25th A

The first reading is part of a heart-warming poem. It was written about the time that the people were going to be released from captivity by a friendly emperor, Cyrus. It attributes this release to the love of God, who has a special relationship of love for people, a relationship traditionally called a covenant. It is a two-way agreement: God will look after the people, and the people will live in a way pleasing to God. But the agreement is not conditional; it is not like God saying ‘if you keep my commandments I will be your protector and god;’ it is unconditional on God’s side: ‘I will be your God, so you will be my people however you respond to me.’ In the part of the poem we read today, the prophet is announcing to the people, God’s call to them; it is a call to give up any wickedness and turn their lives towards Him. But the prophet is also emphasising that God’s ways are mysterious, for He does not depend on the people behaving well for Him to love them and to be their God; there is no way they can deserve or merit God’s love, it is generous, free and everlasting. The extract is chosen for this contrast between God’s ways and ours, an idea taken up in the Gospel reading for today.

The second reading is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. They were a well organised community that were very supportive of the work of Paul, who had first established their lively group. They had made many donations to Paul and felt a close relationship with him and had him in their prayers, although they had not seen that much of him. Now, he is in prison with a potential death sentence. He writes to them very lovingly, but in the extract we have for today’s reading he speaks of the possibility of his death. He is not unlike Job in the Old Testament who was more concerned about doing what was right than about whether he should live or die. In a way a Christian wants to be as closely united with God as will be the case after death, but also a good Christian wants to live on here to spread the good news of God’s love to others. Paul expresses these intimate feelings to the Philippians whom he would like to visit again, and encourages them to live as Christians should for they have the Good News of God’s love for them and for all.

The gospel tells of a parable that is only recorded in Matthew’s gospel. It was then and is now a very controversial message: that you don’t ever get what you deserve from God, even if you feel you think you should and that someone else whom you think should not get anything, does. The parable has a point that is found again and again in the bible and especially in the gospels; its bluntest expression might be the words at the end of our extract “the last shall be first and the first last.” It is noteworthy that the story doesn’t just recount what happened but also what thoughts and emotions there were. Workers were hired for the day at various times throughout the day, even as late as one hour before the end of the working day. They were all paid a fair wage, we are told, but in fact all got the same amount. This is where the emotions come in: the full-day workers expected to get more for their longer shift than all the others. This apparent injustice is how God deals with us – with all people. Christians and non-Christians, saints and sinners, life-long do-gooders and deathbed conversions, God loves all people to the same degree. Truly it is said, ‘God’s ways are not our ways’ – the climax of our first reading. So we should not live good lives in order to win God’s love, but we should be good as a spontaneous response to the enormous love God has for us!

see Jeffs Jottings – A precious moment

24th A

The reading from the Book of Sirach is making the wise and useful observation that God will deal with us in a manner similar to the way we deal with other people.  So love and forgive others and God will love and forgive you.  But if you… (you know what follows)

A couple of verses from Romans illustrates a way of expressing just what is the relationship between Christ and us; it is that He who lived on earth and is still alive after death, is the example for us of what our lives should be – living here in the way that He did, and hence living after death in the way that he does.

In the gospel there is a different style of communication from the wisdom we have had in the earlier two reading.  Gospels tell us about God and His dealings with us with stories attributed to Jesus; and that’s just what we have here – a story making much the same point as the two earlier readings.

Please say whether or not you prefer this shorter intro to the readings – comment below!

see Jeffs Jottings – Don’t be beastly

23rd A

God speaks harsh words to Ezekiel the prophet.  For Ezekiel knows the harsh things he should be saying to his fellow Jews, and that this will be for their own good in the long term.  But who likes to tell others off?  So God actually threatens him with punishment if he does not speak out when he knows that he should.

In the letter to the Romans Paul is addressing the Christians living in a context which is not easy for them; they are among people who recognise a great variety of gods and cultic practices and are not at all in favour of these followers of the Way of Jesus who set themselves apart from the general public.  Paul reminds them that love is the important attitude and practice – love of all not just among themselves!

Matthew in the gospel if addressing organised Christians who seem to be getting a bit disorganised and are having problems with some of their fellow Christians.  He wants them to know that there are ways of dealing with trouble-makers but they should always do it as gently and tactfully as possible.  These ideas are behind the authorities that we have in the organised church to this day.

Please say whether or not you prefer this shorter intro to the readings – comment below!

see Jeffs Jottings – The unexpected

22nd A

Its not so long ago that we were reading of Elijah wanting to die because of his failure to inspire the people and because of a death-threat against him. Jeremiah was in a worse situation in Judah around the 7th century BC. In that land, regard for Yahweh and the Covenant was almost entirely abandoned, and God urged Jeremiah to preach about the inevitable political demise and eventual national disaster. He had a respite from his work for a short time during the reign of Josiah; for this king tried to reintroduce the recognition of the Law of God as found written in what we now see as the early books of the bible, especially Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. But this reform soon failed, and idolatry and fertility cults regained popularity. Despite extreme reluctance, Jeremiah began the work of his calling, which was to bring him general disfavour, occasional imprisonment or confinement and continued unpopularity. There was some upbeat aspects to his message at times, particularly the one about God wanting to set up a new covenant within the hearts of the people. He suffered a tormenting turmoil in his own life; it resulted both from his natural abhorrence of preaching against his own people, and from the deep and inescapable inner compulsion to undertake the vocation given him by God – announcing the peoples’ downfall. Doing God’s will is not always an obviously good thing! Our reading is his outcry at this personal conflict within him.

The second reading follows nicely from the thoughts of the Old Testament situation of Jeremiah. You mustn’t conform to the laxity of morals that there may be in the world of your experience, Paul writes to the Romans; there is a spiritual depth to your being that calls you to commitment to the will of God. It is calling for a sacrifice – surrendering what you might be attracted to. You do this to live in a more elevated way – a way that recognises God’s purpose for human life. The apparent contrast between body and spirit is not the duality of body and soul that many think of, but rather the difference between what I fancy for myself and what God wants to make of me – contrast flesh and spirit. However it is really the difference between God’s will for what He creates to be good and perfect, and the nothingness from which it is raised by Him.

We are at the point in Matthew’s gospel when Peter has just expressed the belief that Jesus is the Messiah expected by the Jews with the anticipation of liberation from Roman dominance and superiority over all the nations. Also Jesus, according only to Matthew’s gospel, has told Peter that he will have a leading role in the new kingdom. It is this that turns out to be the community of Christians that exists at the time of this gospel’s composition. But this wasn’t at all the kind of kingdom and leadership that Peter actually imagined it would be. In the gospel stories it is at this stage that Jesus begins to speak plainly about the problems that He foresees will come upon Him because of the life He is leading and the message He is preaching – a whole new attitude to religious observance and a view of God as a spiritual liberator full of kindness and forgiveness. This message and belief in it will inevitably bring trouble and difficulty – in the secular aspect of life though not in one’s inner being. It is the contrast between these two areas of life that is the subject of Jesus’ words in our gospel for this day.

see Jeffs Jottings – The sacred meal

21stCycle A

During the time of the prophet Isaiah, the kingdom of Judah was threatened by the Assyrian empire from the east. Isaiah had recommended trusting in God to save the people and God would be with them. But the king and leaders didn’t see it this way, they felt they would loose, and forfeit their privileged positions, if not their lives. They made some sort of a pact with the emperor of Assyria so that Jerusalem was spared, although the rest of the country was invaded. So Isaiah, as we read today, reprimand Shebna the royal steward, and announced a replacement, who will be the leader to make decisions in the future; he will have the symbols of office, the sash, the robe, the key to the ordering of the country’s affairs, and will keep them safe like the peg for a tent. This passage seems to be in the mind of Matthew when he writes of Peter receiving the leadership office in our gospel reading. But the historical events behind it challenge us severely in our relationship with our world and with God, just as the sermon on the mount in the New Testament does: if anyone wants your shirt give them your coat as well, if anyone strikes you turn the other cheek, love you enemies… (see Matthew 5:38-48).

Paul in this letter to the Romans has been expressing his struggle with the way things are going. The chosen people, the race he belongs to, the Jews, have by and large rejected Jesus and his following. Paul has seen that in fact this has enabled, or at least eased, the presentation of Christ to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, and many of them becoming the chosen ones of God. This is especially difficult for Paul as his calling is to preach to the Gentiles and he has had success in this. So God, as only He can, has brought some good out of the rejection of Jesus by the Jews, just as God will bring the creation, His work of art, to a beautiful fulfillment through all the disasters and human failings which are still going on. Catching a glimpse of this mystery, and being able to entertain this hope with confidence, Paul can only praise God for His wonders in creation. And this expression of amazed joy is what we have today in our reading.

Our reading today from Matthew is an account in Mark’s gospel which Matthew has before him. It is when Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is. It is a turning point in the story of Jesus’ public life; after this His life’s journey moves towards its end. Peter says he believes that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, but it is most likely that his idea of what this means is not what it will turn out to be. For the Jews thought Jesus, the anointed one (the Christ or Messiah) was the one from God who would bring the Jewish people into their own – the climax of the national ambition, the nation above all nations, worldly success. Matthew adds to this story from Mark Jesus’ confirmation that Peter is to be leader of His followers, with what he says goes and what he rules out is ruled out. It is after this central event that Jesus’ begins to tell the disciples that He will suffer and die; a message which they cannot really believe for it is so opposite to what they expect of the Messiah. The appointment of Peter, who in Matthew’s time was a significant leader of the Christian communities, has the same pattern of being unexpected, for Peter was a rash person, a Galilean fisherman, the one who denied he even knew Christ at the time of His trial; when it is such an unlikely person that leads, it is quite obvious that if there is any success, it comes from God’s work not from this human leader. This is as mysterious as the issue that we have seen Paul had struggled with in his letter to the Romans and the challenge of Isaiah to just trust in God. We might say, God moves in mysterious ways, and wonder about the saying, God helps those who help themselves.

see Jeffs Jottings – Sing to the Lord

The Assumption

There was much apocalyptic literature in the centuries before and after Christ – among the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Persian and even Indian literature. This literature which is about the development in the world of disasters and troubles expressed in dramatic stories, included those of evil ‘influences’ seeking to destroy the next ruler born to a chosen woman to be mother of the future ruler. Some form of these apocalyptic stories were part of Jewish literature – as also the book of Revelation in the N.T. which used to be called the apocalypse in Catholic bibles, because of its similarity to such literature. Our first reading (from Revelations 12:1-6) for the Catholic feast of the Assumption includes an adaptation of this mythic scenario to the situation of Christianity under Roman persecution in the 1st century to encourage believers in Jesus and his resurrection – a faith that secures them safety in heaven, but how the rest of us, still living in our world, are still threatened by evil. The story could bring to mind the assumption of Mary into heaven – waiting with Christ for the rest of us after our struggles against the evil forces in our world. There are ‘secular’ stories of old about such sort of events.

The second reading (1 Cor 15:20-27) is about the resurrection -life with God after death. The appearances of Jesus referred to chiefly in the gospels, are expressions of risen life after death which through Jesus is open to all – but all sin and deficiencies in us humans are gaps in our relationship through Christ with God. I think Paul like most of the early believers though this completion would come fairly soon for them. Bu, after two millennia we have to realise that we are still working on this i.e. on freeing ourselves and our world from many failings and imperfections. The belief in the assumption of Mary who illustrates this fulfilment drew this passage to the minds of those devising the liturgy for the Catholic feast.

The Gospel that is read this day is from Luke 1:39-56 and it gives us what follows after the story of the annunciation. And it includes the song that she sang when visiting Elizabeth, which is sometimes called the magnificat after the first word of it in Latin. It tells of the blessing that she has from God, but also of the way God favours those who are good-living, but suppresses those who are not – I guess most of us a bit of each – but Mary feels utterly blessed and that is the ground for celebrating her this day.

see Jeffs Jottings – Belief in practice

19th Cycle A

 

The prophet Elijah was a remarkable man and a worker of many miraculous deeds; through him God had raised the dead to life (see 1 Kings 17) and shamed all the ‘pagan’ prophets (1 Kings 18). But he was threatened with death by queen Jezebel and the whole nation seemed to have abandoned their covenant with God. In this disastrous situation for a prophet of God, he was in deep despair and really hoped to end it all by going out into the desert and just lying down to die; but an angel comes and feeds him and tells him to go to mount Horeb (also called Sinai), where Moses had met God and received the Commandments. So, as we read,  he goes and climbs the mountain and his prayer is a complaint to God that things are going very badly for him and he wants only to die. As he sheltered in a cave he expected God to appear in a powerful and dramatic way as He had to Moses, but it turned out that God was in the gentle breeze at the mouth of the cave. And there is a message for readers ever since about where God is to be encountered.

Chapter 9 of Paul’s letter to the Romans marks the beginning of a new thought ( our reading). He has dictated to his scribe all about the immense and wonderful love that God has for us, His chosen ones, shown through the life of Christ, the gift of the Spirit and the expectation of a glorious completion for creation. But then Paul seems to realise that the Jews, the race he belongs to, and in whose traditions he was brought up. – these people were chosen by God, His Son came among them and showed them the way to live for God, yet they have for the most part rejected Jesus and His teaching. Paul feels strongly moved by this thought and, like Jesus, would give his life to bring them into the company of the followers of Jesus’ Way. He starts dictating again with the passage that is the second reading for today. It is a lesson to us of how we should yearn for a better world in conformity to the perfect plan we believe God has for the hole of creation.

The feeding of the multitude of which we read last week, could well have raised people’s hopes that Jesus was going to liberate their country from Roman rule and bring them to salvation in the End of the world event. Jesus wanted to avoid this mistaken impression of him and so rushed the disciples away and off in a boat; and He Himself, to avoid the crowd’s misguided enthusiasm, withdrew from the scene. Even in the early church that Matthew was addressing there could arise this kind of selfish excitement. Then comes the story we hear today; Jesus goes up a mountain though strictly geographically it could only have been a hill; a mountain in the history and understanding of the people of the Bible is the place where you can get close to God. Matthew has already told of the calming of the storm at sea – a sign of God’s power in Christ over the chaos and failures in our world, now he retells it as a sign of the troubles that beset the followers of Jesus, both the disciples and Matthew’s readers. Other gospels have the same story but Matthew adds the incident of walking on water. If God is often seen as the controller of stormy and chaotic waters, then Jesus walking on Galilee’s sea during a storm has a special meaning about him. As in many visions and even post-resurrection appearances it is unclear to the beholders who or what they are seeing. Jesus’ words to the frightened disciples include the name of Yahweh when he says “it is I.” Now there is an example of the nature of Peter, who figures as a leader especially in Matthew’s gospel: Peter is over enthusiastic to the point of rashness, but his keen faith fades, yet is saved when he cries out a prayer in distress; then the storm is calmed and the disciples recognise Jesus as the Son of God. How often we do as keen believers fall short in our faith and need to be saved each time by God?

see Jeffs Jottings – Heed the whisper

18th Cycle A

The Book of Isaiah is not just about the prophet Isaiah, but also contains prophecies from a later period. Prophecy in the Bible is not so much about telling the future as about telling how God is with people and what He plans for them – plans that interpret past events, explain the present and hence indicate the future in general terms. So the slaves in Egypt were liberated, and when they grumbled about being in the desert they were kept there for a whole generation then given their own land; and when they neglected their religion and broke their covenant with God they were taken and annexed by the Babylonians; all the notable people were deported into exile in Babylon. Our reading today comes from a section of the book of Isaiah written during that time; Then there was a new Emperor and perhaps a different attitude to these exiles; the prophet sensed the situation, knew of God’s way in the past and spoke of the good things that God would bring upon the people; they must listen and appreciate this message from God – about God’s way with people, the covenant. It is the same God, with the same attitude, that is with us here and now!

St Paul’s life had not been plain sailing. He began life as a Jew living outside of the Promised Land; he was well educated in the Jewish Law and with a traditional Roman education. He believed that keeping the laws of his religion was important in order to gain favour with God in order to have a blest life. He would have heard of Jesus and those who followed His Way; and he would have seen it to be a life of enthusiasm rather than education, of love above laws, and of forgiveness for any faithlessness. He was all for suppressing this deviant sect of the Jewish religion; he was against the early Christians, before even they were known as Christians. But he changed, he came to see things differently, to see that the covenant relationship with God was essentially a relationship of enthusiasm, of love and of forgiveness. When he converted to become a Christian, he was held in much suspicion by the Church communities and felt exiled from them. But he found that his role was to bring the Good News that he had come to him, to those beyond the Jewish nation; he became an apostle to the Gentiles. For this he was suspect by no less a person than Peter and by many other Jewish Christians. So when he wanted to go to Rome to fulfil his mission he wrote to them to try to assure them of his understanding of the new covenant revealed by Jesus and experienced with the Spirit of God. Throughout his missionary work he suffered expulsion from cities and imprisonment. But in his letter to the Romans, as we read today (omitting verse 36), he firmly accepted that nothing could break the covenant of love that God has with people. – even with him and with us today!

The gospel reading is the miraculous feeding of a multitude; there are six such accounts across the four Gospels, indicating that it was an important story in the teaching of the early church. The early church had developed out from the Jewish religion, believers were first called followers of the Way of Jesus. Their communities would come together weekly to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and there was an enthusiasm and expectation for the End of the world. Sacred meals in the Jewish religion re-enacted the Passover and celebrated God’s leading them safely from Egyptian slavery and making them His people. Jesus, like all Jews, saw the sacred meals as keeping alive and celebrating the covenant relationship between people and God, and at His Last Supper He celebrated the gift of his whole life for the accomplishment of the Covenant. In memory of His completed life’s purpose, the early believers re-enacted this as they came together to strengthen their community in its life of responding to the call and love of God. Their celebrations, as those of Christians to this day, recognise the presence of Christ in our world, the participation we have and commit to increase in this Divine humanity of Christ, leading to the completion of God’s creative enterprise – our world!

see Jeffs Jottings – Know you don’t know

17th cycle A

The two books of Kings are what might be called religious histories of the rulers of the chosen people; they draw from available documentation whatever impinges on religion whether it is the state of or change in religious practice or the personal religion of the king as chosen by God. We might say that history is not so much to learn about the past as to learn from it. David the most lauded of kings was held up as an ideal for the expected coming of a perfect one anointed as king (messiah is the word for the anointed one). But in the section our reading comes from, David is old and ailing and needs to be replaced; this could be by the David’s choice, by successful rivalry of those with royal blood or by a call from God through a prophet. Solomon was so chosen and was anointed king by Zadok the priest. Solomon is noted chiefly for his gift of wisdom. Our reading tells of his acquisition of this gift from the Lord in a dream – a common method for describing this interaction with God in those days. But the really interesting aspect of this account is that Solomon was already wise, wise enough to put aside requests for other gifts other than wisdom. As in this case when we ask God for the right things we find that they have already been gifted to us!

Paul wrote his letter to the Romans to try to show to them the remarkable wonder of his and their faith viz. understanding and cooperating in God’s relationship with them in their Christian communities at that time through the reality and work of the Son and the Spirit. It is quite remarkable that this letter has become part of the Christian Bible and is read by us today so as to become involved in this visionary enterprise of God’s for the world. The three verses we read today follow on from last week’s selection; in that we learnt that we really don’t know what to pray to God for, but the Spirit within us communicates secretly and God responds to that. Although we ourselves have this incompetence, ‘yet’ today’s reading begins “we do know that for those who love God everything cooperates for the good.” Paul’s ancient message is as valid for us today as it was for the Christians of the 1st century: God has our life planned out along the lines of the life of Jesus, our prototype. In this way we are seen by God as in good standing with Him and hence are called to glory.

Chapter 13 of Matthew’s gospel is a collection of parables, some of which we have had for readings over the last few weeks. Some of the material is copied from Mark’s gospel and some is unique to this gospel. The words of Jesus would have been spoken to a mostly Jewish group in their own land (although governed by Rome) and of course at a time prior to Christianity and even before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Later, His disciples recalled Jesus’ sayings but in the telling of them, adapted them to the post-resurrection era and for non-Jews as well as Jews. The followers of Jesus’ Way later began to have some organisation and structure, and Matthew’s gospel was written with the new leaders of these communities in mind. So, our reading for this day comprises parables retold to illustrate the need for total commitment from believers, some of whom may have chanced upon Christianity incidentally whereas others have found in it a meaning to life for which they have been searching (like the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price). Even within the communities there are people with different degrees of commitment (like the different fish in a dragnet). And a final word is given to the present leaders (sometimes called scribes) that they must draw on the best of the past but also be prepared to accept new ideas and new ways of following the Way of Jesus.

see Jeffs Jottings – Fr Brown

16th year A

The Book of Wisdom, sometimes called the Wisdom of Solomon, dates from the first century BC, not that long before the time of Christ. It was written in Greek for Greek speaking Jews who were quite numerous in the Jewish quarter of the famous city of Alexandria, then capital of Egypt. This city at that time was famous for its development of culture, science and mathematics (through names like Euclid and Archimedes), but also for its exploration of different ways of life like magic, mystery religions and Stoicism (which we might call new age or humanism). Alexandria was famous as a centre of learning, for its Library of about half a million books, and its teaching Museum. Here was produced the Septuagint (LXX) – the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The Wisdom of Solomon is a book not in the Protestant Bible but Catholics and Episcopalians accept it. In our reading there is a real sense of sin but this is accompanied with a realisation of the infinite power of God to forgive, overcome and counteract the effects of sin; and the lesson we should learn from this is about our own attitude to others. It introduces the notion of the justice of God and presents the thought that because of His greatness God’s justice can include leniency – a supportive message for those living in such a modern and secular society as then in Alexandria and as here today.

We read again this week a little more from this key chapter in Paul’s letter to the Romans. We have a greater exposure to the Universe and to the science of its material composition than Paul had in his day. In the previous verses (8:22-25), he has written of God’s effort in creating and of His help in our hope of overcoming human frailty and becoming what God wants us to be. But here we read that we don’t even know what to hope and pray for, yet God’s Spirit works in us as He does in the whole of creation, and utters the prayer that we cannot express. The Greek word for this way of saying what we ourselves cannot understand is the basis of our word stenography; that meant the use of shorthand to record spoken (dictated) text; but in our technological age, it is also used for the encryption of text within a file (of an image or of video) so that only the intended recipient can read it. The words that the Spirit utters are concealed in the inadequate prayers we make and are understood, accepted and answered by God.

 

This long reading is shortened in many churches by leaving out verses 31-35 which contain two short parables about the mustard seed and the yeast. Without these we have a parable and its explanation. The parable itself (verses 24-30) is about good seed growing up surrounded by weeds; these are not dealt with until the crop is harvested; this is what the kingdom of God is likened to. The weeds, called tares in the older translations, are probably zizania or darnel, which are fairly indistinguishable at first from the wheat among which they grow. This parable is not in the other Gospels in the New Testament, but it probably was developed from a simpler seed parable, as a way to illustrating the admixture in our world and even within Christian communities of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people; and also to say you cannot sort them out in this life, but at the final judgement, then they will be dealt with appropriately by God.

see Jeffs Jottings – Sophie