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.
16th October 2016 29th Sunday of Ordinary time, cycle C
The first reading is a story from the Book of Exodus, telling the tale of one of the many incidents from that epic journey of escape from slavery in Egypt, through many ups and downs until the entry into the promised land. The whole book was put together from various collections of stories that had been passed down through at least four or five centuries of retelling. The point of the whole and of each individual story, in general terms, is to say something about God and ‘the people of the Book’ and the relationship between the two; to teach people about their responsibility towards God and about His attitude towards them. The details in this tale about warfare and the rod of Moses, if taken literally, say nothing we would regard as true about the relationship between God and people; it was this rod that seemed to clear the sea for the people to cross when escaping the Pharaoh’s army, and this rod that produced water in the wilderness. But we get closer to the point of the story’s transmission and survival in our sacred Scriptures, if we see its significance for us today; it reminds us that the power of God is in everything, though we usually think of various sacred objects as reminding us of this.
In the second reading we hear how we should interpret the word of God that has been passed down to us. This is a message to the early Christians, especially the leaders, about how to make use of the traditions that have been passed down about Jesus and those contained in the Old Testament (since the New Testament books were only just being written and this second letter to Timothy will be one of them). It is the word of God that needs to be applied to how we conduct ourselves, and the leaders must persist in helping to make this relevant to the people in their ordinary lives.
In today’s gospel we hear from the next chapter after last week’s text. Luke records this simple parable of a pragmatic and secular minded judge, who will give a rightful hearing to the poorest of individuals if he is pestered enough by them. And this is told to encourage persistence in prayer to God. There is a note of urgency at the end of the excerpt because there is still the feeling that the final days of the world are drawing near – and if not for the world at least for any individual. In the flow of Luke’s gospel, Jesus and his disciples are approaching Jerusalem and what will be the final days for Jesus, though the disciples scarcely realise this but Jesus, who realises it, urges them to keep faith.
9th October 2016
The first reading reminds us how people in the time of the Old Testament lived; there were kings or tribal leaders with nobles under them, they had servants who worked and cared for them, they had their own gods who operated in their territories, miracles and drama were part of their religions and the different small nations were uncertain of each other’s ambitions and motives. The lead up to the first reading is necessary for it to make sense; Naaman was a well-respected leader in a country adjoining Israel, who had leprosy and could find no cure; one of the servants of his wife was from Israel where Elisha was well known as a prophet and man of God; she suggested a visit to him might be helpful. The party set off with plenty of payment and gifts, but Naaman was disappointed when Elisha did nothing dramatic, but merely said go and wash in our river Jordan seven times. He was about to return home disappointed when servants persuaded him to try it all the same. And then we are into today’s reading. Elisha rejects any gift for the miracle and Naaman thinks the god in this land is powerful, so takes some of the land back with him to his own territory.
The second reading is further advice for the leader of a Christian community in the first century of Christianity when persecution was a real likelihood. The central teaching of Paul is reflected in the centrality of the resurrection, though the reference to David is not particularly his, yet he uses it when writing to the Romans. The author is quoting a Christian hymn or poem that refers to dying with Christ, recalling how they thought of Baptism but also alluding to their potential martyrdom; the reference to denying also indicates the threat of persecution. But it ends with comfort because God is faithful whatever, for it is how He is and He cannot deny His Self.
In the gospel we hear the next miracle after last week’s reading from Luke. It is one of those stories found only in Luke’s gospel – the cure of the ten lepers. The Jewish law is recognised by the lepers and by Jesus in that they stand a distance away from contact with others and Jesus tells them to show themselves to the priest (which a leper must do to verify a cure). But the more significant point to the story comes later when they realise that they have been cured and it is only one that returns to thank Jesus and he was a Samaritan, a person treated by Jews as a foreigner. Although they were all cured, it is most noteworthy that it is only the one who acknowledges this and thanks God, who is saved. This puts miracles in their place; a miracle doesn’t save you but your faith does.
2nd October 2016
This is the only time on Sundays that we have a reading from Habakkuk. He was a prophet perhaps around the 7th century BC, when the people were troubled by the surrounding more powerful nations. Of the three chapters in the book, we have a few verses from each of the first two (1:2-3, 2:2-4). At first the prophet expresses the heartfelt cry of the people, “How long, O Lord” is all this going on; a feeling common among most peoples at some time or other throughout all periods of human history, especially where there is an idea of a caring deity of some kind. The phrase is also used often in the psalms. But in the verses from chapter 2 that are added into our reading, we hear that God does have a vision of the future – sometime – and so we must hang on and remain loyal because, as it ends, “the upright man lives by his faith;” and this phrase is taken up in St Paul’s way of thinking and in later Christian teaching, where the word ‘faith’ is not just ‘loyalty’ but trusting in Christ and in Christ’s way of selfless service of others. In 1947 an ancient commentary on this book was found in a cave in the Dead Sea area (see the video), it referred the troubles to the invasion of the Romans into their land,
By the time the Second Letter to Timothy was put together from some of Paul’s words and ideas, the organisation of the early churches was beginning to develop as the apostles were growing old and diminishing in numbers. New leaders of the Christian communities were put in place by the laying on of hands; later these would come to be called overseers (in Greek, episkopoi from which we get the word ‘Episcopal’) or in English much later ‘bishops’. In the case of Timothy, he is reminded that as such a leader he must stir up his enthusiasm and must not be timid, but should live with the power of God’s Spirit and with love and self-control; he should continue the pattern of Paul’s ministry, driven by the love of Christ because the church is alive with God’s Spirit – something of the words of the reading must also apply to us..
The gospel begins with a saying to the apostles about faith, which is followed by a parable, awkwardly expressed. We are familiar with the use of the mustard seed as a reference to very small size, and in Matthew’s gospel the seed is linked to the saying of moving mountains (Mt 17:20) but here it is linked to an unfamiliar image (uprooting a tree); we shouldn’t take it literally but grasp what it means. The parable that follows is not easy to understand, it basically says that we are like servants of God, and as such cannot expect reward for doing our duty. This is a correction of a Pharisaic approach to religion which thought that we can earn favours from God by keeping the rules; this attitude has existed in the church from its beginning despite efforts of reformers (including Luther) to rid the church of it.
25th September 2016
The first reading is from a section of the book of Amos (6:4-10); it is introduced with the opening words of the chapter: “alas for those who are at ease in Zion.” Strong words against the city dwellers come from Amos, the country fellow – words and woes against the northern kingdom of Israel. We hear the third and last woe against the excessive luxury in which they are living although their prosperity is declining visibly; they seem to live for the moment and care little of the future, even their own. They are, unusually, referred to as a group under the eponymous name of Joseph; this could be because of the account of Joseph’s interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dream (Exodus 41) of seven years of plenty followed by seven of crop failure, and his wise management under the Pharaoh of storing up supplies for the future. The exile that will come will be the disaster that follows this decadence.
In the second reading (1 Timothy 6:11-16) Timothy is addressed as a ‘man of God.’ Unlike the people of the first reading and in contrast to those addressed in this letter just before this section, Timothy is chosen and enabled by God to be a minister in the Christian community. Paul’s athletic imagery appears here also, saying “compete well,” that is, ‘run the race’ or ‘fight the good fight.’ The Christian at baptism made confession that “Jesus is Lord”, and Jesus made a similar confession before Pilate according to John’s gospel (18:37); Timothy was baptised but was also a leader in some way, and that meant not to be a covert Christian but to speak the truth even before accusers, as Jesus did before Pilate; the writer could be referring to either of these situations. The requirement to keep the commandments or ordinances is most likely not to the ten commandments of the Jewish religion but to the requirements of being a Christian or, more likely, the specific orders for acting as a minister. He must act as a servant of the King who will eventually appear, and he must be selfless in his work towards the kingdom of God.
In today’s gospel reading from Luke (16:19-31) we have the parable often call that of Dives and Lazarus; but ‘dives’ is just the Latin word for rich man. In many ways the story is straightforward once we accept the different understanding of the afterlife that it portrays. However, whereas the rich man is anonymous, the beggar at his gate is named Lazarus. Luke is writing about 40 years after the resurrection of Jesus but still there are people who aren’t believers; and John’s gospel, uniquely, has the story of the raising of Lazarus which Luke’s readers may have known; but Luke’s point is not about accepting the truth of the resurrection, of Jesus or of Lazarus, because believing is more a way of living than accepting facts – of loving God and your neighbour as yourself, which the rich man in the parable didn’t do.
18th September 2016
The Sunday readings only use the prophet Amos three times; this and next Sunday are two of those. Amos was a country man used to living a simple life: a herdsman tending sycamore trees. Somehow he came to be a prophet of God in the city of Bethel, though he wouldn’t claim the title of prophet and was different from most of them. Such a man coming from the country to the big and prosperous city just had to speak what he thought in order to deliver a ‘scolding’ from the Lord, for the hiking of prices, lowering of measures and fixing of scales (Amos 8:4-7). His natural reactions to the corruption that he saw is described as visions from God, and they are nearly always expressed with an impressive literary style: matching couplets and triplets. Yet it is the language of wrath and condemnation, though elsewhere Amos does tell of a remnant few who will be spared and at the end of the book there is a very positive prophecy though this ‘epilogue’ may have been added later to end on a note of hopefulness.
The second reading, as last week, is from the first letter to Timothy (2:1-8). In this second chapter the writer is urging the Christian communities to which it is addressed to be sensible and prayerful citizens. Prayers are of different kinds: asking for what we want, praising and thanking God and interceding for others who perhaps wouldn’t pray themselves. God wants everyone to be saved; the rulers and non-believers could easily be looked down upon by enthusiastic Christians, and there were some, believing that only the religious were pleasing to God, who regarded what we would call secular society as evil; the writer wants to oppose this early mistaken view of Christianity. The last sentence of our reading about praying with hands held high is gender specific; only men prayed in this way (which was common among other religious groups at the time as well).
In the gospel we have an unusual parable found only in Luke (16:1-13), which I think means that we should be like the steward who sacrificed his commission on collecting debts so as to gain a good relationship with people. The master commends this steward and the word ‘master’ (κυριος in the Greek) can equally be translated ‘Lord.’ But the parable had been repeated again and again at gatherings of Christians and others, and to Jews and Gentiles alike before it came to Luke; and so it had gained different interpretations to make sense in different situations, and Luke has added some of these general sayings about the use of money. A shorter reading is allowed using just these last three verses – the general applications.
11th September 2016
The first reading is one of the significant incidents in the tale of the exodus – the going out from slavery in Egypt towards the promised land. At this point in the story (Exodus 32:7-17) Moses has gone up the nearby mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments from God; but he had been away forty days and during this time the people had forgotten this unknown God of Moses and remembered the golden calf worshipped in Egypt – an abandonment of the true god who brought them out of slavery. The account describes this depravity in terms of the wrath of God. But most interestingly, Moses intercedes with God on their behalf and reminds Him of the promises made to Abraham and his descendants, and that these are the people due for this promise. This story was kept alive in the people’s tradition because it was a pattern of betrayal and return that was repeated in their lives as a race and as individuals, and the Psalm chosen to follow this reading indicates this.
1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are called the Pastorals. They may well incorporate words from personal letters that Paul wrote, but study of the linguistic style indicates that they are from a different hand. They are nonetheless accepted as part of the New testament and give us some indication of Christian thinking in the late part of the first century. The extract we read today (1 Timothy 1:12-17)shows how the pattern of Paul’s life matched that of Israel in general; he was at first a Jew who opposed the Way of Jesus, but God loved him and brought him round to doing good and even playing an important part in the spread of Christianity. The passage includes a ‘trustworthy saying’ as do the other Pastoral letters, and ends with what is called a doxology – a paean of praise to the glory of God, to which the response is ‘Amen’ (‘hear,hear’).
The gospel (Chapter 15 of Luke) has parables told by Jesus in response to criticism by the Pharisees of His sympathetic contact with tax collectors and sinners, both groups who in one way or another were not observing the strict rules for Jewish life. The lost sheep and the parallel one about a coin are respectively about a man and a woman. Luke seems to have been sympathetic to women more than the other gospel writers. The point that these two stories make is about the pro-active relationship of God to the sinner – He goes out looking for them. In the light of the purpose of these in Luke’s gospel, the celebration of friends and neighbours when the lost is found, is very significant; why wont the Pharisees be glad about the work of Jesus? But these two parables are followed in Luke by the most well-known parable called the parable of the Prodigal Son, though if ‘prodigal’ means ‘generously lavish’ it is the father who has this generosity which represents God’s attitude to sinners. In the context of Pharisaic complaints about Jesus, the second part of the parable about the attitude of the elder son is quite significant; he doesn’t even acknowledge him as brother, but refers to him as ‘your son.’ This elder son has worked hard at home but has not really shown love to his father. The whole is a beautifully crafted and challenging story.