Lent 4 year A

The first reading is extracts from the remembered tales of the early history of the Israelites’ settling down as a nation. At first they were ruled by men called Judges (like military overlords), but then there was a general outcry to have a king like other nations. Samuel was the overall prophet at the time and he warned the people that kings can be troublesome – they raise taxes, commandeer troops, and generally ride roughshod over the people, like the absolute rulers they are; they lead the nation without consultation or consideration of others. But the people still asked Samuel for a king and through him, guided by God, a ruler was selected. He chose Saul who was a fine example of manhood (1 Sam 10:20ff). But, just as the prophet Samuel had predicted he turned out to be a bad leader as king. Today’s reading is about the prophet Samuel being sent by God to choose a better man. The point of the reading for us might well be that ‘better’ does not mean taller, more handsome or any outward appearance. The key message of the reading is that “not as man sees does God see” – God does not regard the outer externals but rather the inner being of the person, and that is how we should try to see. And David, the new king, went down in history as the ideal ruler, so that ever after the people hoped for a new king live David. The genealogies in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels trace Jesus back to this king David.

The letter to the Ephesians, is really an encyclical letter, i.e. one that was written to be distributed around the churches and which is not concerned with issues of any particular community of Christians. In the opening address “to the saints…” many of the early manuscripts do not add the phrase “in Ephesus” and an early Christian writer (Marcion, circa 150 AD) thought it was written to the Laodiceans ; in addition it seems that some other Christian letters were encyclical; for we read in Colossians: “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16). The grand style of Ephesians elaborates the wonderful impact of Jesus becoming one of us and the magnificent notion of the reconciliation of the whole world with God. In our short passage, the writer reminds readers that they are no longer symbolically in the dark, and encourages them to live in the light; it ends with what might be a quotation from an early Christian baptism service: Come up, O sleeper, arise from the dead, and God will shine upon you!

The gospel reading (John chapter 9) is superficially the story of a man cured of his blindness and the skeptical questioning of him by the Pharisees. The man’s blindness, thought by Jesus’ disciples to be because of some sin, is an opportunity for the glory of God to be exhibited – a living symbol. Throughout the story there is a depth of meaning beneath the account of cure, of legalism and of antagonism to Jesus’ work that foreshaddows the attitude of authorities to Jesus and His final death. Light and seeing are, all the world over, symbolic of inspiration and real understanding of what life is about, just as dark and blindness are of stubborn ignorance and refusal of truth. The detailed account of the cure is not unlike the ceremony of baptism, but thereafter the various dialogues expose human hesitancy, timidity and arrogance. The underlying narrative comes to the surface at the end of the passage when Jesus says: ” I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.” (This passage is omitted when the short gospel reading is used).

See Jeffs Jottings – The danger of seeing

corect Lent 3 year A

readings

The first reading is part of the story of the journey of the people away from Egypt after their escape from slavery there. Moses, under God’s guidance, had helped them across the water with his God-given rod, and now they were literally wandering in the desert to which they were not used. The reading is about the people’s quarrelling with Moses and complaining about God leading them to this place of draught and desert, called Massah and Meribah (respectively meaning “testing” and “quarrelling”). The place names become almost symbolic in the Bible of this kind of situation. We notice the simplicity of the relationship between God and Moses, and the wonder of God’s action in our world of difficulty and disappointment. This is expressed through the experience of being in an inhospitable place – the desert, and short of the basic necessity for life – water. This imagery is quite fitting for the second and the gospel readings that follow.

The reading from the letter to the Romans is from the same section we read on the first Sunday of Lent, namely, a key part of his exposition of how he sees and expresses what Christianity is essentially about. He uses what amounts to technical terms like, faith and grace, peace and hope, ungodliness and glory, which can loose their meaning either because of their strangeness or because of over familiarity with them. He is saying that God has entered humanity as one of us in the person of Jesus Christ; a Christian tries to accept this and to live with this enhanced humanity – favoured by the life of God; and this brings the hope of sharing in the wonder of God’s life. Paul stresses the basis of this hope, using the image of water, stating that the vitality of God is poured into the very centre of our being. This transformation is made clear, he says, by the selflessness of Jesus’ life here on earth among us, lived entirely for others, even to the point of death; and this for people who were quite ungodly. This is clear proof of God’s love for us, to die for those who don’t deserve it!

This delightful story from John’s Gospel which we hear today, has so many interesting and attractive touches! Jesus is alone, as John tells us, just as he seemed to be with the learned Jew Nicodemus in the middle of the night. Here at midday He is with a lady, a lady from a mixed race disliked my decent Jews. He wants something from her: “Give me a drink.” (later she will be asking him). The conversation begins about water, but Jesus has in mind the true Spirit of life. Her way of addressing him develops, from ‘sir’, through ‘prophet’ to, possibly, ‘Messiah.’ The discussion develops into the best place to worship because of differences between Samaritans and Jews; true worship will soon be a matter of Spirit and Truth Jesus says. She has been honest about her past (the five men in her life at different times) and Jesus refers to himself honestly too with the divine name “I am.” She leaves, leaving her jar, when the disciples return. They can’t grasp what is going on. But she returns with the villagers whom she has told of her experience, and they persuade him to stay two days and they all come to recognise him as the Saviour of the world – John means that to be the whole world, all people, of any or no faith, both good and bad. What a revelation, what a story! What good news for us

 

See Jeffs Jottings – Unity for all.

Lent 2 year A

The first reading is about the initial call of Abraham; it is used by the editors of the Book of Genesis as the launch of an extended saga of Abraham and his offspring. He is a semi-nomad who moves around with his large extended family from place to place; in this short account of his vocation, he is summoned by God to leave the past – his ancestors – behind and set off to a place that God will point out to him and will make his own. Responding to this, Abraham will not only be blest himself but will be a source of blessing to those who come across him – indeed to all people. But God is not understood quite the way we might envisage Him today, for he tells Abraham that He will curse those who curse him.

The letters to Timothy and Titus are called the Pastoral Epistles because they take the form of guidance written by Paul to these Church leaders about how to conduct themselves and how to lead the Christian communities under their care. Just as Paul suffered in his vocation of preaching and making converts, so these ‘overseers’ of Christian communities will have difficulties to face up to – that is the pattern of life for those who try to fulfil the tasks God has for them. The developed state of the organisation of the church depicted in places in these letters is one of the reasons that many think that they come from a time after Paul though perhaps using some of his material extant at that time. They are still part of the Bible and as such express something of the Word of God to us. In our short extract from the second letter to Timothy it reminds the church leader that he is not called because of his worthiness but in order to let the strength of God work through him for the fulfilment of God’s overall plan.

In Matthew’s gospel the Transfiguration comes after Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question: “Who do you say I am?” In his account it seems that it is beginning to dawn on some of the disciples, that, despite the popular expectation of a Messiah as a political liberator, Jesus the confident but kindly person is the one sent from God as the Messiah. Matthew follows this event with Jesus’ first announcement of his forthcoming arrest, trial and death, followed by resurrection. That last phrase might seem difficult for the disciples, yet there were beliefs that Moses never quite died and that Elijah would return to earth again, before the Messiah comes. It is after these events in Matthew’s story of Jesus, that the inner three disciples are taken onto a mountain (in the bible a place of revelations) and there they had a vision (as Matthew calls it) of the glory of Jesus, in conversation with Moses and Elijah, and then comes a cloud of God’s presence, and they hear God’s voice (which often refers to thunder during a storm). An announcement comes, as made at Jesus’ baptism, proclaiming: “my beloved son” but adding “listen to him!” Hear what he has said, namely, that opposition, suffering and death will come and then new life. Matthew’s good news for you and me might be that life will not be easy all the time, but for those who can see it the deeper reality is there, and there will certainly come death, but just as surely, life after death, when we have fulfilled out vocation.

See Jeffs Jottings – Pass it on!

Quote

Lent 1 Year A

The first reading is chiefly the story of the temptation in the Garden of Eden often referred to as the Fall. It is a story that must have been told in various forms throughout the history of the descendants of Abraham. Other ancient cultures had similar stories, you may have heard of Pandora’s box, an ancient Greek story. These tales are about what it is to be human, about the pitfalls of human curiosity and about the cause of all the different evils in our world. They have all been told and retold time and again to different listeners and adapted appropriately, but all make much the same point. Our version in Genesis delightfully describes the human process of temptation; it starts, with what so often is the case, with a prohibition – “you mustn’t …” It proceeds with slightly changed interpretations of what is forbidden – “was it any of the trees in the garden?” and “You shall not eat nor even touch!” Then the victim of temptation just thinks the command is wrong and selfishly given – “the moment you eat it … you will be like gods!” We can all recognise this process and it should help us combat some of the temptations to selfishness that we have. Some Christians see this as an historical account and as the beginning of sin and death in our world which they call Original Sin. The story in Genesis goes on beyond what we hear today, with a glimmer of hope, saying:                                   So the Lord God said to the snake,
‘Because you have done this,  Cursed are you above all livestock
 and all wild animals!
 You will crawl on your  belly
  and you will eat dust
 all the days of your life.
                    And I will put enmity
  between you and the woman,
 between your offspring and hers;
   he will crush your head,
 and you will strike his heel.’
The enmity and crushing is like the hope found in Pandora’s box, but is interpreted by Christians as referring to Mary and Jesus her offspring.

The second reading is Paul’s letter to the Romans which is like an exposition of his understanding of what Christianity is. And in the section we hear today, we have the very central notion of the impact that Christ has on the whole of the human race. Amongst the Jews there was a sense of the corporate nature of the nation and of the tribe and the family. It is found also among some peoples and groups nowadays. It is apparent mostly in the way that retaliation was brought by one tribe against all of another tribe if one of its members had offended someone from the first tribe. It is this solidarity that Paul recognises under the name of Adam (a word he uses like the word ‘man’ in the sentence “man has landed on the moon.”) It implies a, at least potential, transformation of everyone. All have sinned in Adam is how he might express it, but then goes on to say that all are saved in Christ. His sentences are complicated because he is anxious to stress the difference as well as the similarity between Christ and Adam, in this sense; he writes “but the gift considerately outweighed the fall.” We take from it the reversal of what we heard in the first reading. Now humanity is redeemed.

In our gospel today we have Matthew’s version of the temptations of Jesus in the desert after his Baptism by John. This links with the first reading. Here we have typical temptations. Firstly to use what power and skills one has entirely for one’s own benefit and gratification; secondly to show off and boast about oneself, in contrast to others you wish to outdo and dominate; and thirdly to gain great success in this world by ‘worshipping’ wealth, pleasure and the things of this world as secular. We are all subject to these kind of temptations and need the help of God (through others) to overcome them. These are typical of human temptations and in Luke’s telling of them he realises Jesus was tempted at other times as well, writing: “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13).

See Jeffs Jottings – Make me aware!

7th Sunday A

We don’t often have a reading from the book of Leviticus. It is the third book of the Bible; the first five books together are called the Law, but it is not just lists of laws but the five books are about the way God relates to the world. However the book of Leviticus is largely about rules; some are specifically about the Temple with all the ceremonies that had to be performed there by the priests. The Levites were one of the tribes that traced their descent from Abraham who was called by God; this book is named after them and from their ranks the priests were taken. But there are also rules for the people of all the tribes and the first reading is a selection of verses chosen from Leviticus to indicate to us today that the laws which the book is about are really about the inner attitude that people should have, not just externsl actions – just keeping the letter of the law.  It is an elaboration of the ten commandments; and our reading ends with a key command quoted by Jesus when talking about the Law.

The first two sentences of the second reading show us how Paul’s mind moves when dictating his letters, for they read as though they express one of his ideas that just came to mind, but they don’t relate particularly well to what went before, and really not at all to the rest of our reading. The idea expressed is that “you are the Temple of God”, that is, a sacred place where God is present and can be addressed. We notice that the “you” is plural in the Greek and we know that he is writing to the church in Corinth, so he is affirming that they as a community are where God is present in the world. The rest of our reading probably addresses some aspects of the Corinthian church that Paul has mentioned to them before in this letter. There seem to be different groups who have different ideas; but human ideas are all shown up as foolishness by God.  Paul is trying to lift them above the differences among them about Christianity.  They should try to realise that they, as a community, have the very Spirit of God within them; and it is this inner reality that Christianity is about and not personal differentces of practice or understanding.  Paul sees that every idea and all of the people are within God’s scheme of things and within His reality by being within the Body of Christ, which is how He is present in our world. Paul quotes from his bible (our Old Testament) to support his ideas.

For the gospel reading we have another section from what is presented as a sermon of Jesus.; as we hear it we should realise the very radical – deep nature – of the challenge to us as Christians that it puts forward.  What we have today is the last two of the five examples that Matthew writes to illustrate what is meant by this deepening of the Jewish Law. The first of the two is about response to being hurt or offended, “an eye for an eye.” This is a very old law among ancient peoples and may well have been introduced to curb the violent vendettas in which those suffering offence from another paid back worse, much worse, than they got. The detailed examples refer to the right of the Romans as occupying forces to require the locals to carry for them for at least a mile; “go even further” would be a hard saying of Jesus for his hearers in Galilee. The last of the examples of fulfilling the spirit of the laws, is about love of neighbour. Interestingly Christians still think of this as the Christian way – love God and love your neighbour – but what is said in this gospel passage is that you should extend your love also to enemies. This is based on what today we would understand as the redeemed and elevated state of humanity, enabled to live with the very life of Christ, who loves everyone and everything and died for this love. So the sermon concludes by urging us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. The beautiful prose of the passage should not distract us from the frightening challenge that it poses!

See Jeffs Jottings – Off, at and why

6th Sunday cycle A

We last had a reading from Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus) on the Feast of the Holy Family, where the title and nature of the book is introduced. Unusually there is a Prologue to the Book (here) which is interesting, and says it was written by his grandfather “So that by becoming familiar also with his book those who love learning might make even greater progress in living according to the law.”  It is a wisdom book, drawing on philosophy of Greek influence linked to the regular religious view of the Pharisees; the Scribes were not wanting to ‘corrupt’ their Scriptures with foreign ideas. We read from the 15th chapter out of 51; it is a very long book. While Catholics hear from this book, other Christians who follow the Revised Common Lectionary will have Deuteronomy 30:15-20. In this first reading we hear a section stressing the free choice that we have, to do what is right or what is wrong; the poetry makes it appear very black and white. We shall get our just deserts; but we are encouraged to keep the commandments and trust in God. The responsorial Psalm seems very appropriate to this reading.

In the second reading we have the sequel to what we heard last week. Paul had a good secular education and was a Pharisee who knew the Scriptures well. Now, as a Christian and a leading light at that, he feels it is his vocation to spread the good news beyond the Jewish community to all people; and the church in Corinth exemplifies his achievements. But before going to Corinth, according to Luke in the Acts of the Apostles he tried using his excellent knowledge of contemporary philosophy and thinking, to persuade an audience to turn to his God, but without any great success. Now, writing to the Corinthians, he has realised that the wisdom that Christians experience is overwhelmingly mysterious, but revealed to us in Christ through the Spirit. We have access to this great wonder to enlighten the path we should take in our lives. Paul’s quotation at the end of our reading for today cannot be found in the Jewish Scriptures nor anywhere else; he may be quoting from a popular saying or an version or text of Isaiah 64:4 earlier than we have. What is most to the point is that the revelation comes from God to “those who love Him.”

The gospel reading continues from where we read to last Sunday in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. In the light of what we know of the variations of attitudes in early Christianity to the Jewish Law and the acceptance of Gentiles, this section is interesting. Matthew here seems to propose that what Jesus taught was that the Jewish Law and teachings should not be done away with, but should be fulfilled. He expounds this in two ways; firstly, expressing the principles and clarifying what he means by ‘fulfil’ in this matter, and secondly, by giving examples of the challenging implications of these principles. For belonging to the kingdom of heaven, the teaching of Jesus is explained by Matthew as fulfilling the Law not just by keeping the letter of it as the Scribes and Pharisees do, but by understanding and acting upon the deeper and intensified significance of it. Six examples are used to clarify what is meant, of which we hear the first four. About murder, adultery, divorce and taking oaths. It is interesting that he writes that even the liturgical rule about bringing an offering to the altar must be set aside for the purpose of reconciliation with another person. What he writes about divorce is probably less severe than what we might read in Mark’s gospel. But overall, we might express this reading’s message as, ‘fulfil the heart of the Christian rules for living rather than the letter of them!’

See Jeffs Jottings – Exceed to succeed

5th Sunday

The first reading is from the second section in the book of Isaiah.  It is the second of three prophetic poems addressing the religious revival after the return from exile.  This second piece is about fasting, that is, giving up food and luxuries in order to become better people and more pleasing to God.  They used to do this a lot at times of difficulty, of bereavement and at fixed religious times in their calendar.  The poem wants to shift them away from these external practices, to the true spirit of living out their faith.  The prophet and preacher gets down to the basics in this passage: answering the question what is it that you must do to be a light in the world that you live in.  It’s no good the wealthy giving up a few things when they have so many that they don’t miss them; it’s pointless to expect the poor and hungry to give up anything at all.  If you have this proper spirit of fasting, even without actually giving anything up, then you will be pleasing to God; then God will hear your prayers for the good things that you pray for; then you will be a light in the community, the light of God’s goodness.  Nothing need be added, except perhaps that we need to consider whether we live in this way – for which we have an example in Jesus who is the way the truth and the life.

The second reading from the First letter to the Corinthians is from the beginning of only the second chapter out of sixteen (according to how it has been divided).  Paul was well educated both as a Roman citizen and as a Jewish scholar, but in a way this played no upfront part when he preaches in Corinth or as he writes to them here.  It is just before this (at the end of Chapter 1) that he expresses the humility he had in coming to the Corinthian followers of Jesus – not with cleverness or great learning but just with the life and love of Jesus.  He has already written to them saying they should not be partisan by favouring one leader or another, he had mentioned followers of Apollos as an instance, a person who seems to have attracted some members by his intellectual and skillful preaching.  Now Paul develops his thoughts about this.  In the verse previous to our reading Paul writes “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”  The Corinthians were a lively if sometimes troublesome community, and Paul recalls that he came to them with much trepidation.  It is just before this (at the end of Chapter 1) that he expresses the humility he had in coming to the Corinthian followers of Jesus – not with cleverness or great learning but just with the life and love of Jesus.  But, following his own recommendations, he doesn’t boast of his success with them, but attributes any good he does to the Spirit of God working through him.  This is not unlike the first reading in its stress on the spirit and the right way of doing ‘religious’ things.

In the gospel we read from what we have often called the Sermon on the Mount, which is noted for the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor…”), which come just before our gospel reading for today.  After the Infancy Narrative in Matthew’s gospel, there are five large sections, each comprising two parts, the first a narrative of some kind and the second a report of things Jesus had taught; so our reading is from the first of these five sections.  Jesus uses down to earth language drawing on the things with which the people he speaks to are familiar.  They use salt, which just adds something, some improvement, to the food that they eat, if it didn’t do that it may as well be thrown away.  The ordinary people would have one lamp per household, so that at night they could see what they needed to and could carry it close to where they needed light.  Like salt, Jesus says, your Christian life should improve the lives of others, but you shouldn’t impose too much (boastfully), others should notice the improvement but not who brings it.  Again your life as a follower of Jesus should shine out as an example to others and be helpful to them, and should not be hidden away – don’t hide it under a cover.  It’s a fine balance we have to have, “don’t be over the top, but don’t hide.”

See Jeffs Jottings – Acts before facts