4th December 2016
Back in the 8th century BC this first reading is for Isaiah a vision and a hope based on his understanding of God and His relationship with this world. It is expressed by the prophet as best as he can like a dream for an ideal king, a descendant of David (son of Jesse), with wonderful gifts of spirit – wisdom, empathy, understanding and respect for God. But also an unimaginable peace, even in nature and between humans and animals – in our eyes an impossible world. In addition, again “on that day” it is written, this peace will extend even to the Gentiles – imaginable to most of us here and now, with in our understanding of Christ as our king.
The second reading (Rom 15:4-9) is part of the conclusion of Paul’s long letter to the Romans. It is calling for harmony, a lesson that can be learnt from Scripture; which for Paul means what we call the Old Testament; but we can learn from the New Testament. God not only became one of us, but also, for the sake of the Jews, was under the their Law and all that entailed; but this self-abasement was so as to live (and die) for all people and thus give glory to God. However, Paul quotes the end of a song of king David (2 Sam 22:47-50) who ruled over many nations whom he had conquered by force.
Before today’s gospel reading from Matthew (Mt 3:1-12) he has written about the genealogy, the birth with its announcement to the shepherds and the incidents surrounding the magi with their gifts. But now the preaching of the kingdom begins with John the Baptist; it is a topic found also in the other gospels; but unlike Luke and Mark, Matthew has John straight away preaching the very message of Jesus “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” A significant word for us is ‘repent;’ it means in the Greek a change of mind, and for us a change of our way of life. Most noticeable also is the vituperative language used against both the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the suggestion that physical descent from Abraham is not an assurance of acceptance by God; so we too, if we live aright, will be within the reign of God. Then we hear John announce the coming of Jesus who will sort things out; a process like harvesting grain – removing and burning the chaff. And it is a baptism that is the sign of this commitment, even needed for Jews; though this is not the same as Christian Baptism, but is a washing symbolic of the change of life preached with the word “repent!” It may be that the phrase “In those days” which begins the gospel reading, rather than just meaning something like ‘then,’ actually means this new time of the kingdom in which we, today, live.
The book of Isaiah as it is called in the Bible, is an extensive edited collection of writings that are drawn from at least three different time periods. Using the division of chapters and verses introduced in the 13th and 16th centuries respectively, the first 39 chapters are from the earliest period when the prophet Isaiah lived, namely the last half of the 8th century BC. From this section our first reading (Isaiah 2:1-5) expresses in its own way the vision of the glorious future that they believed God had planned for His creation. The significant political situation at this time is that Judah and its capital city Jerusalem were under threat from other nations. Isaiah, as a court prophet, must have been aware of this as well as of the religious situation. His religious belief was that God (that is to say their god) had chosen them to be the greatest nation of all, expressed at this time as the expectation that Jerusalem would eventually be the focus for all the nations. And so the visionary poem that is our text, is an expression of hope that all the nations will submit to the Law and together rejoice under Jerusalem’s supremacy in the worship of God. The climax of the vision is that there will be peace among all nations expressed poetically as “turning swords into ploughs and spears into pruning hooks.” However, with a different theological hope and at a different time the prophet Joel wants the nations to prepare for war because God is going to attack them for all the trouble they have caused against Israel, His beloved nation.
In the second reading (Rom 13:11-14) it seems clear that things are not too good for the Christians in Rome, to whom the letter is addressed. Chapter 12 of Romans starts a section dealing with the End Time, and there was enough persecution under emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) and also under Nero (54-68 AD) to give the impression to Christians that the end of this world was at hand. Paul’s letter is his exposition of the good news that others were later to express in narrative form as Gospels. The message is “Do not be conformed to this age but be transformed” (Rom 12:2). In some way, for Paul the time is already with us, especially since we have been baptised – when we first believed; so now we must live in a changed way. A good example of this required transformation is found in the Confessions of St Augustine, who was very much attached to the ‘secular’ world and couldn’t tear himself away. But then came the turning point in his life when he read the last two verses of our text.
In today’s gospel reading from (Mt 24:37-44) we have a section of what is written about the second coming of the Son of Man. Parts of it appear to be taken from Mark and other parts from another document (sometimes called Q) that Luke also used. Matthew’s well-structured gospel has five extended discourses attributed to Jesus and this is part of the last one. It seems that the people at the time of Noah are said to be just going about their daily business and not thinking of anything else; yet according to the Genesis story, the people at the time were wicked, so much so that God regretted having created them. So the message for us is simply about being aware of the world of God in our ordinary day to day living; and so to live upright lives, and hence be ready when the expected judgment comes. Two people can appear to both be living ordinary lives, but one can be aware of the proximity of God in his world – hence it says “one will be taken, one will be left.”
20th November 2016
Throughout most of the history of the Jewish people they developed a grand idea of their kingdom and of an ideal king; they projected this vision back onto king David and consequently a lot of the time looked forward to a new king who would be a true successor to him, or rather to their idea of him. So we read this brief extract of their history, as we celebrate Christ as our own king, with probably a different understanding from them of what the ideal is. David was thought of like a shepherd and as their commander.
In the second reading Paul writes to the Colossians because some of them are seeing this world and material things as evil and to be shunned. He wants to affirm that the Christian truth is that all of creation is God’s, and that creation is the expression of God’s reality. After a powerful reminder how God has delivered them from darkness and redeemed them with forgiveness of their sins, he quotes what almost looks like a creed in poetic form, with two stanzas. The first stanza is about Christ, who is God’s image expressed in each item and in the whole of creation, which exists in Him and for Him; the second is about His presence in the Church as His body, which is made up of those who are conscious of Christ and try to live in a Christ-like way within and together with the sacredness of the material world.
We might find it strange that the gospel reading for today is of Christ on the cross. But His kingship is not a superior and glorious dominance over people, it is a universal kingship, over all and across all time, which is manifest at the climax and completion of His life. Most of those around the cross cannot grasp this notion of kingship nor even accept the idea of life beyond death. The reference to the two other criminals is only found in Luke’s gospel and it is one of the criminals that has the idea of a kingdom after death. The word Paradise is an import from Persian into Greek, Hebrew and now many other languages. This key and distinctive saying of Jesus’ reply to this criminal begins solemnly with “Amen” and expresses the belief , even at this stage, of a life immediately after death gained by Jesus and for others – he says, “Amen. I say to you, this day you will be with me in Paradise.”
13th November 2016
The first reading is from the last section of the book of Malachi. In the Hebrew this is Chapter 3, but in the Greek version it is Chapter 4. Cyrus, the king of Persia who became the ruler of Babylon in the 6th century BC, had high ideals for society and a policy of returning deportees back to their homelands. We know of this from the Cyrus cylinder which was discovered in 1869 in the ruins of the city of Babylon and is in the British Museum; in the Bible, the book of Isaiah the prophet interpreted this return to their own land as brought about by their God through Cyrus. But those who returned were not all as good living as they should be and so, in the book of Malachi, we hear today of God’s punishment upon them, but for those who are good or repent, God will come “with healing in his wings.”
In Thessalonica, although Paul had never given this impression, there were those who acted as though the end of the world was on their door-step; we have heard before that some of them even idled away their time and relied on the generosity of fellow Christians for their livelihood. So in this reading for today, Paul reminds them of his activity and self-sufficiency when he was with them and that they should imitate him and not be a burden to others. He was a tent-maker and could ply this trade as well as preach the Good News, wherever he went.
Luke tells us about Jesus in the form of a journey that He makes towards Jerusalem and towards the climax and end of His life. In today’s reading Jesus arrives in Jerusalem with its great Temple and central administration, and where there will be disaster. The reading parallels what was already written by Mark (in chapter 13), but the questions “when will this happen” and “what sign will there be” which are not really answered in Mark’s account, are used by Luke to give a lesson for life. He is writing after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and when Christians have already suffered persecution. The traumas of life are not a sign of the end of the world and the final reckoning, but are part of the pattern of life; a pattern going as far back as the time of the slavery of the people of the Bible in Egypt and of the Exodus brought about by God; a pattern repeated in the Exile in Babylon and their return under Cyrus to the promised land; and a pattern in Jesus’ life through trial and execution to new Risen life.
6th November 2016
The first reading is from the second book called Maccabees named after Judas Maccabeus and written during the second century BC. It begins with letters to the Jews in Egypt, followed by a preface stating that this is a summary of a five volume work written about the experiences of the Jews in Egypt under foreign rulers. The Jews stood out with their distinctive religion and its practices, so the pagan rulers tried to force them to conform to their pagan rituals and diet (especially eating pork). The chapter we read from, relates the martyrdom of seven sons and their mother, but our reading (to avoid too horrific material perhaps) only tells us of three of them. The passage is of interest because of what it shows of the belief these Jews had at that time. They clearly believed in there being only one God, but also, and as a new idea, God’s creating everything out of nothing; also they believed in heaven as a reward for the righteous – who obeyed the Law – and that their suffering in this life would make up for their many faults. And this is a development of Jewish thinking that also shows up at the time and in the place where Jesus grew up and lived. The expectation of an afterlife with God appears also in the response to the Psalm that follows the reading. But calling someone an accursed wretch is not really appropriate.
We read from the ending of a Letter from Paul to the Thessalonians. About the year 50 AD (when the Emperor Claudius banished Jews from Rome), Paul, together with Silvanus and Timothy went to Thessalonica to preach about Jesus; that is the Timothy to whom letters were addressed which are in the New Testament. The Jews there were not interested and so they preached to ‘God-fearing’ non-Jews, and were welcomed into the house of one called Jason. But because of trouble from the Jews these first missionaries had to leave. Later Timothy had revisited the Thessalonian converts but they were still troubled by the Jews. However, Paul had heard that they thought the End of the world was coming (after all the troubles they were in) and some had even given up on caring about this life, and this prompted him to write this second letter to them from which we read today, though in our extract he is just encouraging them to follow what he previously taught them.
In today’s gospel the Sadducees try to make fun of the belief in life after death. They don’t have this belief and they only recognise the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) as sacred scripture. They argue from the rule in Deuteronomy that if a married brother dies, his brother must marry the wife so as to produce an heir for the dead brother. Jesus, like the Pharisees, believes in the afterlife and the reward of the just. In the reply He contrasts this life with the risen life in which the higher state of immortality marriage does not apply for all are children of God and inheritance of this life is gained for them; Luke elaborates this reply more than Matthew and Mark who have the same story.
30th October 2016
The first reading, a prayer to God, is from the book of Wisdom, sometimes called the Wisdom of Solomon, but it was not by Solomon as there is good evidence that it was written in Alexandria in Egypt in the first half of the first century BC. It is one of those books not usually in the Protestant Bible because it was not accepted by the Hebrew speaking Jews in Palestine; such books are call deutero-canonical. The passage that we have today is part of a reflection on the events from the story of the Exodus (the escape of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt under the power of the Lord). It expresses in poetic form (or beautiful prose) the all-pervasive power, mercy, care and love of God for every thing and for everyone – all of which are his creation. After the first couplet, God is addressed directly in a paean of praise, which is also a message for us all.
The second reading is from an early letter of Paul to the people in the Christian community in Thessalonica. It was there that Paul, Silvanus and Timothy went to evangelise; they were rebuffed in the Jewish synagogue and so changed to preaching to non-Jews, meeting in the house of a man called Jason (a Greek name, also for the hero of ancient myths and more recent productions). But the Jews were causing this group some trouble and because of their persecution some of the Christians thought the Final Judgment and the second coming of Jesus was about to happen – some had even given up work and were just idling away the time, waiting. Paul wrote this second letter to them in this situation to encourage them to get on with living their lives as good Christians. In the reading they are told they should not think that the Day of the Lord’s coming is at hand, just because of some supposed message.
Today’s gospel gives us a story well-liked by children and easily remembered by anyone who has heard it before. It is about Jesus arriving at Jericho and it is the last story before his arrival in Jerusalem. His popularity went before him, and even if only because of curiosity, a crowd formed to see him and his disciples arriving, though some must have heard also of the things he had said and done; there were rumours about the way he showed love even to sinners and non-Jews, and spoke of a liberating and loving father God. The crowd would have included a great variety of people, but as often in such a situation the small people and children can’t get to see – a real human story, typical of Luke! It is a story of Jesus once again showing how God loves all people even if they are sinners or despised by others. Jesus takes the initiative in drawing the best out of people; and we see this in the story of the conversion of Zacchaeus a chief tax-collector.
October 23rd 201
The first reading is from a wisdom book (Sirach 35:12-18 passim). The prologue to it was written by someone in Egypt after 132 BC, who was translating into Greek a Hebrew book of his grandfather (whose name was Jesus). The book presented the thrust of the teachings of the Bible about the Law and the wise way to live. Manuscripts of parts of the Hebrew book itself have been found but it is not part of the Hebrew Old Testament. Despite the book’s enthusiasm for the Law, in our passage it speaks of a God who treats all people fairly; it quite poetically depicts God as particularly drawn to the poor, orphans and widows, like a Judge who responds quickly to prayers after judging what is asked for and what is right. The same thoughts are expressed repeatedly in the Psalm that follows this reading.
In the second reading we have some words from the second letter to Timothy which seem to genuinely come from Paul himself. He is clearly at the end of his tether and near the end of his life. He speaks of the sacrifice of his life as a libation – a drink poured out as an offering to a deity. He uses his favourite metaphors for life – a race, a competition. Some of his friends seem to have abandoned him at the difficult times of his trial or when he was in prison. He is willing to forgive, and trusts that God will reward him with entry into the heavenly kingdom. It seems from the use of “we” in Luke’s book The Acts of the Apostles that Luke was often a close and loyal friend to Paul.
In the gospel Jesus tells a hard hitting story. We need to realise that the Pharisees are generally depicted in the New Testament as being self-righteous; they are externally good living if judged by the religious laws that they keep and the public worship which they offer, and this was frowned on by the followers of Jesus. Yet the Pharisees were clearly not all like this, but it is typical of human attitudes to make inaccurate generalisations. However, in the parable we do have such a self-righteous, fictitious character. The other person in the parable is the tax collector. The Romans controlled the country but, perhaps because of difficulties for themselves, they had local Jewish people to collect the taxes for them; people who knew the language and those they were dealing with; they were perhaps glad of a job that was protected by the occupying forces; it is thought that they were expected to collect more than was actually required to provide a salary for their work. Obviously they were not liked by everyone else, but Jesus, as was his custom, did not follow this attitude – he had invited Matthew as one of his followers although he was a tax collector. And in this parable the humble and self-effacing tax collector has the role of an example for us all.