25th Sunday Cycle B

The book of Wisdom from where the first reading (Ch  2:12, 17-20) comes, is from the first section of the book (chapters 1-5) which illustrates the attitude that others might well have towards the believing Jews, who think themselves superior.  The whole book seems to have been written originally in Greek and probably in Egypt where there was a ‘colony’ of Jews; it probably dates from the first century BC.  The reading suggests that the way of the ‘godless’ may be troublesome to the Jews; but these were not really godless in the sense of being wicked people, many of them had good standards of behaviour both private and public, and what they wanted out of life was a pleasant and satisfying life for themselves and for others.  The Jews in Israel at the time of Jesus did not accept this Book as part of their Scriptures and even now it is Catholics, not the Protestants, who have this book in their Bible.  However, the writer is picking up on a theme in Isaiah and elsewhere, that those who are righteous will be opposed by others who will treat them badly and even condemn them to death (as we saw in the suffering servant song in last week’s reading from Isaiah).  The responsorial psalm is the congregation’s response to the reading and is very aptly chosen.

The reading from James (3:16-4:3) comes across like preaching in the early church and has the same pattern and general sense as Paul’s letter to the Galatians (5:19-23) namely, a longish list of sins then “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness…”  where James has “But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy…”   But it is the list of evils and sins that makes us wonder at the state of the early followers of the Way of Jesus – it seems that they were not all the saintly enthusiasts we might imagine.

The gospel reading (Mark 9:30-37.) takes us further into the second half of the Gospel the beginning of which we had last week.  The plot is moving now towards the fulfillment and completion of Jesus’ life on earth.  We read a second prediction of Jesus’ passion and resurrection; it is what might be expected by those who have grasped the message of the first reading; so Jesus is now worried about too much public exposure and especially about the use of the word Christ which has for most of his contemporaries the implication of some grand almost secular political power on the side of the Jews.  We see this as we read of the disciples, upon hearing the prediction, arguing about who will share positions of power in the coming kingdom.   Again and again Mark indicates that the disciples just don’t understand what Jesus is talking about.  But the message of Jesus is not to be understood so much as to be lived out in our attitude to others different from ourselves “whoever wants to be first must be last.”

24th Sunday Cycle B

The first reading is the third of four ‘Servant Songs’ found in this part of the book of Isaiah.  These songs focus on and develop the idea of being a servant of God and of others – of living for other people.  They introduce the notion of inevitable suffering, of disappointment, difficulties and even disaster; these must be faced up to with dignity and with faithfulness to the cause of serving others whatever the trials or troubles encountered; the aim of the servant is the good of others.  Sometimes these songs may have been applied to a prophet who had the role of pointing out in words and by the example of his own life, the message of God and the way that folk should live.  Prophets often suffered for their delivery of an unwelcome message so that these poems sometimes merit the title ‘Suffering Servant Songs.’  But at other times these songs may apply to the nation of the Jews as a whole; for they fell into the temptation of thinking that being chosen by God was a privilege that elevated them above others and should defend them from foreign interference, whereas being chosen is being challenged with the humble task of living for the good of others and suffering any consequent troubles.  Christians, following the lead of the New Testament writers, applied these songs to the life of Jesus, God who became a man to dwell among us in order to benefit the whole of humanity for all time, but whose message was disturbing to many, especially the leading lights among the Jews at the time – those in authority, the Scribes and the Pharisees; some of the words of our reading today from Isaiah 50:5-9  have been used in describing the passion and suffering of Jesus.

The second reading from James 2:14-18 deals with the relationship of faith and good works, which must have been something of a contention between Christians in James’ day, as it was at the time of the Reformation; but the issue can arise for any of us at any time when we think that because we have faith it means that we are safe and secure, and when this confidence leads to a neglect of living how we  ought to live – living for the sake of others – as Jesus gave his whole life for the love of us all.  Believing is not just accepting certain doctrines, nor just an emotional devotion to the person of Christ, but more than anything it is living in a particular way.

The gospel reading is the central turning point in Mark’s Gospel (Chapter 8: 27-35) where Mark has Jesus explicitly moving towards his passion and death.  With regard to the name Christ which for Mark, his readers and all Christians may be taken as a sort of surname of Jesus or as referring to the sum of one’s beliefs about this Son of God made man; but for Peter at the time and most of the crowd that followed or heard of Jesus, it would have had the connotation of an earthly leader who would establish Israel in its ideal grandeur and forcibly subdue all opposing regimes bringing the expected time of fulfillment foretold in their Scriptures.  It must be partly because of this expectation that Mark has Jesus wanting to keep this hush-hush yet not to deny the title a more spiritual meaning.  Jesus doesn’t really fulfill the earthly expectations of a glorious King like David was imagined to be; but Jesus is much more the suffering servant  who lives and dies for others.  Like most Jews, Peter couldn’t accept this notion of being a servant, especially a suffering one.  And we notice that when Jesus says to Peter “Get behind me” it is an ambiguous phrase, and could equally mean ‘back me up’ or ‘be a follower of mine.’  Indeed the same Greek phrase is used by Mark later when he has Jesus say “if anyone would ‘come after me’ let him deny himself…”

23rd Sunday Cycle B

At the end of the creation poem in Genesis chapter 1, we read that “God looked at all He had done and behold (it was) extremely good.”  But the rest of the Old testament is largely about the mess that people are making of this creation.  It was probably when Moses led enslaved tribes out of Egypt to freedom, that they adopted Yahweh as their god – or rather he adopted them.  It sowed the belief that God would always see them alright.  But about 500 years later, after a lot of ups and downs, they lost the land they believed God had given them and almost lost faith too.  But a prophet, one of the guardians of the faith, in his role of discerning the original and future plan of God for creation, told the people in dire straits that God would one day restore them to prosperity; we read of this expectation of the restoration of damaged creation in poetic and symbolic form in the first reading from Isaiah 35:4 – 7 – the blind will see, the deaf will hear etc. 

About 600 years after Isaiah’s pronouncement, and after many disappointments and disagreements amongst the Jews, Jesus became one of them – one of us.  It is probably a cousin of His who wrote the letter of James, where chapter 2, verses 1 – 5 are an example of the many wise things that he points out to those Jews living outwith their homeland and who had become followers of Jesus’ Way (Christians).  Although he tells them to treat people fairly, he makes no mention in the whole letter of the non-Jews among whom they were living.  Yet we know that Paul had worked widely in the area particularly welcoming Gentile converts.  This might be one of the many aspects of this letter that made the early church hesitant about adopting it as part of their scriptures.  However James’ suggestions for relationships with others is good and applicable also to us today, and we would even want to develop the idea to cover relationships with people of other faiths and of none, and extend them to cover people with other differences from what we might feel is the norm.

We know that Paul and Peter didn’t always see eye to eye about what attitude to have towards Gentile converts – Peter wanting to hold on to his Jewish customs and regulations.  Mark was more in favour of Paul’s liberal attitude, but when writing his Gospel he could find little evidence of Jesus’ attitude to non-Jews.  But he does tell the story of a Syro-phœnician woman where she says, even the dogs can eat the scraps under the table; and he improves on that in today’s gospel reading (Mark 7:31-37), where Jesus cures a deaf mute in Gentile territory.  In this passage Mark seems to have in mind the words of the prophet that were in the first reading; indeed, Mark uses the same, vary rare word for the speech defect (μογιλαλον) that is in Isaiah.  Yet he may not have also knowingly reflected the words of God at the end of the creation poem (quoted above) when he writes about the onlookers of the miracle, saying “He has done all things well.”

22nd Sunday Cycle B

The reading, Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8, is from the fifth and last book of the first and most important part of the Bible, which the Jews refer to as the Law, and Christians call the Pentateuch (the five scrolls).  The book of Deuteronomy is written as five long speeches of Moses to the people before they enter into the ‘Promised land.’   It was written down at least 300 years after that and comprises mostly a re-presentation of many of the laws and regulations found in earlier parts of the Pentateuch.  The insistence on keeping the many laws and customs 2500 years ago would be considered today to be a suppression of the rightful individuality of each person with a particular role in life and vocation from God.  But aside from that the reading has a unfortunate attitude towards other nations, their ways of living and their own religions – an attitude of superiority.  The verses presented in our reading omit verses 3 – 5 which tell of their God destroying those who don’t accept Him and of God helping the Jews to conquer the land they have been promised to inhabit.  This makes us realise how our religious thinking has developed over the centuries.

The reading from the letter of James 1:17-18,21-22,27 fits in well with the other readings.  The church took quite a while before it finally agreed that this Letter should be part of the New Testament; and many since then have thought it rather trivial, with Luther referring to it as straw – pretty insignificant stuff.  The Letter is addressed to a number of churches made up of Jews who are now Christians and who are not in the land of Israel, but are living in what is called the Diaspora – they are the dispersed Jews.  Reformed Christians often maintain that they are saved by faith – by believing in Jesus as the saviour and Son of God; whereas Catholics seem to value many practices like devotions, rituals and other ‘good works.’   This Letter of James actually says that we are saved by works not just by faith.  Thankfully, both Catholics and other Christians generally don’t have any disagreement about these matters any more.  But what our passage here stresses is that the word of God is actually within us – the laws written in our hearts; and the examples of what we need to do are what we all should hear – being humble, meek and serving the needs of others.

With the gospel reading we have returned to Mark again (Chapter 7, verses 1-8, 14-15 and 21-23) and the chosen passage fits in well with the previous two readings; the first about strict observance of all the rules and the second about helping the needy.  We can imagine the situation in the early Church that Mark is addressing when he chooses to relate this story in which some of the important Jews come to Jesus and accuse his disciples of breaking the rules about when and how to eat food;  Jesus replies quite confidently that the infringements of these rules doesn’t make anyone irreligious, but it is what a person says and does that might affect their relationship with God.  We know that there were arguments among the early Christians about the extent to which the regulations of the Jewish religion apply to Christians – especially convert Gentiles; we know also that Paul and Peter had different views on this matter.  Even to this day different ‘shades’ of Christianity and different individuals in various denominations hold rules and regulations in varying degrees of importance.

22nd Sunday Cycle B

The reading, Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8, is from the fifth and last book of the first and most important part of the Bible, which the Jews refer to as the Law, and Christians call the Pentateuch (the five scrolls).  The book of Deuteronomy is written as five long speeches of Moses to the people before they enter into the ‘Promised land.’   It was written down at least 300 years after that and comprises mostly a re-presentation of many of the laws and regulations found in earlier parts of the Pentateuch.  The insistence on keeping the many laws and customs 2500 years ago would be considered today to be a suppression of the rightful individuality of each person with a particular role in life and vocation from God.  But aside from that the reading has a supercilious attitude towards other nations, their ways of living and their own religions – an attitude of superiority to all others.  The verses presented in our reading omit verses 3 – 5 which tell of their God destroying those who don’t accept Him and of God helping the Jews to conquer the land they have been promised to inhabit.  This makes us realise how our religious thinking has developed over the centuries.

The reading from the letter of James 1:17-18,21-22,27 fits in well with the other readings.  The church took quite a while before it finally agreed that this Letter should be part of the New Testament; and many since then have thought it rather trivial, with Luther referring to it as straw – pretty insignificant stuff.  The Letter is addressed to a number of churches made up of Jews who are now Christians and who are not in the land of Israel, but are living in what is called the Diaspora – they are the dispersed Jews.  Reformed Christians often maintain that they are saved by faith – by believing in Jesus as the saviour and Son of God; whereas Catholics seem to value many practices like devotions, rituals and other ‘good works.’   This Letter of James actually says that we are saved by works not just by faith.  Thankfully, both Catholics and other Christians generally don’t have any disagreement about these matters any more.  But what our passage here stresses is that the word of God is actually within us – the laws written in our hearts; and the examples of what we need to do are what we all should hear – being humble, meek and serving the needs of others.

With the gospel reading we have returned to Mark again (Chapter 7, verses 1-8, 14-15 and 21-23) and the chosen passage fits in well with the previous two readings; the first about strict observance of all the rules and the second about helping the needy.  We can imagine the situation in the early Church that Mark is addressing when he chooses to relate this story in which some of the important Jews come to Jesus and accuse his disciples of breaking the rules about when and how to eat food;  Jesus replies quite confidently that the infringements of these rules doesn’t make anyone irreligious, but it is what a person says and does that might affect their relationship with God.  We know that there were arguments among the early Christians about the extent to which the regulations of the Jewish religion apply to Christians – especially convert Gentiles; we know also that Paul and Peter had different views on this matter.  Even to this day different ‘shades’ of Christianity and different individuals in various denominations hold rules and regulations in varying degrees of importance.

21st Sunday Cycle B

The first reading from the book of Joshua (24:1-2,15-18) is well chosen.  The nomadic people with their desert God, Yahweh, have survived the wandering in the Sinai wilderness, have crossed the river Jordan and invaded the land of Canaan.  The story started to be preserved and felt relevant when the tribes began to settle.  The conquered Canaanites have agricultural and fertility gods, and their religion serves them well for they are successful farmers.  But the invaders want to settle and live off the land they have conquered.  As well as the attraction of this other religion, they see that its adherents are much more successful farmers.  The temptation is strong to move to their religion, but the reading describes Joshua calling for a reaffirmation of commitment to Yahweh by all of the tribes.  This is surely a story that deserved being preserved in their bible and is thought-provoking for all of us, even to this day.  The 12 verses omitted in our selected reading recount the numerous times that God enabled the people to conquer other tribes and nations and showing the superior power of their God.

The second reading is the next short section from the letter to the Ephesians (5:21-32) after those which we have had over the last few Sundays.  The start of the reading for today is part of a sentence that began two verses earlier.  The writer has said (verse 19 and 20) that you shouldn’t get drunk on alcohol, but should be filled with the Spirit; he goes on to explain what this implies, that is, singing each other’s praises with hymns etc. to the Lord, giving thanks to God and (where our reading begins) “showing respect to each other in awe of  Christ,” and the sentence continues “ladies to their men as to the Lord.”  Some of the modern English translations show something of our problem today with the apparent subordination of wives to husbands.  The writer is elaborating for (new) Christians the implications of their new-found beliefs; it’s the practical details of life within one’s community and particularly within the family – husband, wife, children and servants.  This is not unlike the recommended best within the secular society of their time and location, but the principal purpose is not the support of the state but the building up of the church, the Body of Christ; and Jesus showed these attitudes in His life on earth, lived out for others even to the point of death.  But when applied to us these old accounts in our Sacred Scriptures need their essential message extracting and re-locating in the contest of our culture and indeed within the lives of each of us.  The core message surely is, that there should be harmony between people, for Christians should know that they are the physical presence of Christ in the world today (i.e. the Body of Christ) and should relate to each other accordingly, (and to other people and the environment).

The Gospel reading from John (6:60-69), puts the call to commitment in a Christian context.  After the explanation of Himself as the true bread of life, i.e. the wisdom and the way for us to live, Jesus has said unless you eat this flesh of mine you shall not have life within you – that’s the ‘hard saying,’ that the disciples refer to: ‘the intolerable language’.  That was last week’s reading but listen to this reading advising us not to take this literally, when it says the flesh profits nothing, it’s the spirit that is important, it’s the spiritual meaning that makes sense; and through Jesus the Spirit is present in our matter-of-fact world.  And Jesus is the Son of Man, the ideal human who in the future will be joined by all.  So our celebration of Communion is a time to take to ourselves the life of Jesus, committing ourselves to live how he would live if He were in our shoes (which in a non-literal sense He is!).  If the Body is the physical presence of a person, then the whole of creation is in some way the body of Christ.

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