August 21, 2011 – Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 22:19-23; Psalm 138; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20
St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans has some heavy theological discussion, but it also has some beautiful and inspiring passages. Today’s Second Reading is one of those passages as he concludes his discussion of the relation of Jews and Gentiles in the Church.
In a burst of exultant praise, Paul acclaims God, whose plans are beyond human understanding. While in this passage, he did not use the word “mystery,” a word he used frequently elsewhere, he had the concept in his mind. And, by “mystery,” he did not mean a puzzle for a detective to figure out. Instead, using the word in the ancient Greek sense, Paul thought of a mystery as something that humans cannot unravel by themselves. No, mysteries are concepts that can be understood only by divine revelation.
And what was Paul concerned with here? How Jesus could be both Jewish Messiah and universal Savior.
God’s plan for the Church to take the Gospel to all mankind, and so bring both Jews and Gentiles into the Kingdom of God was a stunning and totally unexpected concept. So far beyond the theological training Paul had been exposed to, he could only wonder at its breadth.
Yet Paul was clear that this startling revelation that God’s Kingdom is open to both Jew and Gentile on an equal basis is the result of God’s goodness and love. Although he used words like “inscrutable” and “unsearchable,” Paul would have rejected any thought that God is indifferent or ambiguous or even hostile, beliefs common in many religions of his time and since. Rather, he meant that God is so much greater than we can imagine that we cannot comprehend his qualities.
And so St. Paul offered praise for God’s “riches and wisdom and knowledge,” and he acknowledged that God’s judgments and ways are beyond our understanding. God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge are the sources of all we possess and know and understand, for it’s only out of God’s generosity that any of us have anything or even exist.
And so, drawing on Old Testament thoughts from Job and Isaiah, Paul asked “Who has given the Lord anything that he may be repaid?” Because everything we have comes from God, anything we have to offer back was his originally and is ours only by his gift. As Paul wrote, “For from him and through him and for him are all things.” Therefore, we are always in debt to God, but God can never be in debt to us.
However, we should not take a resentful view of this truth. God gave us our lives and all we have because of his loving, generous character. He joyfully gives to us. We then ought to respond joyfully and generously, offering back a portion of our time, talent, and treasure to be used in his service.
One of the things for which we should be grateful is the Church, built upon the rock of St. Peter. In the Gospel heard two weeks ago, we heard Jesus address Peter as “you of little faith” (Mt 14:22-33). Next week, we’ll hear Jesus rebuke Peter, calling him Satan (Mt 16:21-27). But today we hear the account of one of St. Peter’s finest moments, when he was the first to identify Jesus as the Christ and the Son of the living God. Knowing St. Peter’s basic character, Jesus told Peter he would be the rock on which his Church is founded and he entrusted to Peter “the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”
But in addition to life itself and all the blessings we receive of family, food, and all the other good things we experience, we need a relationship with God to inherit eternal life. It is through the Church that we receive the sacraments and hear the Gospel preached and experience Christian formation. The Church, then, is one of God’s great gifts to us.
So, what do we take from today’s Scripture readings? God’s ways are beyond our understanding, yet he gives us all we have, including the Church of which we are a part and through which we receive sacramental grace. In response, we joyfully and gratefully offer back a portion of our time, our talent, and our treasure.