33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Book of Proverbs provides this weekend’s first reading. This book was composed when both the Holy Land and the lives of its inhabitants, God’s Chosen People, had experienced massive changes as a result of the military conquest of the Holy Land – and indeed much of the Eastern Mediterranean world – by Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), the young Greek king from Macedonia.
Alexander did not live long enough to enjoy fully the successes of his victorious armies, but his conquests placed Greeks, and Greek philosophy, at the summit of cultures across the Middle East.
This Greek influence most often brought ideas that were contrary to traditional Hebrew theology. Committed Jews had to struggle to keep their theology alive, and they especially struggled to relay their tradition to oncoming generations.
Proverbs was written as a part of this effort. Along with other books of the Hebrew Scriptures, Proverbs attempted to blend human logic with Hebrew theology to say that ancient Hebrew beliefs are not illogical. (In the Greek mind, human logic was supreme.)
The reading from Proverbs proclaimed by the Church on this weekend obliquely refers to the fact that marriages under the Greek arrangement usually were contrived. Quite disturbing for Jews was the fact that wives were not much better than servants, even slaves. The concept of love, freely and gladly exchanged between spouses, was not expected by any means in Greek life. Proverbs basically tried to elevate the Jewish notion of human dignity, a dignity including women as well as men.
St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians supplies the second reading. In the early days of the Church, the general presumption was that momentarily, very soon, Jesus would return to earth to vanquish the evil and vindicate the good. Paul had to remind the Christians of Thessalonica that following the Gospel might be a long, tiring, and difficult process, as Christ might not appear as quickly as they would like.
For its third and last reading, the Church presents St. Matthew’s Gospel. The story in essence also appears in the Gospel of Mark.
The story builds on the same theme as that given in First Thessalonians. The present order will end one day. Every human will die. No one can predict exactly when natural death will come.
Life suddenly and unexpectedly can produce the unexpected and unwanted, as Americans realized on November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, or more recently when hurricanes devastated so many places.
The reading from Matthew counsels Christians to remember the uncertainty of life, as well as the perceptions and hope given them in their faith.
The ancient Jews, for whom Proverbs was written, and the first Christians, for whom First Thessalonians and Matthew’s Gospel were written, drew great strength and confidence from their faith. It sustained them in many ordeals.
When President Kennedy was murdered, Americans, and especially American Catholics, were paralyzed with grief. Time stood still, but his campaign for the presidency affected American Catholic life more.
Kennedy knew that his major political problem was his Catholic religion. Anti-Catholicism was alive and well in the United States.
He turned his religion into an advantage, speaking of American Catholic patriots, and of ordinary Catholic citizens, who loved, served, and bettered the nation.
Hearing him, Catholics in the United States felt a pride in their Church. This pride gave them security. Fewer hid their religion anymore. Many openly defended the moral positions of the Church.
For those who thought about it, they realized that their Church spoke the words of Jesus. In Jesus, the faithful learn how to live, learn what matters in life, and learn why life is worth living, as did the ancients so long ago.
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