33rd Sunday Cycle B

The first reading is from Daniel, a book positioned differently in different versions of the Bible.  It is also unusual in that the earliest versions that we have of it show parts written in Hebrew, some in Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke) and parts in Greek, the language of the Jews in the Diaspora (outside of the land of Israel). The word Daniel means ‘God is my judge’ and this neatly sums up the passage we read today.  It is one of those writings sometimes called apocalyptic which were around from the year 200 BC to 200 AD.  Apocalyptic writing is usually full of allegory and dramatic revelation concerning the dealings of God with the world through remarkable events and the activity of angels, it especially relates to the future culmination of world history and God’s final judgment and fulfillment of it.  Probably the influence of the literature of other nations helped the development of the traditional thought of the Jewish people with new ideas.  In today’s reading (12:1-3) we see for the first time in this development two ideas that would play an important part in the belief of Christians; firstly there is a reference to life after death in  the text “those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” and secondly the reference to eternal life in the phrase “some shall live forever.”  

The second reading (Hebrews 10:11-14,18) continues the thoughts about the priesthood of Christ.  The  high priests of the Jewish Temple offered sacrifices to God in the belief and expectation that this would destroy/appease  sin.  But it is only the self-sacrifice of an individual that can achieve this sanctity.  Jesus, our example and rescuer, is such a person of total self sacrifice; His role is already completed and He sits at the right hand of God waiting for this success to work itself out in our world by the gradual (and sometimes violent) entanglement with evil.  Our salvation is won, but we have to take it up.  This is the ambiguity and duality of our situation – saved, but still to be worked out in our life here on earth; the enemies must be subdued, we must give ourselves complete in love.

Mark chapter 13 is what is called apocalyptic writing.  It uses sometimes obscure and extravagant language, it is about disasters and evils that we shall encounter; it tells of the imminent and cataclysmic end of the world with the condemnation of evil and the triumph of Christ (the Son of Man) for those who are chosen – it is these for whom it is written.  Since the section we read (Chapter 13:24-32) is about the triumph after the fearful signs of its coming, it is a message of Jesus’ completed work; this work is spelt out in different stages in other gospels as Incarnation, Life, Passion, Death and Resurrection followed by Ascension and Exultation at the right hand of God; but here, the sequence of his life is all spoken of as one great victorious event.  Mark sees this as one great action of God in relation to us and our world, completed from God’s standpoint but still to emerge within the turmoil of our lives.  At the time of his writing Christians generally seem to have thought that the End of the world was imminent, but as time goes on this needs re-interpretation.  In the 16th century some Christians realised that these events are in some way ongoing throughout the life of the Church and the well-known Protestant reformer John Calvin wrote:

“Whenever, therefore, we perceive the Church scattered by the wiles of Satan, or torn in pieces by the cruelty of the ungodly, or disturbed by false doctrines, or tossed about by storms, let us learn to turn our eyes to this gathering of the elect. And if it appear to us a thing difficult to be believed, let us call to remembrance the power of the angels, which Christ holds out to us for the express purpose of raising our views above human means. For, though the Church be now tormented by the malice of men, or even broken by the violence of the billows, and miserably torn in pieces, so as to have no stability in the world, yet we ought always to cherish confident hope, because it will not be by human means, but by heavenly power, which will be far superior to every obstacle, that the Lord will gather his Church.”

(Calvin’s Commentaries Ch 33, part 3; tr. by John King)

32nd Sunday B

The first reading (1 Kings 17:10-16) is from a group of books in the Bible called History.  History writing is always subjective and selective, as the author or editor wants to make some point or other; stories and anecdotes are retold to fit in with what the writers or editors think and want to tell their readers.  The story we read today is to illustrate how God deals with people; Elijah His prophet had to announce the drought on the land as God’s response to the peoples’ unfaithfulness, but he himself would be cared for by God through a good-living woman whom God would reward appropriately.  We could speculate what tale is behind this and how it got into this history, and it may help us get something of the message, but more important is what it now says to us.  It is a message about  God’s care for those who are chosen by him and for those who care for their fellow human beings whatever their situation is; and it says something about the ‘natural’ disasters that might be caused by human misuse of earth’s resources.

The second reading (Hebrews 9:24-28) continues the thoughts about the Jewish Temple priesthood and the  role of Christ in our salvation.  It is an exposition of the relationship between the time and activity of Jesus with the period before His coming and the fulfilling of His human life – the difference between the Jewish situation and that of the Christians; the former is like a shadow and the latter is the real thing itself.  So there is just one death to seal the covenant (the agreement between God and people) instead of regular sacrifices by different priests; the old covenant is replaced by the New Testament era.  There is now hope for those who die, of forgiveness and life with God after death, secured by the entry of Jesus as one of us into heaven whence He came. Once the Jewish Temple was destroyed in the year 70 AD their religion left behind all this activity of sacrifice and benefitted from the change; but a Christian’s sacrifice should be the way one lives for others – not a death but a way of life!

The third reading (Mark 12:38-44) expresses the Christian teaching about the style of life one should have, and its driving force.  So Mark tells of Jesus speaking against those Scribes who gad about in fine attire, seek the admiration of people and honour amongst others, who take advantage of the defenseless and perform elaborate prayers.  But Mark doesn’t mean this to apply to all Scribes for he has written just before this how Jesus praised one of them (the gospel for the 31st Sunday cycle B).  But Mark’s story is drawing towards the end of Jesus’ life and it is becoming more urgent for certain points to be made. Hence Jesus goes on to praise a demur and self-effacing approach with minimal material value yet expressing a genuine and generous religious attitude; He goes on to contrast the supposedly religious experts and officials with a financially poor yet spiritually devout widow.  This expresses in practical terms what was expressed more theoretically the the reading we had from the letter to the Hebrews.

31st Sunday B

The Readings

The thing that stands out in the first reading is the expression of, almost, a bargain that Moses puts before the people.  He has received the commandments from God and is now trying to encourage the people to keep them.  The bargain is, if you keep the commandments, all will go well with you (secular prosperity}.  This, of course, is the attitude that a loving parent would have towards a child being trained to behave properly; and we do see God as not unlike a parent to us.  Yet because at the time of Moses, and for a long time afterwards, the Hebrew people had no real expectation of a life after death, they saw any benefit from, or reward for, good behaviour was of a material kind (or even of a longer than usual life).

In the second reading the author continues his exposition of the unique priesthood of Jesus in relation to the priests of the Jewish religion during the time of the Temple.  However, Jesus is not separated from sinners, as this translation puts it, but shares our humanity and is that close to us and we are all sinners.  The author is still elaborating on the quotation from Psalm 110 ( or 109) “God has sworn an oath which he never will retract, you are a priest forever of the order of Melchizedek” used by him in our last Sunday’s reading.

In the third reading Mark is focussing on the essential message of Jesus that takes the core of the commandments (referred to in the first reading) and highlights it as the essence of what He is teaching – it is an unlimited love of neighbour and of God.  It is this focus away from so many of the lesser rules of the Jewish religion at the time of Jesus that brings him into conflict with the religious authorities and leaders.  

Comment

Nowadays we see the two central commandments as ineluctably interlinked; the way that you love God is by loving your neighbour, and when you love your neighbour you are loving God.  We base this on teachings in the Gospels like the sayings of Jesus, “Whatever you do to one of these…” (Matthew 25:40), and “Where two or three are gathered together…” (Matthew 18:20).  In addition, I think that we now would interpret ‘neighbour’ as any other human being, rather than one who is close to us – to anyone we encounter!  Go and do this now!

30th Sunday B

In the first reading (Jeremiah 31:7-9) we are presented with an example of what prophecy essentially is.  It is not fortune telling nor really foretelling the future; it is the expression of an insight of seeing things from God’s point of view – it is speaking on behalf of God.  In the books of the Bible classified as prophecy, there are many words of history, of anecdote and words from disciples of the prophet, but embedded in the books are also the poetic accounts of genuine insights into how things are viewed by God.  The reading today seems to be one of these moments.  The context is one when the people feel that all is lost, their superiority, their dignity, their protection by God, their very own land and place to live – in short, they feel almost abandoned.   But, with some kind of insight from the standpoint of eternity, the inspired prophet sees a different view and expresses it as best he can in the context of his own limited experience.  We notice the inevitable fumbling with how to put it as the text changes tense: the present tense “thus says the Lord”, the imperative call “Proclaim! Praise! Shout!”; the future expression “I will bring them back… I will comfort them”; and the present continuous tense in the final words, “I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim [another name for the people of Israel] is my first-born son.”

The second reading (Hebrews 5:1-6) is the continuation from last week’s reading from the Book of Hebrews.  It develops further the writer’s point that Jesus is a genuine and perfect priest for us.  He makes three points about priesthood in the first four verses.  Firstly, a priest needs to have a commonality with people, their weaknesses and needs; the writer completely eschews the high priests current in Judaism standing at the top of a secular hierarchical structure within society.  Secondly, a priest must make an offering of his own life to God, living not selfishly but for others – it is a service.  And thirdly, a priest must be called by God for this role and not assume it from his position in society as his hereditary right.  Then he begins in reverse order to apply these to Christ; so, as is his wont, he uses Scripture to show that Christ has been called to this universal priesthood by God  (Here the author refers to Melchizedek, who became to be seen as the ideal kingly priest, even in preference to the Jewish high priest himself); he quotes Psalm 2 and also Psalm 110 (in some versions numbered 109). 

The third reading (Mark 10:46-52) is the easily read story of the cure of the blind man, Bartimaeus.  This is the last healing in Mark’s gospel, after which the entry into Jerusalem and the passion account take up the rest of the gospel.  In this story we see again how Mark indicates the inadequacy of the disciples – they try to shut the blind man up, when he is calling for Jesus to cure him.  Is this because they don’t understand the kindness to the lowly that Jesus has, or is it that Mark wants to focus our attention on the much wider and deeper significance of Jesus – the dedication (and surrender) of his life as the foundation of the possibility of fulfilling the great plan of God for everything?  And could Mark also have seen this miracle of curing blindness as a sort of allegory of the overcoming of human failings with faith and real insight into the meaning and purpose of life?  In John’s gospel, later than this, the idea of seeing is used symbolically to refer to believing and realizing one’s calling as a Christian

29th Sunday B

The middle section of the long Old Testament book of Isaiah is particularly about the peoples’ sorry state in exile in Babylon and the encouragement forf them that all will be well eventually.  The section begins at chapter 40 with comforting words and ends in Chapter 55 with a confidence for the future.   And the section contains four songs about the servant of the Lord.  In the first song (Isaiah 42:1-9) the servant will gently bring peace to the people and to all nations in line with God’s intentions.  The second is at the beginning of chapter 49, about the nation of Israel itself as in some way the servant accomplishing God’s will.  The third song in chapter 50 speaks of the servant as an individual prophet announcing the good news of God in the face of all difficulties.  And our reading today is just a small part of the final song (Isaiah 53:10-11); it speaks of the servant as a righteous person overcoming all sinfulness so all might be righteous.  Christians apply many of the descriptions of the servant in these songs to Christ Himself, for He, through much suffering, maintains His righteousness and enables it freely for all to attain; we see Jesus as the ultimate case of unselfishness and suffering that benefits others.

In the letter to the Hebrews the author interprets the history of the chosen people with all its ups and downs, and constantly points out the message it has for the Christians he addresses. The second reading is the next three verses after last week’s reading (Hebrews 4:14-16).  It develops this Christian interpretation of the suffering servant, but sees Jesus as the genuine priest, unlike all the others with their own sins, for He has not just symbolically entered the inner sanctum of the Temple, but has actually entered heaven itself.  Being one of us, Jesus has won the possibility of ultimate success for everyone – the culmination of God’s creative act of unselfishness and risk-taking.

Mark wrote the good news of Jesus Christ for the early followers of the Way of Jesus.  The purpose of this gospel is to give the people some understanding of the transformation potential that Jesus should have on the readers’ lives.  Mark does this through the format of a report of the public life and death of Jesus, his sayings and his deeds and the reaction of those around him, especially the disciples; it expresses his understanding of the significance of it all for life in his time (and in ours today).  The third reading (Mark 10:32-45) we have for today is one of undoubted reliability, for no gospel writer would have portrayed the disciples in such a bad light had it not been past down to them from the disciples themselves, who admitted their unworthiness.  The story is made public here so as to remind us Christians even to this day, that we can easily get the message of the Kingdom of God quite wrong because of our self-confidence and selfishness.  The disciples thought the kingdom was to do with earthly power politics and selfish promotion.  They just had not understood the main message Jesus was trying to put across to them; until He had actually died and it began to dawn on them what it was all about then they began to see things differently.

28th Sunday B

The first reading is from the Book of Wisdom.  We had a reading from this book on the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time and comments there explained something about the book in general and the first 5 chapters in particular.  The books that are in the Christian bible are called canonical (from the Greek κανων meaning rule or standard), because they are approved by the Church as giving reliable teaching about God and how we should live.  However, non-Catholic Christians generally don’t recognise the Book of Wisdom as belonging to this group, as it was only regarded as special by the Jews living outwith Israel.  For this reason it is regarded as of secondary value and is called deutero-canonical.  The passage we have today (7:7-11) is all about the gift of true wisdom which Solomon prayed for and from which we learn how true wisdom  surpasses many things that might tempt us.   The name ‘Sophie’ comes from the Greek for wisdom which is personified as a lady.

The second reading is just two verses from the Book of Hebrews (4:12f).  The author of the letter to the Hebrews as a knowledgeable and thoughtful Christian in the first century after Christ, has taken historical events and theological ideas from the Old Testament and used them to express his religious ideas .  In the unit that is our short reading he begins with the relevance and vitality of the word of God, referring ambiguously between the words of the Hebrew Scriptures that he knows so well and Jesus Christ the very Word of God incarnate into our world: literally “Living indeed (is) the word of God and effective…” This Christ is dynamically challenging to the way of life that we lead: “sharper than any two-edged sword”; not just to the way that we live in this secular society: “penetrating into (the) division of soul and spirit” but also sensitive to the inner thoughts and intentions that we have: “judging of thoughts and heart’s intentions”.  And it is to Him that we have to give a report, literally “the word,” thus rounding off this poetic passage with the word word with which he began.  The writer must think that the convert Jews whom he addresses are getting lax even by the standard of the Wisdom in their Book of that name; so he speaks of the wise word of God that strikes at their inner attitudes (and seems to find them wanting).

The third reading is a unit from the gospel of Mark (10:17-30) as his account draws towards the final days of Jesus in Jerusalem.  He is wanting to focus the reader more on the essential core attitude of being a follower of Christ, telling us how Jesus tries to bring his disciples to some sort of understanding.  The unit is not difficult in itself but two points might be noticeable.  The man seeking advice from Jesus refers to him as “Good teacher.”  We live in a time when there has been some sorting out of the language we might use about God in relation to the three Persons of the Trinity and to the divinity of Christ; so that when Mark writes that Jesus replies “No one is good but God,” we are given cause for pause.  Matthew, when copying this story into his gospel avoids this difficulty altogether with “Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good…” (Matthew 19:16f).  We are reminded by this that the revelation of the Incarnation and of the Trinity presents us with a mystery that only through the centuries has come to be expressed in what we think of as precise and clear wording.  In addition to being reminded of this mystery we might also be surprised by Jesus referring to the disciples as children.  It was, we are told, fairly normal for a Jewish teacher to refer to his ‘students’ in this way, but it can also remind us of our relationship with God in Christ, as disciples – people not only struggling to understand, but also to follow in the way that we live.

27th Sunday B

The first reading comes at the beginning of the Bible (Genesis chapter 2, verses 18 to 24), just after the beautiful poem about God’s work of creation which He saw as very good.  The passage is an extract from a story about the creation of people and their fall from grace.  The extract tells of God after creating a man, making all the animals, but finally forming a woman as a suitable partner for him; it ends with an expression of the most desirable arrangement for marriage in the situation of the writer and of the original hearers of the story, with the need to keep their numbers up and to have a close knit community – “.. a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to a wife, and they become one body;”  a similar family situation is the blessing of the Psalm (128) which is used as a response to the reading.

Singing of the wonderful works of God in Psalm 8, the Jews would recall that humans were made just a little lower than angels and were to be crowned with glory and splendour.  But the writer of our second reading (Hebrews, chapter 2, verses 9 to 11) realises that prior to the coming of Jesus humans had failed to live up to this grand position they had been given in God’s creative scheme.  As a Christian with knowledge of the Hebrew bible, the writer chose a legitimate alternative translation of ‘a little lower than’  and applied verse 5 of psalm 8 to Jesus, writing that He was ‘for a short while made lower than the angels and is now crowned with glory and splendour’ – the Son of God was made man (human), lived and died and is now risen and seated at the right hand of God.  The reading then says that now there is a human like ourselves, Who can lead us who are failing, along the way to salvation – that Person is Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

In the gospel reading (Mark, chapter 10, verses 2 to 16), Mark tells his readers of Pharisees coming to Jesus to question Him about divorce.  There were at the time two different views among Jewish groups, both accepting that a man could give a writ of divorce to his wife according to the Law (Deut 24:1ff), but one group thought this was only in the case of her adultery, the other in the case of much lesser dissatisfaction.  Mark writes that Jesus replied by referring to the original plan of God that was written in Genesis (and is the last part of the first reading) adding that the Law they referred to was only an inferior application because of human weakness.  In the story, the disciples are surprised and quiz Jesus when they are alone, but He re-affirms his original reply and even adds that a woman shouldn’t divorce a man (something not really thought possible by most Jews).  It is likely that this whole issue was a matter of some discussion in the early church, for in Matthew’s gospel, in a parallel story, Jesus seems to support the Deuteronomy ruling.  Much earlier, when Paul thought the plan of God was about to be completed and the world come to an end, he wrote that it was best not to marry at all, though if one did, the rights of husband and wife over each other were equal.   So even in the early church there were different views about marriage and divorce..