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

The Presentation

The readings

In the first reading we have good news for people who may well have just got back into their own land after being exiled by a foreign power. They may have felt that their God had abandoned them – though can any one of them deny abandoning God in one way or another?  However in this pssage God says “behold I am sending my messenger”. in the Hewbrew original it would be read as “Hi-ni so-le-ah ma-la-ki” and you might recognise the name of the (author of the) book – Malachi – the messenger.  But the message is a forecast of one like a envoy being sent to sort things out – and this will seem harsh – like a refiner or thorough polisher. If we apply this to the coming to us of Jesus then if we are honest we expect that there will be difficulties for us as well as welcome – for we all have something good about us and also somthing that is ‘disappointing’ for God.

The second reading from what is called Hebrews, gives a quite early understanding of Jesus from a Jewish standpoint but with understanding also of non-Jewish thinking and viewpoint at the time.  He emphasised that Jesus is really human – using the phrase flesh and blood to express this humanity which we all have in common with Him. Not the flesh and blood ideas that catholic christians especially associate with their celebrations of the last supper but Jesus shares in our humnaity.  He was tested and temted as all are, but never gave in to temptation and so death was a transportation of this human into the afterlife with God – and as such is like a high priest among us humans.

The gospel is taken from Luke who writes something about Jesus that fits in well with what the letter to the Hebrews had been saying.  Jesus is a real human and indeed a Jew and so goes through the natural procedures for a Jewish baby.  But Luke has this story of the praise of the baby but also an expression of Jesus’ true humanity -facing dificulties to come.  And the recognition of Jesus by Simeon and aged Anna in the temple in Jerusalem.  We read part of Luke’s narrative of the birth and infancy of Jesus. In the alternative shorter reading we have part of the story generally called the Presentation. We must remember that the Gospel is ‘Good News;’ it is the good news about Jesus and made available for all, and that’s what we must look for in it. Luke is not too familiar with all the rules and rituals associated with the birth of the first male child to a family; he seems to confuse the purification of the mother, requiring sacrifice of two birds, with the redemption of the boy child at the cost of two shekels. But he stresses time and again that they did all that was required of Jewish parents, for Jesus was a Jew who fulfilled all the central requirements of that religion. But Jesus was also the one who brought the fulfillment of all the expectations of the Jewish religion by his life and for all of us to aim for. As the poem of Simeon states, this child brings the consolation expected by the Jews (referred to in the later chapters of Isaiah) and the glory for all people – and a light for the Gentiles too. The details of Luke’s story here recall something of those about the birth of Samuel to Hannah (1 Sam 1:20-28). So, the message for us might be consolation and glory, but it also includes the struggle of conformity to what is right. The longer reading includes a prophetic statement from Simeon about this difficulty and general problems. At the time of Luke’s writing of this, towards thw end of the 1st century AD the followers of Jesus had already experienced arguments about conformity to the Jewish requirements and persecution from the Roman secular, authorities and something of this has been with the history of the Christians ever since – problems with church regulations, with societies’ standards and with the weakness of our own selves.

See Jeffs Jottings – Flesh and blood


3rd Sun. Ord. Time

The first reading comes from a section of Isaiah which nowadays we associate with Christmas. In Advent (the 4th Sunday of Advent, cycle A) we heard a prophecy of the birth of a young lady’s first child to be called Immanuel (‘God with us’). There are two other children in this section of the book; they have equally meaningful names: Maher Shalal Hash Baz (‘disaster will come upon many’) and She’ar Yashub (‘rescue for some’). All this precedes the section we read today; and after our reading comes the source of the well-known Christmas carol, “Unto us a son is born” (Isaiah 9:6). Our reading refers to Zebulun and Naphtali, which were tribal areas in the break-away northern kingdom. It is in these areas, we read, there have been difficulties but also glorious times (perhaps in the future). Because of the editing of the book of Isaiah over many centuries, it is uncertain what the historical reference is; it could be about 733 BC when the Assyrians invaded that land, but would eventually loose power, or it could be about the 6th century BC exile in Babylon and the eventual return. But for us today, it is clearly linked with the words of the gospel: there may have been darkness but now the light begins to shine!

The second reading gives us an insight into a part of the early church in Corinth. Paul has heard that there are divisions within the community of believers – some of whom might be from the church that meets in the house of a lady called Chloe. Among the believers there seem to be groups who align themselves with different viewpoints associated with different key persons. Some may treat Paul as their inspiration and want to follow his line of teaching and his way of living as a Christian. Some prefer a person called Apollos, who may have had a more intellectual approach to the teaching and they may consider themselves as a result more pleasing to God. Some may see Peter as the key leader of those who follow the way of Jesus and who are keen on not doing away with all that is taught in the Jewish scriptures and all that has been drawn up as rules from them. Others, seeing themselves as superior, want to go back to the simple way of Jesus. Paul thinks they are all wrong to be arguing with each other, to be thinking that they alone have it right and being antagonistic towards others. Paul adds that he doesn’t preach in any particular or sophisticated way, but just wants to communicate the meaning of the cross. What would he say to the world-wide church today of many denominations and so many different attitudes – do we all have it wrong because it is a mystery, a mystery that God’s son should end up crucified as a criminal?

In the gospel we read Matthew’s account of the actual start of Jesus’ public ministry. Before this he has written of the Infancy, of the Baptism and of Jesus’ Temptations. Matthew takes what is one sentence in Mark and imprints it with his own depth of meaning. For example, John the Baptist has be arrested by Herod and Matthew writes that upon hearing this Jesus moves away from his early years in Nazareth. He goes into an area by the sea of Galilee, a place where there are more non-Jews. This reflects the pattern Matthew has written of in his Infancy Narrative: there Joseph takes Jesus away from the threat of Herod, and it is Gentiles (the magi) who are helpful to the holy family. Matthew sees this move as God’s will and a Jewish way of showing this is to see it as fulfilling the (Jewish) scriptures. So, as in the Infancy Narratives, Matthew has a reference to a prophecy being fulfilled – the passage of our first reading (but differing slightly from both the Hebrew and the Greek originals as we know them – perhaps just remembered rather than checked!). So Jesus begins to preach, asking for a change of one’s life, for the influence of God (the Kingdom) is beginning with this start of Jesus’ public activity of teaching and healing.

See Jeffs Jottings – A light for all

2nd Sun. Ord. Time

The Lord speaks to one of His spokesmen (such is a prophet), with a quite progressive message for the chosen people (for us); it announces that though they are chosen yet His purpose is to extend salvation to all peoples everywhere.  This first reading is the second prophecy/poem about the Servant of the Lord, found in the part of the book of Isaiah put together during the Exile in Babylon. We have just a few of its verses read to us, but selected to make a very significant point: that the chosen servant is to be a light of the nations, so that salvation may reach to everyone – to the ends of the earth. We see this insight that struggled to develop throughout the history of the Jews before Christ, and still had difficulty being grasped in the early church – and perhaps in our church today. The universal love of God is now generally recognised in the teaching of various Christian denominations; but the practice of this love and of its implications is still a difficulty both for some sections of the church and for us individually. Imagine the situation of the Jews in Exile, hit by this message that God actually loves those enemies of theirs, and that they, being a light to the Gentiles, should show this love to them.

About the year 52 AD Paul writes to the Church/congregations in Corinth where he had originally preached.  Though he intends to address some awkward issues with them, he opens the letter positively to these people called by God and prays for them to have grace and peace.  He had preached the good news to them two years previously and his message was accepted by some Jews and by some Gentiles too. We note that he names his authority as him being an apostle and calls his fellow worker, brother, as Christians used to address each other. Each cluster of Christian believers is called by him Church, the original meaning behind the word is ‘gathering,’ what today we might call a congregation. The members are made holy through Christ, but are called to be holy within the wider community of all who profess the same faith. If this is the challenge they face then they need the final prayer in Paul’s opening greeting: God send you grace and peace! This was just a private letter to the church in Corinth, but it was probably read in other churches as well and hence got preserved and eventually incorporated into the collection of sacred writings seen as the Word of God to all – our New Testament. So we might read these words as addressed to our congregation, challenging us to this demanding but practical holiness – holiness, a word we might well be hesitant about.

In his Gospel John clearly reminds readers of the Baptist’s own words about the superiority of Christ.  We notice that the word ‘sin’ in the ‘Lamb of God’ saying is singular and so implying all sinfulness in the world, which will be overcome by Christ.  So in the gospel we have part of the account of the encounter between John the Baptist and Jesus. There were some early believers who treated the Baptist as though he were more important than Jesus; after all he seemed much more charismatic, dramatic and confident, as well as gathering a lot of attention from all ranks of society. So in this fourth gospel there is emphasis on the inferiority of the Baptist to Jesus; his role was really just to recognise Jesus, to point him out to others and to help his followers to convert from their previous way of living. Jesus has already been baptised by John and is now being pointed out to the crowd. The passage includes the well-known sentence: ‘behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. The Jews before the destruction of the Temple were used to the sacrifice of lambs, and the Passover was a special meal of lamb commemorating the escape from Egyptian slavery centuries earlier. The fourth gospel was finalised quite late in the first century and so this phrase may refer to the Last Supper (probably of lamb) which Jesus had with his disciples and which was re-enacted in some way at early Christian gatherings and still is to this day in our churches in a less realistic way – with just a little bread and a sip of wine. That Last Supper was a symbolic expression of Jesus’ whole life given for the good of others, for the whole of humanity; it was a life shortly to be completed, ending with the crucifixion.

See Jeffs Jottings – Your calling

Jesus’ Baptism


The way that humans understand their role in the world varies; and the understanding that religious people have of the relationship between God and them is never the same and sometimes develops.  In the lead-up to Christmas we have had many passages in which the Jews expressed their hopes and expectations of God; they thought of ideal leaders, of being gloriously successful and of leading the rest of humanity.  But now we hear of other trends that they were developing, based on their experiences of bad times, of disappointments and especially of being away from what they thought of as their God-given homeland.  Tentatively there arises the thought of a subservient role for themselves, even of suffering for the benefit of others.  In part of the book of Isaiah from the time of the Exile in Babylon, there are four poems about a servant of the Lord and what he will do.  The reading for today is part of the first of these.  It is never clear who the servant is meant to be; it could be an individual saintly person, one of the prophets or all the chosen people as a group; but Christians have always seen Jesus as the one referred to in these poems; that is why this particular passage is chosen for us today.  It speaks of justice for all, of gentle caring for the weakest and of miracles for those with various ills; a servant who is a promise for them and a light for all.  We respond to the reading, with parts of Psalm 29 which is about the thunderous rain and lightning that is both a hardship and a blessing for this agricultural people; it is called the voice of God and it is a revelation of the glory of God and peace but also hardship for His people.

We know that Peter spent a good bit of time with Jesus, and though he got to know him, no one could ever grasp the full impact He was to have.  Eventually Peter learnt to see Jesus as the Son of God who shows us God’s universal love and forgiveness.  After the resurrection, Peter worked at spreading this good news (the gospel) to others.  Luke in the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the early growth of this message of Christianity; he writes how Peter began to accept that God no longer required the rules of his Jewish upbringing, for God loves all people as much as they will let Him.  In our reading from Acts Luke tells us of Peter preaching about this new insight he had when he visited Cornelius whose household was not Jewish.  Jesus after His baptism began to show the world that God loves all people who show to Him and to others due respect – respect is perhaps a better word than the ‘fear’ in our translation.  There was a practice in the Near East that you lowered your face when meeting  important people and if they wanted to check who you were they lifted your bowed head to see your face; Peter’s opening words literally say, God does not (to check who they are) lift the face of anyone (προσωπολημπτης); translated as “shows no partiality”; God loves us whoever we are! Christians have not always grasped this but it was reaffirmed in the Vatican II Council’s Document on The Church para 9: “At all times and in every race God has given welcome to whosoever fears Him and does what is right.” Quoting from our reading today.

For the Gospel we have Matthew’s story of the baptism of Jesus by John.  All four gospels tell this story but not all in the same way.  For Mark this is the start of the Gospel, of the public ministry of Jesus; as He comes up our of the water a voice from heaven (God) tells Jesus He is His Son, on whom the Spirit comes down in the way a dove flies down to land.  In Luke the account is much the same, except the Spirit actually takes on the bodily form of a dove.  But Matthew reverts to Mark’s way of putting it; yet Matthew wants to make it quite clear that Jesus is superior to the Baptist and so has John’s hesitancy to baptise Jesus – for Jesus is like other people except for sin.  The baptism John preached, just like ours, was a symbol of starting a new way of life.  For Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel the reader already knows that Jesus is the Son of God, but up until this point Jesus has not shown this publicly; but now it is announced and the voice from heaven is addressed to all bystanders: “Behold, my beloved Son!”

See Jeffs Jottings – Re-commit!