Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
This weekend’s first reading is from the first of two books in the Bible that bear a name suggesting that they are about the kings of Israel. Kings are mentioned, but from a very particular view. Kings were judged on how well they led the people to abide by the covenant, to love God and to obey God. Nothing else in life was as important.
The prophets were very important, as they taught the people to follow God. This reading is about Elisha, who visits a household in which lives a wealthy woman. She receives him. She has no children, but the prophet assures her she will bear a child. It would be by divine power.
St. Paul encouraged and challenged the Christians of Rome. He reminded them that to live with Christ also meant dying with Christ, and then they would rise with Christ. Death is inevitable for all human beings, but it had an especially fearful context for Christians in Rome. Christianity was a crime. Death was the penalty, and unless the Christian was a citizen — as was Paul — and few were citizens, executions were agonizing, brutally so.
The Gospel reading from Matthew begins quite solemnly. Indeed, it can be puzzling. Jesus says that if anyone loves father or mother more than the Lord, they are not worthy to be a disciple. He says that the true disciple must also carry a cross.
Put these verses in the context in which they were written. Families were divided, maybe often, when a member converted to Christianity. Anyone convicted of being a Christian literally had to carry her or his cross and be crucified as was Jesus.
When the first Christians heard these words, they knew very well that persons considered very dear, for self-survival, might desert them, and that crucifixion was the preferred way of getting rid of anyone who broke the law.
Paul’s reassurance said that such terrible consequences were worth the price of being with the Lord forever. Indeed, he himself proved the point. He was martyred, but as a citizen, he was entitled to be executed without pain.
A line in the musical “Oklahoma!” says, “everything’s up-to-date in Kansas City!” Well, in the first decades of Christianity, everything was up-to-date in Rome, more than in any other place on earth. It was a glittering city, with every opportunity and comfort the human heart could desire. In a word, it was impossible, however, to enjoy all the wonders and pleasures of Rome while being true to the Gospel.
As if this were not enough, professing Christianity was a capital crime. Roman justice operated on the hunch, as does American justice today, that the death penalty deterred others from committing similar crimes; namely becoming Christian and living the Christian life.
The example of countless martyrs proved the folly of this hunch. Still, the temptation to forsake the Lord was heightened by the aspect of dying for the crime of Christianity, and executions were horrifying in the Roman system. Crucifixion was not the only way “criminals” were killed in agony and horror.
As had the prophets of old, Paul insisted that living in obedience to God was the only thing that mattered, and its reward humbled all the glories and the pleasures of mere human existence, even if this existence occurred in Rome, the very crown of human life at the time.
The readings call us to reality. Win the lottery. Receive $300 million dollars. Will it subtract one week from an aging life? Will it erase the pain of grief? Will it give a sense of purpose to life? It will not.
Only the spiritual rewards endure. The world will pass away.
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