For the past few days we have heard proclaimed as the first scripture for daily Mass an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Kings.
The Book of Kings describes the rise and fall of Kingdom of David. In one respect it is a history book, in another it is a commentary on the sheer folly of the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power and honors, and in another respect it is a theological statement regarding how God works in the world, bringing even that which resists him to act in accord with his will and purposes.
We have been listening to the proclamation of a particular section of the Book of Kings, which includes the story of the one of the most important of the Israelites prophets- Elijah.
Elijah ministers to the Lord in the aftermath of a great catastrophe. The death of David’s son Solomon is the precursor to a bitter civil war, the result of which is that the Kingdom of David is divided in two, with one kingdom comprising the northern territories and the other the south.
The story of Elijah takes place in the northern kingdom, during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel. Both Ahab and Jezebel were idolaters and their dissipated lives of privilege and self-interest brought misery upon the Israelites. Elijah publically excoriated both Ahab and Jezebel, warning them that God is not mocked, and that their actions would lead to their own destruction. Ahab and Jezebel, insulated by their power and privilege, would not listen. The king and queen believed that they were answerable to no one- not God, not the prophets, not the law.
As a result of the king and queen’s stubborn refusal to repent, the blessing of the Lord is withdrawn from the land and a terrible drought, followed by a famine overtakes the northern kingdom. The king and queen, with all their worldly wealth and power, cannot compel the land to bring forth the harvest or the clouds to bring forth rain. They will not invite the poor to dine at their table. But Elijah, who is God’s servant, can and he does.
In today’s scripture it is the power of Elijah the prophet, not the power of Ahab the king that lifts a curse from the land delivers the Israelites from drought and famine.
The lesson? Trust in the Lord and not in worldly princes. If you make idols of your rulers, your politics, your causes and ideologies; if you think that worldly wealth and power exempts you from keeping the commandments of God then be warned- God is not mocked and the end result of idolatry is inevitably misery.
Christ the Lord summons his disciples to a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees. Not knowing whom the scribes and Pharisees are, Christ’s words in this respect may not be all that clear.
Think of the scribes and custodians and commentators on the Sacred Texts of the Israelites, what we call the Bible. The Sacred Texts were privileged as a source for knowing God’s will, and the scribes would dedicate their lives to discerning what the Sacred Texts meant to tell the Israelites concerning what God wanted for his people. An imperfect point of reference to our own experience is to think of the scribes as those university professors who make a career out of the study of theology or the Bible.
The Pharisees were a movement that arose after the catastrophic events of 587 BC, when the city of Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple was destroyed. The Pharisees proposed that the unique Israelite way of life, it’s religion and culture, could still be maintained without king or land of temple. How? They proposed a strict understanding of who was or wasn’t an Israelite and insisted that a code of ritual purity, one that would have been meticulously applied to Israelite’s priestly clan, be extended in all its severity to all Israelites. Only those Israelites who conformed to what the Pharisees construed as the right standard were true Israelites. An imperfect point of reference for the Pharisees in our own time might be those who insist that the laity of the Church be “clericalized”, replacing the priests, rather than assisting the laity in realizing their own unique spirituality and vocation.
The contemporary version of a Pharisee is pre-occupied with getting the laity to do the things that priests are expected to do- lobbying for their position in sacristy and sanctuary.
Christ the Lord insists that his expectations for his own disciples would not be the kinds of expectations that the scribes and Pharisees expected from themselves or others.
Sadly, for many of the scribes and Pharisees, their way of life had become an argument to be won, rather than a life of service to God, being faithful was more about accuracy, than it was about virtue. Holiness was an appearance, rather than reality. Faith was a burden that was imposed, rather than an act of saving grace.
Christ then insists that a day of reckoning is coming for the scribes and Pharisees, a day when they will be held accountable for their acrimonious and divisive debates, their harshness, and lack of receptivity to Christ’s revelation.
Christ warns them, that his arrival in their lives is an offer of grace, a privileged moment of mercy- opportunity to forgive, seek forgiveness and be forgiven. The time was now to repent, not later.
As it was for the scribes and the Pharisees, so it is for us.
Christ comes now, not later. He comes into our own lives, in the Scriptures, in the Sacraments and in the bodies of the poor and with his revelation, comes an opportunity to repent, to forgive, seek forgiveness and be forgiven. Will we take the second chance Christ offers? Some of the scribes and Pharisees accepted Christ’s offer of grace. Will we?