ISAIAH 2:1-5 | ROMANS 13:11-14 | MATTHEW 24:37-44
Today we begin the new liturgical year with a spirit of anticipation and unbridled hope! Today we begin Advent. The first scripture of the day is taken from the inaugural prophecy of Isaiah. For Christians, it’s perhaps the most well known passage of the Old Testament.
It would be helpful to put Isaiah’s prophecy into an historical context. In the year 736BC a young king, Ahaz, succeeded to the throne of Judah inheriting a serious political situation. The king of Damascus and the king of Israel tried to persuade him to join them in an alliance against the king of Assyria. When Ahaz refused, they declared war on Judah. The king reached out to Assyria for help.
Isaiah tried to dissuade him, begging him to rely on God’s faithfulness, not on untrustworthy political alliances. To persuade him he delivered his famous oracle of a messianic time to come. We’re reading this oracle today.
Ahaz agreed to an alliance that put Judah under Assyrian protection. Assyria used it, however, as an opportunity to annex the northern kingdom, Israel, in 734BC. Samaria fell in 721BC.When Hezekiah succeeded Ahaz as king in 716BC, he reached out to Egypt to support him in a revolt against Assyria. The result was disastrous. The Assyrian forces devastated Palestine in 701BC. Only Jerusalem survived destruction.
The fear and uncertainty must have been traumatic for the Jewish leadership and the general population during those years. It’s in this context that Isaiah delivered his first prophecy. It began with a lament for Jerusalem, symbolic of the rulers of Judah.
“The faithful city, what a harlot she
has become! Zion, once full of fair
judgment, where saving justice used
to dwell, but now assassins! Your
silver has turned to dross, your wine
is watered. Your princes are rebels,
accomplices of brigands. All of them
greedy for presents and eager for
bribes, they show no justice to the
orphan, and the widow’s cause never
reaches them.” (Isaiah 1:22-24)
This lament over the corruption of Judah and Jerusalem is followed by a vision of a new world – a Messianic time. In the vision, Jerusalem is transformed from the place of corruption to the glorious kingdom of God. The temple mount, Zion, the Lord’s house, is seen flooded by people streaming in from every part of the world. The divisions and hostilities that have kept people and nations apart have dissolved. The Lord’s house welcomes everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.
This is a revolutionary image. The word “nations” is goyim in Hebrew. It has a much broader meaning than various countries. It means all those people who aren’t Jews – who aren’t God’s chosen people. In the Jewish vocabulary it’s the disparaging word for “them,” those who aren’t one of us. In the Messianic Time there will be no them and us. National borders no longer exist so that “the nations” may freely stream into the Lord’s house. The prophecy goes on:
“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not rise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.”
What a prophecy! Imagine – a world with no national borders to defend – a world with no wars – a world at peace – a world in which God’s house is its only capital!
Isaiah’s prophecy leads us into Advent, but we must prepare ourselves for this procession to the house of God. We’re asked to shed our crippling cynicism. We’re asked to envision the corruption all around us as a thing of the past. We’re encouraged to abandon our narrow and divisive notions of nation, race and creed. We’re asked to open our eyes to the new world of the Messianic time. We are asked to take a spiritual step into that bright new world, and “walk in the light of the Lord!”
2 SAMUEL 5:1-3 | COLOSSIANS 1:12-20 | LUKE 23:35-43
We’re privileged to witness one of the most intimate moments in the life of Jesus. Luke captures the moment for us. It’s Friday, the day after Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples. It’s Good Friday. Jesus has been nailed to the cross bar and lifted up. There are two insurgents being executed with him. One on a cross to his left and the other to his right. There isn’t anything awesome about the scene. It’s gruesome and ugly. It’s bloody and sadistic.
The religious leaders have banded together near the execution site. They’re grandstanding, shouting so that the crowd, and the people walking past the site, can clearly hear them. “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Chosen One, the Christ of God.” The guards assigned to the execution begin to join in the jeering and the mockery. The whole thing is a macabre circus for them as they listen to the shouts of the religious leaders, and read Pilate’s sarcastic decree of execution. So, they shout, too. “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
In the midst of this madness, one of the crucified begins to join in with the religious leaders and the guards. “Are you not the Messiah. Save yourself and us!” His voice is constricted by pain and the terrible anger that rages inside of him. His choice to fight for the liberation of Israel brought him to his cross. The socalled Messiah being crucified with him did nothing to further the liberation of Israel, yet the focus is on this holy loser.
Then, another voice can be heard. A rebuke comes from the other cross. “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”
A few hours ago, Judas, a once follower of Jesus, embraced him, and kissed him. Now, a new disciple, a crucified disciple, turns toward Jesus to kiss him. For a few moments, the shouts, the rebukes, the noise, the suffering stops. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus’ words kiss him in return. “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
I shut out the world and its noise.
I look beyond my suffering and the suffering of my human family.
I kiss the Lord of life.
I let my heart speak.
Jesus, Christ, my King,
remember me when you come into your kingdom.
MALACHI 3:19-20A | 2 THESSALONIANS 3:7-12 | LUKE 21:5-19
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the end of the liturgical year becomes a metaphor for the end of the world as we know it. Our world with its violence, its greed and power lust, its injustice, and its oppression will be exposed, judged and purified. We can clearly see this theme in the readings for this Sunday.
In the passage from the prophet Malachi we hear his prophecy of a day of universal judgment. “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire.” He concludes his prophecy, however, with a word of hope. “But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”
In the gospel passage, Jesus was teaching in the temple and overheard people commenting on the beauty and opulence of the temple. He remarked, “All that you see here – the days will come when there will not be a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” He then continued his teaching using language very similar to Malachi’s.
He cautioned his disciples not to be terrified when they heard of wars and insurrections because nations and kingdoms would inevitably rise against each other. There would be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place. There would even be mighty signs in the sky. In addition, another dynamic would be taking place as these events were unfolding. Jesus’
disciples would be seized and imprisoned. They would even be handed over by friends and relatives. They would be hated because of their association with him. Some of them would be put to death. But this would not be the end of the world.
Malachi’s prophecy recognized the darkness of the world we live in, but it also looked to a world purified of injustice and oppression, of war and violence. We Christians, always hopeful, anticipate “a new heaven and a new earth,” a world in harmony with God, a new Eden. However, this new world won’t be forced on us. There won’t be a great rapture during which bad people would be obliterated and good people rise into the heavens.
We Christians hold that the new world will come to life though our self-sacrifice – our living, not for ourselves, but for others. This is the central teaching of Jesus. He modeled this teaching when he washed his disciples feet. He modeled it when he took up the cross. He asked us to follow him. To do what he did. To live as he lived. To continue his mission.
The new world will reveal itself gradually through the loving and sacrificial lives of people like you and me – people who take to heart what Jesus taught and modeled in his own life. In spite of the dismal condition of our world today, we can’t lose hope. We must be devoted to the vision of a new world. We must, no matter what it will cost us, live our lives for others.
2 MACCABEES 7:1-2, 9-14 | 2 THESSALONIANS 2:16-3:5 | LUKE 20:27-28, 34-38
In all honesty, I completely understand if you think that this is a “who cares” gospel passage. Jesus and the Sadducees (whoever they are) are arguing with Jesus about the resurrection of the dead. Jesus finds a way to shut them up, and this makes the scribes (whoever they are) happy. Basta! Let’s move on to the next chapter. But I see an opportunity here to learn more about the world Jesus lived in and had to negotiate.
Also, what Jesus is teaching is pertinent today. I know quite a few Catholics who don’t believe in an afterlife. Think of the Catholic cultures that carry out lifelong mourning customs. A good example is the millions of widows who wear black for the rest of their lives. That doesn’t give testimony to a joyful afterlife with God. Let’s find out who the players are in this scene. Who are the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the scribes?
The Pharisees weren’t a political party. They were content with any government that allowed them to carry on with their religious observances. When it came to doctrine, the Pharisees accepted all the scriptures, the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament, and the writings of the prophets. They also accepted as doctrine the thousands of regulations and rules that had been passed on orally over the centuries. They held on dearly to the ceremonial laws such as the sabbath regulations and hand washings. They believed in the resurrection of the dead and in angels and spirits. They hoped for the coming of a messiah who would begin a golden age for Israel.
The Sadducees were the rich aristocrats of the Jewish world. Many of them were also priests. To maintain their wealth and social status they collaborated with the Roman occupation. They rejected the thought of a coming Messiah because it would certainly have overturned their privileged life style. Religiously, they accepted as doctrine only the Law of Moses, not the prophets. They held that there was no resurrection of the dead, no spirits and no angels.
The scribes were the professional lawyers. It was their
duty to know the scriptures – every chapter and verse, and memorized the oral tradition. They drafted legal documents such a marriage contracts, divorce decrees, loans, inheritances, mortgages and the sale of property. They literally copied the law, and during the time of the prophets also served as personal secretaries. If anyone had a question about the law, they asked a scribe for an answer. Philosophically, they tended to link themselves with the Pharisees.
In today’s gospel passage we see the Sadducees ganging up on Jesus, the latest messianic figure to appear in Israel. They brought up an outdated, and no longer practiced law, Deuteronomy 25: 5-6. “When brothers live together, and one of them dies without a son, the widow of the deceased shall not marry anyone outside the family; but her husband’s brother shall go to her and perform the duty of a brother-in-law by marrying her. The first-born son she bears shall continue the line of the deceased brother, that his name not be blotted out from Israel.”
They contrived a situation in which seven brothers were forced to marry their deceased brother’s widow, but each of them died before providing the widow with a son. Their question, attacking the notion of an afterlife, asked which of all these brothers would be the widow’s official husband in heaven. The question was meant to be a mockery of the thought of afterlife, but Jesus decided to answer them. “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.” He then backed up what he said with a reference to the book of Exodus (Ex 3:6) in which God identified himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God “is not God of the dead, but of the living, for in him all are alive.” I hope that my short explanation of the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes will be helpful when you read the New Testament. It’s important to understand the religious and political tensions that surrounded Jesus. It helps us achieve a deeper insight into his teachings. Also, I encourage you to think about Jesus’ message to the Sadducees. What’s your understanding and beliefs regarding resurrection and afterlife? As we move through Fall, the Sunday liturgies give us many Gospel passages that encourage our reflection on death and afterlife. In today’s passage, Jesus said that we become children of God when we pass over. He also said, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” But what do teachings like these mean to you, personally?