And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children—
“My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
or lose heart when you are punished by him;
for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves,
and chastises every child whom he accepts.”
Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?
Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Hearing the Word
“Shattering Harmful Assumptions”
Today’s readings show the shattering of certain harmful assumption, which distorted the religious views of some, preventing them from responding adequately to God’s grace working in their midst.
In the first reading the prophet Isaiah speaks to the Israelites shortly after their return from the Babylonian exile. He addresses a small community, facing an enormous task of rebuilding their desolate country. They saw the task of rebuilding the Temple as their duty as the descendants of Abraham and God’s chosen people. Because of their origin and history these Israelites thought of themselves as an exclusive group, different from the rest of humankind. They assumed that rebuilding of the destroyed Temple was a way to return to, and maintain, their unique and exclusive status before God.
The prophet challenges this assumption. He describes a glorious gathering of all the nations, whom God will draw to himself in order to make himself known. God desires to reveal his glory to those strangers as he did in the past to the Israelites gathered at Sinai. Moreover, God will choose some from this multitude as his messengers. These will be sent out to proclaim God’s glory to the foreign nations, and return bringing their kin to the one who sent them. Those foreigners will come from all lands and all social groups to worship God on his holy mountain, Zion. They will be joined by the Israelites bringing their offerings to worship the Lord in his Temple. Isaiah paints here a picture of a new, universal and inclusive community of God people. The most striking and amazing element of this vision is the fact that from among these foreigners God will choose some to serve as his priests and as the Levites. These were exclusive functions strictly reserved for the Israelite males from the tribe of Levi. Now, this unique service to God is open to the non-Levites and foreigners.
Presenting this vision to the tiny Israelite community, Isaiah seeks to broaden their understanding of what the future holds, and to make them aware of the greatness of their God as the God for all humanity. Without denying a special and privileged position of the Israelites in God’s plan of salvation, Isaiah challenges the assumption that God’s attention and plans extended only to them. Therefore, their efforts to rebuild their city, to rebuild Zion, were not only about the restoration of their national shrine. For Isaiah, this project had far greater implications. It signified God’s intent to bring all humanity to himself, and unite them to himself on the mount Zion of the future.
In the second reading the author of Hebrews challenges false assumption held by some members of the community regarding the suffering and afflictions they were experiencing. Some might have assumed that becoming Christians will lead to an untroubled existence free from misfortune and adversity. Others might have thought that the difficulties they experience came as punishment for transgressions they might have committed. Still others might have thought that God was simply indifferent to their fate.
The author challenges such assumptions interpreting the suffering and adversity as a means of training and instruction. It is essential to note that the community to which Hebrews was written was becoming increasingly indifferent and lax in the practice of their faith. In this context the author states that their sufferings are neither a punishment nor a sign of the absence of God’s grace and care. On the contrary, God pays special attention to them as his children and permits the challenges to reignite their faith and make it grow. To make this point the author uses the concept of “discipline”. This concept had its roots in the Israelite wisdom tradition, which is evident in the quote from Proverbs 3:11-12 which the author employs. This text clearly states that some misfortunes serve as means of training in righteousness. God, like a loving parent, allows these challenges to spur on the child to grow. The author of Hebrews adds yet another way of looking at discipline. In the Greek world, discipline was related to the endurance and pain involved in the training of athletes, and of soldiers preparing for competition and war respectively. The “drooping hands” and “weak knees” mentioned are images of the physical exhaustion which the athletes must overcome in order to progress. In the same manner, the Christians addressed in this letter are admonished to accept the challenges as God’s way of ensuring progress in faith for his beloved children. The false assumptions they held regarding the role of suffering held them back from making this progress and recognizing God’s work among them.
Progressing towards Jerusalem, Jesus was asked about the number of those who will be saved. The common assumption held by most of his fellow Jews at the time was that, since all Israelites are descendants of Abraham and thus God’s people, they will all be saved. Jesus’ teaching challenged this common assumption, leading a passer-by concerned about his salvation to pose this question about the number of those who will be saved. Answering, Jesus confirmed that belonging to a particular ethnic group does not guarantee salvation. He explained this using yet another athletic metaphor of “striving” for salvation by “entering through the narrow door”. Salvation requires effort and decisive actions. The image of the house owner “shutting the door” is an image for Jesus as the judge who either opens or shuts the door leading to eternal life and salvation. Those who were not allowed to enter, surprised and dismayed, argued with Jesus. After all, they knew him, he ate and drank with them and taught in their streets. How could he exclude his own kindred from the glory of heaven? Jesus’ answer reveals the reason. His own people, those who heard him teach, and associated with him on daily basis, did not respond to him with faith and obedience. They assumed that salvation is theirs just because they shared Jesus’ nationality. Jesus divests them of this assumption. The true descendants of Abraham and of the prophets, that is the true children of God who enter the kingdom, are defined not by their ethnicity but by their response to Jesus. Most of his contemporaries heard him but remained indifferent. These are the ones who thought of themselves as “first” but became “last”. In contrast, many sinners and foreigners who were thought to be “last” became “first” as they embraced Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.
Today’s readings warn of the danger of false assumptions in the life of faith. Isaiah challenged the assumption of exclusivity, proclaiming God as the universal Lord of peoples. The author of Hebrews challenged the assumptions of his Christians regarding suffering and its role, that held them back from making progress in faith. Jesus challenged the common assumption that salvation is linked with ethnicity or based on a formal membership in a particular group or community. He disclosed that salvation depends solely on “striving” to hold on to God’s grace by responding to him, Jesus, with faith and obedience. The false assumptions are dangerous but can be avoided because God reaches to his faithful through his messengers, which confirms the words of the Psalmist, “great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lordendures forever.”
Listening to the Word of God
The warning about making false assumptions, which today’s liturgy presents, sounds very relevant in our times. We all like to imagine things about ourselves and about how the world should be. These ideas are fed by the media industry which creates fantasy worlds which we gladly enter whenever we watch a movie or any other show. Based on these fictional worlds we frequently make assumptions that suit our desires and purposes, and take them as the truth. We also often imagine the future, and these fantasy scenarios run like movies before our eyes. Today’s readings call for a check on those fantasies and assumptions upon which they are based.
Many, if not most people think of themselves as special and privileged. In truth, we all are such. Each of us is a unique creation of God with no duplicate in the entire world. This makes for a wonderful diversity which makes this world like a colorful mosaic and our, interactions with it like an ever-new play. We can only marvel at God’s creativity in making each one of us unique. The hidden danger here is to take our uniqueness for exclusivity. The fact that we are unique does not mean that we have exclusive rights to the world or any of its parts. We might own property and possess material goods, but the world does not belong to us. Our only exclusive possession is ourselves, the rest of the world is everybody’s playground. We must be able to enjoy and use what is available to us, but leave the space and resources to others. Too often excessive possessiveness stifles creativity and makes life difficult or unbearable for others. This is true in the area of family and community, country and the Church. Unlike the Israelites rebuilding their Temple but thinking about themselves, we must see our lives, efforts and careers not exclusively in terms of accomplishing things for ourselves, but in the greater framework of all humankind. We are here for others. Accepting this truth will make us broad minded and generous, true members of a global community.
All of us face suffering and misfortune. Sometimes these come as a result of our mistakes and sins which come back to haunt us. Sometimes they are caused by the weakness of our bodies, and sometimes by the wickedness of others. Regardless of the cause, we must always make an effort, and, whenever possible, turn adversity to our advantage. For the Christians addressed by the authors of Hebrews this advantage was the reigniting of their fading faith. What can it be for you and me?
Finally, we must always be wary about the danger of segregation and discrimination. We all identify ourselves with particular groups – ethnic, religious, racial, national, social, etc. Such belonging is needed to sustain our identity and culture. But Jesus teaches that this membership must never be a reason for claiming privileges over others. Our world is rife with conflicts caused by individuals assuming that they are entitled to certain benefits because they belong to a particular group. Membership in a particular Church does not guarantee salvation, being a part of a certain tribe or nation does not imply superiority. Wishful thinking and harmful assumptions afflict us all. The study of Scripture and attention to Jesus’ teaching can save us from the disastrous effects of these errors.
“A lie has many variations, the truth has none”
What are the assumptions upon which I base my life of faith?
Have I ever acted in a discriminatory manner against someone? What was the assumption behind such behaviour?
Response to God
I will pray to be liberated from the illusions and harmful assumption which have made their way into my head and heart in the course of my life.
Response to your World
I will list the assumptions I make about myself in relation to my peers. Are they realistic?
We will reflect on the question which the first reading poses for any group – do we exist primary for ourselves or does our presence enrich the broader community?
Lord, God of all humankind, make me recognize the false assumptions I make about you, about myself and about life. Enable me to distinguish between reality and illusion so that I may serve you faithfully and truthfully. Amen.
Scripture quotations from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, © 1989, 1993. Used with permission.