make deeper choices and act on them. The master’s rejection quotes Psalm 6:8 ‘depart from me, you evil-doers’ and points up that it was human rejection of goodness and not God’s arbitrary closing off of his gifts that kept them from entering through the door.

The final parable is the first time in Luke when Jesus expressly includes the Gentiles in his coming Kingdom, the call of God extending in every direction to every people. This ‘fulfils’ the prophecy we heard in the first reading from Isaiah.

In the Prayers for today, we ask for the gifts that help us follow the command of Jesus to seek the gate that leads to God:

Father, help us to seek the values that will bring us lasting joy in this world. In our desire for what you promise, make us one in mind and heart. May all the attractions of a changing world serve only to bring us the peace of your kingdom which this world does not give.

Joan Griffith