All three readings today look towards the future, and stress the hope Christians are offered. They also give directions for what we do when waiting and hoping for the promised fulfilment.
This seems to be the last book in our Catholic Old Testament, probably written at the end of the first century BC. There is no copy in Hebrew, but while it was written in Greek it is addressed to a Jewish audience. At that time there was a large Greek-speaking Jewish population in Alexandria in Egypt, a famous centre of learning. There the Hebrew scriptures were translated there into a Greek version which was known to the New Testament authors. The author both draws on earlier Old Testament ‘Wisdom’ traditions, in the light of philosophic movements of that time in the Hellenistic world. The motive would be to encourage Jews who found it difficult to live in a pagan environment. The emphasis on Egypt in today’s selection fits the location of Alexandria. (This background information based on Addison G. Wright, SS, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary.)
One of the concerns of the book is how God deals with the righteous and the unrighteous. The situation described is the Exodus from Egypt, in which the Jewish people were saved, and their Egyptian pursuers perished before they could harm the chosen people fleeing across the Red Sea.
The process in this letter, with the writer drawing on the religious tradition he/she inherited but working with it in the different situation in which he lives, is an example of how the Church has continued to ‘read the signs of the times’ while maintaining the wealth of our tradition. We to have to work out what the Bible means in our own world.
The message of trusting in God and remaining faithful to him leads into the emphasis on faith in the second reading.
Psalm 32/33:1, 12, 18-20, 22
The psalm response begins with a reminder of how the Hebrew were chosen, saved, and called to be trusting and loyal. This joins themes from both the reading before and the one after.
Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19 A shortened form may be read at mass
This Letter is written as a Christian meditation on many themes from the Old Testament. Our selection today is part of a long poetic section about faith, seeing leading Old Testament figures as having the same kind of hope that Christians are called to. The Greek word for faith unites two aspects – which we might translate as ‘belief’ and ‘trust’. The author attributes to Abraham the belief in a future ‘homeland’ that is part of the Christian faith in heaven. The faith of those in the past is recalled to encourage the readers to have a similar deep trust in God.
The second part of the reading jumps to the conclusion, leaving out some of the other examples of trust. The stories of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac maybe read in Genesis. Reading all of chapter eleven in Hebrews is a summary of the Old Testament in which all persons mentioned are seen through the filter of Christian faith.
Luke 12:32-49 A shortened version may be read
We continue with the series of teachings Luke has placed on the journey to Jerusalem, picking up themes from last week. Our selection has omitted words on trusting God for our needs instead of being anxious to provide for ourselves. These are also in Matthew in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, but today’s opening line is found only in Luke. The disciples are addressed as a ‘little flock’. With the historic background of being a pastoral people, and living where sheep were still an important part of the economy, we find may instances in both the Old Testament and the four gospels where sheep become illustrations, metaphor or symbols of the people of God. A farmer once said, ‘It is not a complement to be a sheep,’ and one aspect of Jesus’ words is to stress the humility of recognising we are dependent on someone for care. Jesus himself is our ‘model of a shepherd’.
Then a challenge; not only do we need to trust God to provide for us, but we are called to share with others what possessions or wealth comes our way. These alms are compared to earthly treasures, which are perishable, while sharing and caring for others is a ‘treasure’ that lasts into eternity. The mention of the ‘kingdom’ is a reminder of having our priorities clear – what we need for our bodies comes after what we need for eternal life.
Next is a parable, only in Luke, which is a change in topic. Like many parables, it opens with a situation that has familiarity for the audience: the duties of servants (often slaves) in a large household. The Greek word here translated ‘men’ in the liturgy version is the inclusive form, so that it is likely it to include women servants in the household. They are expected to be ready to serve whenever their master returns home, in this example from a marriage party. Today a wedding celebration can last for some hours but at that period it might go on for several days. Then, as sometimes in parables, comes a twist of the unexpected: when the master returns, he actually becomes the servant and waits on them! An employer now as then is not likely to serve his employees, so this surprise can lead us to reflect on the difference between how humans behave and how God cares for us. Jesus tells his disciples, ‘I am among you as one who serves.’ (Luke 22:27) And the Gospels show him in that service which are an example to serve others ourselves.
The last part is a third comparison, shared with Matthew, using another easy to understand situation: if you know when a burglar is coming, you will be able to defend your house. Then a striking comparison – Jesus the Son of Man will return like a thief in the night! In our time when the return has been delayed for the millennia that separate us from Jesus’ ministry, it is a reminder of what is most often not expected in our lifetime. Yet, however long the delay, Jesus is coming again, and the fullness of the kingdom will then belong to his ‘little flock.’
Peter asks if the parable is for anyone. Jesus does not answer with a yes or no but tells another parable, in ever stronger examples, of the need of servants to be ready when the master returns. It has been easy for people, now as then, to think they have ‘plenty of time’ to reform their lives or take up good actions, but Jesus warns them it may not be the case. Perhaps the answer to Peter is suggested when he speaks of ‘more is asked of those to whom more has been given’. Peter and the other early leaders had a special gift which brings a special responsibility. It is left for us to decide whether and how to apply this: what has been given me? And what do I do with my gifts?