Sunday, August 23, 2015

Reflections for the 21st Week in Ordinary Time, Part 1

Monday – A Strange Exchange

On today's feast of Saint Bartholomew, who is also called Nathanael, we witness a rather strange exchange between the saint and Jesus. 

Philip, Nathanael's friend, has just met Jesus and been invited to follow Him as a disciple. Philip is so moved and excited by his experience that he wants to share it. He hurries to Nathanael and declares that they have finally found the One Moses and the prophets had written about. This long awaited Messiah, Philip proclaims, is none other than Jesus of Nazareth.

Nathanael is far from convinced. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” he responds, probably with a sniff. What is Nazareth, after all, but some backwoods town up north? It isn't important with regard to anything as far as Nathanael can see, and besides, the Messiah is supposed to come from Bethlehem.

Philip is not deterred by his friend's negativity. “Come and see,” he replies. To his credit, Nathanael does, and the encounter to follow changes his life. 

Jesus sees Nathanael coming and declares, “Here is a true child of Israel. There is no duplicity in him.” This is quite a compliment, actually. Any Jewish man of Jesus' day would be thrilled to hear that he is living up to the standards of the patriarch and fulfilling the duties of his faith with a sincere heart. 

Nathanael is surprised. He quickly owns the compliment (apparently, he is pretty confident in himself), but he asks Jesus, “How do You know me?”

Jesus answers with a mysterious sentence: “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” This sets Nathanael back on his heals, and he immediately proclaims, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” 

That seems like a pretty major leap, doesn't it? How does Nathanael get to a proclamation of Jesus' Messianic divinity and kingship from a comment about a fig tree?

Commentators offer varying explanations. Some say that Nathanael had indeed been meditating and praying under a fig tree at some point before meeting Jesus. Perhaps he had been alone and thought no one else could possibly know what he was doing. In that case, it would have been a shock for a stranger to know about his private activities.

But this interpretation doesn't seem strong enough to warrant Nathanael's vehement statement of faith. In The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch explain that Nathanael actually recognizes Jesus' comment as reference to the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. In Zechariah 3:10, for instance, the prophet declares that in future days (days of the Messiah) people will invite each other to come and rest under their fig trees as a sign of peace and prosperity. Further, the Messiah Himself was often designated as a “Branch” by prophets like Zechariah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. The Jews of Jesus' day probably thought of the Branch in terms of the common fig tree. 

Jesus' simple statement, then, would be a both a subtle admission of Who He is and an invitation to Nathanael to fulfill his destiny by following Him. Jesus' words, probably with a hefty nudge from the Holy Spirit, touch Nathanael's mind and heart. He realizes that his friend Philip is right. They have indeed found the Messiah. 

Tuesday – You Hypocrites!

Jesus doesn't beat around the bush in today's Gospel. He's speaking to the scribes and Pharisees, who were the religious leaders of His day. The scribes studied and interpreted the Law, and they could get pretty dogmatic about it (and not in a good way). Many of them believed that they knew best and that everyone should listen to and obey them. 

The Pharisees also studied and taught the Law. They were purists who wanted to bring the Jewish people back to the ways of God, but they tended to focus on external practices rather than internal realities. 

That's what really bothers Jesus. He calls out these leaders for paying tithes down to the penny but refusing to practice justice and mercy. He nails them for neglecting other people even as they fulfill every meticulous little ritual of their religious practices. He gets after them for straining out gnats and swallowing camels. In other words, to the scribes and Pharisees, little neglects in ritual practices are more important that major injustices. They do things like chastise people for forgetting to wash their hands before they eat while ignoring the fact that many of their fellow Jews are hungry.

Jesus continues His harangue, scolding the scribes and Pharisees for being like dishes that are spotlessly clean on the outside but filthy dirty on the inside. They go through all the right motions and formalities, but deep down they are self-centered and greedy. 

Before we jump to judge the scribes and Pharisees, we should stop to take a close look at ourselves. Do our internal realities match our external practices? Do we strain out gnats but swallow camels? Are we clean on the outside but filthy on the inside? Do we deserve to hear Jesus call us “You hypocrites”?

Wednesday – The Omnipresent God

“Where can I go from Your Spirit?” Nowhere. God sees us wherever we are.

“From Your presence where can I flee?” Nowhere. God is present everywhere.

If we fly up to the Heavens, He is there. If we crawl down into the earth, He is there. If we sail across the sea, He is there. His eyes watch us. His hand guides us. 

If we creep away into the darkness, God still sees us. There is no darkness for Him, the One Who is Light. 

God is always with us, always holding us in being. If He stopped thinking about us for even an instant, we would simply cease to exist. 

Praise to our omnipresent God, Who searches our hearts and knows us better than we know ourselves!

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