21 August. Tuesday of Week Twenty
Ezek 28:1ff. God warns the proud, wealthy seaport metropolis of Tyre.
Matthew 19:23ff. Selfish privilege can destroy us. The last shall be first.
The paradox of the lowest place
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 authentic faith is not fatalism nor passivity. The readings for today reveal aspects of the spirit of faith: the way not to succumb 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.
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. Chapters 27-28 of Ezekiel are literary classics describing 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: Ezekiel 28:1-10
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, say to the prince of Tyre, Thus says the Lord God: Because your heart is proud and you have said, “I am a god; I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas,” yet you are but a mortal, and no god, though you compare your mind with the mind of a god. You are indeed wiser than Daniel; no secret is hidden from you; by your wisdom and your understanding you have amassed wealth for yourself, and have gathered gold and silver into your treasuries.By your great wisdom in trade you have increased your wealth, and your heart has become proud in your wealth.
Therefore thus says the Lord God: Because you compare your mind with the mind of a god, therefore, I will bring strangers against you, the most terrible of the nations; they shall draw their swords against the beauty of your wisdom and defile your splendour. They shall thrust you down to the Pit, and you shall die a violent death in the heart of the seas.Will you still say, “I am a god,” in the presence of those who kill you, though you are but a mortal, and no god, in the hands of those who wound you? You shall die the death of the uncircumcised by the hand of foreigners; for I have spoken, says the Lord God.
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.