27th Sunday of Ordinary time, cycle C

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.

26th Sunday of Ordinary time, cycle C

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.

25th Sunday of Ordinary time

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.

24th Sunday of Ordinary time, cycle C

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.


23rd Sunday of Ordinary time, cycle C

4th September 2016

The first reading is from the Book of Wisdom (9:13-18), which is not in the Hebrew Bible and is known to us only in Greek. It is generally only accepted as canonical by Catholics. It may well have originated in Egypt, a centre of intellectual excellence, and like other wisdom writings is attributed to Solomon, though it probably dates from the century just before Christ. Chapter 9 begins with a prayer for wisdom that elaborates on the prayer recorded in the First book of Kings which is more closely associated with Solomon himself. Our reading is the concluding summary of the second section of the poetic prayer. It indicates the tension between the body and the soul, reflecting the Greek understanding of the human make-up. It ends attributing wisdom to the very spirit of the Lord.

The second reading is from Paul’s personal letter to Philemon (9-17) and as such is a unique piece of writing in the New Testament. It is the third shortest book in the Bible and only has 317 words in it. At the time of writing Paul is an old man in prison for his work, but he refers to himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, for he is so bound to Him in his work and his life that it seems that he has no freedom. Paul has with him a helper, Onesimus, whom he has introduced to Christianity and whom he therefore calls his son. He is writing to Philemon who is another successful convert of his and leads the local church in his household. Onesimus had been a servant to Philemon and Paul offers to return him, and hopes that Philemon will treat him as a brother, a fellow Christian. Interestingly, Paul deliberately doesn’t ‘pull rank’ on Philemon, but asks him gently if there can be reconciliation. No-one is really in authority over another.

Today’s gospel reading (Luke 14:25-33) emphasises again the journey that Jesus is making towards His fulfillment in Jerusalem. The crowd is now a large number of people, excited and attracted by many of Jesus’ words and especially by the cures that He has performed – it is all too optimistic and enthusiastic; but Jesus knew that He was heading for a confrontation in which He would not surrender his cause and mission, but would face the dire consequences. He tries to warn the crowd about this; those following him were not as committed to changing the world, but thought only of joy, success and even victory. The reports of what Jesus has to say show up the problems of translation. Matthew knew the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke and so the translation in his gospel captures what Jesus meant (Matthew 10:37); but Luke does what we would call a ‘Google translation,’ namely a literal and word for word one (“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother… ), not realising that the Aramaic could not express “loving less” except with a word which literally means ‘hating.’ We must follow Jesus before all else!

22nd Sunday of Ordinary time, cycle C

28th August 2016

The first reading is from Ecclesiasticus (3:17-29 passim) also called the Book of Sirach; it is what might be called a deutero-canonical book because its status as part of the canon (or official collection) of Scripture which was not recognised by Jews resident in Israel; Protestant Bibles follow this shorter collection of the Old Testament. Sirach was used by Jewish scholars and is included in the early Greek version of the Jewish Bible (the Septuagint), and it is in Catholic bibles.  This wisdom about how to live good lives pleasing to God is expressed so beautifully and simply in our reading.  This proverbial wisdom speaks to us even today in our different situations.

The second reading from Hebrews (12:18-24 passim) really sets one thinking about how we view God and our response to Him.  The author refers to how the Jews at first encountered God; it was a frightening experience of fire and terror; He was a mighty and powerful God and they were His.  But the author then wants to tell them to leave this behind, because as followers of the Way of Jesus they now should see God differently; now they are approaching heaven, the ideal Jerusalem, where God’s Son, Jesus, has set up a new covenant – a new relationship with God – and the unbelievable is possible.

The gospel we have for today (Luke 14:7-14) introduces the context with verse 1: “On a Sabbath Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully.”   The Pharisees were like a sect; they were a section of the Jewish believers who were very keen on keeping all the rules and thereby gaining (earning and deserving) the blessing of God; and often, one might suspect, they looked down on the ordinary folk who lacked this – what they would call uprightness of piety.  The Christians had, or should have had, a quite different attitude towards God and their acceptance by Him; they should feel unworthy even though leading good lives and should view any blessing (and salvation) as a gratuitous gift from God.  Meals were an important social occasion for the host; at a meal he could make friends with the most influential people and show off the grandeur of his living; for those invited it was an opportunity to become closer to influential people and so progress in one’s standing in society.  The most interesting thing is that today’s gospel reading makes these social customs into a parable; a parable is something that points to something else which works in a parallel way; the account about meal etiquette then becomes about our relationship with God and the religious way we should live; because of our humility we should not expect reward although we believe in the grace of God.  So here, as in the passage from Hebrews in the second reading, the message is about the contrast between one way of life and the way it should be for Christians, whose righteousness comes from God and for whom self-righteousness, as of the Pharisees, is not the way forward: you cannot deserve or earn salvation and God’s love.

21st Sunday of Ordinary time, cycle C

21st August 2016

The first reading is from the last section of the book of Isaiah (66:18:21). The Jews have returned from captivity in Babylon, and exiles from all-over are returning to Jerusalem; and not just them it says but all nations, people referred to as Gentiles, will be welcomed by God into his Jerusalem. This is an expression of the universality of God’s love; it is for all people whatever religion or nationality they are; this is an idea that was much debated among the Jews and has been among Christians even to this day – but it seems quite clear here in the Old Testament. The psalm that follows the reading in Christian services, with its refrain, “Go out into the world and tell the Good News” continues this theme of the universality of salvation.

The second reading (Hebrews 12:5-13 passim) follows on from last week’s second reading with a reminder to those felt hard done by God; it quotes from the book of Proverbs (3:11f and 4:26). The writer seems to have two parallels for the way God treats us and the way we should react. The first is a parent who must discipline the child to help them to mature; it is an act of love. The second is the physiotherapist prescribing exercises to be done which are often hard to undergo but worth it for the overall good result. Both of these images would be known to the original readers and are understood equally by us today. Though it is a hard lesson to learn when we appear to suffer from our parent and trainer – our God!

In today’s gospel reading (Luke 13:22-30) we are back with Luke’s theme of presenting Jesus as on a journey of preaching and work for the kingdom of God that will climax in Jerusalem with His arrest and execution. But the striking bit is a question from ‘someone’ and the repy. Luke has other sections stimulated by a ‘someone’ (a lawyer/woman); the person here raises the question which has surfaced again and again in the history of the Jews about the restriction of salvation to a few when there has been a general lapse from devotion to Yahweh, their God. The reply that Luke has Jesus make is a collage from various Christian traditions at that time, both oral and written, about Jesus’ preaching – getting through a narrow door, a house master shutting out people unknown to him, the expectation of the Jews to be saved by ‘their’ man Jesus, the bitterness of the Jews left out while others from across the whole world join the heavenly banquet – finishing with the contrast of the first and the last – thoughts expressed in Matthew and Mark as well. The whole represents the situation Luke has experienced, namely, the first chosen people, the Jews, seem to have not accepted Jesus, though hopefully they will in the end, but for now it is the second people, the Gentiles, who are the prominent followers of the Way of Jesus.