Our ears perk up when we hear Yahweh's words proclaimed by Third-Isaiah (Is 66: 10-14) in Sunday's first reading: "Lo, I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent."

In the same way, we listen eagerly to Jesus talking to His returning missionaries in the Gospel (Lk 10: 1-12, 17-20). "I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky. Behold, I have given you the power to `tread upon serpents' and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy, and nothing will harm you!"

Hearing only these lines, one would think those who profess faith in Yahweh and Jesus are guaranteed success in all their endeavors. Nothing is further from the biblical truth. Only when we listen to everything our sacred authors say in the three readings do we understand the background of suffering and failure into which our sacred authors situate these small glimpses of success.

Hope and rubble

For instance, when Third-Isaiah utters the beautiful words over Jerusalem which make up the first reading, the holy city is just a pile of rubble.

In the same way, scholars often remind us that Paul is completely out of control of the Christian community in Galatia when he writes the letter which bears its name (Gal 6: 14-18). Many of those who had converted to the faith because of his preaching and example are now convinced that obeying the law of Moses is more important than being a disciple of Jesus.

The situation is so bad that Paul believes his long, hard work of evangelization has been a waste. His community no longer professes the Christianity they received from him.

This seems to be why he ends his letter with a reflection on Jesus' "failure:" the cross. "Brothers and sisters," he writes, "may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." How could Paul expect his ministry always to succeed when Jesus' ministry had been such a disaster?

That insight prompts modern commentators to believes that Paul isn't referring to what we today call the "stigmata" when he mentions, "I bear the marks of Jesus on my body." He simply appears to be reminding his readers that just as Jesus suffered and failed in His ministry, Paul also has failed and suffered. The psychological pain that marked Jesus' work also marks Paul's.

Dust-off

It's important to remember that Luke quotes Jesus' words to His 72 missionaries sometime in the mid-80s, 50 years after Jesus' death and resurrection. He and the community for whom he writes have had that long to reflect on what happens when people try to carry on Jesus' word.

This is why Luke's Jesus stresses how centered His followers must become on their ministry. Money, clothes and possessions are never to be a distraction. Comfort is not to be sought; neither is success. We shouldn't even worry about how people receive us.

"Whatever town you enter," Jesus commands, "and they do not receive you, go out into the streets and say, `The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.'"

Luke believes Jesus' disciples shouldn't expect always to success in what they do. Their task is simply to imitate Jesus. That means the first person who must remember that "the kingdom of God is at hand" is the proclaimer of that kingdom. He or she must especially recognize the presence of God working among and through them at the very moment those to whom they are proclaiming that kingdom are ignoring it.

All our biblical authors believe that no one can be an honest follower of God who hasn't developed a theology of failure.

(07-05-01)