The theme for this Sunday’s Mass involves the idea of being sent to deliver a message that God wants delivered. Of course, God could deliver the message himself, but 1) God likes to share, by which I mean that God involves us in his plans. An obvious example of this is that God could have made new humans without the cooperation of humans, but his design involves our participation. 2) God’s request to send a message forms a test for the one who is sent: Will you be faithful to God’s wishes for you to say what he wants said? and 3) Sending a regular person as his messenger forms a test for the ones who hear the message: Will the listener(s) discount or even despise the messenger that God has chosen?
In the first reading (Amos 7: 12-15), we don’t hear the long, long warning that Amos delivers to Jeroboam II and the Israelites. What we do hear is Amazi’ah telling Amos to stop prophesizing in that location. Their names start with the same letters, but Amos is the good guy and Amazi’ah is not. Mind you, Amazi’ah clearly views himself as the Protector of Everything Good. He fulfills the role, played by many throughout history, of defending the status of a corrupt leader, of protecting the status quo, of ‘standing with,’ as we now say, those who need to repent and take the truth to heart. He tells Amos that he is not being appropriately respectful towards the location, which is the home of King Jeroboam II, the king of Israel. Amazi’ah informs Amos that this “is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Amazi’ah is ‘educating’ Amos, telling him that it is not a good idea for him to prophesy here. Amazi’ah doesn’t tell him that he cannot prophesy, but he says that he can’t do it there. He tells Amos to move along, move along. He says, “Go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there.” In other words, get lost.
In response, Amos does some educating of his own, informing Amazi’ah (and us) that he isn’t a prophet. He isn’t even the son of a prophet, he says. In other words, it wasn’t his idea to stand there and say things like “Your wife shall be a harlot in the city and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword.” (Those lines are actually just after the reading for tomorrow, so I feel slightly guilty for colouring outside the lines, but there you have it.)
I find Amos’ reply in defence to be quite endearing and even poetic. He says, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” A sycamore tree has big low branches, and if you tend it (“dress it”) properly, the tree will do a good job of producing something like figs. When Amos talks about his work, he talks about it in present tense. We call him a prophet, and Amazi’ah calls him a prophet, but Amos doesn’t see himself as a prophet. He says “I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.” He doesn’t say that he was a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees. He says “I am a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees.” Amos doesn’t know what the future holds, so I suppose he is expecting to return to that work.
I wonder what kind of flocks he had. Sheep? Goats? I find it amusing that when I type the word “goat,” my computer offers me a picture of one. Here he is: 🐐. And here’s a sheep 🐑. Baa.
So anyway, in his humility and simplicity, Amos describes what happened: “And the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me,`Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'”
The words describing God’s actions are quite simple, yet they are strong. God is described as ‘taking’ someone from one place and giving them an entirely new direction: “Go” and an entirely new responsibility: “Prophesy.” The imperative form of the verb is being used here. It’s not “Could you please go?” and it’s not “I would really appreciate it if you would go.”
God says “Go.”
In the Gospel reading, Jesus repeats this pattern. He calls those whom he has chosen (“and he called to him the twelve,”) and then he sends them (“and began to send them out two by two.”) He gives specific instructions. Wear sandals and bring a staff (a practical thing, but also shepherd imagery for the future), but don’t bring money, a bag, food or an extra tunic.
Imagine if he were speaking to the modern audience. North Americans can’t go across town without bringing a water bottle. (Drinking water to stay Hydrated = virtue itself.) Jesus would say, “Don’t bring a backpack or a suitcase, wheeled or not. Don’t bring a hat or pants that can convert into shorts. Don’t bring a water bottle, energy bars or a propane stove. Don’t bring a tent. Don’t bring your phone, your credit cards and don’t pack any cash . . . ” Honestly, I think some people would refuse to go, just on the grounds that they couldn’t bring their coffee. (Pun not intended, initially.)
He also gave instructions about what to do if people would “not receive you” and “refuse to hear you.” That was, of course, what happened to Amos. He wasn’t welcome in Bethel, where he went to warn the Israelites and their king. Jesus directs, “Shake off the dust that is on your feet for a testimony against them.” It is interesting to see that there is a response that is not only permitted, but commanded if the one who is sent is rejected. The response is physical, but it signifies something big: God’s displeasure with those who were supposed to receive his messenger and his message.
What was the message? The message was that it was time for people to repent. (“So they went out and preached that men should repent.”) To repent means to evaluate what you have been doing, and to understand that your excuses for wrongdoing are unacceptable. It includes making amends to God, and, in some cases, making amends to people against whom you’ve sinned.
Looking at the Psalm (a section from Psalm 85 will be read this Sunday), there is the idea of listening to God, and God wanting to communicate with us: “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints, to those who turn to him in their hearts” (85:8). Interestingly, the description of the audience has three parts. Are those three different groups, or are they different ways of saying the same thing? It refers to a) his people, b) his saints, c) those who turn to him in their hearts.
The answer is that God will speak to whomever will listen (“Let those who have ears, hear!”) wherever they are in the world and wherever they are in their life journey. This includes, most importantly, those who are not typically or traditionally viewed as being part of “his people” or “his saints.” When the truth is revealed, won’t everyone be so surprised to discover who has been, in fact, open to God’s message and who has not? Who would have expected that the herdsman over there was paying such close attention to God? In the same way, it will be quite surprising to discover who cares about God and who doesn’t. Picture the seller of braided string bracelets who sits at the street corner, hoping to interest some tourists. Maybe she is the one who is actually attentive to God’s call. Picture the young university student working late into the night. What do you know about her response to God’s call? Then there’s the bus driver who spends his days navigating the bumpy roads in the interior of his country. What does a prophet look like to you? Someone with white hair and flowing robes? Someone standing on the street corner with pamphlets? Ultimately, those who “turn to him in their hearts” (i.e., those who genuinely love and care about God on the inside, as opposed to those who act as though they do, for the sake of gaining admiration or other benefits), are “his people.” They are “his saints.”
And then we have St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about St. Paul lately, and it was all because I was wrestling with the readings for this Sunday. My issue is that St. Paul’s writing is always really loaded. It’s chock-full of words and phrases. I came to realize, in the end, that you don’t have to be concerned if you can’t digest all of it. In almost all cases, even the tiniest portion of a letter from St. Paul is crammed with so many intricate sentences with clauses upon clauses that you would have to read each sentence three, five or ten times to get your mind around even the grammatical structure of each sentence (Where’s the main idea here?). And hearing it read at Mass means that it goes by very quickly. You’re fortunate if you can grasp a couple of concepts as the words zoom past you. There’s a reason that the Church serves only thin wedges of his letters at one sitting.
St. Paul’s letters are, of course, valuable. “They’re letters from a Christian to other Christians, and we’re Christians,” as WiseOne put it. They show the issues that were confronting Christians at the time, and they contain explanations about what the Christian life is supposed to be. Having said all that, St. Paul’s intention was quite focused: he was writing to certain communities, keeping the connection and wanting them to persevere in the faith. His letters are different from the Gospels, for instance, which were intended as a more-or-less public record of the life of Christ.
I spent a long time trying to understand why his writing is the way it is. The style of the letters make the letters quite ‘heavy’ and almost rigid. For this reason, when St. Paul says, “Rejoice,” you can barely appreciate it, because he says it in such a solemn, sophisticated and, well, often long-winded way. It’s not just that the letters are complicated. Complicated things can be very exciting in the way that they reveal the truth. I like the mystical style of St. Pope John Paul II, and I like the philosophical style of Pope Benedict, and I like what I’ve read of Pope Francis’ writing. Their writing styles are rich and full, and although they are often complicated, they’re not circuitous or boring. St. Paul’s writing, on the other hand, doesn’t yield the same proportion of “aha!” moments and “wow, that’s really well put!” moments in relation to the amount of effort one must exert to comprehend it.
That’s my take, anyway.
Let’s go talk to St. Paul.
Blogger: Good afternoon, St. Paul.
St. Paul: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! — You can just call me Paul.
Blogger: Call you Paul?
St. Paul: Sure, yes; we almost always drop the “saint” when we talk to each other in heaven; we’re all saints, so we —
Blogger: It’s understood?
St. Paul: Exactly!
Blogger: Makes sense! Makes sense. Having said that, since I’m, well, still on earth, would it be alright with you if I keep the “Saint” part?
St. Paul: Oh, sure, sure.
Blogger: Just habit, I suppose.
St. Paul: I understand. And, don’t get me wrong: It’s a wonderful title, “Saint.”
Blogger: Well yes, of course. It’s a great title. Better than Mr.
St. Paul: Or Dr.
Blogger: Or Ms.
St. Paul: Or Sir
Blogger: Or Your Highness
St. Paul: Or Your Grace
Blogger: Ooh, yes, I suppose so. Food for thought, there. But anyway, let’s get started. I’d like to review this portion of the reading for tomorrow’s Mass. We’re starting in at line 3 of your letter to the Ephesians.
St. Paul: Not with the salutation? Did they lose the salutation?
Blogger: It’s here, but I guess the salutation isn’t part of the Mass readings this time.
St. Paul: I was just joking.
St. Paul: I knew they didn’t lose it.
Blogger: Right. I get it! Now let’s jump into it. Looking at the first line, why don’t you do the honours and read it?
St. Paul: Of course; my pleasure. I wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Blogger: And then you added–
St. Paul: Yes, I wrote: “He has blessed us in Christ.”
Blogger: That’s nice.
St. Paul: Yes, yes. I wanted to remind the Ephesians that our blessings flow from and through Christ.
Blogger: And then you mentioned the ways that God has blessed us.
St. Paul: Yes. God blessed us in Christ “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”
Blogger: What did you mean by, “in the heavenly places”?
St. Paul: This is a reference to the many types of spiritual blessings that God wishes to bestow upon us. Also, I liked to remind everyone about heaven. People liked to hear about heaven.
Blogger: And then you talked about the idea of being chosen.
St. Paul: Yes, yes, that was the heart of this part, and that’s probably why the Church chose this part of my letter for tomorrow. I wrote, “He blessed us even as he chose us, in him.”
Blogger: The “in him” part is referring to Christ?
St. Paul: Yes, of course.
Blogger: So you’ve mentioned Christ three times now.
St. Paul: Can’t go wrong there!
Blogger: It’s clear whose side you’re on, for sure. Nowadays we typically don’t mention Christ’s name as often as you do in your letters. I mean, there are some people who try to emulate your style, but they’re often going for a ‘look.’ A look of holiness, you know.
St. Paul: Ha ha, yes! I understand. I understand.
Blogger: And then you’ve got this part about “the foundation of the world.”
St. Paul: Ah yes, that’s when God chose us. God chose us “before the foundation of the world.”
Blogger: Sort of a sweeping phrase?
St. Paul: ‘Sweeping’ phrase?
Blogger: The phrase sounds grandiose.
St. Paul: Ah. (Smiles.) Thank you.
Blogger: You seem to like throwing those in.
St. Paul: ‘Throwing’ them in?
Blogger: As in, you like to add phrases into your writing that remind your audience of the significance of the topic, and of the Christian way of life.
St. Paul: Ah, yes, well, of course! Of course! It’s necessary. The Ephesians, well, you know, they were like everyone else. It’s necessary to remind, to teach always. When you are not there in person, especially it is essential to teach constantly. Every word is an opportunity. Every phrase is a chance, not to be squandered.
Blogger: And then you wrote that God chose us “to be holy and blameless before him.” And here, you’re not saying that you and the Christians, new and old, are holy and blameless, are you?
St. Paul: Well, we try to be.
Blogger: But you’re not bragging, are you?
St. Paul: What do you mean, ‘bragging’?
Blogger: Are you being boastful? The modern ear, you know, is on guard against boasting, especially from Christians.
St. Paul: I boast only in my infirmities.
Blogger: Ha ha. Good one!
St. Paul: (Smiles)
Blogger: Just to interrupt myself again. Do you joke around more now that you’re in heaven? I mean, in comparison to how you were while on earth?
St. Paul: Heaven is very fun. A “blast,” as people say. Lots of joking around; lots of laughing.
Blogger: Were you a serious fellow, while on earth?
St. Paul: I was.
Blogger: Not so much joking?
St. Paul: Not so much, but I was joyful on the inside.
St. Paul: Of course! (Smiling)
Blogger: You wrote what God chose us to be.
St. Paul: Yes, I wrote a good section here. I wrote: “He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”
Blogger: That’s quite a mouthful.
St. Paul: Mouthful?
Blogger: It’s a lot — you know, a lot of concepts in there.
St. Paul: It is, but I really wanted it to be complete. A person has to exert an effort, you know. These letters — these letters had to last a long time. I couldn’t write every day. I needed to put in as much as I could. To teach constantly, that was my way.
Blogger: Here you mention “the Beloved,” that’s—
St. Paul: Yes, that’s Jesus.
Blogger: And I see the phrase “according to.”
St. Paul: According to, yes.
Blogger: You really like that phrase, didn’t you? In the lines for Sunday, I see it a lot of times. You wrote, “according to the purpose of his will” and “according to the riches of his grace” and “according to his purpose” and “according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things” and “according to the counsel of his will.”
St. Paul: It’s a connector. It’s to help me explain how things are and how they came to be that way.
Blogger: You weren’t worried that it was too complicated?
St. Paul: Oh, no, no, no. Not too complicated. It explains. The more information, the better. If a person doesn’t understand it the first way, perhaps they will understand the second way. If they don’t understand the second way, then perhaps they will understand the third way.
Blogger: And then what about this: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us.”
St. Paul: Ah yes, that’s a good part. And it presents even better in the original.
Blogger: Was that section intended as —
St. Paul: Yes, as educational, to teach, to remind them of everything that God has given us, through Jesus
Blogger: And then —
St. Paul: Then it is: “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
Blogger: Whew! That’s a lot!
St. Paul: You think so?
St. Paul: You would have preferred it shorter? Simpler?
Blogger: Well, I mean, the heart of the sentence is rather hard to find.
St. Paul: But they liked long letters.
Blogger: They liked long letters?
St. Paul: I think so.
Blogger: Well they really are pretty long. Did you know that there are websites with statistics about the Bible, and I found out that this letter of yours is 2,422 words long?
St. Paul: Really!
Blogger: You’re surprised?
St. Paul: I’m surprised that someone would have counted. A person doesn’t have much time on that side of heaven.
Blogger: Well, it would have been counted by a computer.
St. Paul: Ah, of course.
Blogger: But don’t you think that’s a lot of words?
St. Paul: It’s a good length.
Blogger: It must have taken a while?
St. Paul: Yes, but it was worth it. I’m just glad that the letter didn’t get lost on the way, after all that writing.
Blogger: Did that ever happen?
St. Paul: Yes.
Blogger: Oh, that would have been a disappointment.
St. Paul: It was hard at the time, but I never lose things anymore. (Smiles.)
Blogger: No, I guess not!
St. Paul: Heaven is really incredible. It’s even better than I said.
Blogger: I bet it is.
St. Paul: You should come!
Blogger: I will! But first I have work to do.
St. Paul: Blogging?
Blogger: Yes, and other things.
St. Paul: Like what?
Blogger: Gardening, cooking, to name a couple. And with cooking, I’ve been trying a new thing lately.
St. Paul: A new thing?
Blogger: Yeah, it’s really exciting. I switch countries as I go through the week. Sundays is Polish and Ukrainian food, and Mondays is Spanish and South American food. On Tuesdays I do Korean and Asian food, and so on.
St. Paul: No Mediterranean food?
Blogger: Oh yes, that’s on Thursdays. It’s usually Italian, but last week I did Greek.
St. Paul: I like olives.
Blogger: Do you eat them in heaven?
St. Paul: Of course! All varieties, including some I had never tasted while on earth.
St. Paul: It’s pretty amazing. Eye has not seen.
Blogger: Ha ha!
St. Paul: Seriously, you should come.
Blogger: I will, I will. I just want everyone to come as well.
St. Paul: Don’t worry. They will, eventually.
Blogger: Sigh. Yeah, but to watch them, you’d think they have no plans.
St. Paul: Ha ha, I know. But God has plans; it’s okay.
Blogger: And he’ll get his way!
St. Paul: Absolutely!
Blogger: Okay, I guess we should keep going. Where was I? Oh yes, I was saying that the sentences are so dense. Take the last sentence, for instance. Pardon me for saying it, but by the time I get to the end of the sentence, I feel like I’ve lost the thread.
St. Paul: Really?
Blogger: Maybe it’s just a different style.
St. Paul: A different cuisine.
Blogger: More olives?
St. Paul: More olives.
Blogger: And feta.
St. Paul: Can’t forget the feta. Goat cheese is always a classic.
Blogger: And was it a Jewish style? I have heard that in the oral tradition, it was typical to rely on repetition. The speaker would say things three times in order to make the details stick?
St. Paul: Well yes, of course. It’s a good tradition. Always repeat. Repeat and repeat. People need that.
Blogger: People get distracted, and they forget.
St. Paul: Exactly!
Blogger: But to return to this sentence, it seems to me that the heart of it is: “For he has made known to us the mystery of his will, to unite all things.”
St. Paul: Yes, things in heaven and earth.
Blogger: But your version has so much extra. Yours is: “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
St. Paul: (Smiles) It’s a good sentence.
Blogger: But it could have been more simple, easier to read!
St. Paul: Each sentence should be an elegant meal. I have included all of the ingredients and combined them just so.
Blogger: You wanted to make beautiful, elevated sentences?
St. Paul: Precisely! To encourage, to inspire! I poured myself into those letters. Like a libation.
Blogger: But you don’t talk like that now.
St. Paul: I could, but I’m talking to you, and you, well, you aren’t drawn to that style.
Blogger: No. It’s kind of, well —
St. Paul: But you do use a lot of words.
Blogger: Well —
St. Paul: 2,422 words is a short blog post for you.
Blogger: But they’re not complicated words, with so many clauses! Not usually, anyway!
St. Paul: Ah, I see.
Blogger: Are you allowed to tease people when you’re in heaven?
St. Paul: Ah, well, interesting question. The verb “to tease” is not complicated, but the subject can be. Jokes in heaven are never offensive, and are never hurtful, but there are jokes in abundance. Friendly, funny banter is a source of great amusement, and we enjoy each others’ sense of humour. We’re all really relaxed and we laugh a lot. Jokes are part of the fun. Ear has not heard . . .
Blogger: Sounds delightful. But I should continue with your letter, because those parishes that read the longer version will read verses 11, 12,13 and 14 as well. Shall we proceed?
St. Paul: Yes, please!
Blogger: In the next section, you make a distinction between the very first believers in Christ, and those who have come to believe later?
St. Paul: Here I have used two parts, but the reward is the same.
Blogger: It says that those “who first hoped in Christ” have been “destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory,” and that those who believed later, are “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” Then you switch again to the “we” form, saying that being sealed with the Holy Spirit is “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it.”
St. Paul: Yes, we all share in the reward.
Blogger: Of the promises of Christ.
St. Paul: Of the promises of Christ, and, through Christ, his bride, the Church.
Blogger: Heaven being one of the promises?
St. Paul: Heaven being one of them.
Blogger: How does this excerpt from your letter fit in with the Gospel and the other reading and Psalm?
St. Paul: I thought that was for you to figure out?
Blogger: Well, yes, I was working on it, but since you’re here . . .
St. Paul: Very well. Christ has chosen some to hear the word first, but of those who believe, there are some who are then sent to bring the message to others. We see that Amos was called in a unique way, and Jesus also sent the twelve out with specific instructions. Yet in another sense, everyone is ‘sent,’ because we are all called to bear witness with our lives that we are faithful to Christ, in accordance with our state in life and our circumstances.
Blogger: You said “in accordance with.”
St. Paul: It’s a good phrase.
Blogger: I’m at 4,334 words.
St. Paul: Can I add something?
Blogger: Of course.
St. Paul: The other element here is the overflowing goodness that God has in store for those who turn to him, which are shown by the words of the Psalm, “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” The imagery suggests both bounty and providence, for it says, “our land will yield its increase,” and accordingly, about the ground, the psalmist says, “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,” and about the sky, the psalmist prophesies: “Righteousness will look down from the sky.” It is about an end to corruption and unfaithfulness. The psalmist says, “Yea, the Lord will give what is good.”
Blogger: You say that the psalmist “prophesies,” so this is intended to tell us about the future, or has it already happened, with the arrival of Christ?
St. Paul: The words of the Psalm are mysterious; certainly the arrival of Christ is a fulfillment of the words, but the Psalms are never ‘exhausted,’ as it were, and all who believe in him can look forward to “our inheritance until we acquire possession of it,” as I told the Ephesians. The words of the Psalm can be understood as describing not only the reign of Christ but also the Christian inheritance, the idea of “heavenly places.”
Blogger: I understand. Thank you, St. Paul.
St. Paul: You’re very welcome! Thank you for having me. Best wishes with your cooking, and all else!
Blogger: Thank you!
Nice fellow. Very congenial. Surprisingly easy to talk to. I like him.
And I like Amos too. Amos, herdsman, dresser of sycamore trees, prophet.
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