16 Aug, Tuesday of Week 20
Judg 6:11ff. Gideon’s call to liberate Israel and so to renew the glorious deeds of the Lord is confirmed by signs.
Matt 19:23ff. We must give everything into God’s hands; selfish wealth destroys us. The last shall come first.
The Force of Faith
The final phrase in today’s Gospel is one of those paradoxical statements that can surface anywhere. How many times do we not hear the remark, “the first shall be last, and the last first.” Maybe it was to describe a fait accompli, an accomplished fact that was almost inexplicable. But faith is not fatalism nor passivity. The readings for today reveal many active aspects of the spirit of faith: the active role of memory, recalling God’s help to our ancestors; the active side of hope that will not give up but even expect miracles; the dignified way of not succumbing to colossal giants of wealth and commerce like Tyre; the ingenious way of relying more on native talents than on the artificial bulwark of wealth; the courageous action of giving up everything for the sake of the kingdom.
No force in human life can compare with faith in summoning people to dedicated service, or even (unfortunately) to fierce warfare, in God’s name. In Iran the Islamic religion ousted the mighty Shah; Catholic Poland faced down Soviet military might. Whatever be the final act of history in each case, the active power of faith remains visible to the eyes of the world. Strong faith can raise problems as well as solutions. Gideon bluntly asks the angel of the Lord: My Lord, if Yahweh is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are his marvellous deeds of which our ancestors told us?… Now the Lord has abandoned us.
Gideon’s faith was weak and uncertain – for he feels that maybe God did marvellous deeds for the ancestors, but maybe not. It could be a lie or a myth. In fact, a weak faith can turn out to be a handy protection against disappointment. If a person does not have full faith and complete confidence in God, in one’s spouse or in one’s church or government, then such a person will never be totally surprised by betrayal or infidelity. Being ready for the worst, they had already given up on the best. Weak faith is a sort of fatalism; strong faith works on the assumption of the best. Through the angel, Gideon is convinced that God is about to renew the “marvellous deeds” from the days of the ancestors.
By contrast Ezekiel points his wrath at the epitome of worldly success, the wealthy seaport kingdom of Tyre. The ships of Tyre spread out across the Mediterranean, even populating the city of Carthage. Tyre looked “wiser than Daniel,” the proverbial wise person of ancient literature who shows up even in ancient, non-biblical documents. By wisdom and know-how Tyre amassed wealth and commerce and said, “I must be a god.” Tyre survived many assults, so that not even the Assyrians nor the Babylonians could capture the island city. Only when Alexander the Great ordered an earthen mole to be built and so to connect the city with the mainland, was it eventually captured. But collapse it did, a symbol in the Bible of defeated pride and useless wealth. Chaps. 27-28 of Ezekiel are classics of world literature as they describe the downfall of Tyre under the symbol of a ship that sinks at sea or of paradise lost through pride. “Faith” survived to write the epitaph of worldly wealth.
With this biblical background Jesus’ enigmatic statements about wealth, about first and last, about human impossibilities and divine gifts begin to make some sense. Jesus actually proves nothing, but to a person of faith with memories like Gideon, with instincts and values like Ezekiel, with experiences of prayer and fidelity, Jesus’ words summon us to the most active response of faith. Even the last will be first.
First Reading: Judges 6:11-24
Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the oak at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites. The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” Gideon answered him, “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.” Then the Lord turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you.” He responded, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.” Then he said to him, “If now I have found favour with you, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me. Do not depart from here until I come to you, and bring out my present, and set it before you.” And he said, “I will stay until you return.”
So Gideon went into his house and prepared a kid, and unleavened cakes from an ephah of flour; the meat he put in a basket, and the broth he put in a pot, and brought them to him under the oak and presented them. The angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and put them on this rock, and pour out the broth.” And he did so. Then the angel of the Lord reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes; and fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes; and the angel of the Lord vanished from his sight. Then Gideon perceived that it was the angel of the Lord; and Gideon said, “Help me, Lord God! For I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” But the Lord said to him, “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die.” Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord, and called it, The Lord is peace. To this day it still stands at Ophrah, which belongs to the Abiezrites.
Gospel: Matthew 19:23-30
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.