Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
There is a rich combination of ideas to think about in today’s readings, and among them is a keen focus on the effect our attitudes and priorities can have on our personality and our dealings with others. There is also a very tangible note of hope and positivity in these inspired extracts.
The first reading is from the anonymous prophet whose writings have been added to the prophecy of Isaiah of Jerusalem. Isaiah was active in the mid-700s BCE, while Second Isaiah, whose writings are contained in chapters 40-55, addressed Jews living in Babylon during the exile of 597-539 and contains messages of consolation and hope for a release from exile. Today’s extract appears in the 3rd section of the book (chapters 56-66) which speaks to an audience that is back home in Judah and is undertaking the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. These last 11 chapters were written either by Second Isaiah or a disciple of his.
Our translation in the Lectionary does not do justice to the original Hebrew in which the writer expresses himself in conditional questions. God is asking the Hebrew people, through the mouth of the prophet, why they are complaining. God says, ‘Why complain that you pray, fast and offer sacrifice and I don’t take any notice?’ Then God answers the question in good Jewish style with more questions.
God is basically saying, ‘Isn’t it a true fast when you share your bread with the hungry and give shelter to the homeless? Doesn’t authentic devotion show itself in clothing the naked and not turning your back on people in need?’
The point is, prayer and devotion, Masses and adoration don’t actually amount to much if our relationship with God and others is not expressed in real action and loving service. Here are two quotes from Scripture that are typical of this truth: ‘For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice’ (Hosea 6:6). ‘This people draws near to me with their mouth and honours me with mere lip-service, but their heart is far from me, and their worship is a human commandment learned by rote;’ (Isaiah 29:13). This is an indictment on merely going through the motions when the heart is not in it. The sad part is we can easily fool ourselves that our pious practices are efficacious when they would only be lip-service and sham if there is no service to others, no reaching out to the Christ in the person we meet along the way.
But God provides the answer in today’s reading and it’s an answer that speaks not only to our spiritual growth but also to our mental health. If you are given to service, then your light will shine, and you will be an authentic human being; then you can cry out and be heard.
A generous spirit can rise above self-interest and be mindful of serving others
To have a sound relationship with God and with our fellow human beings there is no room for the kind of control that disempowers others, or the fist of anger or aggravation that only creates disquiet and distance.
Is there anyone in my life who has to tiptoe on eggshells around me for fear I might flare up?
The wisdom here is clear: people whose spiritual life is filled with an integrated mindfulness, devotion and service are usually growing to wholeness and are not overcome by neuroses, depression or poor mental health.
The psalm has been chosen because it echoes some of the glowing human qualities alluded to in the previous reading. The genuinely good person is a source of encouragement for others – a light in the darkness – who exercises compassion, generosity and integrity when interacting with others. Integrity has nothing to fear from opposition, and wholeness is assured of being carried on eagle’s wings when confronted with criticism and pettiness. A generous spirit can rise above self-interest and be mindful of serving others. Remember those words of Jesus, ‘...whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant... the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.’ (Matthew 20:26–28). Sadly, some parts of our church still have not understood what Jesus meant by a serving leadership.
2 Corinthians 2:1-5
In these words of Paul we get a glimpse of the human being that was conscious of the criticism he was facing. However, the one thing that buoyed him up was his confidence in the backing of the Spirit. He saw himself as a follower of the crucified messiah and this gave him the courage and the humility to rely on the Spirit and not on the power of human reason and philosophical arguments.
We know that Paul wrote this letter to try and repair his relationship with the community. His second visit to Corinth was something of a disaster as he had encountered opposition from troublemakers who convinced a number of the Corinthians that Paul was not an authentic minister of the Christian message. In addition, Paul was upset at the ongoing un-Christian behaviour of some community members who remained impenitent. He rebuked them and they retaliated, with the result that there was tension between Paul and many in the Corinthian community. Today’s reading is part of a longer section of explanations and self-defence.
This gospel extract fits in with the motif of light that emanates from integrated human beings who live by values of goodness, compassion and generosity. It’s easy to read texts like this and overlook the positive note of encouragement and congratulation that comes through in the words of Jesus. If we describe somebody as salt of the earth, we are offering high praise indeed. And this is just what Jesus is doing. The function of salt is to enrich, enhance taste and give flavour. How can I flavour the lives of those I meet each day? Am I doing enough to be a positive lifter through encouragement and appreciation of others? Jesus adds a little caveat that if I cease being a lifter, I can become like salt that loses its flavour, its reason for being. Powerful stuff when you think about it, namely, our growth to maturity comes through reaching out to others and being a lifter.
This man speaks with authority and he makes sense
Jesus extends his metaphor by referring to his disciples as light of the world. You are a shining light, he says, and your function is to let that light shine. Not make it shine but just let it happen. Jesus is not promoting show ponies but simply saying that goodness is catching, and wholesomeness will unintentionally shine through from a generous integrated spirit. This is a clear statement about the effectiveness of example.
Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, made the remark, ‘The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.’
If we come back to the person of Jesus, we can see that there was light shining from him. All the gospels make a feature of the crowds that came out to hear him speak and to be near this charismatic and intuitive individual who sent out waves of peace and healing. Clearly, he created an impressive presence, but it was natural and unassuming and therefore authentic. Many came out to be healed or to bring their sick and we can be sure that far more were healed than were cured. We could never identify the large numbers of people that went away from Jesus quietly reinforced and invigorated after hearing a new slant put on old but sound values. Here was a new kind of spirituality that rang with heart and spirit. This man speaks with authority and he makes sense, they said, not like the scribes (Mark 1:22). Like so many of Jesus’ words, those in today’s gospel reading are brimming with affirmation, confidence and a commonsense touch that considers both sides of the coin. In this two-paragraph passage we can see both left and right brain thinking at work – a constructive and sound mixture of down-to-earth reality and spiritual vision.
How do my words and behaviour reflect my intuitive self, my vision and values?
The measure of mental health is the disposition to find good everywhere.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (19th century American lecturer, writer, poet)
Where there is no vision there is no hope.
George Washington Carver (Most prominent American black scientist of the early 20th century)
A businessman needed a large sum of money to clinch an important deal. He went to church to pray for the money. By chance he knelt next to a man who was earnestly praying in a whisper for one hundred dollars to pay an urgent debt.
The businessman took out his wallet and gave one hundred dollars to the other man. Overjoyed, the man got up and left the church.
The businessman then closed his eyes and prayed, ‘Lord, now that I have your undivided attention...