Sunday Scripture: Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

I absolutely love Scripture. I love books actually, but perhaps because I love books, and because I love to be challenged, I love Scripture. I think another reason for me particularly loving the Bible is that I didn't understand it for so long. I had to work hard at overcoming my misconceptions about what the Bible was, in order to really start to love it. In the end, when everyone else was writing dissertations on special moral theology, I wrote mine on Scripture. Obviously, spending five years studying theology will only serve to improve your understanding and love of Scripture, however I'm also aware that not everyone has that luxury. For this reason I have decided to try and help you all out a bit.

I get quite frustrated at Mass, that quite often the ministers of the Word; the 'lay readers', don't appear to have any sense of what it is they are actually doing. Nor do they appear to have any sense of the drama, the majesty, the importance or the interconnectedness of the Scripture they are supposed to be imparting to the congregation.

Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Dei Verbum is one of the most important documents of the Council and teaches us so much about how God is revealed to us. Most importantly, God is revealed to us through Christ Jesus. As Pope Benedict XVI puts it:

"What did Jesus actually bring if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought?

The answer is very simple: God. He has brought God. He has brought the God who formerly unveiled his countenance gradually. First to Abraham, then to Moses and the Prophets, and then in the Wisdom Literature—the God who revealed his face only in Israel, even though he was also honoured among the pagans in various shadowy guises. It is this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the true God, whom he has brought to the nations of the earth."

So Jesus constitutes the fullness of divine revelation. The faith He deposited was not written, but oral, and given to men; the Apostles. The Apostles then handed down this teaching, by their oral teaching, by example and by observances, what they had learned from the lips of Christ, and through living with him, observing what he did, and from the prompting of the Holy Spirit (c.f. Dei Verbum no. 7). This is our sacred Apostolic Tradition (from the Latin tradere: to hand on). As St. Paul put it:

"So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter." 2 Thess 2:15

Then of course, we have Sacred Scripture, and the Church holds that the books of both the Old and the New Testaments are sacred, and teach solidly, faithfully and without error that which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation. (c.f. Dei Verbum no. 11). However, God speaks in Scripture, through men in human fashion. We therefore have a duty to investigate carefully what meaning the sacred writers really intended and "what God wanted to manifest by means of their words" (Dei Verbum n. 12).

I could go on with that—Dei Verbum is such an important document for us today I think, as it clearly states the importance, and the limitations of the Bible, as well as how we should approach it. What I mean is that it clearly shows that a literal interpretation is a poor one, and that we must take great care to interpret what is being taught correctly, or else all kinds of madness can ensue. We all know where dogmatic attitudes to literalism lead us. Dei Verbum explains how, because the Bible is not so much a book, as a collection of books, attention needs to be given to literary forms: is the text historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse? What is the cultural, social and historical context? When was it written? Who by? What were they attempting to assert? What is the style of feeling, speaking and narrating that prevailed in contemporary culture and how did people normally communicate with each other at that period? Equally, it is essential that Scripture is understood in the context of the content and unity of the whole as well as in the context of the living tradition of the whole Church if the sacred meaning is to be correctly worked out. (c.f. Dei Verbum n. 12)

So anyway, I plan to try and write a bit about Sunday's readings every week to try and show how amazing they are and what's going on, starting with last Sunday, which was the Sixteenth Sunday in ordinary time, year B.

Jesus the Good Shepherd

The readings are:

  • First Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-6
  • Psalm: 22 (23); Response: v. 1
  • Second Reading: Ephesians 2:13-18
  • Gospel: Mark 6: 30-34
First, a little preliminary survey of each of the books.

Jeremiah is one of the latter prophets of Israel, his service to the LORD and His people spanned more than forty years (627-c. 582 B.C.), long enough for Judah to pass under the rule of five kings and a governor who were subservient to the dominion of three successive foreign empires. The prophet's message is one of action. Genuine prophecy is more than a mere message from another world, momentarily altering the speaker's state of consciousness, and then passes through his lips (arguably the way Mohammedan prophecy is purported to have been revealed). Jeremiah teaches us that this is counterfeit prophecy (c.f. 23:25-40). Genuine prophecy is a word from God intended to take flesh permanently in the life of His people. By God's action, the word is first embodied in the prophet's life and, over time, shapes his whole existence. The prophet stand-in the midst of God's people as a sign illustrating the effectiveness of God's judgement and promise contained in the word he speaks. We find the interaction between the divine and human life illustrated most fully in Jeremiah whose life is described in detail unparalleled among all the prophets.

Psalms is the Bible's manual of inspired song and prayer. The collection of 150 Psalms represents the culmination of a long tradition that extends across almost the full span of the history of ancient Israel, from the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) until the last centuries of the Old Testament era (c. 200 B.C.). In Hebrew the canon of the Bible is called the TNK or Tanakh, which consists of Torah (teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—thus TaNaKh. Psalms makes up the first of the writings in the Hebrew text. One of the most powerful things we know about the Psalms is that this is how Jesus Himself prayed.

Ephesians was traditionally accepted to have been a letter written by St. Paul. He twice identifies himself thus (1:1 and 3:1). However it was first questioned by Erasmus of Rotterdam in the sixteenth century and since then there has been much dialogue regarding authorship. Today it is widely accepted that Ephesians was written in Paul's name by one of his disciples who wished to honour the apostle by developing his doctrine and applying it to new situations in the Church. Indeed Ephesians is the most doctrinal of all the Pauline corpus. The letter is dated either early 60's (if you believe Paul wrote it), or late 90's. It constitutes Paul's mystagogical catechesis for the newly baptised, its towering theme is the "mystery" of Jesus Christ once concealed but now revealed (1:9; 3:4; 9). The mystery is the divine plan of vocation and predestination, redemption, and the recapitulation of all things in Christ.

The Gospel According to St. Mark is widely accepted as the earliest Gospel, written before 70 A.D. Written in Rome for Gentile believers by a disciple of Simon Peter who Peter refers to as "my son Mark" (1 Pet 5:13). Mark was also notably an associate of the apostle Paul (Acts 12:25; 15:37). He is the cousin of the missionary Barnabus according to Col 4:10. Tradition states that after the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, Mark was the first to establish churches in Alexandria in northern Egypt. Mark's Gospel is the shortest, and the fastest moving.

Drawing them all Together.

Today's Psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd," is perhaps the single most famous piece of Scripture in the world, after the Our Father. It presents us with the vitally important image of the shepherd, the true shepherd, in trying to understand God and our relationship with Him. The imagery of sheep and shepherds might seem archaic to some in our very modern and sophisticated society, but the quest for true leadership is vital and perennial. The ancient Israelites hailed the LORD as their leader, yet eventually they craved to have a king like all the other nations around them. The role of kingship is both glorious and fraught. After the noble achievements of David and Solomon, it became a divisive and corrupting influence on the people of God, as human selfishness and stupidity led to political and moral collapse.

Out of the mess of history and human failure, God promised through his prophet to send a true leader in the future who would guide and love His people: the Shepherd-King. "I will raise up shepherds to look after my flock and pasture them." This shepherd image is then expanded and merged into one of true kingship: See the days are coming when I will raise a virtuous branch for David, who will reign as true king and be wise." The image of the Messiah is given its definitive poetic expression for all time in the message of the Psalm with all its promises of peace and safety: "He guides me along the right path; he is true to his name." He cares for each one of us with a tender love, as we know Jesus does from the Gospel. Mark tells us "As he stepped ashore, he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them because trey were like sheep without a shepherd." Jesus comes as the embodiment of the true shepherd of the sheep. The true leader is known for his wise decisions and sure guidance, and St. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, shows us how in Jesus we will have true peace. He breaks down barriers of pride and prejudice; he brings true reconciliation, and shows us the inner meaning of God's plan. We follow the Law as a sign of our love for Him, not in order to establish our own righteousness. With this kind of leadership we can follow with confidence, and help combat the vain stupidity of the human condition through the peace He creates between us. Following Jesus bestows on us the greatest of Messianic promises: "Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life. In the Lord's own house shall I dwell forever."


  1. I think this is a great idea, Mark. I particularly like the way you give the context for the different readings: most Catholics, it seems to me, know too little about the different books in the Bible.

    The only other thing I'd say is that I would have liked more on the actual theme and content of the various readings as you pull them together: in other words, you left me wanting more...

  2. Cool, OK thanks for that. I'll try to improve for the seventeenth Sunday!


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