Paul Knitter’s Homily from August 25, 2019

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Aug. 25, 2019

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 58: 6-14; Heb. 12: 18-29; Luke 13: 10-17


“To Know God Is to Do Justice”


  1. I have to start with a warning: In today’s homily, you’re getting a “twofer.”


  • Given the nature of today’s readings, and given my own oddities and propensities, I’m going to give two quite different sermons today, one on the second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews and the other on the first and third readings, Isaiah and Luke.


  • The messages of the readings from Isaiah and Luke’s Gospel are in tune with each other, and they are both challenging and inspiring. The message from Hebrews is, it seems to me, muddled and, more so, (I hate to say this) harmful.


  • I was tempted to just ignore the Hebrews reading figuring that it is pretty much incomprehensible. But my homilist’s sense of responsibility got the best of me: when faced with complex, maybe dangerous, texts, we homilists have to deal with them.


  1. First Sermon


  1. So, here’s the first sermon – on the reading from Hebrews:
  • If we had the time, I would have loved to do a little oral survey to hear what some of you understood from this reading. What was the author of Hebrews (who we know for sure was not Paul) getting at with all these rather obscure images of “things that can and cannot be touched…blazing fire, trumpets, voices whose words strike fear, things that can be shaken and things that can’t be shaken,” references to “the one who is speaking” without giving any clue as to who that is.


  1. New Testament scholars tell us that the author of this letter was probably a Jewish Christian steeped in Greek culture writing to other Jewish Christians between the years 70 and 95. The author’s central intent, which runs through the entire letter, was to show that God’s covenant through Jesus is superior to, and meant to replace, God’s covenant through Moses.
  • And here is where for us and for Christians throughout the centuries, this letter gets dangerous.
  • In today’s reading the author compares “Mount Zion” representing the convent through Jesus’ blood with Mt. Sinai where Moses received the Torah.
  • Let’s line up the descriptives for Mount Sinai/Judaism (I’m quoting from the text): “darkness, gloom, terror and fear, earthly, what can be shaken.”
  • Place these alongside the words describing Mount Zion/Christianity: “city of the living god, heavenly, assembly of the firstborn, the righteous made perfect, what cannot be shaken.”


  • The message is clear: Jesus has brought something “new” that is meant to replace or “supersede” what is “old.” The NT scholar Fr. Daniel Harrington, S.J.  tells us that “the author of Hebrews is more responsible than any other NT writer for our expression ‘the Old Testament’.” Another scholar wonders whether this Letter should more fittingly be called not a letter “to the Hebrews” but “against the Hebrews.”


  • This letter contains the seeds of what would become the corrupting weed of Anti-Semitism that has crept through so much of the history of Europe and America. And is with us still today, echoed in the chant of the White Supremacists of Charlottesville two years ago: “The Jews will not replace us” – because God wills us to replace them. – There’s a connection, I suggest, between White Supremacy and Christian Supremacy.


  1. So far, this is not a very inspiring sermon.  Okay, if we have to be aware of the seeds of Anti-Semitism in parts of the New Testament, is there any positive message in readings such as this one?   I believe there is.


  • The author of this letter, together with his community, were trying to explain, for themselves and for others, what this Jesus of Nazareth meant to them, how he had transformed their lives and how he can transform the world.


  • But because of their historical circumstances, because of the tensions that developed between the early Jewish Jesus-followers and the historic Jewish communities, given the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70, these early Christians felt that in order to extol Jesus they had to make him better than, and meant to take the place of, Moses and God’s covenant with the Jews


  • We know today that such a denigrating or replacing of Judaism was totally foreign to Jesus himself. Like so many of his predecessor Jewish prophets, he wanted to reform Judaism, not replace it.
  • The break between the community of Jesus followers and the Jewish community came later, after Jesus, for understandable if regrettable historical reasons.
  • The message of this reading for us today is phrased beautifully by the NT scholar and Lutheran Bishop Krister Stendahl. We Jesus followers today, he urges us, need to find ways to sing our song about Jesus so that others can hear it, but in a way that does not put down or seek to replace the songs that others sing about Moses, or Buddha, or Krishna or Mohammad.
  • Steve Zwettler took up this challenge in his homily for the Feast of the Epiphany. It’s a concern that the Sisters and all of us here at Holy Wisdom need to and want to keep exploring—how to sing our song without putting down other songs.


  • Which brings me to my second sermon. The readings from Isaiah and Luke tell us why the message of the “Old” Testament, of Judaism, is never old but always new and urgent.


  1. Our selection from Isaiah lifts up one of the central messages of the Jewish bible – a message I should add, that is not found with such centrality and clarity in other world religions.


  • Isaiah reminds his fellow Jews, who had just returned from exile in Bablyon around the year 530 BCE and were trying to rebuild the physical and social structures of Jerusalem, that they could count on Jahweh’s presence and guidance only if – I repeat only if – (and here I quote from the text) they are caring for “ those oppressed by injustice, the afflicted, the hungry, the homeless poor, those who have fingers pointed at them as not belonging, only if they practice the Sabbath as a reminder that if they are pursuing only their own interests, they are not pursuing God’s interests.”


  • This is Judaism’s enduring message to all peoples and all religions: if you claim to have a mystical experience of God, if you think you are enlightened, if you have a routine of prayer and meditation – but in all this, if your religious experience or enlightenment does not alert you to not just the sufferings of others in general but to the sufferings of the marginalized, of those caught in poverty or excluded by racism or nationalism – then you’d better check out the quality or authenticity of your religious experience or practice.


  • This message of Judaism to all other religions was summarized powerfully by the prophet Jeremiah: “To know God is to do justice.” (Jer. 22:16) If you’re not doing justice, your knowledge or experience of God is missing something absolutely essential.


  1. Our reading from Luke makes it clear that Jesus was a Jew who understood and lived this central message of his religion.


  • Luke describes how Jesus “saw” or noticed what so many others missed: anyone who, like this woman, was “bent over and unable to stand up straight” – anyone bent over either by physical ailments or by economic, political, or gender policies. The God whom Jesus experienced as Abba wants to “free” (apoluein) such people so they can stand up straight.


  • And in his exchange with the leader of the synagogue Jesus makes it clear that if your religion (your practice of the sabbath) distracts or excuses you from acting to free and do justice for all those who are unable to stand up straight, then he declares such religion to be “hypocritical.” “You hypocrites!”  That’s pretty strong language. – Evidently, Jesus’ command to love our neighbors and political opponents does not prevent us from letting them know what we think of their policies.


So in the covenant that we share with the Jews, we Christians can say of Jesus what Jews say of Jahweh: To know him, to share his experience of the Divine, is to feel the call to do justice for all those who are bent over and unable to stand up straight. 


In sharing this bread and this cup this morning, we have the opportunity to feel his true presence within each of us and within all of us. In the Eucharist we are enabled to be and to continue the presence of Christ in a world of so many people who are still  bent over and unable to stand up straight.


Let us gather around the altar.


Paul Knitter


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