Living the readings: Things are not what they seem

What did Jesus want to accomplish during his public ministry?

By Father Joseph Brando

You may have noticed that this column has been adjusting to the publishing schedule of The East Tennessee Catholic.

Over the long haul this column has developed from a bi-weekly format to a monthly, and now we come to you every other month. In the process I’ve learned that the interval between columns changes the very nature of the article.

Back 25 years ago we were focusing on one or two Sunday liturgies. Our focus was on a very precise Scripture passage. Now, we cover eight weeks of Sundays in each column. That’s a minimum of 24 Scripture readings. It’s more when feast days occur on a weekday. For certain, the focus is now much broader. No longer can we analyze a few concepts. Our task now is to present the big picture.

So, in today’s column, for example, we are trying to find out what Jesus wanted to accomplish during his public ministry. Let’s continue following that path. This column will get us halfway to Advent; and by the next edition we’ll be there. Not only is the focus farther away; the speed is whirling by. So, we’ll spend August and September nicely gliding halfway to Advent, and the other half neatly consumes October and November. There we are approaching Christmas right where it belongs in our December issue.

So, right now, we begin the last half of Ordinary Time. However, there is first an interruption of two feast days. They are the Transfiguration of Jesus and the Assumption of Mary. These feasts signal a change in the theme of this liturgical year. So, even though there is a Sunday between these two important feasts, we’ll discuss them together and find out that, when we are dealing with God, things are not what they seem.

The first of these feasts is the Transfiguration. Perhaps Jesus’ disciples thought their mentor was a great religious leader. At this event, Peter, James, and John hear a voice proclaiming, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When they heard this, the disciples, filled with fear, fell prostrate.

There was a lot more to Jesus than what they had thought. Jesus is changing his approach from instructional to powerful. From now on in both the Scripture and in the liturgy we come to see and hear more about the Lord and learn He is also God. He has received dominion, glory, and kingship. He appears speaking with Moses and Elijah. The scenes are enough to strike fear in his disciples. Jesus now takes the opportunity to instruct the apostles to “rise and do not be afraid.”

Nine days later, the liturgy turns from Jesus to Mary. The first reading offers us a view of a great sign in the sky. The passage is meant not to be understood as to be experienced. The appeal is to our senses, which are bombarded. That is not to say our intelligence is let off easily. Paul writes to the Corinthians and us that “through one man death came and, so, through one man, comes resurrection.”

The Gospel for the feast comes from the first chapter of Luke in which we behold in our minds the two pregnant women. There is Elizabeth, who is much too old to bear a child, and Mary, who is too young. Both children are jumping for joy inside their wombs.

Then, the words come. Mary, in her beautiful Magnificat, adds meaning to this ecstatic experience. “The almighty has done great things for me…He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, and has scattered the proud in their conceit.”

We return to Ordinary Time on the 20th Sunday, which also happens to be Aug. 20. Now, we are armed with the knowledge that things are not going to look like they seem to be. So, let’s look at the Gospel readings for the next six Sundays and see if we can learn something from what doesn’t look right.

On the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time we meet a Canaanite woman. Immediately, we know she is an idol-worshiper. She should not have faith. Jesus’ disciples thought so and wanted Jesus to shoo her away. Rather, he explored her faith content and found she did have great faith. In response to that faith, Jesus healed her daughter. That tells us to look deeper into people. One lesson is that, if we look for faith in anyone, you might find he or she has it in great abundance.

On the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Jesus checks out the faith of his own disciples. He asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer was, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus praised that answer, replying “And so, I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. Jesus also confides the “keys to the kingdom” to Peter. However, he wasn’t through questioning him.

Look at the Gospel for the following Sunday. Jesus continues to instruct his disciples on their faith and Jesus’ own method of spreading belief in his kingdom. Jesus tells them that he must “go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised.” There, the Lord gave them the whole scenario. Peter takes Jesus aside and tells Jesus that “nothing like that should ever happen to you.” Jesus answers, “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus accuses Peter of thinking not as God does, but as humans do. Things are not what they seem even in our thinking process. Just like Peter, we need to examine our faith structure and our thinking process. It may not meet the specifications that Jesus wants for us. From us, Jesus demands, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

The Gospel for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time deals with what Jesus teaches us to do when your brother sins against you. It begins with telling him his fault. If he listens, you have won him over. If he doesn’t listen to you, then take one or two others so they will go over every fact of the situation. If he still refuses to listen, tell the church. Finally, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. So, the final step of judging who is right is to go to the Church and pray over the subject at hand. What the church determines is God’s answer, and it is final. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

That passage leads us to the next problem: how often must I forgive my brother who sins against me. By now, one may have figured out that the number would be astronomical. Translators vary in their analysis of the number. Some say seventy. Others say it is seventy-seven or seventy times seven or something of the sort. No matter, it is a large number. Probably the best answer is the one Jesus gave in his parable on the subject. There, several billion dollars is compared to some small change. Of the two debtors in the parable, the one forgiven from a huge debt had to forgive the one who owed him a meager amount. Just think! We owe God for everything in our lives. What others owe us is absolutely trivial in comparison. So, how often must I forgive others? Things are not what they seem. We need to do a lot of forgiving before we can catch up with how many times God has forgiven us.

The last Sunday in September happens to be the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time. The Gospel is a familiar one that has been talked about for years on end. It features the parable in which a landowner hires workers for his vineyard five distinctly different times during the day. Each time he found workers who claimed nobody wanted to hire them. When the day was ended he paid all his workers starting with the ones hired last. Those who were hired first complained that they should get paid more.

The owner paid all the workers the same amount. His retort was, “Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous? Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The conclusion to this parable causes some difficulty to a lot of good people. Thinking back on the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, we can meditate on God’s amazing generosity and rejoice in it. The rule that the owner of the vineyard is guided by is compassion not legalism. Is God unjust? Or do we become disappointed when people new to the faith receive the fullness of Christ’s love without enduring the problems of those old Christians who were persecuted? Remember! Things are often not what they seem.

Father Brando is retired from the active priesthood in the Diocese of Knoxville.

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