19TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2016

I know a Franciscan priest who spent 27 months in a Nazi concentration camp as one of the nearly 3000 priests there.  Twice he was beaten almost to death.  He came very close to perishing from starvation.  One day, emaciated, his face gaunt, his eyes recessed as if in empty, blackened pools, he stood at the barbed wire fence idly gazing out into the adjacent woods.  Suddenly he saw what he later described to me as the most beautiful sight he had ever beheld: a young soldier cautiously stepping out from behind a tree, his uniform identifying him as an American.

Too weak to shout or to run, my friend stood transfixed at this apparition.  No human words, he told me years later, could ever express the joy and the blessed relief that filled his heart and soul at this realization of immanent rescue.  Two and a quarter years of indescribable torture and despair were soon to end!  The GI realized that he had been seen and therefore motioned to Father Karas that he must not tell others what he was seeing.  And so my friend waited, his heart pounding as fast as it possibly could, his spirit already thanking the God he believed had saved people down through the ages and now was saving him and others.  Several minutes later, the massive invasion of liberation began.

If you can identify with the account I’ve just shared with you, at least in imagination if not through some personal experience of your own that relates to it, then you are prepared to understand something important in the Old and New Testament scriptural readings appointed for this Sunday throughout the world.  They speak of delays and waiting and the expectation of great saving actions on the part of God.  But what you may not be aware of is that between the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the composition of the gospels attributed to Mark and Luke, there was a strong belief among the early Christians that very soon Jesus was going to return to Earth — “any day now,” as we would say.

Expecting that triumphant return, that “Day of the Lord,” ecstatic about experiencing the Lord’s coming kingdom of life and love and peace, many of them adopted an attitude of inactive waiting.  Other considerations, other responsibilities and opportunities became less and less important to them.  Mark and Luke, two of the four gospel writers, took on the task of combatting this popular notion that Jesus would very soon be returning and that, therefore, this overwhelming, approaching event should make everything else trivial and futile.

In essence, these two evangelists said that no one could possibly know when the Lord would come back and that no one should be so foolish as to stand around idle and looking up to the heavens.  Instead, they said emphatically, they should all be looking around and finding what still needed to be done.  In other words, they should be good disciples of the Master, living and loving and caring and serving as he had taught them and as he had shown them. They should not be speculating on what Jesus himself had said only God could reveal.  Discipleship, the two evangelists made very clear, meant constructive action; to be a genuine disciple of Jesus meant living and acting in love and faith.

The bumper sticker we see so often puts it well in another way: KEEP IT SIMPLE.  It isn’t a constant litany of prayers and devotions that make us, and mark us as, loyal followers of Jesus.  It is rather our living in love and faith, which we express generously in our relationship to others.

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