Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
For its first reading this weekend, the church presents a rather short selection from the final part of the Book of Isaiah.
By the time this passage was written, the Jews, long trapped in exile in Babylon, had returned home. The conquest of Babylonia by Persia and the resulting collapse of the Babylonian empire enabled them to go home.
It was a bittersweet return, however, additionally so since few of the exiles, if any, were old enough to remember the homeland. But their parents and grandparents surely had told them about it. Everything was good, so they longed to leave Babylon and rediscover pride in their own identity. In a way, they thought that, indeed, they were going to the Promised Land.
The bubble burst when they actually arrived. The homeland was desolate. Life was miserable. The prophets had to cope with the people’s great disappointment, bewilderment and anger with God. The reading reasserts God’s promise to protect and sustain the Chosen People.
St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians is the source of the second reading. In the first century A.D., Corinth was Las Vegas and New York City rolled into one. Converts to Christianity lived in Corinth but, assuming from Paul’s two letters, they constantly were lured away from the Gospel.
Evidently and not surprisingly, pagans mocked and tantalized the Christians, leading these Christians to ask themselves if living chastely and keeping the quest for material gain in check made any sense at all. Paul had to fortify their faith and resolve.
The third reading, from St. Matthew’s Gospel, is part of a rather long discourse given by the Lord to his disciples about life. It is not startling, but simple logic. He says that no one can serve two masters, and true followers must choose to serve only God.
Probably no time in history, anywhere, were people utterly without material concern. If it is not the task of making a living, or of maintaining a constant and fulfilling relationship, it is a question of health.
For Jews at the time of Jesus, things were extraordinarily bad. The temptation was to enter a “dog-eat-dog” world just to survive. Hanging over everything was the Roman occupation, with its hedonism, materialism and vicious injustice. The temptation was to join them if you could not beat them, and no one beat the Romans.
Understandably, the Jews questioned their traditional beliefs. Where was God, their protector, in all this? Whatever did their status as Chosen People mean? Many were tempted to answer these questions by saying God was not there, that being God’s people meant nothing.
Jesus is quite frank in this reading. Not so much condemning the things of the world — certainly not the necessities of life — Jesus instead reminds the audience that for genuine disciples only attention to God and to God’s will suffice.
God must be the only master. Jesus then reassures the disciples: Worry not about incidentals, but be concerned about what actually is important. Judge by God’s standards, not by the world’s.
In three days the church will call us to observe Ash Wednesday and to begin Lent. Lent, this ancient season of penance and renewal so identified with the Catholic faith, is a liturgical opportunity for every believer to search her or his soul, to reform by rejecting sin and to recommit to the Lord. In this will be new life: So on Easter, if they have taken advantage of Lent, Christians will experience for themselves a revival of life.
Before any spiritual undertaking in Lent can succeed, we must look at the criteria by which we judge ourselves. Who is our master? If God is not our master, we are foolish.