Advent 1 B

3rd December 2017

The first reading comes from a great cry of lament that has a typical pattern for prayer at the time, and which is still found sometimes in our prayers; first of all God is ‘reminded’ of all that He has done and continues, for the benefit of the petitioner – of the relationship that there is between Himself and us; but then it is a cry of desperation, of feeling let down by a God who doesn’t act as we expect – He is giving us grief; followed by a cry for God to come anew. We think of God as our father and redeemer, but can be too confident about this and reliant on God’s love and forgiveness with the consequence that we encounter difficulties, we actually become hardened in our attitude to religion and to God – God gives us a bad time so we shall be stripped of our complacency and realise our utter dependence on Him. To execute this process seems to have been a task given to Isaiah, called to “make the heart of this people heavy!” (Isaiah 6:10). In the reading we hear that God hardens the people’s heart so that they will lament their situation, realise their wickedness, call on God desperately to bring good times upon them, openly admitting their guilt and the weakness of themselves before God like clay in the hands of a potter. Two and a half thousand years ago when this was written people were not so self-willed and individualistic as we might be today, and they would not have had such a caring and gentle view of God, so they thought of Him as actually hardening their hearts – an image that is strange to us. But now and in Advent we have to change our ways and be ready to help and work for our God, who comes like a weak and helpless babe not bursting into our lives with power and might; our image of God is put on its head! It is not so much that He helps us, but mysteriously, we must help Him.

Paul opens this letter to the Corinthians with a paean of praise for the blessings given them by God in Jesus Christ. This is what we sometimes need to hear, because, not only are we generally wanting to please God, but also He is determined to bring to a successful conclusion to the work of creating and redeeming our world. Paul is a well educated and skilful spiritual leader, and this is a most tactful opening address to those whom he needs to correct in a number of ways throughout this letter. The words can apply to us, when he writes that we are not short of any needful spiritual gifts as we prepare for the advent of Christ. God will surely bring a happy fulfilment to His work with us; but we might think, if Paul was writing to us, what reprimand and criticism would he make after this uplifting introduction.

The gospel reading comes at the end of the only long discourse attributed to Jesus in Mark’s gospel; it is a discourse about the final days before the end, similar to a type of visionary writing of first century alluding to disasters leading up to the day of judgement and followed by a kind of farewell speech expected of important religious leaders. The reading is the concluding exhortation; it is mixed up with allusions to parables that the readers would know, like those inMatthew and Luke about a leader leaving his servants in charge. There is a hint that even if the times seem dark (“at midnight”) they must be ready; for at the time of writing, the Temple has been destroyed and the Romans are becoming suspicious of Christians. At Advent when we are preparing to celebrate the past coming of Jesus with an eye on the final completion of creation, we are reminded to remain faithful and resist the temptation to postpone committing ourselves wholeheartedly to Christ – to Christian living. From the old missal’s Collect prayer for this day comes the phrase ‘Stir Up Sunday’ with its culinary traditions!

Christ the King

26th November 2017

David the youngest in the family was out tending the sheep when the prophet Samuel called for him and announced that he was God’s choice to be king. The people lived closer to nature than we do and were familiar with the work of the shepherd, living with and caring for the sheep and leading them to safe and profitable grazing. A king was often likened to a shepherd with responsibility for the care of the people. The prophet Ezekiel draws on this sympathetic imagery when trying to encourage and console the people who were in the difficult situation of exile – some had fled to Egypt but most were in Babylon. So he depicts God as a shepherd caring for them and gathering them together. Yet this great comforting message also has a warning of judgement, for God acts righteously. Throughout their history as a settled nation in Israel some had been rich and materially successful and even now in exile some would become well-off and powerful – sometimes the words for these folk are poorly translated as “the sleek and the strong” or even as “the fat and the healthy.” But there will be judgement as the next verse makes clear; God will be a shepherd but will sort out the good from the bad – the sheep from the goats. The responsorial psalm to this reading is appropriately number 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

The first recipients of this letter were worried about death and about what would happen to those who died before the final coming of Christ as judge, so Paul in this letter addresses this worry. They would know the story of the fall when Adam sinned and so became mortal and due for death. Adam stands for all humanity and we know even now that the only thing certain about our life as humans is that it will end in death. But Christ, Paul is anxious to point out to the Corinthians, brings about a significant change to all of this by his conquest of the finality of death and by having a life that goes beyond death – by His resurrection. And just as Adam’s situation affects all of us, so all are changed by this transcendent life of Christ. All this will be realised at the time of the fulfillment of the kingdom, the end of the world, when all who are in Christ, will become one people in Christ and under God. Let us live as people of Christ, ready for our part in all of this!

This Gospel reading is the last of a series of parables, and is the conclusion of a section about the end of the present age; it is followed by the account of the last Supper and the beginning of the narrative of the Passion, Death and Resurrection. It is a description of the nature of the Last Judgement. This whole section is unique to Matthew’s gospel and somewhat typical of his style and content. It is easily understood as a call to treat others well, especially those in need and this is a very important lesson for us. However what makes this care for others the deciding factor in the final judgement, is the important theological teaching that it holds. Firstly, it is quite explicit that Jesus is the divine king with glory around him, angels below and God as his Father; the Son of Man, the expected Messiah is also called Lord, the name of God. Secondly, all other human beings, particularly the needy, are so intimately involved with the Son of God that any attitude and action towards them is directed also to Christ Himself; in some way He lives in us, who are all needy one way or another. These doctrinal elements in the story are complemented with the Christian code for life; positively this is doing good for others, but the Jewish leaders and authorities would also have noticed the absence of any seeming benefit from all the religious practices and devotions that they supported, taught and enacted. What a lot this has to say to us here and now!

33rd Sunday A

18th Nov 2017

The reading from Proverbs is a surprising choice, though it is a beautiful picture of a wife if we overlook the the servility of the woman that was part of the writer’s culture.  It is a selection of verses from Proverbs chapter 31.  It might remind us of last week’s first reading praising the lady Sophia (meaning wisdom).  In the end we must realise the beauty in a person who loves God and show care and devotion to others.

The second reading addresses the anxiety the Thessalonians have about the end of the world – many Christians thought that it would be quite soon, but Paul wants to allay their fears – the phrase ‘like a thief in the night’ is just a way of saying that you don’t know when it will come.  If they are good living people they should have nothing to fear.

The Gospel reading takes up the same message about being ready to meet the Lord when that time comes.  It does make the point that we are all different in the talents that we have, but what matters is what we make of what we’ve got – we all must strive to make our own sphere of influence as good at we can.

32nd Sunday A

12th November 2018

The first reading is from the later Greek writing not in the Hebrew Bible.  It is about wisdom; which is female in the Greek language and also in the female name ‘Sophie’ which means wisdom.  She is to be love, cared for, cherished and constantly looked for and looked after – and this that we are told of her is itself very wise!

The second reading shows us that in the early days of Christianity there was the thought that the complete end of God’s creating would be soon; though this was not to be, the ideas about life in God after death, eventually for us all, is still what Christianity believes and what gives us comfort.

The parable from Matthew that is our gospel reading is also about death – and notice that it is likened to the marital joining of one with the beloved – and that is a beautiful image of death; but we must be ready for it.

 

31st Sunday Cycle A

5th November 2017

THe first reading consists in extracts from Malachi 1:14- 2:10 which is really an unattributed book because the name of it just means ‘my spokesperson’ i.e. God’s prophet.  It seems to date from a time when the Jews are back in Jerusalem after their years of exile in Jerusalem.  So the leaders should be busy re-establishing their good and wholesome religious practices free from pagan influence; but it seems that the priests are not doing this task well and are losing the respect of people because of this; so the prophet must speak the harsh words of God against them and it seems that they will lose the respect of the ordinary people of God.

The second reading is 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9 with verse 13 added (“We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers”).  Paul reminds them how committed he was to them when he was first with them and how much he loved and cared for them, asking for nothing in return.  He made some money for himself with his profession as a tentmaker.

For the gospel we have Matthew Chapter 23 verses 1 to 12 which is when his story of the life of Jesus comes towards the climax because of Jesus’ opposition to the the leaders of the Jewish religion at that time.  This criticism from Jesus of the Pharisees was particularly suited to the Jewish Christians that Matthew chiefly addresses because about this time when the Temple was destroyed the Pharisees still thought of their  themselves as the important leaders of the Jews and regarded the converts to Christianity with disdain and so they had to start their own gatherings for religious services.  But for Jesus this was the inevitable climax of what he had come to say and do – to promote love of others as fellow human beings and to offer companionship with all at whatever cost.

 

30th Sunday Cycle A

29th October 2017

Exodus 22:21-26

The first part of the book of Exodus lives up to the meaning of its title – exodus means going out; it is about the plight of the Israelites in Egypt, the early life of Moses and the miraculous escape from slavery into the desert and on the way to the promised land.  But then we read of the establishment of the covenant between them and Yahweh.  But this is an account put together after much retelling adapted and development.  During that time the rules by which the people should live became established and were put together in the form of a book; they originated at the time of Moses and the Book is attributed to him (Exodus 24:1-7).  The first reading for today is taken from this book shortly after the Ten Commandments were given at Sinai; among all the ways that those in covenant with God should live is this definite section about how to treat immigrants – foreigners living in your land.  We notice also the strong image of God as a strict ruler who in anger will deal harshly with those who let him down.  Ideas about God also develop with time.

1 Thess 1:5c-10

The second reading follows on from that we had last week from the letter of Paul to the Thessalonians.  Now we hear how this Gentile community of Christians have influenced others in that part of the world.  Paul had preached to them about there being just one God, whereas they were used to a multiplicity of gods in their pagan environment.  He had preached to them about how they should live their lives to please this one God.  And it was quite a development for them to move from polytheism to monotheism and to a belief in a God who cared for them.  Paul himself had developed in his understanding as a Jew to the idea of a God who was there for all peoples.  We detect in this reading two other ideas that were present at that time; the potential wrath of God and the proximity of the final coming of Christ.  Some Christians today still have these ideas, but generally we think of God as a loving father and the end of the world as a distant future fulfillment of Christ in the world.

Matthew 22:34-40

The gospel does not follow immediately from last week’s reading; in between is something about the Sadducees trying to question Jesus about life after death, for they didn’t believe in resurrection.  Today we read from Matthew how after the Sadducees, the Pharisees come to Jesus.  The story is based on Mark (12:28-34) where a scribe asks what is the most important commandment, and in response to Jesus’ answer tells him he is right.  But in Matthew’s version the encounter is more confrontational; a Pharisee asks the question in order to trap Jesus; for them more than 600 laws in the Bible were all of equal importance.  But the importance for us is Jesus’ reply, namely that loving God and neighbour are the two most important commandments; the first is taken from the succinct and central creed of the Jews in Deuteronomy (6:4-9) and thus avoids the trap posed to him.  However, as thinking develops, nowadays we might think of them as necessary and best practice rather than commandments.  I think, in addition, that we might put the two together and believe that loving others is the way that we love God; and we extend ‘neighbours’ to mean all other people that we encounter or who need our love.

29th Sunday Cycle A

22nd October 2017

It is a time when the Babylonian empire is coming to an end.  Many Jews are in exile there, bemoaning there lot by the rivers of Babylon (see Psalm 137, made into a song).  But after a generation and a time that somewhat transformed their religion, God will set them free.  The empire is being overtaken by one called Cyrus.  The reading we have today (part of Isaiah 45:1-6) actually mentions this non-Jewish leader by name, thus dating the text to around 530 BC.  The return will be a momentous experience for the chosen people of God.  But as part of the dramatic transformation in their religion at this time, this text has God addressing Cyrus and calling him the anointed one – a phrase that in the original Hebrew is Messiah and in Greek is Christos.  This is a word that we now think of as referring only to Jesus so it also gives us pause for thought.  This may well mean that everyone who is contributing to the world how God wants it, is doing so through the wish and blessing of God.  Maybe Christians, who share this name, should make sure we live up to it.  The text implies that many without claiming to or even recognising any God can nevertheless be doing His will even though unknowingly.  We must ask are we who should know the will of God for us, doing what we should?

The Second Reading is the beginning of the First Letter to the Thessalonians.  Paul, together with Silvanus and Timothy, went initially about 50 AD to this capital city of Macedonia in Greece.  There was a large community of Jews there and for the first few weeks he preached in their synagogue.  But there were a lot of Gentiles who were enthusiastic in other religious cults as well; it was mostly these that came to hear the word preached; they gathered in the house of one called Jason and initiated the Christian community there;  the Jews caused trouble for them and Paul and companions had to leave, according to the account in Acts (17:1-9).  The opening of the letter shows the feelings Paul had for them now that they had formed into a strong community.  Going straight to the important elements of their new found religion, which are also central for us, he notes their faith, their works of charity and the firm confidence – which we often name as faith hope and charity.  Like them we too are chosen for particular roles in the world. 

In the gospel extract we read today, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life is now moving towards its completion; it is clear that the Jewish leaders want rid of him, for his way of life is such a challenge to theirs; it also proved almost incomprehensible to his disciples when he tried to explain to them what he foresaw his fate would be (what we read as predictions of his passion).  It is the Pharisees who want to entrap Jesus so as to have a case against him to put to the courts.  They sent their disciples to link up with the enthusiasts for king Herod who ruled under the Roman emperor, with whom they would not want directly to co-operate themselves.  But what they had to say to Jesus, according to Matthew, showed a real grasp of the driving force of Jesus’ life: addressing him as teacher, they said he spoke the truth, the truth about God, and he showed no partiality but rather indifference to people’s opinion of him.  The question is about the legality of paying tax to the Roman emperor; Jesus is a Jew and in an occupied country; Jesus is known to be fearlessly outspoken for what he thinks is right.  This is a good entrapment question for it seems the answer must undermine either the Jewish tradition or the Roman requirements, and whichever way he chooses they have something against Jesus; the coin for this poll-tax attributed divinity to Caesar which a Jew couldn’t agree to, but refusal to pay it would offend those supporting Roman rule.  When we are caught in a dilemma because of our beliefs, we must either walk away or have a very clever answer to the situation as Jesus did.