St. Ignatius encourages us to use our imaginations in order to put ourselves into situations such as described in today’s Gospel. To do so usefully, we have to know what Jesus’ words would have meant to his hearers.
It is helpful to remember that the Jews understood themselves to be God’s people. For the three centuries before Jesus’ time they had lived under tyrannical Syrian and Roman rulers. The tyranny was bad enough. That it was pagan was worse. This just wasn’t right! Six centuries earlier, when they had been exiles in Babylon, they had been freed as a result of a defeat of the Babylonians by Cyrus the Great of Persia. The news of Cyrus’ victory was called “Gospel”. It wasn’t just “good news” as we blandly translate it today. It was news of a decisive victory by which God was liberating His people. The Jews of Palestine in Jesus’ time were convinced that the time of their liberation had come once again. So Jesus’ message would have been welcomed with enthusiasm – at least initially. When He preached the “Gospel of the Kingdom”, He used “Gospel” deliberately. He was saying that God had intervened decisively and was about to inaugurate His rule, to implement His vision of how His creation should operate. He called upon His hearers to change their priorities (repent) so as to take advantage of what God was doing. It was a message of hope. People hoped that he was the Messiah – the new ruler who would throw off the yoke of tyranny under which they lived and reestablish God’s reign.
So what would have been my response if I had been in Jesus’ audience?
Perhaps it would have depended upon how comfortable I was. After all, considerable risk was involved. Caesar was emperor, and Herod, king, not Jesus. Furthermore, if I myself turned away from Jesus’ call, your acceptance of Jesus would have put me at risk anyway, for the Romans would quash both of us without distinction. (This helps us get some sense of the divisions Jesus said His life and self-giving would generate, e.g., Luke 12:51–53). So I guess my response would depend heavily upon how much I felt I needed to be saved – or from what – and whether I was willing to accept the kind of salvation Jesus offered, which wasn’t so much freedom from Rome, as freedom from the ultimate tyranny – sin and its consequences.
What do those issues mean for us today? We have just celebrated the birth of one we call our “Savior”. Do we feel we have been saved? That we needed to be saved? Don’t just give the Catechism answer. Think “salvation” in the concrete terms for which a decisive victory by God would have had tangible meaning – for example the miraculous saving of the Chilean miners just three months ago.
Europe, it is said, is all but lost to the faith. If so, that is partly because the European experience of church has not been particularly edifying, but partly also because technology and social politics have removed much of the more concrete causes of insecurity that had been nearly universal in all societies until this past century. But Jesus’ salvation was never technological nor political (which, by the way, was a disappointment to some of His would-be followers). So, then, what does it mean when we say Jesus saves us from sin? When we think “sin”, don’t think just of your own sinfulness. Think larger. John Paul II asserted that our world order was dominated by what he termed “structures of sin”.
We live under tyrannies that reject what God values. We are citizens of a country that wages unjust war (but makes us pay for it with our taxes), and of a state that still practices the death penalty. Our pension funds are invested in companies that exploit and oppress and despoil. (The pressures of our economic system literally force them to do so.) Yet more: The United States has just come through a painful national election, and whether you or I agree about the particular outcomes, the divisions were as harsh, mean, and selfish as one can remember or imagine. (It seems clear that the real loser was the common good.) Does this sound like how God wants His world to operate? Is our contemporary situation really all that different from that in which a Jew in Galilee lived over 2,000 years ago?
The rule of God was inaugurated in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and is reflected and activated in our every deed of justice and love. But that rule is still not fully established in our world. Do we – does our world – need to be saved? Emphatically yes!
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