16Aug 16 August. Tuesday, Week 20

Saint Stephen of Hungary, optional memorial

1st Reading: Ezekiel 28:1-10

God warns the wealthy seaport metropolis of Tyre to beware of pride

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

Selfish privilege can destroy us; for the last shall be first

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.


First and last places

The provocative phrase “the first will be last, and the last will be first” is one of those paradoxical statements that can surface anywhere. How many times we hear it remarked as comment on the fall from grace of some celebrity, or indeed of some powerful force in politics or in commerce. But we are not called to fatalism or passivity, to await some unforeseen divine intervention to bring down blatant instances of injustice and oppression. The readings for today prompt a spirit of active faith in the quest of justice.

Ezekiel rages against the wealthy seaport kingdom of Tyre, the epitome of power and worldly success.. Ships went out from Tyre across the Mediterranean, to populate the city of Carthage, among others. The people of Tyre saw themselves as wiser than Daniel, that proverbial wise man of ancient literature who shows up also in ancient, non-biblical documents. By wisdom and know-how Tyre had amassed ist wealth and commerce and felt itself to be godlike. The island City of Tyre survived many assults, so that not even the Assyrians or Babylonians could capture it. Only when Alexander the Great built a huge earthen mole so to connect it with the mainland, was this great city eventually captured. But collapse it did, a Biblical symbol for defeated pride and unavailing wealth. Ezekiel 27-28 is a classic description of Tyre’s downfall, like a ship sinking or a garden of paradise lost through pride. “Faith” survived to write the epitaph of worldly wealth.

With this as background, Jesus’ enigmatic sayings about how wealth can mislead and about the first becoming last, about what seems humanly impossible becoming possible by divine grace, should make more sense. He does not explain the paradox about the last becoming first, but to a person of faith, with instincts and values like Ezekiel, and who practices prayer and fidelity, Jesus’ words summon us to the most active response of faith, trusting that eventually “the last will be first.”

For God, everything is possible

Some Gospel phrases catch my special attention because they convey a great deal, at least to me. One of these is in today’s gospel, ‘For people this is impossible, for God everything is possible.’ A somewhat similar saying occurs in Luke’s account of the annunciation where, in response to Mary’s question, ‘How can this be?’ Gabriel answers, ‘Nothing is impossible with God.’ The context of the saying in this morning’s gospel is that of the rich young man who came to Jesus looking for the path to eternal life but went away sad because he was possessed by his possessions. How can such a rich man enter into eternal life? It is possible, Jesus declares, but only with God’s grace, God’s help. In our own lives we can sometimes find ourselves up against impossible odds. We wonder how we will get through some test, how we will keep going. In such circumstances, the saying in this morning’s gospel can be a great encouragement to us, ‘for God everything is possible.’ Saint Paul knew the truth of that, and he expressed that truth in his inimitable way. In his letter to the Philippian, he declares, ‘I can do all things through him who gives me strength.’ There are times when we all need to fall back on that conviction. [MH]

St Stephen of Hungary

Stephen (975 1038 AD), was the first King of Hungary from 1000 to his death in 1038. He was the first member of his family to become a Christian, after marrying the devout Gisela of Bavaria. He established one archbishopric, six bishoprics and three Benedictine monasteries, and encouraged the spread of Christianity, partly by force. Hungary, which enjoyed a long period of peace during his reign, became a preferred route for pilgrims travelling from Western Europe to the Holy Land. He was canonized in 1083.

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