Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
1) Is 66:18-21
Psalm 117:1, 2
2) Heb 12:5-7, 11-13
Gospel: Lk 13:22-30
Jesse Owens knew what it meant to be first. The gifted African American athlete won Olympic gold in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and relay races at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. That world event was politically charged as Adolf Hitler hoped to demonstrate to the world his nation’s superiority.
However, given the setting of the Olympics, Owens was able to stay with and mix freely with other athletes from different countries, races and languages. He even developed an enduring friendship with his German Olympic competitor. His remarkable athletic records in track and field remained unsurpassed for five decades.
Jesse Owens also knew what it meant to be last. For his astounding athletic achievements at the Olympics and over the course of his athletic career were barely acknowledged by Hitler or his fellow countrymen. As Owens would recall some years later, “Although I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president either.”
In the Gospel, Jesus responds to a question posed by someone in the crowds who followed him. They wanted to know, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” In response, Jesus urges his disciples to enter through the narrow gate. And as he concludes his teaching, Jesus simply says, “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Human beings have devised many ways to separate, classify and divide people according to fame, wealth, race and language. We give priority to some over others and consider one group superior or inferior in relation to another. It is part of our fallen human condition to divide rather than unite.
Scripture gives us a different perspective. God desires to bring all people — of every race, language and status — together into one human family in bonds of love and compassion. As the prophet Isaiah reminds us in the first reading, “Thus says the Lord … I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.”
In Jesus Christ, all barriers, divisions and enmities are to be overcome in the love and mercy of God for all people. This unity requires a change of heart and mind to see others as God sees each human person, created in the image and likeness of God.
The psalmist also evokes a vision of one human family giving praise to God with one voice. We are to go out to all the world, not just to a few, and tell the good news. So, we pray in the responsorial psalm, “Praise the Lord, all you nations; glorify him, all you peoples! For steadfast is his kindness toward us, and the fidelity of the Lord endures forever.”
Today God’s word invites us to the discipline of fostering unity over division. In the light of faith, we are to become instruments of unity and healing in the midst of a harshly divided, unkind world. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, God treats us as sons and daughters! As children of God, we turn to one another with the same divine mercy and love. For the wisdom to unite, rather than divide, we pray with confidence, saying, “speak to me, Lord.”
How does God’s word and the sacraments strengthen you to be a source of unity?
Sullivan is a professor at The Catholic University of America.