There are lots of phrases used in this well-told story (Exodus 3:1-15 passim)that give rise to expansive thoughts. The situation is that Moses had been brought up in the Egyptian Pharaoh’s household but had also learnt of his ancestral religion, and had to leave hastily when he was wanted for the murder he had committed against an Egyptian bullying one of his own race. In the desert East of Egypt, he had settled as a herdsman working for his new father-in-law. Moses is near the mountain where later in the story of Israel, God will present the Commandments. When God calls he makes the classic response: “Here I am.” There he has seen a bush which burns but doesn’t burn up – the motto of the Church of Scotland. The very ground is holy and to be trodden with care, and God is caring of his suffering people and will lead them to a most desirable place. Moses only knows from his upbringing of the god of his ancestors and so God gives out His name: Yahweh. Moses is chosen to lead the people out of the slavery they are in. However, the journey will be fraught with difficulties, failings as well as God’s help and protection.
The second reading (1 Cor 10:1-12, passim) illustrates how Christians, and specifically here Paul, interprets the texts and incidents of the past to make them relevant to the present situation – something that we should be doing with the Scripture readings we have. So in Paul’s application, the way Yahweh led the people out of Egyptian slavery across the desert is called baptism and the food and drink which was provided miraculously by God in the desert would make Christians think of their weekly service of celebration. But, as in history so, as Paul writes, the people still fail themselves and their calling and many are destroyed. Paul concludes with this method of interpretation, showing its relevance in the present: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” This is receiving the Word of God in Scripture and applying it to the here and now.
The chapter divisions in the bible are not part of the original writing; Luke chapter twelve is about the uncertainty of the End and the need for repentance; a theme that continues into today’s reading from the next chapter. The two unexpected disasters referred to are not known through any other source; the cruelty of Pilate against Galileans in the Temple would increase Jewish hatred of the Romans, but Jesus doesn’t go down that road; instead the report of the incident is used in the same way as the natural disaster of the collapse of the tower at Siloam. Jesus makes the point about the uncertainty of the hour of death or the end of the world. Luke then adds his own version of the parable of the fig tree like that in Matthew and Mark; here it doesn’t bear fruit, even over three years and so deserves destruction; or does it need another chance?
our ways for the better. We need to see our responsibility to a loving god, and act appropriately; Lent is the right time to try anew and harder.
Previously in chapter 12 of Genesis we read that God spoke to Abram and told him to uproot and go to where God would lead him, and that his descendants would be many, although his with was barren. Today (Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18) we have a second encounter between God and Abram, who is now in the land between the Euphrates river and the Mediterranean sea. God says that he will have his own offspring and the descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky; and this promise is sealed with what is thought to have been a traditional covenant ceremony usually symbolising that both parties stake their lives and their relationship together, but here it is a unilateral promise from God Who alone passes between the carcasses. These stories in Genesis are recorded after many decades of verbal transmission and inevitably after adaptation to different situations and developments in belief, but they are held as part of the Sacred Scriptures of the Jewish people – and now part of the Christian Bible.
We read from Paul’s letter to the Philippians on the second of Advent last year where there is some background information about this letter. In this extract Paul seems to be addressing the problem that some of the Christians there, were acting as though what they did in their material existence on earth had no impact on their spiritual lives. So Paul wants to stress the reality of the Christ’s embodiment on earth and even his death on the cross – Paul himself is suffering confinement in prison as he writes, but he believes in the value of the physical because of the glorified body which we will have after death. He has a hope in seeing his Saviour soon; we do not know whether this is referring to his own death or to the climax and End of the world. Though he has to correct them, he still expresses his love for this mainly Gentile community of Christians that started in the house of Lydia.
The Gospel is the story of the transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), which links well with the second reading from Philippians. A few verses before our reading Jesus has spoken about the true attitude to have to life this side of eternity: “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world but lose or forfeit themselves?” Older translations use the word ‘soul’ but this misrepresents the meaning in our times when many think of a person as divided into body and soul, whereas in Jesus’ culture, the word referred to the whole self – its true value. These verses are suitably followed by a vision of Jesus in the after-life, where the body is glorified and the person will be in the company of all. In the stories about Moses, the end comes with him just disappearing from the scene, and as for Elijah the prophet, the story goes that he was whisked away to heaven in a chariot. The disciples are quite lost as to what to say or do, but the lesson in the context of today’s readings, is in some way about the grandeur of the human person (body and soul).
The first reading (Deuteronomy 26:4-10) is about the Jewish spring festival of Unleavened Bread (Matzah), quoting the creedal statement about the past dealings of God with themselves, His people. Their Aramean ancestor was Abram the progenitor of the twelve tribes of Israel; their crop failures took them down to the well-stocked Egypt where Joseph already was; but there they became slaves and only escaped under the leadership of Moses with God’s help. Wandering in the desert they were not too pleased with their God nor He with them, but after a generation (40 years), God brought them into their present (Promised) land. It was here that they could celebrate the first fruits of the harvest again. Their creed about God was not a list of doctrines, but rather about God’s treatment of them over time – His care for His people.
Paul’s letter to the Romans begins with him saying how he loves the Jews, but how they have strayed from their original creed and now seek to gain righteousness by keeping the Law (and lots of other rules); he says: “But now the Law has come to an end with Christ, and everyone who has faith may be justified.” The passage read today (chapter 10: 8-13) follows this; it is about the right relationship that we should have with God, that it comes from God, is not earned by any effort of ours and that it leads to our salvation when we die; it is by faith that we trust in God and his goodness to us. Although Paul quotes the book of Deuteronomy (30:14) he stretches its original meaning, and also when he later quotes Isaiah (28:16); but he finds what he believes about the universality of God’s love in Joel (2:32).
The Gospel is Luke’s account of the temptations of Jesus (Luke 4:1-13). He has been baptised where a heavenly voice declared him Son of God, but what does this mean and how will it work out – that is where the temptations come in. Will He use His power to satisfy the various hungers of human beings (for easy sustenance, life and prosperity), or will He submit to any evil in order to become the King of kings (ruler of all the nations), or, finally, will He use His protection from God to win people with superficial, miraculous powers? Luke treats the public work of Jesus as a journey towards Jerusalem (and all that happened there), and so he differs from the order of the temptations in Matthew’s gospel to have Jerusalem as the last one and also he implies that Jesus will get tempted further during the rest of His life.
The first reading is Sirach 27:4-7 – “When a sieve is shaken, the refuse appears;
so do a person’s faults when he speaks.
The kiln tests the potter’s vessels;
so the test of a person is in his conversation.
Its fruit discloses the cultivation of a tree;
so a person’s speech discloses the cultivation of his mind.
Do not praise anyone before he speaks,
for this is the way people are tested.”
It is plain to see that this is not just a wise statement but delightful poetry with a thought-provoking message. Like the whole of this long book of Sirach it draws on both the moral ideals of the Bible teaching and on the wisdom and culture of the Greek/Hellenistic world. It is thought to have originally been written in Hebrew but come to the West only through the Greek version of the Bible called the Septuagint (LXX for short). It is for this reason that it is not present in the general Bible but only in the Catholic versions; also it is classified with a diminished reliability and is called deuterocanonical because of this secondary nature. It also goes under the name of Ecclesiasticus.
The second reading is from 1 Cor 15:54-58. “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”
This is the penultimate chapter of this letter of Paul and is really the end of his theological message, the last chapter being mostly just practical matters. With Paul’s education in the Scriptures he considers death to be unnatural, seeing it as a punishment for sin – the first sin of Adam and Eve as related in Genesis at the beginning of the Bible. We might today see death rather as the natural completion of life, which only has a regrettable aspect to it because of our weakness in faith in the beauty of the after-life – a weakness to be expected because of sin making us unworthy of the gift of life forever within God. But we do have faith in the real meaning of the after-life.
The gospel is Luke 6:39-45. “ He also told them a parable: ‘Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye”, when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.
‘No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”
A powerful message here about being careful not to overlook our own weaknesses and only recognise and even to point out the weakness of others. This is not to say that it is not appropriate and helpful sometimes to offer correction to others, like a parent with a child or one friend with another. But let us never do this imagining ourselves impeccable.
The first reading from 1 Samuel chapter 26, draws the essence of the story by omitting unnecessary verses (see the full text here). We learn from Samuel that Saul was the first real king of the Jewish people, chosen by God and helped by Him to conquer all the surrounding tribes; but he was unfaithful to some of God’s orders and also unrepentant of this sin. Whereas David, also chosen by God to be king, although he too had sinned, was repentant of his sin. So the story we hear today is about the relationship of these two to each other and also to God. This is a tale to teach us something about our own behaviour; we are chosen by God, we fall short of His requirements but we must repent and live righteously.
The second reading (1 Cor 15:45-49) reminds me that the popular idea of a human person being made up of body and soul is drawn from medieval theology based on Greek philosophy. But Paul who writes the letter to the Corinthians, like all the NT authors, has a different view of human nature; a human is a purely natural being at least until elevated by God with a higher (spiritual) life. This spiritual life is perfectly achieved by Christ the perfect example of humanity which we should be aiming to emulate.
The gospel reading presents Jesus’ teaching about how to live in this higher spiritual state. It is a great challenge but also a huge privilege to be called and inspired by God in Christ to live th way the best human should. We sometimes so concentrate on the divinely of Jesus that we overlook the fact that he was genuinely human with all the struggles that this state involves – of which we are well aware.
In the first reading (Jer 17:5-8) we have a very straightforward message which applies to our time as much as to Jeremiah’s. This passage is in the form of a typical wise message which is also found in some psalms (including the responsorial psalm for today). We must remember that the way the writings attributed to Jeremiah came together was not that he wrote them, but that some of the remembered preachings of his were later recorded and only eventually added to and structured as we have them today. There is an early Greek verion of the OT called the Septuagint which in places has slightly different texts. Indeed the main force of our reading is also found in the ancient writings recorded of the Egyptian wise man, Amenemope (see here).
The second readig is from 1 Cor 15:12 onwards omitting verses 13-15. There was no real certainty throughout the OT that there was any life after death (perhaps this is why some saintly charaters were attributed very long lives). And it seems from our reading that even some Christians were a little uncertain about this, despite stories of Jesus appearing to people after His death. It is for this reason that Paul has this clear message in his letter here. It would have also been a comfort in the early church where Christians in some contexts were being put to death for their beliefs. It is now a comfort to usthat just as with Jesus, so also when someone dies, therie lif is not some much ended as brought to completion – fulfilled,
The gospel is from Luke 6:20-26 preseded by verses 17,18a (“He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, 18 who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases“). This introduces what we now call the beatitudes – each starting with the word “happy,” followed by what we might call “woes” now translated as “alas for you who…” This is an uplifting message for those who need cheering up or just re-assuring. but also a warning for those who see themselves as well-off in worldly things.
The first reading (Isaiah 6:1-8)pictures Isaiah in the Temple (about 700 years BC). Either he has a vision, or the singing and smoke-filled dim atmosphere heightens his prayerful state and he feels the call from God to be a prophet – or this is a developed anecdote retold by his followers and eventually recorded. It is from this account that we have our chant of “Holy, holy, holy …” The presence of God in the Temple was signified by an empty slab between the huge statues of the seraphim (angels). Isaiah, feeling this presence, inevitably becomes aware of his unworthiness and that of the people to which he belongs. But God purifies from sin and Isaiah is then bold enough to accept the task that he feels called upon to undertake, in the words which we have adopted for one of our hymns “Here I am Lord,” a common response to God in the Old Testament, classically in the story of the call of Samuel.
In the second reading (1 Cor 15:1-11) Paul is gently reminding his readers of the central beliefs that he taught them originally, and chiefly that of the resurrection of Jesus. The verses following our reading seem to make it clear that some of them didn’t really accept this doctrine. It is likely that they had the notion that the body was quite separate from the soul and that it was of little value relative to it. Later in the Church there would often occur heresies that had this Manichean tendency; it is like being quite different on Sundays from how one is for the rest of the week, or like separating the secular from the religious in our lives, or even like imagining one can love one’s neighbour without doing anything about it. Clearly, the Resurrection shows us that this is not the way Christians should think or act. Part of the text of our reading still influences the creed that we say: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”
After the visit to Nazareth which we read over the last two Sundays, Luke comes then to the place in his gospel where he recounts the calling of the first fishermen (Luke 5:1-11); he chose to elaborate what he read in Mark, and precedes it with Jesus preaching from Simon’s boat and with the story of the miraculous catch of fish similar to a story which is told in John 21, where also we hear of Peter, after denying Jesus at the time of His arrest, being made the figurative shepherd of the early church. Luke also wants to make this point about Simon Peter and ends with the figurative phrase about becoming “fishers of men.” At the time Luke is writing, there has been an expansion of the followers of Jesus and a need for some structure among the leaders and followers; the miraculous catch of fish could be taken as a figurative tale of this expansion.