ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

Year A

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Trust in Providence

Isaiah 49:14-15
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34

Personal and parental, God’s love creates, redeems, forgives and renews all peoples (Isaiah). Provident and caring, God’s concern for all our needs enables us to focus our energies on lasting realities (Matthew). Made confident by God’s love and freed by God’s attentiveness, we can serve wholeheartedly in a manner worthy of the blessings we have received (1 Corinthians).

Isaiah 49:14-15.

For the first nine months of human life, in the intimacy of an intrauterine environment, a bond is forged between mother and child--a bond that grows and deepens at birth, a bond that will be tried and tested as the years pass, a bond that ideally is never weakened or broken. When Deutero-Isaiah undertook his mission of bringing comfort to an exiled Israel, he relied on that universal human experience of a mother’s love in order to illustrate God’s fidelity and care for his people.

Companion to his people during their exile in Babylonia the sixth century B.C.E. prophet was also aware of Israel’s sense of loss and frustration when the people were finally free to return home. As the exiles were reunited with a now decimated and powerless population, as they beheld their ruined lands, they no doubt remembered the comparatively comfortable existence they had built for themselves in Babylon; naturally, the temptation to despair was great.

Cyrus, the victorious Persian king, had released the captives held by Babylon and had beneficently provided leadership and materials for the rebuilding of Israel’s land and temple. But the process of physical renovation did not automatically rebuild the broken spirit of the exiles; this was the task of the prophet, one he readily embraced.

In Isaiah 49, the chapter from which today’s pericope has been excerpted, Deutero-Isaiah has reprised many of the themes he introduced in his opening chapter (Isaiah 40). Because of the several points of similarity between the two chapters, some scholars have compared them as “before and after” texts, e.g., chapter 40:1-11 depicted the people before their return home and compared their situation to that of their enslavement in Egypt. Chapter 49:8-13 seems to pertain to the time after the people had returned home and had experienced God’s saving plan. Understood in this sense, the “after” texts perfectly complement the “before” texts and the prophetic process of “promise-and-fulfillment” is accomplished.

Today’s first reading with the prophet’s rhetorical question “Can a mother forget her infant?” and its solemn pledge “I will never forget you!” is one of the most eloquent and touching expressions of love contained in the scriptures. But Deutero-Isaiah was not unique in his portrayal of God’s “motherly” love for his people. Nor was he the first to attribute feminine characteristics to God. In the eighth century B.C.E., Hosea had spoken of the transcendent God, creator of heaven and earth, holding Israel to his cheek and teaching Ephraim to walk (Hosea 11: 3-4).

When Israel cried out in despair, believing themselves to be forgotten by God, Deutero-Isaiah pointed to the most altruistic and selfless love of which humans are capable, the love of a parent for a child. But even the best of human love is only a shadow of God’s eternal, life-giving love for his people.

1 Corinthians 4:1-5.

Wherever he went, Paul seemed to attract controversy like a magnet. Having been “born out of time,” he came late to Christianity. He had not walked with the earthly Jesus through the hills of Galilee; nor had he heard Jesus preach or seen him die. In fact he had done his best to eradicate the Christian movement in its early stages of development. For this reason, many questioned his right to call himself an apostle and criticized his claim to teach authoritatively in Jesus’ name. In order to substantiate his claim to apostleship, Paul recounted on several occasions the circumstances of his vocation and conversion to Christ.

First and foremost, Paul claimed to be a servant of Christ. The Greek word hyperetes was originally used to designate the oarsman on the lower level of the galleys of a ship. According to this metaphor, Paul envisioned Christ as the captain of the ship, and himself as one who received and carried out Christ’s orders.

Paul also referred to himself as an administrator or steward (oikonomos) of the mysteries of God. In that capacity, Paul was entrusted with his master’s plans and the responsibility for executing them. Nevertheless, Paul understood his administrative role as entirely dependent on and subordinate to Christ. As Christ’s servant and administrator, he was accountable to Christ alone. For that reason, Paul shrugged off the criticisms of the Corinthians (et al.) as insignificant. Only his trustworthiness and Jesus’ assessment of him were of value.

Paul also had his share of legal battles. On several occasions he was brought up on charges. But he did not give much importance to human courts or human judgment (v. 3). Instead, he looked ahead to the one judgment and to the only judge who mattered, the Lord Jesus Christ. The children of the old covenant looked ahead to the Day of the Lord and the judgment that would accompany it; those of the new covenant looked ahead to Jesus’ return. On that occasion, all peoples would be judged according to the only standards worthy of note, those set by God.

With hope, Paul looked forward to Jesus’ second appearance, confident that his performance as Christ’s servant and administrator would be judged worthy by God. Paul’s willingness to forego human praise and his patience in waiting for God’s praise (v. 5) remain an excellent example for those in public and/or religious service.

Matthew 6:24-34.

At first glance, Jesus’ advice to his followers--look at the birds and flowers and cease worrying about food, clothing and shelter--may sound very naive and simplistic. Indeed, how much meaning would such advice have for the victims of famine in Africa or the homeless millions in our large American cities? How can a hungry person not think of food? What else occupies the thoughts of a freezing, homeless person except warmth and shelter? How then are Christians to interpret this gospel?

The point of the entire pericope (which actually began at v. 19) is contained in v. 24. Believers must choose either to worship God or to be caught up in the idolatry of worldly possessions. Choices or options are of paramount concern because the right choices lead to life and the wrong choices will lead to perdition. “Money” (v. 24) is a limited translation of the Aramaic mammon that actually meant “property.”

Another suggested definition links the word “mammon” to the Hebrew root ’emen which means “that in which one puts one’s trust.” In either case, the point is clear: the believer chooses and serves God and from that principal option win flow all other choices in life.

Notice the radical quality of the statement: “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other or be attentive to one and despise the other.” The hate-love antithesis indicates that the basic choice in life is unavoidable and naturally exclusive (J. Meier).

Once the basic life choice has been made (for God or not), then the rest of life’s ethical questions and choices fall into place. Not a once-in-a-lifetime event but a daily process of evaluation and of ordering one’s values and priorities, the task of living for God requires a lifelong and total commitment. Only when God is valued above every other value will the subordinate values of food, clothing, livelihood, etc., fall into their proper perspective.

When during his earthly ministry Jesus taught this lesson about life’s priorities, his audience probably consisted mainly of poor people, whose poverty may have predisposed them to look for God’s provident hand in their lives. Later, when Matthew recast Jesus’ teaching and directed it toward his own community, Jesus’ message reached quite a different audience.

The evangelist’s community, probably Antioch in Syria during the decade of the 80s C.E., was a prosperous and urban one. Rather than be deterred from life’s basic and lasting values by a preoccupation with riches, the Antiochene Christians were called to examine their world and their lives. True disciples of Jesus could not be encumbered by worries; anxiety about life’s daily needs is an exercise in futility.

It is noteworthy that Matthew included this pericope about proper values and correctly ordered priorities shortly after his account of Jesus’ teaching his followers how to pray. Some scholars understand this entire passage as a commentary on the fourth petition of the Our Father: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Jesus’ disciples who pray this prayer in faith are not dispensed from life’s worries. But they are granted a higher security even in the midst of trials.

In addition to their freedom from worry over the goods of this world, Jesus’ disciples were and are still summoned to direct their energies into seeking the Father’s kingship over them (v. 33). As J. Meier has pointed out, the seeking and commitment that define us must not be a pagan one. We must seek (not create or build!) the kingdom God is bringing into the world. Likewise, we are to seek out his saving action in our midst. Notice, Matthew has specified, “Seek first. . .,” indicating that other needs are subordinate to the kingdom, not negated by it. To put the kingdom first requires faith (v. 30) and a constant commitment to God’s way of holiness.

That faith and commitment enable the disciple to turn life’s pages one by one, to live each day to the ultimate, to set aside yesterday’s regrets and to deal with tomorrow’s troubles only when tomorrow becomes today.

1. From our mother’s arms, we begin to learn of the extravagant love of God (Isaiah).

2. In the last analysis, public opinion will remain just that, public opinion, but God’s evaluation of our service will result in a final and lasting judgment (1 Corinthians).

3. Undue concern with unnecessary things results in blindness toward the absolute and lasting values in life (Matthew).

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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