15 Oct. 2012, Monday of Week Twenty Eight
Gal 4:22ff. Through faith we are born free. It was for liberty that Christ freed us.
Luke 11:29ff. The people of Nineveh and the queen of Sheba will blame Jesus’ generation.
The Last Shall be First
Some people with little or no knowledge of Jesus manifest a gentleness, honesty and generosity which puts to shame many Christian believers. The gospel gives us excellent examples of this. While, of course, Jesus was comparing the gentiles with his Jewish compatriots, the story was written for Christian communities. The queen of the south represents Africa, long known in the Bible through references to Kush or Ethiopia. This distant land was impenetrable and forbidding to Israelites who feared the open sea and only rarely constructed a fleet of ships, possibly under Solomon (1 Kings 9:26-29) and another futile attempt under Jehoshaphat (1 Kings 22:49). Ethiopia came to Solomon in the person of the queen of the south (1 Kings 10:1-13). The Ninevites were the hated Assyrians, who destroyed the ten northern tribes (2 Kings 17) and even scorched Judah with widespread destruction (2 Kings 19). These people, among the crudest in biblical history, could be converted by the obstinate and stubborn Jonah. Yet, a greater man than Solomon and Jonah was present in Jesus. With so little these pagans accomplished so much. We who see and hear what “kings and prophets desired to see” (Matthew 13:17), we with so much accomplish so little!
An explanation for this can be found by reflecting on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and to the Romans(*1) . In many ways the Galatians epistle was a trial run for the ideas developed more extensively in the Romans, which is Paul’s most careful synthesis of his gospel and will be read for the coming four weeks, the 28th to the 31st in ordinary time(*1) .
Galatians introduced an antithesis which Romans will make famous, the opposition between flesh and spirit, the way of nature and the way of God’s promises. This image evokes a series of Old Testament passages which speak of several heirs to the promise born of very elderly or sterile couples: Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah in their old age (Gen 18:11); Samson, whose mother had been “barren and had borne no children” (Judg 13:2); Samuel, whose mother, “Hannah was childless” up to that time (1 Samuel 1:2).
Paul’s reasoning in Galatians is in a style very strange for us. In fact, he who knew Israel’s history so well turns history on its head, arguing as a Rabbi who can make surprising turns and leaps. Paul traces the Jewish people and Sinai to Abraham’s son Ishmael by his fertile Egyptian concubine, Hagar; gentiles and Jerusalem are related to Abraham’s son Isaac, conceived by the barren wife, Sarah.
Each of us, he seems to say, contains in ourselves not one but two births. We are born of the flesh in the natural order, and born of the spirit in the supernatural order. The first follows a law that is irreversible – conception, birth, life in the flesh. Paul compares this to Judaism with its multiple laws for each moment of human existence. Our second birth through the Spirit far surpasses our fleshly human ability and potency, and it leads to eternal life. Flesh is doomed to die; spirit is promised eternal life. The spirit co-exists with our human, fleshly self and liberates us from its slavery to death.
This double birth is modelled in Jesus, according to Paul’s opening words to the Romans(*1) . Jesus was descended from David “according to the flesh” but was made Son of God in power, “by his resurrection from the dead.” Salvation comes through the Spirit, not only in Jesus’ case but even throughout the Old Testament when children of the promise, like Isaac or Samuel, were conceived miraculously. Jerusalem was revived after the exile when all seemed lost, by the enduring love of the Lord (Isa 54:8). Jesus was raised from the dead by the Holy Spirit. His flesh was transformed into an instrument of eternal joy for Jesus and through him for each of us.
The impulse of the Spirit exists with all men and women throughout the world. We too have the benefit of the Scriptures, the sacred liturgy and a long tradition of saints. All of us can remember wonderful moments in our own lives when the Holy Spirit brought us the fruits of love, joy and peace. We are able to anticipate eternal life and its joy here on earth, for the Spirit of Jesus, greater than Solomon or Jonah, dwells within the fleshly temple of our bodies.
First Reading: Galatians 4:22-24, 26-27, 31-5:1
For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery.
But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children, burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth-pangs; for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous than the children of the one who is married.”
So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Gospel: Luke 11:29-32
When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!