Commentary on the Readings
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 11, 2019 – Year C
Becoming Rich by Becoming Poor
How much waiting for a feast! Months of work to prepare for a fleeting day of enjoyment, which more often than not disappoints the expectations and leaves behind sad and melancholy faces. It also happens in life: much efforts are done to prepare for a future that then proves to be an unattainable mirage. The foolish farmer in last Sunday’s parable is an example. He has committed, was lucky, but in the end, he saw the fruits of his labor getting out of hand. So much hard work for nothing!
The goods offer a sense of security; they promise to satisfy every need and every desire, from which the psychological mechanism that leads to the accumulation and idolatry is triggered. Riches give an impression of being solid, unwavering, enduring: they survive those who have them. Actually, they deceive him, deprive him of everything, and leave him empty-handed.
The wise Ecclesiastes warned: “Whoever loves money will not be satisfied with money. Whoever loves wealth hasn’t sufficient income. This is senseless. When there is abundance of good things there is abundance of consumers. What profit is there for the owner except to look on” (Ecl 5:9-10). How to avoid being in this situation at the end of one’s own life?
Jesus repeats his disconcerting proposal several times: Sell everything, give the proceeds to the poor. How to interpret these words? Is he aware that he is asking us to give up what is the joy of our heart? Does he come to undermine all our safety?
Yes, and he does to make us blessed.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“How many times the Lord has already come and I did not let myself be found. But he will still come.”
Roads, monuments, commemorative days are dedicated to most significant events and personages of history. Heroes, discoverers, scientists, and important dates are remembered. How come we look to the past? Why are these rites performed, discourses delivered, parades organized, official ceremonies attended by people? It is done so as not to forget what happened. The past is remembered in order to understand how to act in the present. During the difficult times in her history, when Israel felt exploited and oppressed, the people have regained confidence looking at its past. Verifying that her God had always protected and freed her from all forms of slavery, she felt comforted, confronted adversity with renewed vigor and looked optimistically to the future.
Israel is a nation that loves to remember. She remembers, above all, the miracles of the Exodus. In today’s Reading, a moving presentation is made. It narrates that, while the Egyptians were surrounded by darkness, the Israelites were accompanied by a pillar of fire; the Lord himself led them to unknown paths (v. 3). On the night they left the land of the Pharaoh, the righteous were saved and the enemies exterminated (vv. 6-7). That’s the reason why they have decided to meet regularly every year to celebrate on Easter Vigil, these glorious events. When they reflect on what God has done for them, a song of thanksgiving and praise flourishes out of their lips. The same confidence that filled the hearts of their fathers emerges in them (v. 9).
Israel’s behavior is an invitation to Christians to do the same, to “remember,” “to commemorate” the event in which God showed all his love and his faithfulness: Easter. In the death and resurrection of Christ, the Father has revealed all his love. Receiving Jesus in glory assured that the history of every person, though marked by so many absurd and dramatic events, will end in a glorious way.
Looking back, you can guess what future of joy God reserves for people.
Forty years after the death of Jesus, Jerusalem with its magnificent temple is destroyed. Many Jews flee and are dispersed around the world. Far away from their land, some embrace the Christian faith but are discouraged. Why—they ask—are we hit by so scary disasters? Why are we encountering so many adversities, injustices? Why are our own brothers, the sons of our people condemn and persecute us?
The letter to the Hebrews is addressed to these Christians in difficulty. This letter is proposed to us today and in the next three Sundays.
Chapter 11 of this letter is dedicated to the faith. It starts by saying that “faith is the assurance of what we hope for, being certain of what we cannot see” (v. 1). It continues recalling the example of many Bible characters famous for their faith, especially Abraham and Sarah (vv. 8-19).
When he was called by God, Abraham was 75 years old (Gen 12:4), an age in which men prefer to retreat to enjoy a well-earned rest. At that age, Abraham goes to an unknown land without even knowing which one. He blindly trusts the Lord (vv. 8-10).
Sara also believes and, against all human logic, through faith she will have a son. These two spouses have believed that the Lord would be faithful and would give them “numerous descendants as the stars in the sky and as the sand of the sea” (vv. 11-12).
The author of the letter continues: Abraham and Sarah died without seeing the fulfillment of the promise that had been made to them. They had one child only, not a multitude, and they did not live in the Promised Land. They spent all life wandering from place to place; they always resided in foreign countries. Only after 700 years, their children settled in the land given to them by God. Here, Abraham and Sarah saw only a small sign, a beginning of the fulfillment of the promises: a fragile son and a land contemplated only from afar, but they believed all the same ( vv. 13-19).
The message of the letter to the Hebrews is sent today to all Christians who look forward to the realization of the promises of good done by Jesus and who are discouraged because they do not see the quick establishment of the Kingdom of God in the world. They verify that evil continues: this is perhaps the toughest test of their faith.
Considering what happened to Abraham and Sarah, they are invited to regain confidence and to be able to read, though not always obvious signs, that the new world is being born.
The passage begins with the exhortation: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you the Kingdom” (v. 32). The disciples are afraid: they know they are few and weak in the face of a hostile world. They get scared because evil is strong; it triumphs everywhere; it seems overwhelming and they feel fragile and unable to resist. The Kingdom of God—Jesus assures—will come because it is not the work of man; it is the Father’s gift.
Then the theme goes alive. From last Sunday’s Gospel one can deduce that the foolish farmer had committed two stupid mistakes: he had not enriched himself before God and let himself be surprisingly caught by death.
What should he have done? How does he enrich himself before God? Simple—Jesus answers today—you “sell what you have and give alms” … (vv. 33-34).
The rich who accumulated great wealth had to leave them in this world. He did not find the way to bring them with him. Plagued by the concerns of this world—the fields, the crops, the storage—he did not have time to listen to that Word that would have revealed the secret for not losing his capital, to “transfer them to heaven.” Here’s what a wise man of the Old Testament would have suggested to him: “Give alms from what you have … . Do not turn away your face from anyone who is poor. Give alms in proportion to the amount you have; if you have little, do not be afraid to give alms according to the little you have. In this way, you are storing up treasure against the day of tribulation because almsgiving frees us from death and keeps us from wandering in the darkness. Almsgiving is a precious treasure in the eyes of God” (Tb 4:7-11; cf. Sir 3:29–4:10; 29:8-13).
The reflections of Jesus are in tune with the traditional teaching of the wise men of his people: who accumulates assets for himself—he says—sees them then eaten by moths or leaked from ragged bags and lost foolishly on the street. “Humans are mere shadows that go about relentlessly—remembers the Psalmist—being but a breath they toil and rake in wealth not knowing who will take it next” (Ps 39:7). Better, much better to give them in the hands of a safe “banker”—God—who, in times of need, will give it back with “lavish interests.” This image is well known in the time of Jesus. The son of the Queen of Adiabene—who converted to Judaism with his mother around 50 A.C.—responded thus to those who accused him of squandering his wealth by helping the needy of Israel: “My ancestors heaped treasure in this world, I instead will accumulate for the world to come.”
To the second question—how not to get caught by surprise? —Jesus responds with three parables.
The first (vv. 35-38): a gentleman went to a wedding party and left home his servants. These people know that the master will come back, but they do not know the time: he may come in the middle of the night or just before dawn, and they must be ready to welcome him. When and how the Lord returns, and what are these enigmatic images?
The answer that comes to mind is: one has to be prepared to welcome the Lord at the end of life. It is not exact. Vigilance is equivalent to the constant availability of service. The Christian does not have free moments in which he can withdraw into himself in the pursuit of self-interest, times in which he is not ready to help those who need his help.
Two images describe effectively the vigilant disciple: he dresses for action and keeps the lamp burning. He does not turn off the light, does not put on the front door the “do not disturb, I’m sleeping” sign. Anyone who needs him should know that he is always available.
He has his clothes always tucked in. In the East the men used long robes, at home they let it loose, but when they put themselves to work or leave for a trip they gird their hips and raised them to move freely. The disciple is therefore always on duty.
The parable ends with one of the most beautiful images of the whole Bible: blessed are those servants who, in return, the master will find watching. He will gird his clothes, will make them sit at table and wait on them. There’s an equally moving image in the book of Revelation: “He will be the God-with-them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 21:3-4). It is the promise of bliss reserved for those who are part of the kingdom of God.
The second parable (vv. 39-40): the Lord is compared to a thief who breaks in suddenly. A unique image, never before used in Judaism, but had luck with the Christians. It was picked up by Paul: “You know that the Day of the Lord—he writes to the Thessalonians—will come like thief in the night” (1 Thes 5:2). Peter also used them: “The day of the Lord is to come like a thief; then the heavens will dissolve with a great noise” (2 Pet 3:10), and the author of Revelation (Rev 3:3; 16:15).
Strange image! It is a very unsympathetic God who waits the worst possible moment—the one where man is not prepared—to surprise him and sentence him to perdition.
The meaning of the parable is not this. It would no longer be “good news” a “Gospel,” it would only be a sterile threat. It is true that the Lord meets man at the end of life. That is certainly the most important of his comings and one needs to be prepared. However, if we observe well, death does not always behave like a thief. It typically announces its coming; it is preceded by very specific signs: old age, sickness, pain, decay.
The sudden coming of the Lord is another story. They are comings that take us by surprise like that of a thief. They are those in which he comes not to steal, but to save, to invite us to welcome the Kingdom of God.
The image of the thief has an undeniable intimidating tone. The aim is to warn of the danger of losing the opportunity for salvation that never arises again.
The third parable (vv. 41-48) is introduced as a response to Peter who asks the Lord who are those who need to stay vigilant. All—is the answer—but especially those who in the community have been tasked with a responsibility.
They are called “administrators,” not masters. They have in their hands the goods that do not belong to them and of which they must render account. Their ministry can be done in two ways. They may act as the faithful and wise servant who “distributes in time to all the servants their allowance of food” (v. 42). They undertake that in generous service in favor of the brothers and sisters of the community.
But they can also act for shameful gain and make themselves masters of the people entrusted to them (1 Pt 5:2-3).
Luke describes the behavior of unfaithful servants with stark realism: he speaks of idle people, who squander in revelry and carousing, using arrogant tones and behaving like despots. He clearly presents embarrassing situations, less exemplary concrete cases of some leaders of his community. He wants to remind them—with the stern words of the Master—to a greater sense of responsibility.
They are running the danger of and finding themselves excluded “cut off” from the group of disciples and placed among the infidels (v. 46). They are the prominent members of the Church, yet on them hangs a dramatic and unexpected judgment: God considers them failures. They are not—of course—condemned to hell. However, it will be tragic for them to have to admit when they can no longer remedy them, that they used the gifts of God in the worst way.
The image of the beatings which concludes the passage reflects a social context in which they often resorted to harsh punishment and even cruel to those who did not do their duty. The Lord does not punish anyone. The image underlines how despicable is the behavior of these leaders of the community. They are in the privileged position of those who knew the Lord’s will better than the others and are equally unfaithful. Their responsibility is greater.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.