21st Sunday of Ordinary time, cycle C

21st August 2016

The first reading is from the last section of the book of Isaiah (66:18:21). The Jews have returned from captivity in Babylon, and exiles from all-over are returning to Jerusalem; and not just them it says but all nations, people referred to as Gentiles, will be welcomed by God into his Jerusalem. This is an expression of the universality of God’s love; it is for all people whatever religion or nationality they are; this is an idea that was much debated among the Jews and has been among Christians even to this day – but it seems quite clear here in the Old Testament. The psalm that follows the reading in Christian services, with its refrain, “Go out into the world and tell the Good News” continues this theme of the universality of salvation.

The second reading (Hebrews 12:5-13 passim) follows on from last week’s second reading with a reminder to those felt hard done by God; it quotes from the book of Proverbs (3:11f and 4:26). The writer seems to have two parallels for the way God treats us and the way we should react. The first is a parent who must discipline the child to help them to mature; it is an act of love. The second is the physiotherapist prescribing exercises to be done which are often hard to undergo but worth it for the overall good result. Both of these images would be known to the original readers and are understood equally by us today. Though it is a hard lesson to learn when we appear to suffer from our parent and trainer – our God!

In today’s gospel reading (Luke 13:22-30) we are back with Luke’s theme of presenting Jesus as on a journey of preaching and work for the kingdom of God that will climax in Jerusalem with His arrest and execution. But the striking bit is a question from ‘someone’ and the repy. Luke has other sections stimulated by a ‘someone’ (a lawyer/woman); the person here raises the question which has surfaced again and again in the history of the Jews about the restriction of salvation to a few when there has been a general lapse from devotion to Yahweh, their God. The reply that Luke has Jesus make is a collage from various Christian traditions at that time, both oral and written, about Jesus’ preaching – getting through a narrow door, a house master shutting out people unknown to him, the expectation of the Jews to be saved by ‘their’ man Jesus, the bitterness of the Jews left out while others from across the whole world join the heavenly banquet – finishing with the contrast of the first and the last – thoughts expressed in Matthew and Mark as well. The whole represents the situation Luke has experienced, namely, the first chosen people, the Jews, seem to have not accepted Jesus, though hopefully they will in the end, but for now it is the second people, the Gentiles, who are the prominent followers of the Way of Jesus.

20th Sunday of Ordinary time, cycle C

14th August 2016

The first reading is from Jeremiah. The man of this name was a prophet round about 600 BC, with a very difficult message to deliver but nonetheless a necessary truth. Because the people in general had abandoned their faith and were worshipping false gods, Jeremiah had to say that they would be punished and eventually this was to be their defeat and the capture of many of them and their exile in Babylon. Obviously people were not pleased with this message and Jeremiah was often threatened and sometimes even imprisoned, and all for just doing what God wanted of him – telling them of their forthcoming downfall. Today’s extract is about one such incident. It makes better sense to read from the beginning of the Chapter rather than the extract in the lectionary (verses 4-6 and 8-10), although then one encounters a number of names perhaps difficult to pronounce. The psalm that follows seems appropriate for Jeremiah’s plight.

The second reading from Hebrews (12:1-4) comes after last week’s reading which was about faith, with outlines of examples of Old Testament characters who showed great faith, thinking they realised what God’s will was and set out to make it real. In this week’s reading Jesus is held up as the paragon of faith in the life that He led, but climactically in the manner of His death. Like Jeremiah in the first reading, Jesus’ message was shocking to many people – we only have records of it from those who saw the positive side of it; but it must have come across as very disruptive and critical, particularly to the leaders of a society which focused on wealth, power and the externals of living and of religion. So He is the prime example for us, the hero who encourages and thus enables us to live our lives of faith. In the two verses following our reading, the writer presents the readers with challenging words of a father to his loved child – something to ponder from the book of Proverbs. These verses will be quoted at the beginning of next week’s second reading.

The gospel we have for today (Luke 12:49-53) follows neatly after these words from Proverbs, because of the drastic situation that it talks about using the words fire and baptism to describe these experiences. It may relate to the recorded announcement by the Baptist that Jesus would bring a new baptism of Spirit and fire. The divisions that Jesus is said to foretell in this reading are serious splits within families and between generations; it is not something which we experience or at least not so extremely, as is predicted. For early Christians at the time Luke is writing (about 70 AD) being a Christian was often risky and caused family splits and opposition from one’s society; the words Luke uses here might be influenced by these experiences.

 

19th Sunday of Ordinary time, cycle C

7th August 2016

The first reading is from a section of the book of Wisdom (18:6-9) which is a reflection on the history of the Old Testament people and the pattern of God’s dealings with us humans. This Old Testament book was written originally in Greek; it is not considered as part of the canon of Scripture by Protestant Churches but is accepted by the Catholic Church; its status is called deutero-canonical – meaning of secondary canonical status. It reads as though God rewards those who are His people and punishes their enemies. This is how the covenant celebrated in the Passover meal, was generally interpreted by the chosen people. Similar ideas seem to show themselves in the psalm that follows the reading (extracts from Psalm 33).

The second reading is from the book of Hebrews (Chapter 11, verses 1-19 omitting the examples of Abel, Enoch and Noah). This writing was in the past referred to as Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, but now is generally recognised as by some unknown Christian authority who focused on the Christian impact and interpretation of the events of the Old Testament. As in all the books of the Bible the chapter divisions are a later addition, so that this reading from the beginning of Chapter 11 flows naturally on from the end of the previous chapter. The opening phrase is well-known in the King James version which reads “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The illustrations from the O.T. in our reading give some indication of how the author understood the words. Faith can be taken as a personal response, something subjective, rather than an objective reality. Today, in English translations both objective and subjective interpretations are used. I think the word “realisation” would be good; its dictionary definition has three possibilities: i. the act of becoming fully aware of something; ii. the achievement of something; and iii. the conversion of some asset into something useful.

It is most likely that Jesus would have said something about being prepared for a disaster and disappointment as He sensed that He would be arrested due to His outspoken and powerful presence being seen as a threat by both religious leaders and secular authorities. We know that after His death and resurrection there was an expectation of the coming of Christ as judge to establish the kingdom on earth and to share a heavenly banquet with the faithful followers. But Luke (12:32-48)has presented this as a warning addressed to the leaders of the church (the stewards). Their need for readiness uses the phrase ‘gird your loins’ which refers to the tying up of their long robes ready for some physical work and in some translations is rendered “see that you are dressed for action.” Behind what Luke writes there is a parable about this need for preparation and readiness.

 

 

 

18th Sunday of Ordinary time, cycle C

31st July 2016

The first reading is from a book called Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth and neither name is very helpful for us, but it is one of the latest books added to the last section of the Jewish bible, the Christian Old Testament. It is a kind of wisdom literature: the thoughts of someone about life seen as a journey through various different situations but always finding life unsatisfactory. Our reading is mostly from Chapter 2 (verses 21 -23); it is introduced with the well-known phrase ‘vanity of vanities, all things are vanity,’ at the beginning of the book. But this can miss the sense, for nowadays vanity means pride, often pride where there is nothing of which to be proud; the Hebrew word really seems to refer to something that is vaporous or even foggy; and the whole book would bear out this meaning, for the author finds that things that at first appear solid turn out to be nothing but airy-fairy nonsense. The book is attributed to the son of David, Solomon, for he was noted for his wisdom, but it was written about 700 years after him – about 300 before Christ. There was some debate by Jewish scholars about whether it should be seen as a sacred book, but in the end it found its way into the bible. I think it is a very religious attitude to see the contingency and insubstantiality of everything – the futility of whatever one does except (and that’s a big except) for the presence and activity of God in our lives and in all (the good) we do.

The second reading is from the last chapter of Colossians (3:1-11 passim), and this is the fourth Sunday we have read from this letter.  It summarises succinctly the situation we are in and the imperatives that follow from this.  The distinctive feature of the passage may be brought out by examining the structure of the language: there is a putting together of statements of fact with requirements  of behaviour (in more technical language, a transition from indicative verbs to imperative ones, from “is” to “ought”).  Through Christ there is a new situation, humanity is elevated to a new plane of existence; the consequence is that we ought to live differently, there is an imperative for us to live up to this new life – a life with Christ, within God’s life.

The gospel we have for today is peculiar to Luke (12:13-21). It begins with a phrase used several times by Luke, “a man” or sometimes translated “someone” or “a certain man;”   such was the beginning of the parables of the Good Samaritan (which we read three weeks ago) and the one about the Prodigal Son. In Jesus’ time and place, a dispute of a legal, moral or religious question would be brought to a rabbi for a judgment to provide an answer or solution. Jesus was not really a rabbi, but in Luke’s account here this man who had a dispute with is brother over the inheritance, presumable left by a parent, asked Jesus to make a ruling. Jesus wasn’t going to over-reach his authority, but took the opportunity to teach a moral lesson about the relative value of earthly riches compared with the prize of heaven; and so we have the parable of the Rich Man. This is actually the first of five such tales Luke records about a rich man; he is trying to make some point.

 

17th Sunday of Ordinary time, cycle C

24th July 2016

The first reading is another part of the story about Abraham (Genesis 18:20-32). The whole story is about God in discussion with Abraham deciding to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of the wickedness of its inhabitants. The story has probably developed from an earlier myth that was around about the near total destruction of humanity, this time not by flood but by fire; the primitiveness of the view of God is obvious in the way God discusses this with Abraham and in that God has to go and see what is going on in Sodom having heard shocking reports of its behaviour. The part of the story in our reading is about the question of the righteousness of God – is it right to condemn a group which includes even just a few good people?   This was an important question for the Jewish people as they settled in what they called the promised land where other tribes were living. It perhaps reflects both the market-place custom of theirs in haggling for a good price and the intimacy that they felt there was between God and their ancestor Abraham.

The second reading (Col 2:12-14) is reminding the Christians of Colossae what their baptism should mean to them. They would most likely have been baptised by going completely under water, in a river or pool, and probably as adults – and rising up out of it, rising with Christ. This is how the Baptist denomination still performs the ceremony today. Some of the people of Colossae thought that God is absent from our world and that only after our death our life will be in Christ . But this reading stresses that it is here and now that we are with Christ; using unusual Greek words to emphasise this unity we have with Christ even now, with his death, with his resurrection and with a renewed life here and now; these are like our English word sympathy, synthesis, symbiosis and others that use the Greek for ‘together with.’

The gospel relates the story of Jesus teaching about praying (Luke 11:1-13), and includes Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which Catholics more often call the Our Father. We notice particularly here the teaching skill of Jesus in the use of everyday language and easily understood examples illustrating the substance and manner of prayer that his disciples should have, what they should say and how they should say it. The language of our prayers and the way that we pray could be just the same as our approach to our neighbours and friends, and in return God’s way with us is best likened to a responsible father to one of his children. Matthew’s gospel also has the Lord’s prayer (Mt 6:9-3) but worded slightly differently.

16th Sunday of Ordinary time, cycle C

17th July 2016

The book of Genesis is not ordinary history but a tale about the chosen people and their origin and relationship with God; The stories of Abraham in Genesis, are the oft-told tales of the origins of the covenant between God and his chosen people who saw themselves a the descendants of Abraham; in the way it is told, God had already announced to Abraham (chapter 17) that his wife Sarah would give birth to Isaac although he was 100 and she 90, and now our first reading (Genesis 18:1-10) coming after this is about the timing of the birth of this God-given child. It is an intriguing short tale not only showing us the gracious custom of welcoming strangers but giving a hint of the way people thought of God communicating with them; for although it tells us that three men came to deliver this message, they seem to represent the one God to Abraham – you have to listen carefully or read the passage again to notice this.

For the second reading (Col 1:24-28) we have a continuation of the deep doctrinal presentation which was begun last week.   There is the realisation that not all is as it should be in the church, the body of Christ; He is the head but we are the body, the part which is as yet struggling and incomplete; there is much suffering for us and more to learn, understand and to bring about so as to progress towards the completion and fulfillment of our place in the glorious body of Christ with God in heaven. The overall plan is both a mystery and as yet incomplete, and we, members of this creation -His Body – have our important roles to play. Paul suffered much both from other people and from imprisonment, but now, writing from prison, he is glad to be part of this development towards the perfection which God is creating with us.

Last week’s reading from Luke included the parable of the Good Samaritan. For today we have the next story Luke tells – of Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) ; if last week’s was about ‘Love your neighbour,’ then this story is about listening to God, ‘Love the Lord thy God.’ We know from John’s gospel that Martha and Mary lived in Bethany, near Jerusalem, but Luke doesn’t mention this because he has the motif of Jesus on a journey and still quite a distance from its climax in Jerusalem.   Mary sits at Jesus feet like a student of a Rabbi, though the Rabbis would not have had female disciples, so there is quite a lesson in this alone. The story wants to make the point that hospitality, especially for a travelling missionary should not be excessive and not hinder the work of teaching and the response of listening.

15th Sunday of Ordinary time, cycle C

10th July 2016

Deuteronomy is the name of the last book of the first and principle section of the Old Testament called the Law (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). It was mostly written down about 700 BC, when the Jews were very weak in their religious practice and when they were drawn towards pagan services and rituals. It contains appropriate sermons and a blueprint for renewal of Jewish religious practice – revival of the original Commandments given through Moses according to Exodus and expanded in the other books of the Law. The sermons are attributed to Moses to give them added authority, and they are what he would have preached in that situation. Today’s reading is from the last sermon (Deut 30:10-14) and is addressed to those who have become slack in practising their religion and maybe exiled from their own country. It encouragingly stresses the intimacy of God’s Law to his chosen people – You know it so do it.!

For the second reading we have what might be adapted from an early Christian hymn in the beginning of the letter to the Colossians (Chapter 1 verses 15-20). This letter contains an understanding of Christianity that has developed from what is found in the early letters of Paul (Galatians, Corinthians and Romans). It links well with the first reading, but speaks of Christ rather than of the Law; instead of rules we have a way of life to live by and live with. Christ is the very representative – icon – of God with us. The first verse of the hymn is about Christ being involved in all creation, and holding everything in existence together. The second verse is about Christ’s relationship with the Church as its head, pouring out his life and thereby lifting us all into the fullness of the life of God.

In the extract from Luke’s gospel (Luke 10:25-37 ) we have a passage that is in the form of a dialogue between a student and a teacher, the rabbi. The student/disciple asks about the Law because it seems unclear as to how one should live one’s life. And the reply is in the typical form of rabbinic teaching, with an illustrative story ending with a question for the would-be follower. Luke presents it as a scholar trying to outwit Jesus who responds with a challenging story and question – especially critical of the clergy and the self-righteous. From this story we have the phrase ‘a good Samaritan.’ The Jews, especially the priest and clerics in the story, would have judged Samaritans to be less religious than themselves, but… on what understanding of religion?