22nd Sunday Cycle B

The reading, Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8, is from the fifth and last book of the first and most important part of the Bible, which the Jews refer to as the Law, and Christians call the Pentateuch (the five scrolls).  The book of Deuteronomy is written as five long speeches of Moses to the people before they enter into the ‘Promised land.’   It was written down at least 300 years after that and comprises mostly a re-presentation of many of the laws and regulations found in earlier parts of the Pentateuch.  The insistence on keeping the many laws and customs 2500 years ago would be considered today to be a suppression of the rightful individuality of each person with a particular role in life and vocation from God.  But aside from that the reading has a unfortunate attitude towards other nations, their ways of living and their own religions – an attitude of superiority.  The verses presented in our reading omit verses 3 – 5 which tell of their God destroying those who don’t accept Him and of God helping the Jews to conquer the land they have been promised to inhabit.  This makes us realise how our religious thinking has developed over the centuries.

The reading from the letter of James 1:17-18,21-22,27 fits in well with the other readings.  The church took quite a while before it finally agreed that this Letter should be part of the New Testament; and many since then have thought it rather trivial, with Luther referring to it as straw – pretty insignificant stuff.  The Letter is addressed to a number of churches made up of Jews who are now Christians and who are not in the land of Israel, but are living in what is called the Diaspora – they are the dispersed Jews.  Reformed Christians often maintain that they are saved by faith – by believing in Jesus as the saviour and Son of God; whereas Catholics seem to value many practices like devotions, rituals and other ‘good works.’   This Letter of James actually says that we are saved by works not just by faith.  Thankfully, both Catholics and other Christians generally don’t have any disagreement about these matters any more.  But what our passage here stresses is that the word of God is actually within us – the laws written in our hearts; and the examples of what we need to do are what we all should hear – being humble, meek and serving the needs of others.

With the gospel reading we have returned to Mark again (Chapter 7, verses 1-8, 14-15 and 21-23) and the chosen passage fits in well with the previous two readings; the first about strict observance of all the rules and the second about helping the needy.  We can imagine the situation in the early Church that Mark is addressing when he chooses to relate this story in which some of the important Jews come to Jesus and accuse his disciples of breaking the rules about when and how to eat food;  Jesus replies quite confidently that the infringements of these rules doesn’t make anyone irreligious, but it is what a person says and does that might affect their relationship with God.  We know that there were arguments among the early Christians about the extent to which the regulations of the Jewish religion apply to Christians – especially convert Gentiles; we know also that Paul and Peter had different views on this matter.  Even to this day different ‘shades’ of Christianity and different individuals in various denominations hold rules and regulations in varying degrees of importance.

22nd Sunday Cycle B

The reading, Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8, is from the fifth and last book of the first and most important part of the Bible, which the Jews refer to as the Law, and Christians call the Pentateuch (the five scrolls).  The book of Deuteronomy is written as five long speeches of Moses to the people before they enter into the ‘Promised land.’   It was written down at least 300 years after that and comprises mostly a re-presentation of many of the laws and regulations found in earlier parts of the Pentateuch.  The insistence on keeping the many laws and customs 2500 years ago would be considered today to be a suppression of the rightful individuality of each person with a particular role in life and vocation from God.  But aside from that the reading has a supercilious attitude towards other nations, their ways of living and their own religions – an attitude of superiority to all others.  The verses presented in our reading omit verses 3 – 5 which tell of their God destroying those who don’t accept Him and of God helping the Jews to conquer the land they have been promised to inhabit.  This makes us realise how our religious thinking has developed over the centuries.

The reading from the letter of James 1:17-18,21-22,27 fits in well with the other readings.  The church took quite a while before it finally agreed that this Letter should be part of the New Testament; and many since then have thought it rather trivial, with Luther referring to it as straw – pretty insignificant stuff.  The Letter is addressed to a number of churches made up of Jews who are now Christians and who are not in the land of Israel, but are living in what is called the Diaspora – they are the dispersed Jews.  Reformed Christians often maintain that they are saved by faith – by believing in Jesus as the saviour and Son of God; whereas Catholics seem to value many practices like devotions, rituals and other ‘good works.’   This Letter of James actually says that we are saved by works not just by faith.  Thankfully, both Catholics and other Christians generally don’t have any disagreement about these matters any more.  But what our passage here stresses is that the word of God is actually within us – the laws written in our hearts; and the examples of what we need to do are what we all should hear – being humble, meek and serving the needs of others.

With the gospel reading we have returned to Mark again (Chapter 7, verses 1-8, 14-15 and 21-23) and the chosen passage fits in well with the previous two readings; the first about strict observance of all the rules and the second about helping the needy.  We can imagine the situation in the early Church that Mark is addressing when he chooses to relate this story in which some of the important Jews come to Jesus and accuse his disciples of breaking the rules about when and how to eat food;  Jesus replies quite confidently that the infringements of these rules doesn’t make anyone irreligious, but it is what a person says and does that might affect their relationship with God.  We know that there were arguments among the early Christians about the extent to which the regulations of the Jewish religion apply to Christians – especially convert Gentiles; we know also that Paul and Peter had different views on this matter.  Even to this day different ‘shades’ of Christianity and different individuals in various denominations hold rules and regulations in varying degrees of importance.

21st Sunday Cycle B

The first reading from the book of Joshua (24:1-2,15-18) is well chosen.  The nomadic people with their desert God, Yahweh, have survived the wandering in the Sinai wilderness, have crossed the river Jordan and invaded the land of Canaan.  The story started to be preserved and felt relevant when the tribes began to settle.  The conquered Canaanites have agricultural and fertility gods, and their religion serves them well for they are successful farmers.  But the invaders want to settle and live off the land they have conquered.  As well as the attraction of this other religion, they see that its adherents are much more successful farmers.  The temptation is strong to move to their religion, but the reading describes Joshua calling for a reaffirmation of commitment to Yahweh by all of the tribes.  This is surely a story that deserved being preserved in their bible and is thought-provoking for all of us, even to this day.  The 12 verses omitted in our selected reading recount the numerous times that God enabled the people to conquer other tribes and nations and showing the superior power of their God.

The second reading is the next short section from the letter to the Ephesians (5:21-32) after those which we have had over the last few Sundays.  The start of the reading for today is part of a sentence that began two verses earlier.  The writer has said (verse 19 and 20) that you shouldn’t get drunk on alcohol, but should be filled with the Spirit; he goes on to explain what this implies, that is, singing each other’s praises with hymns etc. to the Lord, giving thanks to God and (where our reading begins) “showing respect to each other in awe of  Christ,” and the sentence continues “ladies to their men as to the Lord.”  Some of the modern English translations show something of our problem today with the apparent subordination of wives to husbands.  The writer is elaborating for (new) Christians the implications of their new-found beliefs; it’s the practical details of life within one’s community and particularly within the family – husband, wife, children and servants.  This is not unlike the recommended best within the secular society of their time and location, but the principal purpose is not the support of the state but the building up of the church, the Body of Christ; and Jesus showed these attitudes in His life on earth, lived out for others even to the point of death.  But when applied to us these old accounts in our Sacred Scriptures need their essential message extracting and re-locating in the contest of our culture and indeed within the lives of each of us.  The core message surely is, that there should be harmony between people, for Christians should know that they are the physical presence of Christ in the world today (i.e. the Body of Christ) and should relate to each other accordingly, (and to other people and the environment).

The Gospel reading from John (6:60-69), puts the call to commitment in a Christian context.  After the explanation of Himself as the true bread of life, i.e. the wisdom and the way for us to live, Jesus has said unless you eat this flesh of mine you shall not have life within you – that’s the ‘hard saying,’ that the disciples refer to: ‘the intolerable language’.  That was last week’s reading but listen to this reading advising us not to take this literally, when it says the flesh profits nothing, it’s the spirit that is important, it’s the spiritual meaning that makes sense; and through Jesus the Spirit is present in our matter-of-fact world.  And Jesus is the Son of Man, the ideal human who in the future will be joined by all.  So our celebration of Communion is a time to take to ourselves the life of Jesus, committing ourselves to live how he would live if He were in our shoes (which in a non-literal sense He is!).  If the Body is the physical presence of a person, then the whole of creation is in some way the body of Christ.

20th Sunday Cycle B

The book of Proverbs is just that – a collection of wise sayings.  Among the significant Jewish people there were priests, prophets and wise men.  The priests had control of the rituals and the externals of religion, often working with the rulers to keep up national unity and spirits.  The prophets tried to preserve and even develop the central insights of their religion and apply them to the current situation, often upsetting nearly everyone else by railing against wrong-doings.  But it was during their Exile in Babylon that the wisdom of the past was appreciated and some of it put together in this book.  In the first reading (Proverbs 9:1-6) we have the last few verses of a section introducing some of their oldest wisdom sayings – some practical and some spiritual; it leads into older proverbs by picturing a welcoming house preparing a great feast in noble surroundings – a feast of wisdom that we should all take, digest and live by.  Wisdom is, of course, female.

The second reading is another short section from the letter to the Ephesians (5:15-20).  The phrase translated as ‘making best use of’  can also mean ‘redeeming.’  Notice that the passage regards the people addressed as already having wisdom, but because they are only human, also as still needing encouragement to act wisely, and being Christian, their wisdom is Christ; and this living is celebrated with the singing and praise at the celebrations they had, probably each week, in memory of all that Christ meant to them. The original Greek translated as ‘giving thanks’ is the word for Eucharist  (ευχαριστουντες).  Since the passage is wise sayings it should be read accordingly – carefully, thoughtfully, more than once and then acted upon!

Chapter 6 of the gospel accorded to John has been trying to ease the readers from a superficial understanding of miracles, of bread and of the Old Testament manna, into something deeper.  The reading today (6:51-58), takes this more challenging step.  It is now about the Eucharist.  It reflects the words of the Last Supper according to the tradition which Paul knew and which the other gospels record in their own ways.  But two differences stand out in John, namely, the use of ‘flesh’ in place of ‘body’ and the phrase ‘for the life of the world’ rather than ‘for many.’   In John’s gospel he generally uses the word ‘flesh’ to mean humanity and many people are familiar with the phrase ‘the Word was made flesh’ (John 1:14).  This reminds us that for Jesus and the Jews the word ‘body’ refers to the whole person, probably with reference to the impact the person makes; and we are also led to realise that ‘many’ was their way of saying all people – at least in this context.  Jesus has already said in this chapter that belief is necessary, but we also have to grasp the deeper meaning of ‘belief.’   Belief is more than just the acknowledgement of certain truths like God exists and Jesus is really present in our Eucharist; faith is defined in the chief document of Vatican II as “an obedience by which one commits one’s whole self freely to God” (Dei Verbum §5).   Notice also that the feast in the first reading from the book of Proverbs invites eating and drinking food and wine, not literally but taking on a wise way of living; and the recipients of the letter to the Ephesians must be filled with the Spirit rather than wine.  So, with these readings, we are urged for our communion in the celebration of the Last Supper, to see a deeper understanding; the reception of and belief in Jesus’ presence, means committing our whole selves to living Jesus’ way of life – an enactment of taking on in our everyday lives the life of Jesus, and a reminder of how things will be when we complete our lives here on earth

19th Sunday B

From the First book of Kings we learn that Elijah was the great prophet when the nation was settling in the promised land.  He had performed dramatic miracles and successfully confronted the prophets of the pagan queen Jezebel.  Our reading (19:4-8) tells of his journey into the desert, to flee the wrath of Jezebel who had put a wanted notice out for his death; he is hoping to die alone naturally and settles down exhausted under a desert bush; but he is woken twice by an angel who gives him food  to carry on to the mountain of God, which eventually he does.  It is a story that was passed down through the generations partly because of its deeper meaning about the spiritual journey of life, with failings and then support from God and the need to press on all the same.  This is a message that the hearers  and readers of John’s gospel must learn as well, for all humans are on such a journey to find and face God;  It is an adventure which often becomes more difficult as we progress in doing what God wants of us.  But what do we expect to find?  Moses was led to the Mountain where He encountered God in a still small voice rather than in the expected noisy whirlwind, earthquake or dramatic fire often associated with the divine.

The second reading is from Ephesians (4:30 – 5:2) after last week’s second reading.  Here the writer is trying to explain the consequences of the truths that he has expounded earlier, and trying to urge the churches that Paul had set up, to keep their faith alive.  In these final chapters of Ephesians there are practical instructions on how Christians should live in the light of what they believe about Christ and His life; details are given of what not to do and of what should be their way of life; they should try to live as Jesus did, for he gave his very life for others – for them.  They are reminded of this central message of course in their celebration of the Lord’s supper when they receive Him anew in their meal – a fact referred to at the end of the gospel reading as a springboard into next week’s gospel topic! – “the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”

The Gospel is taken from John 6:41-51.  We have over the previous two weeks read from this chapter about the miraculous feeding of the multitude, and the way the crowd were excited about the miracle but missed the deeper significance of it – a reading ending with the misunderstanding of the new bread from heaven and with the provocative claim by Jesus to be the true bread from heaven.  In this day’s gospel reading we have for the first time in this chapter the people present are referred to as ‘the Jews’ rather that just the crowd.  The author has in mind the Jerusalem officials in their religion who are naturally suspicious of Jesus and His challenging words and actions.  The dialogue here has its deeper meaning about faith and the truth that Jesus expounds; and this is elaborated partly under the surface of a discussion about bread and life – even eternal life – for the word ‘bread’ was used by Jewish teachers as a word for the important truths of their religion and their recommended way of life, it is a little like the way we sometimes use the word ‘meat’ to mean some information that is very deep and important (we are more familiar with calling Jesus the Way – the way we should live for the purpose of God).  This section connects to last week’s with the topic of the manna in the desert, but we are led to think also of the simple way God communicates with people in the incident of the first reading (see above).

18th Sunday Cycle B

The first reading is taken from the book of Exodus.  It is a story that had been handed down verbally through a large number of generations before being formed into this textual version in the Bible.  It is the story of the journey of the tribes after they had escaped from Egypt, being led by Moses in the desert from which eventually they came to settle in the land of Canaan which they took as their Promised Land.  Life is full of ups and downs; the escape from slavery in Egypt seemed liberating, but then in the Sinai desert, they found life very difficult and the conditions harsh, to say the least.  But things turned out well again when they found a new source of food in the manna that appeared there each morning for them freely to gather and eat.  Our first reading (16:2-4, 12-15) illustrates for us the way occurrences can be interpreted as miracles, when there is no known explanation for them; in fact this manna was a natural phenomenon, known even to this day by the Bedouin in the desert; it is the resin deposit of insects after feeding on desert plants and it has to be gathered at dawn before other creatures get to it; manna is the Hebrew for “what is it?”  Moses had lived quite a time in the desert and probably knew all about this.  We now realise, as they did, that nature is marvellous – even miraculous – and is all the work of God, celebrated also in the selection of verses (3,23-25 and 54) in the responsorial.

The second reading, as in previous weeks, is from Ephesians. This week’s (4-17, 20-24) is a part of this general letter to Paul’s churches about how these Jewish and Gentile converts should live.  It draws on the dichotomies, in Jewish thought between light and dark, good and evil, now and the hereafter; but it relates more closely to the Greek way of thinking as the this-worldly and the ideal world; what we might call the superficial and the sublime – in religious terms the natural and super-natural, in more modern speak the commonplace and the extraordinary.  The writer thinks that the Gentiles lived in the natural and plain realm, but when they learnt about Christ they learnt to live in the supernatural and extraordinary – within the family of God; so he writes: put off the old and live with a new self.  Today, some Christians make this same distinction between themselves and the ‘secular’ world, but maybe our experience of life should smooth out these differences, after all there are Christians who fall far short of the ideal and non-Christians who lead exemplary lives!

The Gospel is another section from chapter 6 of John’s Gospel (verses 24-35) which will continue on the following Sundays.  This reading develops ideas after the feeding of the multitude in a way typical of this gospel; namely, there is a plain sense of the text which holds a much more sublime meaning which might easily be missed. For example when the crowd ask Jesus “When did you come here?” the text can also mean “how did you come to be here?” and then we can see the two levels of meaning; plainly, they had seen the disciples take off on a boat to this side of the lake and they came this way themselves so wonder how Jesus got here; but there is a deeper meaning about Jesus’ origin to which the answer would be, He was sent by God and is God’s Son.  In this gospel miracles are called signs because they are not just what appears at first sight but have a far deeper meaning.  The crowd had experienced the feeding of the multitude but had not seen the significance and deeper meaning of it.  So Jesus points out to them that they should put their minds to higher things that are not perishable (superficial); but they should take in the food of eternal life which is that brought by the son of man – an expected future saviour sent from God in the fullness of time.  If they would do this then they would have life –  a share in the higher life of God by living a life of faith.

17th Sunday Cycle B

The first reading is from the Second Book of Kings (4:42-44).  This is one of the many history books of the Old Testament.  But it is not history as we like to think of it.  These accounts are not written to tell us accurately about the past; the Jewish compilers of these works believed that they were chosen by God who at their best reflected in their activities and way of life the relationship of God to people, one chiefly of love and care but also sometimes of reprimand and being taught a lesson.  These ‘history’ books are to make us think about what we should do in the present, here and now.  This reading is from a small collection of miracle stories associated with the prophet Elisha from the ninth century BC.  These tales remind us that the whole world is miraculous, and that there is always more to things and events than the immediate and prosaic interpretation that we thoughtlessly make of them; God is active in everything except sin.  The reading illustrates that God’s care even exceeds our natural expectations of things.

The second reading is from the general letter called Ephesians (4:1-6), attributed to Paul.  It contains an impressive expression of central Christian teaching for the people of that time.  It begins with an exhortation to unity and follows with the basis for this ideal of unity in the commonality of our belief.  Whatever the specific vocation of each Christian it must be conducted in a self-effacing, tolerant and loving manner – Paul himself is a prisoner for following his calling from the Lord.  The feminine Greek word often translated as humility has the connotation of self-effacement.  The seriousness of this imperative that Paul is urging on the readers arises from the acceptance of one hope towards the ultimate unity of all in God, Who is in everything that is good.  This is significant for us today when it is read as the inspired word of God.  The world is seen by the writer as a remarkable unit and the arena for the enterprise of God’s continuous and creative presence among us; a single unit of great complexity but complicated by the freedom that we humans have with respect to our calling in it.  It tells us that we humans are all related to each other and to the rest of creation; we have a part to play in all of this and we now know the attitudes necessary for us to contribute to the overall plan of God for us within the family of humanity.

The beginning of Chapter 6 in John’s gospel (verses 1 to 15) relates the story told in all the gospels of the miraculous feeding of a multitude with food and producing an excess of leftovers.  With the setting of the mountain and of the feast of Passover it clearly relates to the great event of the Exodus; this was the focus of the Paschal meal that recalled this miraculous start of the journey of the people of God from slavery towards the promised land; it was on this difficult journey of life through the desert that God surprisingly nourished the people with water from rock and bread (the manna) from heaven; for the Jews it was celebrated each year as a recall of God’s relationship to them and of the journey of their life towards the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom.  Its importance in this Gospel is this journey towards the promised land and  beyond to the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom.  The crowd see Jesus  as anticipating or bringing this to completion and want to make him king – he escapes this mistaken intention.  Over the next few Sundays we shall read more of John’s development of ideas in this chapter.