Friday, September 30, 2011

Homily 5: 'for you and for many'

Next week, as you know, we begin using the new translation of the Mass.
Today I want to look at the one change that I know have a lot of people talking.
If it’s misunderstood, which will be easy to do, it will cause some concern.

In the Eucharistic Prayer, we are all familiar with the words the priest says,
when he holds the cup of wine:
“this is the cup of my blood—the blood of the new and everlasting covenant,
it will be shed for you…”

In the outgoing translation, it goes on to say, “…and for all.”
In the new translation, it says, “for you and for many.”

That certainly raises a lot of questions. There’s more going here, so let’s dig into it.

We have to go back to the Scriptures to understand this.
The fact is, this is what the Gospels tell us Jesus said at the Last Supper.

Here is what Matthew wrote, which we read on Palm Sunday:
“this is my blood of the covenant,
which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.’”
The Gospel of Mark has very similar words.

Now, some might ask, are the words in the Bible, in Greek, hard to translate?
Is the Latin of the Mass prayers ambiguous? They really aren’t.
And, for those who are interested in more detail on this,
I prepared a handout which is in the bulletin today.

But before we go any further, let’s stop and realize the reason
“many” sounds bad to us. It’s only because we’re contrasting it with “all.”

If at first I tell you, you get to have “all” the cookies—
but then I tell you, no, you get to have “many”—that sounds like a step down.

But take the word “all” out of the picture.
If the word “all” had never been used in the first place,
there’s no reason for “many” to sound bad to us.
Because the natural and logical counterpoint to “many” is what? How about “few”?

And that is the very question—regarding salvation—that comes up so often in Scripture!

At one point, the disciples asked: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
That was what everyone was asking: is salvation only for a handful?
Can only the rich be saved? Can only the Jews be saved? Is it only a few?

And the Lord’s words at the Last Supper are his rebuttal: “for many.”

Even so, the Lord could have said “all.” Why didn’t he?

First, while it is true that Jesus’s death is available for all people,
if they respond, that doesn’t mean all people are guaranteed heaven.

The Gospel we heard is pretty stark: if we don’t live as Jesus commands,
we risk being sent to the Lord’s left—with the goats.

We have no idea who or how many will, ultimately, be saved.
It’s certainly less challenging if we assume salvation is easy,
and everyone, or almost everyone, makes it.
That’s the downside of the translation we’ve been using.

In any case, whoever is saved, it won’t be “few”!
Many times the Lord makes clear
that they will come from “east and west, north and south.”
The “many” will be vast number;
the Book of Revelation says an uncountable multitude.

More than that, one of the things the Lord was mindful of
was the Old Testament passages that foresaw his coming as Messiah.
And none are more vivid
than what Isaiah said about God’s “servant,” “the just one,”
whose suffering and death “shall justify the many.”
This phrase appears several times in Isaiah’s prophecies.

In other words, not only did the Lord himself know the prophecies—
he realized his disciples knew them too.
He was extremely mindful, especially on Holy Thursday and Good Friday,
of how his actions would fulfill those passages.

Recall when Peter pulled out his sword, Jesus said,
“Put back your sword… Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father
and he will not provide me with more than twelve legions of angels?
But then how would the scriptures be fulfilled
which say that it must come to pass in this way?”

So at the Last Supper, the Lord was determined
that even his choice of words should fulfill the words of Isaiah.
Ever the Good Shepherd, Jesus wanted us not to have the least cause for doubt
that he is truly our Messiah!
As we say in the Creed: “in fulfillment of the Scriptures.”

This is our last weekend using the old translation.
When you come to Mass next weekend, you’ll hear it all the first time,
and we’ll all pray it together for the first time.
It will sound somewhat different, and for awhile, that’s what we’ll notice.
But it’s the same Mass.

Remember, the Lord said, “do this in remembrance of me.”
In the end, we are attempting, as best we can, to carry out the Mass faithfully.

Faithful to what the Church teaches us,
faithful to prayers that were handed down from the early Church,
faithful to the texts of the Bible,
and faithful even to Jesus’ own choice of words.

Sometimes—as in this case—we find the Lord’s words jarring.
But we don’t paper them over.
We recall just what he said, the way he said it.
If they make us ponder, so much the better.

(Here's the text of the handout I plan to distribute...)

Background on ‘for many’ in the Eucharistic Prayer

New Testament Passages from which the words of the Eucharistic Prayer are taken

The following are the New Testament passages from which the words we hear in the Eucharistic Prayer are drawn together; the first two include “many”:

Matthew 26:27-28:

Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Mark 14:23-24:

Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.”

Luke 22:20:

And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.”

1st Corinthians 11:25:

In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Background on the Greek and Latin terms underlying the Matthew and Mark passages:

In Matthew 20 and 26, and in Mark 14, the Greek expression used is pollon—many. In Greek, there are multiple ways to say “for all.” Similarly, in Latin, “for all” would be pro omnes; the Latin text of the Eucharistic Prayer, before and after the Second Vatican Council, is pro multis, “many.”

Other Gospel references to “few” and “many”:

Luke 13:23-24, 29:

Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.

And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. [I.e., there will be many in the Kingdom; but they won’t get there by avoiding the narrow way.]
Matthew 20:28:

Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Isaiah Chapters 52:13-15 and 53:11-12:

See, my servant shall prosper, he shall be raised high and greatly exalted. Even as many were amazed at him—so marred were his features, beyond that of mortals his appearance, beyond that of human beings—so shall he startle many nations, kings shall stand speechless; for those who have not been told shall see, those who have not heard shall ponder it.

My servant, the just one, shall justify the many, their iniquity he shall bear. Therefore I will give him his portion among the many, and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty, because he surrendered himself to death, was counted among the transgressors, bore the sins of many, and interceded for the transgressors.

Note on Aramaic vs. Greek vs. Latin

Scholars point out that in Aramaic, the term that translates “many” is ambiguous, and often was used to mean “all.” This is the reason the translators opted for “all” in the 1970 translation. They reasonably argue that Jesus and the others more likely conversed in Aramaic at the Last Supper, not Greek.

Yet the fact remains that the authors of Matthew and Mark had available in Greek many terms that could have been used to express “all,” yet they chose to use “many.”

We can’t read their minds, but there are several very good reasons for that decision:

1. The most obvious reason would be that Mark and Matthew are relaying accurately the sense of what Jesus actually said. Either they heard it themselves, or they were told by others who were present when he said it.
2. The most compelling rationale for “many” is that it makes the fulfillment of Scripture more emphatic. It lines up exactly with Isaiah’s description of God’s suffering servant (chapters 52 and 53), a passage that strongly foreshadows Jesus suffering and death. Whether Jesus was thinking about this himself—or whether the Gospel writer saw the connection—doesn’t matter, because either way the Gospels are inspired by the Holy Spirit.
3. “Many,” rightly understood, matches exactly what we believe about salvation. To say that “many” will be saved doesn’t exclude the possibility of everyone responding to God’s invitation; it is possible but not certain. On the other hand, “all” can be misunderstood as meaning Christ’s death guarantees everyone’s salvation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Loved this homily. Thank you for posting it. I like to see different homolies for it gives us different ways to think about things as we go to God in prayer.