20th Sunday Cycle B

The book of Proverbs is just that – a collection of wise sayings.  Among the significant Jewish people there were priests, prophets and wise men.  The priests had control of the rituals and the externals of religion, often working with the rulers to keep up national unity and spirits.  The prophets tried to preserve and even develop the central insights of their religion and apply them to the current situation, often upsetting nearly everyone else by railing against wrong-doings.  But it was during their Exile in Babylon that the wisdom of the past was appreciated and some of it put together in this book.  In the first reading (Proverbs 9:1-6) we have the last few verses of a section introducing some of their oldest wisdom sayings – some practical and some spiritual; it leads into older proverbs by picturing a welcoming house preparing a great feast in noble surroundings – a feast of wisdom that we should all take, digest and live by.  Wisdom is, of course, female.

The second reading is another short section from the letter to the Ephesians (5:15-20).  The phrase translated as ‘making best use of’  can also mean ‘redeeming.’  Notice that the passage regards the people addressed as already having wisdom, but because they are only human, also as still needing encouragement to act wisely, and being Christian, their wisdom is Christ; and this living is celebrated with the singing and praise at the celebrations they had, probably each week, in memory of all that Christ meant to them. The original Greek translated as ‘giving thanks’ is the word for Eucharist  (ευχαριστουντες).  Since the passage is wise sayings it should be read accordingly – carefully, thoughtfully, more than once and then acted upon!

Chapter 6 of the gospel accorded to John has been trying to ease the readers from a superficial understanding of miracles, of bread and of the Old Testament manna, into something deeper.  The reading today (6:51-58), takes this more challenging step.  It is now about the Eucharist.  It reflects the words of the Last Supper according to the tradition which Paul knew and which the other gospels record in their own ways.  But two differences stand out in John, namely, the use of ‘flesh’ in place of ‘body’ and the phrase ‘for the life of the world’ rather than ‘for many.’   In John’s gospel he generally uses the word ‘flesh’ to mean humanity and many people are familiar with the phrase ‘the Word was made flesh’ (John 1:14).  This reminds us that for Jesus and the Jews the word ‘body’ refers to the whole person, probably with reference to the impact the person makes; and we are also led to realise that ‘many’ was their way of saying all people – at least in this context.  Jesus has already said in this chapter that belief is necessary, but we also have to grasp the deeper meaning of ‘belief.’   Belief is more than just the acknowledgement of certain truths like God exists and Jesus is really present in our Eucharist; faith is defined in the chief document of Vatican II as “an obedience by which one commits one’s whole self freely to God” (Dei Verbum §5).   Notice also that the feast in the first reading from the book of Proverbs invites eating and drinking food and wine, not literally but taking on a wise way of living; and the recipients of the letter to the Ephesians must be filled with the Spirit rather than wine.  So, with these readings, we are urged for our communion in the celebration of the Last Supper, to see a deeper understanding; the reception of and belief in Jesus’ presence, means committing our whole selves to living Jesus’ way of life – an enactment of taking on in our everyday lives the life of Jesus, and a reminder of how things will be when we complete our lives here on earth

19th Sunday B

From the First book of Kings we learn that Elijah was the great prophet when the nation was settling in the promised land.  He had performed dramatic miracles and successfully confronted the prophets of the pagan queen Jezebel.  Our reading (19:4-8) tells of his journey into the desert, to flee the wrath of Jezebel who had put a wanted notice out for his death; he is hoping to die alone naturally and settles down exhausted under a desert bush; but he is woken twice by an angel who gives him food  to carry on to the mountain of God, which eventually he does.  It is a story that was passed down through the generations partly because of its deeper meaning about the spiritual journey of life, with failings and then support from God and the need to press on all the same.  This is a message that the hearers  and readers of John’s gospel must learn as well, for all humans are on such a journey to find and face God;  It is an adventure which often becomes more difficult as we progress in doing what God wants of us.  But what do we expect to find?  Moses was led to the Mountain where He encountered God in a still small voice rather than in the expected noisy whirlwind, earthquake or dramatic fire often associated with the divine.

The second reading is from Ephesians (4:30 – 5:2) after last week’s second reading.  Here the writer is trying to explain the consequences of the truths that he has expounded earlier, and trying to urge the churches that Paul had set up, to keep their faith alive.  In these final chapters of Ephesians there are practical instructions on how Christians should live in the light of what they believe about Christ and His life; details are given of what not to do and of what should be their way of life; they should try to live as Jesus did, for he gave his very life for others – for them.  They are reminded of this central message of course in their celebration of the Lord’s supper when they receive Him anew in their meal – a fact referred to at the end of the gospel reading as a springboard into next week’s gospel topic! – “the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”

The Gospel is taken from John 6:41-51.  We have over the previous two weeks read from this chapter about the miraculous feeding of the multitude, and the way the crowd were excited about the miracle but missed the deeper significance of it – a reading ending with the misunderstanding of the new bread from heaven and with the provocative claim by Jesus to be the true bread from heaven.  In this day’s gospel reading we have for the first time in this chapter the people present are referred to as ‘the Jews’ rather that just the crowd.  The author has in mind the Jerusalem officials in their religion who are naturally suspicious of Jesus and His challenging words and actions.  The dialogue here has its deeper meaning about faith and the truth that Jesus expounds; and this is elaborated partly under the surface of a discussion about bread and life – even eternal life – for the word ‘bread’ was used by Jewish teachers as a word for the important truths of their religion and their recommended way of life, it is a little like the way we sometimes use the word ‘meat’ to mean some information that is very deep and important (we are more familiar with calling Jesus the Way – the way we should live for the purpose of God).  This section connects to last week’s with the topic of the manna in the desert, but we are led to think also of the simple way God communicates with people in the incident of the first reading (see above).

18th Sunday Cycle B

The first reading is taken from the book of Exodus.  It is a story that had been handed down verbally through a large number of generations before being formed into this textual version in the Bible.  It is the story of the journey of the tribes after they had escaped from Egypt, being led by Moses in the desert from which eventually they came to settle in the land of Canaan which they took as their Promised Land.  Life is full of ups and downs; the escape from slavery in Egypt seemed liberating, but then in the Sinai desert, they found life very difficult and the conditions harsh, to say the least.  But things turned out well again when they found a new source of food in the manna that appeared there each morning for them freely to gather and eat.  Our first reading (16:2-4, 12-15) illustrates for us the way occurrences can be interpreted as miracles, when there is no known explanation for them; in fact this manna was a natural phenomenon, known even to this day by the Bedouin in the desert; it is the resin deposit of insects after feeding on desert plants and it has to be gathered at dawn before other creatures get to it; manna is the Hebrew for “what is it?”  Moses had lived quite a time in the desert and probably knew all about this.  We now realise, as they did, that nature is marvellous – even miraculous – and is all the work of God, celebrated also in the selection of verses (3,23-25 and 54) in the responsorial.

The second reading, as in previous weeks, is from Ephesians. This week’s (4-17, 20-24) is a part of this general letter to Paul’s churches about how these Jewish and Gentile converts should live.  It draws on the dichotomies, in Jewish thought between light and dark, good and evil, now and the hereafter; but it relates more closely to the Greek way of thinking as the this-worldly and the ideal world; what we might call the superficial and the sublime – in religious terms the natural and super-natural, in more modern speak the commonplace and the extraordinary.  The writer thinks that the Gentiles lived in the natural and plain realm, but when they learnt about Christ they learnt to live in the supernatural and extraordinary – within the family of God; so he writes: put off the old and live with a new self.  Today, some Christians make this same distinction between themselves and the ‘secular’ world, but maybe our experience of life should smooth out these differences, after all there are Christians who fall far short of the ideal and non-Christians who lead exemplary lives!

The Gospel is another section from chapter 6 of John’s Gospel (verses 24-35) which will continue on the following Sundays.  This reading develops ideas after the feeding of the multitude in a way typical of this gospel; namely, there is a plain sense of the text which holds a much more sublime meaning which might easily be missed. For example when the crowd ask Jesus “When did you come here?” the text can also mean “how did you come to be here?” and then we can see the two levels of meaning; plainly, they had seen the disciples take off on a boat to this side of the lake and they came this way themselves so wonder how Jesus got here; but there is a deeper meaning about Jesus’ origin to which the answer would be, He was sent by God and is God’s Son.  In this gospel miracles are called signs because they are not just what appears at first sight but have a far deeper meaning.  The crowd had experienced the feeding of the multitude but had not seen the significance and deeper meaning of it.  So Jesus points out to them that they should put their minds to higher things that are not perishable (superficial); but they should take in the food of eternal life which is that brought by the son of man – an expected future saviour sent from God in the fullness of time.  If they would do this then they would have life –  a share in the higher life of God by living a life of faith.

17th Sunday Cycle B

The first reading is from the Second Book of Kings (4:42-44).  This is one of the many history books of the Old Testament.  But it is not history as we like to think of it.  These accounts are not written to tell us accurately about the past; the Jewish compilers of these works believed that they were chosen by God who at their best reflected in their activities and way of life the relationship of God to people, one chiefly of love and care but also sometimes of reprimand and being taught a lesson.  These ‘history’ books are to make us think about what we should do in the present, here and now.  This reading is from a small collection of miracle stories associated with the prophet Elisha from the ninth century BC.  These tales remind us that the whole world is miraculous, and that there is always more to things and events than the immediate and prosaic interpretation that we thoughtlessly make of them; God is active in everything except sin.  The reading illustrates that God’s care even exceeds our natural expectations of things.

The second reading is from the general letter called Ephesians (4:1-6), attributed to Paul.  It contains an impressive expression of central Christian teaching for the people of that time.  It begins with an exhortation to unity and follows with the basis for this ideal of unity in the commonality of our belief.  Whatever the specific vocation of each Christian it must be conducted in a self-effacing, tolerant and loving manner – Paul himself is a prisoner for following his calling from the Lord.  The feminine Greek word often translated as humility has the connotation of self-effacement.  The seriousness of this imperative that Paul is urging on the readers arises from the acceptance of one hope towards the ultimate unity of all in God, Who is in everything that is good.  This is significant for us today when it is read as the inspired word of God.  The world is seen by the writer as a remarkable unit and the arena for the enterprise of God’s continuous and creative presence among us; a single unit of great complexity but complicated by the freedom that we humans have with respect to our calling in it.  It tells us that we humans are all related to each other and to the rest of creation; we have a part to play in all of this and we now know the attitudes necessary for us to contribute to the overall plan of God for us within the family of humanity.

The beginning of Chapter 6 in John’s gospel (verses 1 to 15) relates the story told in all the gospels of the miraculous feeding of a multitude with food and producing an excess of leftovers.  With the setting of the mountain and of the feast of Passover it clearly relates to the great event of the Exodus; this was the focus of the Paschal meal that recalled this miraculous start of the journey of the people of God from slavery towards the promised land; it was on this difficult journey of life through the desert that God surprisingly nourished the people with water from rock and bread (the manna) from heaven; for the Jews it was celebrated each year as a recall of God’s relationship to them and of the journey of their life towards the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom.  Its importance in this Gospel is this journey towards the promised land and  beyond to the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom.  The crowd see Jesus  as anticipating or bringing this to completion and want to make him king – he escapes this mistaken intention.  Over the next few Sundays we shall read more of John’s development of ideas in this chapter.

16th Sunday Cycle B

The readings

The early ancestors of the Israelites were nomadic and moved with their flocks from one to the next pasture, and even when they first settled in what is sometimes called the Promised Land, sheep-keeping continued as well as farming various crops and trees.  As their society became more structured there was still shepherding, though it became the task of the youngest son(s) or even of servants.  Most famous of these was the young lad David, who not only defeated with his sling the enemy Goliath (a giant of a warrior), but also became a highly honoured and well remembered king.  Leaders of people and kings were called shepherds and their task was to care for their people with all the dedication that a shepherd has to have in pastoring his sheep; indeed this analogy was also used to refer to God and his relationship to the people.  Even today we use the word pastor to refer to a religious leader – the bishops crosier is based on the crook that was used to keep a sheep from fleeing.  The prophet Jeremiah uses this imagery in the first reading today (chapter 23 verses 1-6).  This is at the time when some of the leaders of the people where being taken into exile by the Babylonian empire in Mesopotamia.  It was a sad period in the history of the Jews.  The cause is both the decline in morals and religious involvement that the people had, but also the corrupt and inadequate leadership in matters of policies and religious ceremonies.  It is these shepherds of the people who are berated by the prophet Jeremiah.  But he expects that the things will be better in the future, and interprets this basic hope into the expectation of the return of all to their original homeland where there will be prosperity.  There is added also a messianic expectation of an ideal leader.  All this is suitably followed with the responsorial psalm: the Lord is my shepherd (psalm 23).

Even centuries before the time of Christ there were splits between Israelite Jews and other Jews living elsewhere; but the future healing of this rift was hoped for in the book of Isaiah (57:19) where it says, “Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the Lord; and I will heal them.”  Paul in Ephesians (2:13-18), our second reading, may have had this passage in mind.  At the time this was written (maybe thirty years after Christ), the passage seems to celebrate the potential unity and peace between Jewish Christians and Gentile ones brought about through the sacrificial life of Christ.  This is encapsulated in the words “by the blood of Christ;” this has a different connotation when we realise that ‘blood’ was seen as the life of a person rather than the actual liquid in the sacrifice of animals used in some religions and even in the Temple in Jerusalem until its destruction about 70 AD.   Our reading seems to us, perhaps, a bit over harsh when it goes so far as to say that the Jewish laws are no longer relevant because in Christ there is “a new humanity”  in which people can exist and live.  But it is this notion of the new humanity that is behind the ecumenical thinking in our days; Catholics are recommended to be more irenic in the proclamations of Vatican II   approved by about 2000 Catholic bishops just over 50 years ago.

The gospel comes from Mark 6:30-34.  The disciples have been busy touring the villages commissioned by Jesus in last week’s gospel reading, and now they need some time for rest and reflection  after what seems to have been remarkable success.  But when the enthused followers are crowding around them Jesus takes the twelve away by boat to a lovely place for a well-earned rest.  But the enthused crowd find them in their retreat and Jesus feels the responsibility to teach them as the shepherd looks after his sheep.  Religious ‘shepherds’ have such and many responsibilities.   The image of sheep needing shepherding is the reason for this choice of reading to link with the other texts read today.  

15th Sunday Cycle B

See the readings here.

Many would have thought of Amos as a fairly uneducated peasant farmer, but it was this man who was called to go into the cities and reprimand the people for their lifestyle.  In the book of his name he seems to have done this in a very skillful way; he felt called by God but was also drawing upon his natural dislike for their fancy way of living in the city.  At the time of our reading he was preaching in Bethel in the northern kingdom of Israel; he has heard threats from God of a plague of locusts to punish them, then of a fire burning up the land; but Amos begs God and He relents, but then God has had enough of people failing His expectations and Amos has to convey this message – the king will die, the people will go into exile.  At this point the priest addresses Amos in our reading for today (Amos 7:12-15); he tells him he is not a real prophet and should leave them alone and go back to where he came from; but Amos retorts that it is not by choice that he does this but is impelled by a command from God Himself.  In the words of the responsorial psalm (Psalm 85: 8-14) we seem to overlook any message Amos might have for us, expecting rather God’s mercy and forgiveness.

The second reading is from (Ephesians 1:3-14).  This passage is just after the usual Christian opening to a letter. This is a letter that was intended to be passed around the different churches that Paul had established, like an encyclical nowadays; we have the copy that had the Ephesians as its addressees, but in some of the oldest manuscripts no addressee is named.  After the introduction there is a grand accolade in the style of Jewish hymns of praise to God for all the blessings received.  It is positive like the Psalm read before it, and we praise God for it tells us of the remarkable privilege it is to be who we are – children of God.  The eleven verses in our translation are just one sentence in the original Greek and it details the believers’ great benefits within the overall scheme and process of God’s creating, leading eventually to His final and glorious kingdom for all, and the hymn praises God for it all.  Notice the strength and positivity of the words used: by the Father we are blest, chosen, destined and graced; through the Son we have adoption, forgiveness, revelation and vocation; and we have heard and believed and are guaranteed our redemption through the Spirit of Christ and God.

In Mark’s gospel there are accounts of two pairs of followers called by Jesus (1:16ff) then the twelve appointed (3:13ff) followed by accounts of Jesus’ parables (chapter 4), miracles (chapter 5) and rejection in His home village,  and now we read, this Sunday, in Mark 6:7-13 of Jesus sending out the twelve on a mission.   However, were you to read the rest of the gospel you would realise that they knew very little about Jesus and never really grasped what he was about – until perhaps after the resurrection.  This circumstance is a reminder to us that a gospel is neither history nor biography that we are reading, but it is good news for the readers and for us.  The original recipients lived in the late part of the first century when the church was expanding through the work of what we might call today, missionaries.  The instructions about what to take and even what to wear on this mission are in some places the opposite of how this is told in Matthew (10:5-15) and Luke (9:1-6); the reason for this is the different intentions and primary recipients from those of Mark’s gospel.  Now we live in a quite different setting and even with more developed understanding of Jesus and God’s intentions for His creation, intentions which as a community we have to try to grasp and fulfill.

14thSunday Ordinary Time

See the readings here.

Chapter 1 of Ezekiel describes in an excessively elaborated way a vision of God speaking to the man as he reached the age (of 30) for practicing as a priest, and initiating him as a prophet among the exiles by the rivers of Babylon. Our reading (2: 2 -5) tells of God calling Ezekiel to be the mouthpiece of God (that’s what being a prophet meant). It seems to be a harsh message that God wants delivered to what He calls a rebellious people, though we notice that God does not tell him specifically what to say. However we know that it is going to be a telling-off for neglecting their religion. Prophets generally interpreted any misfortune or disaster that befell the chosen people as a punishment from God; the foreign conquest of the chosen people is not what is to be condemned, but the people’s rebellion against God. We notice that even in this 6th century BC the Old Testament will use the terms spirit of God and word of God which later will be seen a reflecting the novel Christian doctrine of the Trinity; and at the time of Christ the phrase ‘son of man’ had in addition to just meaning ‘a human,’ the more specific reference to some heavenly being who would come at the end of time to bring liberation to the people of God – with the definite article it is used by Jesus of Himself (the Son of man).

The Second reading is from the second letter of Paul to the Corinthians (12 : 7 – 10).  It is an extract from  a letter to a particular group or situation in the church at Corinth. It seems he may have been accused by them of  being too gentle or hesitant in his preaching, or perhaps of having his own ideas rather than Christ’s.  He seems to have been compared unfavourably with some charismatic preachers who even charged for preaching or with others who are trained public speakers.  Paul is led to boast; like any of them, he is a Jew and a servant of Christ, indeed he has suffered many beatings and imprisonments for his work, many mishaps and catastrophes.  He also boasts, just before the passage we have, that he has had visions, revelations and even mystical experiences.  But we read that he has some ‘thorn in the flesh’ – and no one knows what that could have been.  But he knows he shouldn’t boast except of his weaknesses given to him by Christ.

The gospel is from the first 6 verses of Mark chapter 6.  At the time Mark is writing, the number of Christians was increasing, but mostly not from those who were Jews, but from Gentiles.  This seemed strange because it was the Jews that God had prepared and who were expecting the Messiah and it was among them that he worked and taught and he himself was a Jew.  The gospel reading today is yet another attempt to make some sense of this.  Jesus comes to his home town where he is known as just an ordinary person, even the son of Joseph a local carpenter; it is difficult for those who knew him this way to think of him as the Messiah even though he seemed to have wisdom and miraculous powers.  The proverb about the prophet not being accepted by his own and being powerless to work miracles among them, is in other gospels, but Matthew (13:53-58) and Luke (4:14-30) soften Mark’s bland statement that he was powerless to work miracles among his own people.