Commentary on the Readings
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
Stripped of everything to be free and credible
Looking straight at the paralytic who was begging at the temple gate called “Beautiful,” Peter said, “Look at us.” He looked at them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter continued: “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the Messiah, walk!” (Acts 3:1-10).
The cripple was expecting anything but this. His fortune was to have met the two disciples who, faithful to the provisions of the Master, did not bring anything with them. Had they had money, they would have given alms, then he would have gone away, leaving him in a condition as before. The wonder took place because Peter and John were conscious of being custodians of a divine power, a word that can restore anyone who lies on the ground, unable to manage his own life, and depends on the compassion of others.
It is commendable that, where no one acts, the church performs a substitute work in areas where she is not specifically competent, but refuses to be identified with the humanitarian institutions. She keeps vigilance to avoid being innocently involved in spectacular and lucrative initiatives, so as not to compete with civilian structures that, through the commitment of lay Christians, is instead called to animate. She possesses a divine word and it is on this word that she relies, resisting the temptation to resort to means that people consider more effective. When she uses them, she can also do good, but she limits herself to begging, putting a new patch on an old garment, while her task is to create a completely new man, society, and world.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “The word of God is effective if it is announced to free people by the people.”
We need to go to the time of Solomon to find a period in Israel’s history when there was so much prosperity as in the days of Jeroboam II (8th century B.C.).
The enemies are defeated and the land beyond the Jordan recaptured; the boundaries extend “from the entrance of Hamath to the Dead Sea” (2 Kgs 14:25). To increase the feeling of safety and tranquility fortresses that guard the treasures derived from the intense trade with Phoenicia, with Saudi and along the routes of the Red Sea were built in each city. New agricultural techniques that increased production were introduced; textile industry and dyeing are thriving, the copper mines of Arabia operate at full capacity; everywhere there are beautiful and luxurious buildings and a real population explosion is registered.
It must be recognized that the country is at the peak of power and the credit must be attributed to the ability of the sovereign.
And religion? It has never been so practiced and promoted. The sanctuaries are overflowing with pilgrims who come to offer sacrifices, to fulfill vows and participate in the festivities.
In his own way, even Jeroboam II is a deeply religious man: He gives salaries to priests and bears the expenses of the temples he wants adorned with all magnificence.
It is true that in many shrines, worship encroaches into pagan practices, such as fertility cults and sacred prostitution, but, overall, one has to bless the Lord and thank the king for the welfare enjoyed by the country.
One day a rugged man comes to Bethel, where the most important of these temples rises. His face was sunburned because he spent his life leading the cattles to pasture outdoor and cultivating the farms. It is Amos, the herdsman of Tekoa, a town of Judah, situated on the edge of the desert, about ten kilometers south of Bethlehem.
Instead of rejoicing in the prosperity and peace that reigns everywhere, he hurls invectives against the king. He attacks the practice of religion, the ruling classes, the landlords and merchants. The well-being—he argues—is reserved to a privileged few, and the poor of the country paid dearly. The rich flaunt shameless luxury, having “summer palaces and winter mansions”, “houses of ivory” houses with many rooms (Am 3:9,15). They feast and go from party to party (Am 6:1-7).
Where does the wealth they squander in carousing come from? It is the fruit of bullying and harassment of the weak and defenseless workers and peasants. They oppress and exploit (Am 4:1). They resort to legalized cheating, falsifying the scales, fixing as they please the prices of the products (Am 8:5) and sell the needy for a pair of sandals (Am 8:6).
The women, great ladies, who indulge in revelry (Am 4:1-4) and judges who “turned justice into poison, trample on the rights and crush the poor and extorted levies on their grain” (Am 5:7,10-12) cannot escape the criticism of the prophet.
And the fervent religious practice? It’s all a lie, it is only a show. The prayers, worship, incense and burnt offerings that do not put an end to the scandalous inequalities, robberies and violence are repugnant to God (Am 5:21-24).
It is in this social and political context that the passage of today’s reading is set. Faced with allegations of Amos, the chief priest of the temple of Bethel, Amaziah takes offense and worries; he is afraid of Jeroboam II’s reaction. Someone will surely report the incident to him.
To silence the shepherd of Tekoa, Amasia denounces him to the king (Am 7:10), then directly confronts him: Be careful what you say!—He says—“Off with you seer, go back to the land of Judah. This is a king’s sanctuary and a national shrine!” (v. 12).
Outraged, Amos retorts: I am not a professional prophet. I do not belong to the category of those “court chaplains” who, like you, are employed by the sovereign. I do not defend personal interests and to earn a living, I do not need to please or flatter someone. I am a breeder of sheep and a dresser of sycamore trees and I know enough about myself (vv. 14-15). As for the king, the first responsible for this corrupt society, this is the fate that awaits him: “He shall die by the sword, and Israel shall be exiled from its land” (Am 7:11).
A few years passed and Samaria, the capital, fell under the blows of the Assyrian army. Thus ended, as Amos had promised, “the feast of sprawlers” (Am 6:7).
The Prophet is the intermediary of whom God uses to communicate His word (Ex 4:10-16; 7:1; Jer 1:9). To fulfill its mission well, he must live in intimate union with the Lord and assimilate his thoughts and wishes. Therefore he is called to break away from anything that may disrupt or disturb this spiritual harmony: personal interests, the religious and moral convictions made and derived from the way of thinking of the society in which he lives. He is asked to give up anything that might impair his freedom of speech: the friendships, gifts, economic dependence, compromises with the powerful of this world that, even when, as Jeroboam II, seem to favor the cause of the faith, they always pre-empt the credibility of the message.
For eight consecutive Sundays we will read passages from the Letter to the Ephesians. It is a text attributed to Paul, but composed around the year A.D. 90, by a disciple of Paul.
The churches of Asia Minor, who recognized him as the faithful guardian of the thought and spirit of the master, considered the letter written by the same Paul. Thus, referring to his authority, and keeping in line with the apostolic tradition, he gave an adequate response to the theological problems arising in their time.
The letter begins with a long hymn of praise to God for the marvels he has worked in favor of people.
The blessing is the most noted characteristic of the Jewish prayers. At any time of the day, the pious Israelite thinks of God’s intervention in behalf of his people, remembers the benefits granted to him and thanks him by reciting the blessings. That of the Letter to the Ephesians is a moving hymn, flowing from the heart of an Asia Minor’s Christian, sung during the liturgical celebrations and kept for us by the author of the letter.
It begins with a praise to the Lord, which is no longer called the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”, but “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3). He is blessed because having incorporated us into Christ, he made us partakers of all spiritual blessings.
The blessings promised to the patriarchs were temporal. God showed himself kind to his people by giving abundant harvests, multiplying flocks and herds, raising children like olive plants and making beautiful daughters “as pillars that adorn the corners of the temple” (Ps 144:12).
Who, by baptism, entered into Christ, is filled with spiritual blessings, which are not in conflict with the material ones. They instead constitute a new reality, an offering of imperishable goods and a life that goes beyond the horizons of this world.
After this joyous exclamation, the hymn presents, in the first stanza, the project of love created by God (vv. 4-6). Even before the creation of the world, he thought about the salvation of all people; he wished that they became one person in Christ, that they be sharers of his life and be part of his family. This is the fate that awaits all humankind: not ruin, but the endless joy, “to the praise of his glorious grace.” Human gratitude is turned to Him who does not reward according to merits, but gives everything for free, bestows his goods to the poor, offers to those who cannot present him any good work.
In the following stanza (vv. 7-12), the hymn sings the new condition of the believers in Christ. They are redeemed, freely rescued from their sins, at the price of the blood of Christ (v. 7), introduced in the knowledge of God’s plan, not only because the saving will of God was revealed to them, but because, effectively, in them this salvation has begun to be implemented in an irresistible way (vv. 8-10). They have become heirs of the same goods that the Father gives to His only begotten Son (vv. 11-12).
The image of the heritage recalls, once more, the gratuitousness of God’s gifts. Everything in him is grace and benevolence and he wants that, among his children, his gratuitous love always flows or move around. “We who were the first to set our hope on Christ,” says the author of the hymn, who places himself among the Jews who at once adhered to the faith (v. 12).
In the final stanza (vv. 13-14), with a “you”, he addresses the pagans who, after him, had listened to “the word of truth, the gospel that saves you.” Now, by the grace of the Lord, they too have become, along with the children of Abraham according to the flesh, heirs of the promises made to the patriarchs and their descendants.
The joy that pervades the entire hymn comes from knowing that the goodness of God towards man is unconditional, not dependent on the goodness of man, it is pure grace.
When, in the history of the world or in personal life, evil seems to have the upper hand, this hymn reminds the believer that the final victory will belong to the love of God. He will manage to bring to fruition the plan that he has created “before the creation the world” (v. 4).
In the first reading we came across two significant and opposite characters: Amaziah, the priest well integrated into the religious structure, full of merits and privileges and Amos, the rugged herdsman who suddenly began to be the prophet.
The first is a successful man, acclaimed and respected for being a friend of the powers that be and has achieved a prestigious position. He is not to be envied. He has it all, but he is not free. At any time he can be restricted by the sovereign who gives the bread, but he can also deny him. He is forced to show respect and unconditional veneration, to be always ready to flatter, to go along with the political games of his protector and turn a blind eye to his misdeeds. Amos is poor, but independent. He can say what he thinks, has nothing to lose, nothing to defend and owes nothing to anyone.
Poor to be free could be the motto that summarizes the conditions laid down by Jesus in today’s Gospel to those who are called to proclaim his word. They should look like Amos, not Amaziah.
The passage opens with the sending out of the twelve (v. 7).
All are sent, without exception. This indicates that the proclamation of the gospel is not a chore reserved for members of the community. The disciple who does not feel the need to share with others the gift received, probably is not yet convinced that, discovering Christ, he has found the most precious treasures.
The apostles are sent out two by two, not to keep each other company, but for a theological reason. Unlike Hinduism, Buddhism and all religions that propose as ideal the achievement of one’s own spiritual perfection, inner balance, purification—these objectives can be achieved even in a more complete loneliness and isolation—Christianity cannot but be lived in community, and to build a community, there need to be at least two. This is the reason why even the work of evangelization is never of individuals who preach their own personal insight or inspiration. Whoever proclaims the gospel must remain in full harmony and communion with the Church.
There is another important novelty introduced by Jesus. The rabbis did not go to look for disciples. The students were the ones who came to them to learn the Torah. Jesus instructs his apostles to go and offer the gospel message to people in their homes, in the environments in which they live. They do not have to wait for someone to look for them.
Finally, a power is conferred on the apostles. It may surprise us that Jesus did not give them the authority to command, to issue enforced regulations. The only power that the apostles received is the same that Jesus exercised: to give orders to “unclean spirits.” “Unclean spirits” are all forces that turn people away from God and from life, arouse bad feelings and cause oppression, violence and injustice. In comparison with these negative forces that dominate the world, the Christian community will certainly come out victorious, because the Master has invested her with an irresistible force, his own Spirit.
In the second part of the passage (vv. 8-9) the instructions regarding the equipment that the messengers of the Gospel can bring with them. It must be very light: only one tunic, a pair of sandals, a stick and nothing else. The rest is a baggage that weighs down. The material resources must be reduced to the essentials.
Let’s start with the stick. It was the weapon of the poor, therefore, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus forbids it (Mt 10:10). The disciples of Christ are peacemakers, therefore, they repudiate all the tools that prompt the use of violence.
In today’s passage, however, the apostles are allowed. The reason is that, in the Bible, the stick also has another symbolic meaning. Moses and Aaron, in pairs (“two by two”, as Jesus also recommended) fought against the oppressive forces of the pharaoh. They brought to completion the work of liberation of their people using a cane, a sign of God’s power. With it Moses worked wonders before Pharaoh (Ex 7:9-12). He stretched out his hand over the land of Egypt, and brought the locusts (Ex 10:13), divided the Red Sea (Ex 14:16), brought forth water from the rock (Ex 17:5-6).
Even the disciples of Christ have only a stick in his hand to carry out the work of liberating man from “unclean spirits.” They can rely on a single force, the one delivered to them by Jesus: his word.
What they should not carry with them is indicated: no food, no bag, no money … (vv. 8-9).
Jesus clearly uses paradoxes. There is need of being attentive in not giving a reductive interpretation to his words, not making his message feeble, depriving it of its provocative content. It is inane to believe that, if he were alive today, he would not be so severe and would adapt to the needs of modern life. He had nowhere to lay his head (Lk 9:58), but today he would change style and would not hesitate to invest wisely, the money of alms, to fight the sons of darkness with their own weapons.
Times have changed, it is true, and the words of Jesus are not to be taken literally. However, from these it clearly reflects the concern that, among the disciples, the leaven of this world infiltrates, the belief that the success of the mission depends on the amount of material means available to them.
Jesus never despised material goods, but has never presented poverty as an ideal life. However, he warned his disciples against the danger of being influenced by wealth. They are not free to speak the truth and to express what they think if they have to please someone, who, like Amaziah is paid, and must be grateful.
Over the centuries the church has paid a heavy price to the agreements and alliances with the powerful of this world, the compromises with those who have offered privileges, favors and guarantees. She paid for them with the loss of freedom and autonomy.
There is another more important reason that pushes Jesus to demand from his messengers that they present themselves without money and completely bare of all forms of power. Who flaunts superiority inevitably generates suspicion and provokes refusal; who reveals the desire to impose oneself, to obtain ideological victories, becomes disagreeable and brings forth objections. People trust only those who do not instill fear, those who are proud, for this the most effective way to win the trust is to hand over one’s life in the hands of those to whom the Gospel is offered, showing that they depend on them for their upkeep.
Haversack is not allowed, simply because it is not needed. It is a burden and an unnecessary annoyance. The disciple is not allowed to store supplies for the next day. He asks the Father for daily bread. If he gets more, he hands over to those in need what is leftover or surplus.
The complete detachment required by the Master does not only imply the renunciation of material goods. It also includes the rejection of preconceived ideas, traditions, hide-bound beliefs that always tempt to keep one behind or to which one easily clings to in so emotional and irrational way. Certain uses, habits, devotional practices, religious customs, tied to a specific historical and cultural past and innocently confused and equated to the gospel by someone are heavy burdens.
In the third section (vv. 10-11) Jesus speaks of the welcome given to his envoys. Some will be hosted with joy and gratitude; others will be rejected with disdain and contempt. How to react?
“In whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave the place” (v. 10).
At first glance, this recommendation seems an invitation to visit only one family, leaving aside the others. In fact Jesus warns of a serious mistake that could jeopardize the work of his missionaries: who proclaims the gospel will always find pious and generous persons who will offer hospitality in their homes. However, as you can imagine, the first accommodation will not be the best, it will be just one of luck, rather precarious, in which one must adapt to live.
Later, however, the missionaries will certainly meet people well disposed towards them and they will be offered a more comfortable home, then another even better and so on until they will have the chance to establish themselves in palaces.
Jesus recommends: stay in the first house. The disciples are asked a witness of an austere, sober life devoid of any ostentation of luxury. At stake is the credibility of the mission.
And when they are cast out? They will shake the dust from their feet (v. 11).
It was the gesture that every Israelite did leaving the land of the heathens, and entering the holy land. He thus expressed his belief that “the earth partakes of the character of its inhabitants” (Nm 5:17) and that, to take leave of the wicked, it would be necessary also to get rid of their dust.
Jesus suggests to his disciples to make this gesture, not as a sign of rejection and contempt, but “a testimony for them.” Note: for them, not against them.
That demand of Jesus is an expression of respect, a call not to insist more than what is needed. They must not be naggers so as not to get the opposite effect, that of annoying people and finally moving them away from the faith.
The authentic apostles are careful never to violate the freedom of others, not to become fanatic and intolerant squealers. They are conscious of being sent to bring a proposal, not to engage in theological battles. Their job is not getting many conversions, but faithfully proclaim the word of Christ. The adhesion or rejection, the more or less abundant fruit do not depend on them, but on the type of soil on which they will sow the seed in abundance, but with gentleness and respect.
The last verse (v. 12) narrates the success of the apostles’ mission. With the power conferred by the Master, they carry out the work of salvation for which they were sent. The sign of this salvation is the defeat of all forms of evil: physical evil (diseases) and moral evil (the expulsion of demons).