Father Donald Senior, CP

Aug. 25: 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Breathing in, breathing out

Is 66:18-21; Ps 117:1, 2; Heb 12:5-7, 11-13; Lk 13:22-30

Some years ago, I read Barbara Gordon’s memoir, “I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can,” a frank and gripping account of a woman who was at the top of her career as a documentary producer when her life fell apart. 

Sinking into a deep depression, she felt she no longer knew how to live, even to get out of bed in the morning. A turning point came when her doctor reminded her there was one vital thing she did know how to do — breath. Breathing in and breathing out — the essential rhythm that keeps us alive. 

This may seem like an unlikely segue to the Lectionary readings for this Sunday, but I thought of the life-giving rhythm of breathing in and breathing out as one of the fundamental rhymns of the Bible itself. The accomplished French biblical scholar Lucien Legrand noted that the Bible moves in two different but related directions.

On the one hand, the Bible emphasizes the elect and chosen status of God’s beloved Israel, a people chosen by God and bound together in a covenant community. On the other hand, there is the counter movement toward the nations, those many peoples also created by God and loved by him. It’s a rhythm similar in a way to breathing in and breathing out.

For the most part, the Old Testament is concerned with the life and destiny of the people Israel and the challenge of living according to the demands of God’s will. But this focus within is offset at striking moments by the call to reach out beyond Israel’s borders to the surrounding nations. 

Israel is called in Isaiah 49 to be a “light to the nations” (a text that would inspire Paul the apostle). The book of Jonah challenges Israel’s overly ethnocentric focus as exemplified in the reluctant prophet who chafes under God’s request that he preach repentance to the Ninevites, traditional enemies of Israel. Even more striking is the fact that Jonah falls into a depression when, in fact, the Ninevites and their king actually do repent and are saved.

We have a striking example of the right blend of reaching out and bringing in, of breathing out and breathing in, in the first reading today from Chapter 66 of the prophet Isaiah. This is a section of the prophetic writings that looks to the nations. The text cites places unknown to most of us: “Tarshish, Put and Lud, Mosoch, Tubal and Javan.” These are indeed the “distant coastlands,” as Isaiah notes. 

But the God of Israel is their God, too, reaching out to them, drawing them into the embrace of Israel: “I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.” Israel’s work, in this vision of Isaiah, is not simply to be aware of the nations but to bring “all your brothers and sisters from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses and in chariots, in carts, upon mules and dromedaries, to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the Lord.”

I have often thought that the vital rhythm of breathing in and breathing out, of reaching out and drawing in, captures the spirit of Jesus’ own mission. He reaches out to the perimeter of Israel — the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised — and draws them into the heart of God’s people. He heals, reconciles, defends and embraces.

We hear echoes of this in today’s Gospel selection from Luke. Jesus speaks sternly here about “evildoers” who presume they are part of God’s people but do not act justly. Yet “people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.” 

Jesus loved his own people who were also God’s people, Israel. But Jesus also reached out to embrace those beyond the boundaries and invited them “to recline at table in the kingdom of god.”

This same dynamic should characterize any community formed in Jesus’ name striving to care for each other in our family, our parish, our community. But we must also reach out to bring home those who languish beyond our borders.



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