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.
The first reading with an introduction tells of God’s announcement to the prophet that his destiny has always been to speak out on behalf of God. But he is somewhat of a country dweller unused to the city and the high life. In addition the traditions of his tribe are those of the northern kingdom, called Israel at this time (the seventh century BC), whereas Jerusalem and the kingdom called Judah, has a different approach to their religious history. But God still wants him to be bold enough to speak out even against the royalty at this time of particular threat from the Babylonians on the northern boarder, as well as against the religious leaders and the ordinary people of the land. God says that He will strengthen and protect him in the difficult task for which he quite naturally feels scared and inadequate.
In the reading from I Corinthians we have the beautiful literary gem from Paul about the importance and glory of the virtue of love. A passage with which many people will be familiar because some of its phrases have great popularity. I think Paul must have composed it almost as a poem even before he decided to include it in this letter, though we should not listen to it just as delightful prose and wonderful ideas. Rather we should see how each of its gems might say something to us and to our attitude to ourselves and the way we live out our lives – do we just speak hollow but loud words, are we patient with ourselves and others, do we seek our own interests all the time? As our lives progress it is selfless and real love that we should be developing as our lives progress, though we can only see things vaguely in this life.
The reading from Luke is the second part of last week’s tale about Jesus reading in the synagogue in Nazareth from the scroll of Isaiah – the passage not quite as the text we have in our bibles. Today’s gospel takes up the story after this. Jesus was claiming for himself an authority over the meaning of the text and applying it to himself as God’s chosen one who would bring the longed-for year of favour. The congregation were initially impressed by his words but soon realised that that raised difficulties for them, for they knew Him as the son of the local carpenter (untrained and insignificant in their small village). And if that wasn’t enough to upset them He went on to explain that in the history of their people, God often seemed to favour the non-Jews – as with Elijah and Elisha’s miracles – their infuriation, according to our reading, led to extreme anger, though Jesus managed to walk away from any danger they posed. We have an interesting reminder of something of the process of gospel writing, for in adapting this story from Mark’s Gospel, Luke has overlooked that he has transposed the story to almost the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, so that the sentence “Do here what you have done in Capernaum” (verse 23b) makes no sense in Luke’s gospel because he hasn’t related any activity of Jesus in Capernaum it would make more sense if it were in Mark’s gospel.
You can read my jottings here
The setting of the first reading (Nehemiah 8:2-10 omitting long lists of names), is back in Jerusalem after the Exile but before the Temple or any synagogue is usable. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah together give us information about the restoration of the physical and political structure, and of the religion of Jerusalem and of the whole of Judah. Today we hear of Ezra the great religious leader who brought the people back to respect the Law of God. He solemnly reads from the scroll of the Law; the people worship the Lord present in the words of the Bible; they listen and it is interpreted to them. The Bible is a deep and ancient piece of literature as well as being the Word of God Who remains a mystery to all; some interpretation is needed because of the time and culture difference between that of the original and of the time of its reading; it is also necessary in order to grasp how it might apply to the current situation – the same might be said about this reading and us today; what will a preacher say, what does the Law of God mean for us in our time and situation?
In the second reading (1 Cor 12:12-27 verses 15-26 might be left out) we hear of Paul’s image of the church as a body; whatever the word might mean today, at that time and in their culture it is more likely that the ‘body’ is the way the reality of the whole person is present in the world and to others; the body of the community of believers has many parts seemingly quite diverse, but they make up one presence of Christ; present in us, in our particular church and in the worldwide Church. We each have our part to play in maintaining and developing this presence of Christ in our world. This is different from His presence in the sacred words of the Bible, recognised by the hearers in the first reading though the Word of God in the Scriptures plays an important role in our developing faith.
In the gospel passage for today, we jump awkwardly from the stylised introductory verses (chapter 1 verses 1- 4) to beyond the infancy narratives, the baptism and the temptations to (chapter 4 verses 14-21). In the introduction Luke indicates that after research, he has a plan for his writing to highlight what he thinks is the true message of the Good News. We hear that Jesus in the synagogue of his home town reads from the scroll of the Prophet, Isaiah (61:1f), and amazes the people by saying: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” He is announcing the year of favour. It is noticeable that in Luke’s the quotation is from the LXX (the Greek Septuagint version of the Bibe), with the use of ‘the blind’ where the Hebrew Masoretic Text has ‘the prisoners,’ and (according to some manuscripts) with ‘he opened’ rather than the Hebrew original’s ‘he unrolled’ the book. Also in Luke’s text a line from Is 58:6 is included in the quotation and the last two poetically joined lines at the end of that passage in Isaiah 61 are missed out, namely “and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn.” Because elsewhere Luke is generally very accurate in quoting the LXX, it may be that this part of the story about Nazareth is taken by him from a previous piece of writing or from oral tradition. Because the section read today is not the whole story (we shall hear the rest of it next week), the significance of what we hear today is different from what it would otherwise be. Here, his preaching in the synagogue must be taken as an upbeat affirmation of the start of a new era for us, an era of favour with God, which will elevate us and bring us release, freedom and renewed vision.
The background situation to the first reading is really the same as that for last week’s, and the message is again an encouraging one. But there is a distinctive and interesting element. As happens today for a newborn baby in many cultures, the selection of the name is done thoughtfully in order to express something of the parents’ hopes for the child. But sometimes in later life a different name comes to a person and for different reasons. At school a child may get a regularly used nickname to describe something of the character, hopefully but sadly not always, a positive notion welcomed by the recipient. Sometimes even an adult may change name to express something of which they are proud – such as an actor or other public figure. You may well know that in the gospels we are told that Jesus changed the name of Simon to Peter, a word that meant rock, because he was to be a foundation stone of the early church; and in the Old Testament, Abram’s name is changed to Abraham when he is chosen by God. In our reading, female names play an important role; they are applied to the people and the land; the name will be changed from a bad one to a very special one (from Azubah meaning forsaken, to Hephzibah meaning my delight, and the land from Desolate to Espoused). The passage goes on to suggest that God will marry the renewed and delightful bride, this is a remarkable image of the relationship of God to us – worth singing a new song about (Psalm 96).
In the passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (12: 4-11), he writes about the many and wonderful spiritual gifts that the people in the church there have. I think there may have been some ill-feeling; some claiming or clearly thinking that their particular talent was superior to that of others. But at the start and at the end of the passage read today, Paul emphasizes the unity that there should be because all the gifts are from the same Spirit, the one God – so there should be no disharmony among them. Paul lists nine gifts here, but the Catholic Church has in the past taught that we Christians have seven special spiritual gifts.
The Gospel may well have been chosen because after the celebrations of the birth and baptism of Jesus, he begins his public ministry, and this miracle at Cana is presented in John’s gospel as the first of his signs. But most of the content of John’s gospel carries within it a deeper meaning. It is because of this that many anomalies appear if it is read at surface level; for example in this account it says at the end that Jesus revealed his glory and yet as far as the story tells us, only the servants knew that what was being drunk had moments before been water. The early Christian recipients of the gospel might see in the ceremonial water jars and in the wine a reference to the replacement of Jewish religious rituals with the Christian Eucharistic celebration. A marriage relationship was used to explain the love of God for his chosen ones, as in the first reading. There is more to it than just this however, and you might examine some further depths of meaning here or elsewhere on the world wide