Commentary to the 19th Sunday in ordinary time – Year C
BECOMING RICH BY BECOMING POOR
How much waiting for a feast! Months of work to prepare for a fleeting day of enjoyment, which often disappoints the expectations and leaves behind sad and gloomy faces. It also happens in life: much effort is made to prepare for a future that proves to be an unattainable mirage. The foolish farmer in last Sunday’s parable is an example. He was hardworking, was lucky, but in the end, he saw the fruits of his labor not in his control. So much hard work for nothing!
Material goods offer a sense of security; they promise to satisfy every need and every desire. Riches give an impression of being solid, unwavering, and enduring: they survive those who have them. They deceive him, deprive him of everything, and leave him empty-handed.
The wise Ecclesiastes warned: "Whoever loves money will not be satisfied with money. Whoever loves wealth hasn’t sufficient income. This is senseless. When there is abundance of good things there is abundance of consumers. What profit is there for the owner except to look on" (Ecl 5:9-10). How can we avoid being in this situation at the end of our life?
Jesus repeats his disconcerting proposal several times: Sell everything, give the proceeds to the poor. How do we interpret these words? Is he aware that he is asking us to give up the joy of our hearts? Does he come to undermine all our safety? Yes, and he does, to make us blessed.
To internalize the message, we repeat: "How many times the Lord has already come, and I did not let myself be found. But he will still come."
First Reading: Wisdom 18:3.6-9
The night of the passover was known beforehand to our fathers, that, with sure knowledge of the oaths in which they put their faith, they might have courage. Yourpeople awaited the salvation of the just and the destruction of their foes. For when you punished our adversaries, in this you glorified us whom you had summoned. Forin secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice and putting into effect with one accord the divine institution. —The Word of the Lord.
Roads, monuments, and commemorative days are dedicated to the most significant events and personages of history. Heroes, discoverers, inventors, and important dates are remembered. How come we look to the past? Why are these rites performed, discourses delivered, parades organized, and official ceremonies attended by people? It is done so as not to forget what happened. The past is remembered to understand how we can act in the present. During the difficult times in her history, when Israel felt exploited and oppressed, the people regained confidence looking at its past. Verifying that her God had always protected and freed her from all forms of slavery, she felt comforted, confronted adversity with renewed vigor, and looked optimistically to the future.
Israel is a nation that loves memories. She remembers, above all, the miracles of the Exodus. In today’s Reading, a moving presentation is made. It narrates that, while the Egyptians were surrounded by darkness, the Israelites were accompanied by a pillar of fire; the Lord himself led them to unknown paths (v. 3). On the night they left the land of the Pharaoh, the righteous were saved and the enemies exterminated (vv. 6-7). That is the reason why they have decided to meet every year to celebrate these glorious events on Easter Vigil. When they reflect on what God has done for them, a song of thanksgiving and praise flourishes on their lips. The same confidence that filled the hearts of their fathers emerges in them (v. 9).
Israel's behavior is an invitation to Christians to do the same at Easter: to "remember," "to commemorate" the event in which God showed all his love and his faithfulness. In the death and resurrection of Christ, the Father has revealed all his love. Receiving Jesus in glory assured that the history of every person, though marked by so many absurd and dramatic events, will end gloriously. Looking back, you can guess what a joyous future God reserves for people.
Second Reading: Hebrews 11:1-2.8-19
Brothers and sisters: Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen. Because of it the ancients were well attested.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith hesojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise; for he was looking forward to the city withfoundations, whose architect and maker is God. By faith he received power to generate, even though he was past the normal age—and Sarah herself was sterile—for he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy. So it was that there came forth from one man, himself as good as dead, descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sands on the seashore.
All these died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens onearth, for those who speak thus show that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land from which they had come, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better homeland, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.” He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol. —The Word of the Lord.
Forty years after the death of Jesus, Jerusalem with its magnificent temple is destroyed. Many Jews flee and are dispersed around the world. Far away from their land, some embrace the Christian faith but are discouraged. Why—they ask—do such scary disasters hit us? Why are we encountering so many adversities and injustices? Why are our brothers, the sons of our people, condemning and persecuting us?
The letter to the Hebrews is addressed to these Christians in difficulty. This letter is proposed to us today and on the following three Sundays. Chapter 11 of this letter is dedicated to faith. It starts by saying that "faith is the assurance of what we hope for, being certain of what we cannot see" (v. 1). It recalls the example of many Bible characters famous for their faith, especially Abraham and Sarah (vv. 8-19).
When God called him, Abraham was 75 years old (Gen 12:4), an age in which men prefer to retreat to enjoy a well-earned rest. At that age, Abraham goes to an unknown land without even knowing which one. He blindly trusts the Lord (vv. 8-10). Sarah also believes and, against all human logic, through faith, she will have a son. The couple believed that the Lord will be faithful and would give them “numerous descendants as the stars in the sky and as the sand of the sea” (vv. 11-12).
The author of the letter continues: Abraham and Sarah died without seeing the fulfillment of the promise made to them. They had only one child, not a multitude, and they did not live in the Promised Land. They spent all life wandering from place to place; they permanently resided in foreign countries. Only after 700 years, their children settle in the land given to them by God. Here, Abraham and Sarah saw only a small sign, a beginning of fulfilling the promises: a fragile son and a land contemplated only from afar, but they believed all the same ( vv. 13-19).
The letter's message to the Hebrews is sent today to all Christians who look forward to the realization of the promises of Jesus and not to lose hope because they do not see the quick establishment of the Kingdom of God in the world. The toughest test of their faith is the continued presence of evil in the world.
Considering what happened to Abraham and Sarah, they are invited to regain confidence and to be able to read the signs, though not always evident, that the new world is being born.
Gospel: Luke 12:32-48
Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.
“Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. And should he come in the second or third watch and find them prepared in this way, blessed are those servants. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let hishouse be broken into. You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”
Then Peter said, “Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone?” And the Lord replied, “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute the food allowance at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so. Truly, I say to you, the master will put the servant in charge of all his property. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the menservants and themaidservants, to eat and drink and get drunk, then that servant’s master will come on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour and will punish the servant severely and assign him a place with the unfaithful. That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; andthe servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly. Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” —The Gospel of the Lord.
The passage begins with the exhortation: "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you the Kingdom" (v. 32). The disciples are afraid: they know they are a few and weak in a hostile world. They are scared because evil is strong; it triumphs everywhere; it seems overwhelming, and they feel fragile and unable to resist. The Kingdom of God—Jesus assures—will come because it is not the work of man; it is the Father's gift. Then the theme goes alive. From last Sunday’s Gospel, one can deduce that the foolish farmer had committed two stupid mistakes: he had not enriched himself before God and let himself be surprisingly caught by death.
What should he have done? How does he enrich himself before God? Simple—Jesus answers today—“sell what you have and give alms” ... (vv. 33-34). The rich who accumulated great wealth had to leave them in this world. He did not find a way to take them with him. Plagued by the concerns of this world—the fields, the crops, the storage—he did not have time to listen to the Word that would have revealed the secret for not losing his capital, to "transfer them to heaven." Here is what a wise man of the Old Testament would have suggested to him: "Give alms from what you have ... Do not turn away your face from anyone who is poor.Give alms in proportion to the amount you have; if you have little, do not be afraid to give alms according to the little you have. In this way, you are storing up treasure against the day of tribulation because almsgiving frees us from death and keeps us from wandering in the darkness. Almsgiving is a precious treasure in the eyes of God" (Tb 4:7-11; cf. Sir 3:29–4:10; 29:8-13).
The reflections of Jesus are in tune with the traditional teaching of the wise men of his people: whoever accumulates assets for himself—he says—finds them eaten by moths or leaked from ragged bags and foolishly lost on the street. "Humans are mere shadows that go about relentlessly—remembers the Psalmist—being but a breath they toil and rake in wealth not knowing who will take it next" (Ps 39:7). Better, much better it is to give them in the hands of a safe ‘banker’—God—who, in times of need, will give it back with ‘lavish interests.’ This image is well known in the time of Jesus. The son of the Queen of Adiabene—who converted to Judaism with his mother around 50 A.C.—responded thus to those who accused him of squandering his wealth by helping the needy of Israel: ‘My ancestors heaped treasure in this world, I, instead, will accumulate for the world to come.’
To the second question—how not to get caught by surprise? —Jesus responds with three parables. The first (vv. 35-38): a gentleman went to a wedding party and left home to his servants. The servants know that the master will come back, but they do not know the time: he may come in the middle of the night or just before dawn, and they must be ready to welcome him. When will the Lord return, and what are these enigmatic images?
The answer comes to mind: one has to be prepared to welcome the Lord at the end of life. Not exactly. Vigilance is equivalent to the constant availability of service. A Christian does not have free moments in which he can withdraw into himself in the pursuit of self-interest, times in which he is not ready to help those who need his help.
Two images effectively describe the vigilant disciple: he dresses for action and keeps the lamp burning. He does not turn off the light or put on the front door the ‘do not disturb, I'm sleeping’ sign. Anyone who needs him should know that he is always available. He has his clothes always tucked in. In the East, men used long robes; they let it loose at home, but when they work or leave for a trip, they gird their hips and raise them to move freely. The disciple is therefore always on duty.
The parable ends with one of the most beautiful images of the whole Bible: blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he returns. The master will gird his clothes, will make them sit at table and wait on them. There is an equally moving image in the book of Revelation: "He will be the God-with-them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (Rev 21:3-4). It is the promise of bliss reserved for those who are part of the kingdom of God.
In the second parable (vv. 39-40), the Lord is compared to a thief who breaks in suddenly. A unique image, never before used in Judaism, but had luck with the Christians. Paul picked it up: "You know that the Day of the Lord—he writes to the Thessalonians—will come like thief in the night" (1 Thes 5:2). Peter also used them: "The day of the Lord is to come like a thief; then the heavens will dissolve with a great noise" (2 Pet 3:10), and the author of Revelation (Rev 3:3; 16:15). Strange image! It is a very unsympathetic God who waits for the worst possible moment—the one where man is not prepared—to surprise him and sentence him to perdition.
The meaning of the parable is not this. If it were, it would no longer be “good news” a “Gospel,” it would only be a sterile threat. The Lord indeed meets people at the end of life. That is undoubtedly the most important of his comings, and one needs to be prepared. However, if we observe well, death does not always behave like a thief. It typically announces its coming, preceded by concrete signs: old age, sickness, pain, and decay. The sudden appearance of the Lord is another story. They are comings that take us by surprise like that of a thief. They are those in which he comes not to steal, but to save, to invite us to welcome the Kingdom of God. The image of the thief has an undeniable intimidating tone. The aim is to warn of the danger of losing the opportunity for salvation that never arises again.
The third parable (vv. 41-48) is introduced to respond to Peter, who asks the Lord who should stay vigilant. All—is the answer—and especially those who are in responsible positions in the community. They are called "stewards," not masters. They have in their hands the goods that do not belong to them and of which they must render an account. Their ministry can be done in two ways. They may act as faithful and wise servants who "distributes in time to all the servants their allowance of food" (v. 42). They undertake that in generous service, in favor of the brothers and sisters of the community. But they can also act for shameful gain and make themselves masters of the people entrusted to them (1 Pt 5:2-3).
Luke describes the behavior of unfaithful servants realistically: he speaks of idle people who squander in revelry and carousing, using arrogant tones and behaving like despots. He presents embarrassing and less exemplary situations, concrete cases of some leaders of his community. He wants to remind them—with the stern words of the Master—of a greater sense of responsibility.
They are running the danger of being excluded, ‘cut off’ from the group of disciples, and placed among the infidels (v. 46). They are the prominent members of the Church, yet on them hangs a dramatic and unexpected judgment: God considers them failures. They are not—of course—condemned to hell. However, it will be tragic for them to admit when they can no longer remedy them that they used the gifts of God in the worst way.
The image of the beatings with which the passage concludes reflects a social context of harsh and cruel punishment to those who did not do their duty. The Lord does not punish anyone. The image underlines how despicable is the behavior of these leaders of the community. They are in the privileged position of those who knew the Lord’s will better than the others but are very unfaithful. Their responsibility is greater.