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Twenty-First Sunday In Ordinary Time, Year C

By Father Donald Dilger
Father Donald Dilger

Twenty-First Sunday In Ordinary Time, Year C

Isaiah 66:18-21; Psalm 117:1, 2; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30

The first reading is taken from the final chapter of that part of Isaiah called “Third Isaiah.” The time is in late sixth century, about 515 B.C. The major thrust of this prophet’s oracles is to bring hope to a failing community of Jews. They returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon and Persia to rebuild their country, their city, their temple. Help is on the way. Surprisingly the help will come from the Gentiles, “nations of every language will come (to Jerusalem) and see my glory.” From these new adherents God will send “fugitives,” presumably missionaries, to the many nations of Gentiles, who “never heard of my fame, and have never seen my glory.” These missionaries will also bring dispersed Jews from among the nations “as an offering to the Lord, . . .  just as the Israelites bring their offering. “Some of these (the missionaries who were formerly heathens) I will take as priests and Levites, says the Lord.” This is an amazing universal outlook, in contrast to much of Old Testament exclusivism, that the Lord will accept as priests and Levites in the temple some former heathens. How easily Third Isaiah’s universalism leads into the New Testament missionary endeavor to “Go and teach all nations.” This reading was chosen for today because it echoes the universalism of today’s gospel reading.

The Responsorial Psalm, 117, the shortest Psalm in the Book of Psalms, picks up the universal theme: “Praise the Lord, all you nations (Gentiles). Glorify him, all you peoples.” The People’s Response quotes the universal command from Mark 16:15, “Go out into the whole world and proclaim the Good News.”

Last Sunday’s second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews ended with a reminder that those to whom the letter was addressed had not yet resisted the problems they faced as Christians “to the point of shedding your blood.” In today’s liturgy the author uses another approach in his attempt to keep them within the Christian faith despite the difficulties resulting from their conversion to Christ.  He reminds them of their status as children of God. The Greek text however does not read “children,” but “sons.” May one therefore conclude that the problem was with the men in this community to which the letter is addressed? From the Old Testament Book of Proverbs 3:11-12, the author inserts a quote addressed to “My son.” The advice, “Do not disdain the discipline of the Lord, (a reference to their persecution permitted by God), or lose heart when reproved by him, for whom the Lord loves he disciplines. He scourges every son he acknowledges.”

The “scourging” of sons sounds extreme, but we also read in Proverbs 23:13-14, “If you beat him with a rod, he will not die. If you beat him with the rod, you will save him from Sheol (the underworld).” That’s really tough love! The father of the prodigal but repentant son in Luke’s gospel was obviously not acquainted with the Book of Proverbs and its child psychology. The author of Hebrews adds wisely, “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain.” Many of us “sons” can relate to that. Some of that discipline, though it need not include the recommended “scourging,” “brings the fruitful peace of righteousness, (a life pleasing to God), to those trained for it.” The final advice provokes a smile, “So strengthen your drooping hands and weak knees, etc.” All the more so, when we recall that Sirach 25:23 reads, “Drooping hands and sagging knees indicate a man whose wife makes her husband wretched.”

The gospel reading has at least two contrasting themes. The first theme restricts salvation to the few. The second theme expands salvation to the many, in this case, all nations (Gentiles), as our first reading today does. Jesus and Company are en route to Jerusalem. Someone asks him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Luke attributes to Jesus a tough saying, “Strive to enter by the narrow gate, for many . . . will try to enter, but will not be strong enough.” Luke adds a parable to illustrate the saying. After the owner (master) of the house locks the door (at bedtime), people will stand outside knocking and saying, “Lord, open to us.” The hard-nosed proprietor will answer, as if speaking to total strangers, “I do not know where you are from.” The outsiders will respond, “We knew you back when we dined with you and you were teaching in our streets.” But he repeats his denial of their origin, and adds an insult, “Depart from me, you evildoers!”

What are we to make of this saying, which is in great contrast to the universalism of Luke’s gospel and his Acts of Apostles? Though the most bitter anti-Jewish sentiments are expressed by Matthew and John, Luke is not beyond an occasional dip into the same. It can be called a theme, the rejection of the people to whom the Christian mission was directed first, the Jews, and a turn to those who by Luke’s time, already constituted the majority of Christians, Gentile converts. The theme is best expressed in words Luke attributes to Paul at the end of Acts. As Paul bitterly comments on the lack of Jewish acceptance of his mission, he adds, “Let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles. They will listen.” The same theme of reject-ion of one group and acceptance of replacements is expressed by Luke’s final words in today’s gospel. It is directed (unkindly) to Jews. They will stand outside wailing, when they see the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets feasting with people from the whole earth, while they are excluded. Then comes the clincher, “For behold, some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last.” This also serves as interpretation of the earlier statement about the few who will enter “through the narrow gate.” They will be joined by multitudes of others. Universal salvation after all!