Last week’s readings focussed on prophecy, and at first glance you might say that this week’s do the same. After all, we begin with a few words from the prophet Amos – but let us understand what they are saying. Often we forget that there had been two Jewish kingdoms: the ‘northern kingdom’ called Israel, and the kingdom of Judah, centred on Jerusalem, to the south. King David had united them and the union lasted under his son Solomon; but listen to what the book of Ecclesiasticus says about his grandson Rehoboam: Solomon rested with his fathers, and left behind him one of his sons, ample in folly and lacking in understanding, Rehoboam, whose policy caused the people to revolt. Partly in response to external pressures, the two kingdoms started to drift apart again. In the north, Israel came under the influence of neighbouring non-Jewish peoples who worshipped other gods. There was a [northern] national shrine at Bethel. Amos the prophet came from the border region and denounced the dilution of the religion of Israel. Needless to say, his message was not welcome. So the priest in charge of the national sanctuary at Bethel tried to chase him away with insults, suggesting that he was some kind of rent-a-prophet in the pay of the king of Judah. Go away, seer; get back to the land of Judah; earn your bread there, do your prophesying there. With dignity, Amos replied that he was no hired prophet, not a member of a prophets’ union. I was a shepherd, he said, and looked after sycamores: but it was the Lord who took me from herding the flock, and the Lord who said, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel”.
So, as we saw last week, a prophet is sent by God to deliver a message to his people. Turning now to the gospel, we see Jesus, the Son of God sending his disciples on a training exercise to do what they had seen him doing, i.e. to preach repentance and to heal the sick. He sent them out in pairs giving them authority over the unclean spirits. Why did he send them in pairs? Well, in the first place, they could support and encourage each other, solve problems together. In addition, thanks to the authority he had given them, they could cure sick people. Healing was not necessarily a matter of exorcism, of ending demonic possession; any kind of illness was held in that society to be due to the influence of malign spirits. More important though was the Jewish tradition that the testimony of two witnesses was conclusive. That means that if two apostles told the same story there was a good chance that people would accept what they said as true.
You could say, then, that the disciples were apprentice missionaries. They were not prophets, but they were spreading God’s word. They were sharing what they had learned about God’s love for mankind and the universal call to holiness. Now don’t misunderstand me. Holiness is a share in the divine nature – because God is all-holy. We attain that share by following the path set out for us by God, namely the commandments. To be holy is not to be a killjoy, but it does involve resistance to, and keeping oneself separate from, the standards of a lax and permissive society. Holiness is not a matter of doing what everybody else does. It is a matter of doing what God wants us to do. Furthermore, holiness is something to be shared, and by virtue of our Baptism, each of us has a part to play in spreading it.
Today’s second reading, taken from St Paul’s letter to the Christians of Ephesus, is an almost ecstatic hymn of praise of God who has included us in the divine plan. Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, he says. Before the world was made, he chose us, chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and to live through love in his presence. Not only that, but God has chosen to adopt us, make us members of the family, beneficiaries of the pardon his only begotten Son has won for us. God has done this for his own kind purposes, to make us praise the glory of his grace, his free gift to us in the Beloved in whom, through his blood, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins. Paul explains: He has let us know the mystery of his purpose, the hidden plan he so kindly made in Christ from the beginning to act upon when the times had run their course to the end. And what is that purpose? That he would bring everything together under Christ, as head, everything in the heavens and everything on earth.
Now while we understand all those words, I think it is hard to know what, together, they all mean. One of the problems is trying to understand eternity. We tend to think of eternity as an exceedingly long time. We can’t imagine living outside time. Our experience of time is that things change, and we change with them. We need food, we need rest, and we need entertainment or distraction. Because of the popular image of eternal punishment as never-ending fire, we have some notion of what that might be. But eternal happiness is beyond our imagining. We fear boredom.
I have no information about eternal bliss. I can only suggest that we trust God who is far more intelligent than we are and will surely have foreseen whatever difficulties we may have and provided for their solution. Meanwhile, in our earthly lives, over which we have a measure of control, we can choose and strive to live as befits people chosen, calledand adopted by God. In my view that would be a good way to live even if there were no promise of an eternal reward. (Q.Howard)
Confident, then, in God’s love for us, let us do all we can to show it to others.