By Martin Jumbam
Mother Church celebrates Sunday, August 11, 2013 as the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C. The main theme of this day’s Holy Mass is Christ’s call for us to be vigilant and prepared for we know neither the day nor the hour of his return. In the entrance antiphon we pray, “Lord, be true to your covenant, forget not the life of your poor ones for ever. Rise up, O God, and defend your cause; do not ignore the shouts of your enemies. Amen.”
The first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, recalls a great event: the Passover when God freed the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt. The people then thank and praise God who is always faithful to his promises. He always brings freedom and salvation to whoever turns to him and puts their trust in him. In the second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, the sacred writer tells his Hebrew converts that only faith in the Risen Lord can bring them eternal salvation. Like Abraham, our ‘Father in faith’, who trusted God unconditionally and complied with his demands without questioning them, the sacred author also calls on us to put our faith completely in God who never fails to keep his promises to whoever trusts in him. In the Gospel, from Luke, Jesus calls on his disciples, and on all of us, to be always prepared for his coming, which can be anytime. We should, therefore, learn to be on our guard and prepare our lives spiritually to enter into God’s glory whenever the Master calls.
Brothers and sisters in the Lord, our Saviour is asking us today, more than at any other time, to be always vigilant, to be on our guard in anticipation of his coming. We can, however, not succeed in this task if we do not turn to the Holy Spirit to strengthen our faith so we can remain awake and ready to receive our Lord when he comes. We pray, in the course of this Holy Eucharist, that God should send us his Spirit to strengthen our faith so we can learn to love and to forgive each other, as it is through love and forgiveness of each other’s trespasses that we better prepare ourselves to receive our Lord whenever he comes.
First Reading: Book of Wisdom 18: 6-9.
That night had been foretold to our ancestors, so that, once they saw what kind of oaths they had put their trust in they would joyfully take courage. This was the expectation of your people, the saving of the virtuous and the ruin of their enemies; for by the same act with which you took vengeance on our foes you made us glorious by calling us to you. The devout children of worthy men offered sacrifice in secret and this divine pact they struck with one accord: that the saint would share the same blessings and dangers alike; and forthwith they had begun to chant the hymns of the fathers.
V/ The word of the Lord.
R/ Thanks be to God.
Before we look at the passage of our meditation, let us take a quick look at the history behind the Book of Wisdom. It was originally written in Greek and so does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. Martin Luther and other Protestant Reformers of the 16th century followed the Jewish practice and excluded the Book of Wisdom from their own Bible, under the pretext that it was not divinely inspired. But the Latin Church, at the Council of Trent (1546), included it in its list of sacred canonical books, which the first Vatican Council endorsed in 1870.1 Even though the book does not mention King Solomon, it is usually attributed to him on account of his reputation for wisdom.
Historically, the Book of Wisdom is probably the last book of the Old Testament, being written only a few decades before the birth of Christ. It was originally written in the Greek spoken in the cities of Lower Egypt after the conquest of that zone by Alexander the Great in the last third of the 4th century BC.
The African Bible2 tells me that the Greek culture at the time of this book was so attractive that many Jews were beginning to abandon Jewish culture in favour of the Greek. So the author’s main purpose is to warn the Jews that their culture has nothing to envy from the dominant Greek culture. He has a clear religious goal in mind, that is, to set wisdom in the context of the profound faith in the God of Israel, the one and only God. His faith leads him not only to praise wisdom as a virtue but to go beyond that and depict wisdom as a divine attribute. Moreover, he puts forward a religious interpretation of history as being the history of salvation and provides a clear overview of the history of the chosen people and of their dealings with other peoples. With this, he calls on the Jewish people to be proud of their culture that is divinely inspired.
The second half of the Book of Wisdom, from where our reading is taken, is a long homily on the rescue of the people of Israel from Egypt. The sacred author uses the Book of Exodus to build a picture of Israel and Egypt pitted against each other – one receiving divine protection, the other incurring God’s anger. God therefore takes vengeance against Egypt and makes Israel glorious by instituting the Passover, which would forever signify the deliverance from slavery.
What does this passage tell me as a Christian living in the city of Douala today? First of all, it tells me that God always protects his people, as he did the when he rescued the Jews from bondage in Egypt. Secondly, his warning to the Jews not to wholeheartedly embrace the Greek culture to the detriment of their own culture also applies to us in Cameroon. Our cultures had also suffered in the hands of colonizers with many positive values being abandoned as incompatible with Christianity. Recently, however, the Catholic Church has been encouraging inculturation, which Blessed John Paul II describes as ‘the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity’ and ‘the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures.’3 What this means is that our preachers should make extensive use of our proverbs, myths, and other wise sayings in their preaching to enable our people better understand the wisdom embedded in the Word of God. Amen.
Second Reading: Hebrews 11: 1-2; 8-19
Only oath can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of the realities that at present remain unseen. It was for faith that our ancestors were commended.
It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the call to set out for a country that was the inheritance given to him and his descendants, and that he set out without knowing where he was going. By faith he arrived, as a foreigner, in the Promised Land, and lived there as if in a strange country, with Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. They lived there in tents while he looked forward to a city founded, designed and built by God.
It was equally by faith that Sarah, in spite of being past age, was made able to conceive, because she believed that he who had made the promise would be faithful to it. Because of this, there came from one man, and one who was already as good as dead himself, more descendants than could be counted, as many as the stars of heaven or the grains of sand on the seashore.
All these died in faith, before receiving any of the things that had been promised, but they saw them in the far distance and welcomed them, recognizing that they were only strangers and nomads on earth. People who use such terms about themselves make it quite plain that they are in search of their real homeland. They can hardly have meant the country they came from, since they had the opportunity to go back to it; but in fact they were longing for a better homeland, their heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, since he has founded the city for them.
It was by faith that Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He offered to sacrifice his only son even though the promises had been made to him and he had been told: It is through Isaac that your name will be carried on. He was confident that God had the power even to raise the dead; and so, figuratively speaking, he was given back Isaac from the dead.
V/ The word of the Lord.
R/ Thanks be to God.
The Letter to the Hebrews is one of the most imposing and important books in the New Testament. It was written principally to show the superiority of Christianity over the Old Covenant. It focuses on the idea that Christ's priesthood and sacrifice are superior to those of the priests of old. The author clearly indicates that the Law of Moses is not capable of saving mankind which has fallen through Adam’s sin. Christ has therefore, through his cross, abolished and replaced the Old Law with the new Law of the Gospel, which is the law of grace, freedom and interior challenge. This sacred writer uses this teaching as the basis for encouraging his readers to persevere in the faith despite the difficulties they may face in their Christian life. The Letter to the Hebrews is therefore a word of exhortation to steadfastness in faith, which is anchored on Jesus Christ in whom we believe.
The passage of our meditation centers on faith which enables the believer to acquire certainty concerning God’s promises to man and a firm conviction that he will obtain access to heaven. Abraham is presented as our “Father in faith,” who trusts God unconditionally and complies with God’s demands without questioning them. He believes in God without looking for signs and guarantees, a sign of true faith.
We are told that Abraham is a man “who was already as good as dead” because he and his wife, Sarah, have passed child-bearing age. Therefore the prospect of having their own children and their own land seems highly unlikely. But their faith in God enables them to believe in what they cannot see. They believe and are rewarded with a son. They set out for their promised land without any clue as to where they are going. They only have their faith in God to rely on.
Faith is a virtue that is necessary for salvation but faith alone is not sufficient, it must be accompanied by charity. What pleases God is not that we have faith in him; it is how well we blend that faith with acts of charity, what Saint Paul calls “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). As the Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI says in Porta Fidei (14), “Faith without charity bears no fruit, while charity without faith would be a sentiment constantly at the mercy of doubt. Faith and charity each require the other, in such a way that each allows the other to set out along its respective path […] Through faith,” continues the Holy Father, “we can recognize the face of the risen Lord in those who ask for our love.”
If we have strong faith, we need not fear. Like Abraham, whose deep faith in God enables him to look into the future with hope, we too must risk all for the sake of our belief in God. We cannot do this alone; we need the assistance of the Holy Spirit who strengthens and reassures us, especially in those moments when our faith is put to the test. Come, Holy Spirit, and strengthen our faith. We make our supplication through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Gospel: Saint Luke 12: 32-48.
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘There is no need to be afraid, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms. Get yourselves purses that do not wear out, treasure that will not fail you, in heaven where no thief can reach it and no moth destroy it. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
See that you are dressed for action and have your lamps lit. Be like men waiting for their master to return from the wedding feast, ready to open the door as soon as he comes and knocks. Happy those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. I tell you solemnly, he will put on an apron, sit them down at table and wait on them. It may be in the second watch he comes, or in the third, but happy those servants if he finds them ready. You may be quite sure of this, that if the householder had known at what hour the burglar would come, he would not have let anyone break through the wall of his house. You too must stand ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’
Peter said, ‘Lord, do you mean this parable for us, or for everyone?’ The Lord replied, ‘What sort of steward, then, is faithful and wise enough for the master to place him over his household to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Happy that servant if his master’s arrival finds him at this employment. I tell you truly, he will place him over everything he owns. But as for the servant who says to himself, “My master is taking his time coming,” and sets about beating the menservants and the maids, and eating and drinking and getting drunk, his master will come on a day he does not expect and at an hour he does not know. The master will cut him off and send him to the same fate as the unfaithful.
‘The servant who knows what his master wants, but has not even started to carry out those wishes, will receive very many strokes of the lash. The one who did not know, but deserves to be beaten for what he has done, will receive fewer strokes. When a man has had a great deal given him, a great deal will be demanded of him; when a man has had a great deal given him on trust, even more will be expected of him.’
V/ The Gospel of the Lord.
R/ Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
Today’s Gospel invites us to be always ready, not only for death but also for those times when Jesus comes into our lives, especially in the least of our brothers and sisters. For whatever we fail to do to the least among us, we fail to do it to Christ himself (Mt 25: 45). Today, we are all invited to be ready, to keep our lamps burning, to keep sufficient quantity of oil for our lamps so we would not be caught off guard with our lamps unlit, like the ten foolish virgins who went to welcome their master but failed to take sufficient oil for their lamps. (Mt 25: 1-13). We must not fail to accompany the groom into the wedding room because we waited for the last minute to fill our lamps.
We are urged to be watchful, especially as the enemy is always prowling around (1 Pet 5:8). Death may surprise us, like a thief in the night (1 Thes 6:2). We watch in prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to strengthen our faith, a point the sacred writer of the Letter to the Hebrews insists on in the second reading of this day. A strong faith strengthens our resolve to resist the temptations of the evil one and keeps us permanently on our guard. Vigilance is the keyword in our Lord’s teaching.
The parable of this Gospel asks us to be prepared to meet the Lord. It is better to live in readiness to receive him when he is late than to be caught unexpected. The Lord helps us to be ready for him till he comes so that we may be counted among those to whom he says: “Happy are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. I tell you solemnly he will put on an apron, sit them down at table and wait on them”.
The Lord is not asking us to wait for him with folded arms. No, he requires of us that we put into use the talents he has given each of us. The question to ask is “How have I been using the talent God gave me?” Have I buried it in the ground or have I used it for my good and that of my neighbours? Have I served the least of my brothers and sssters by visiting the sick, the prisoners, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked? (Mt 25: 13-46).
The Fathers of the Church tell us in one of their documents, Lumen gentium, 48, that “Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed (Heb 9:27), we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed (Mt 25: 31-46) and not, like the wicked and slothful servants (Mt 25:26), be ordered to depart into the eternal fire (Mt 25:41).” Let us pray for the grace to always keep our gaze, as Benedict XVI says, permanently fixed on Christ so his coming will not take us by surprise. Holy Spirit, come to our assistance. Amen.
- 1. The Navarre Bible: Wisdom Books. Texts and Commentaries, Scepter Publishers, New York, 1999, p. 301.
- 2. The African Bible, Paulines Publication Africa, Nairobi, 1991, pp. 1078-1080.
- 3. Ecclesia in Africa, p.60.