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

This is the third of my posts talking about the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass. This has been a most eventful week for me. Last Sunday was the anniversary of my daughter Ruth's tragic death, we were blessed with the gift of a new baby daughter last Friday, Mary Therese, and my mum went into hospital on Tuesday for an operation. I would appreciate it if you could remember us in your prayers! For these reason, I may not have the time to be as thorough as I would like this week, but I'll certainly do my best. This Sunday the theme for the readings could best be summed up as:

The Bread of Heaven

The readings are:

  • First Reading: Exodus 16:2-4
  • Psalm: 77: 3-4, 23-25, 54; Response: v. 24
  • Second Reading: Ephesians 4: 17, 20-24
  • Gospel: John 6: 24-35
First, a little preliminary survey of each of the books.

I will post the same, or similar prelims week on week, for each book as we encounter them.

Exodus is about freedom and covenant. The Greek word is exodos— ἔξοδος —which translates as 'going-out' or 'departure'. The Hebrew is שמות‎, Šemotor 'names'. It is the second book of the Pentateuch (which means 'book of five volumes') the first five books of the Old Testament.

The book contains material by all three narrative traditions of the Pentateuch, although most critics believe they can be analysed only with difficulty in this book. The Priestly writers who composed the early editions of the Pentateuch during the Exile knew that the Jews living in Babylon during the sicth century B.C. would easily identify with the Israelites living in bondage in Egypt prior to the thirteenth century B.C. Both were living in a mighty and prosperous nation under the dominion of foreigners, both were separated from the Promised Land (a huge part of Old Testament theology) by a great, forbidding desert: the Sinai wilderness between Egypt and Canaan; the Arabian desert between Babylon and Judah.

The book of Exodus has two halves, the first narrating the event of liberation from slavery in Egypt (1:1-18:27) and the second focusing on the covenant at Mount Sinai (19:1-40:38). The first half primarily consists of God's deeds, while the second concentrates on His words.

At every step of the journey through the wilderness, God provides them with healing and life (15:26, in 15:22-27). He reveals His glory in the form of manna and quail for food (16:7, in 16:1-36). Every hardship is an occasion for Israel to experience God's love and deliverance (18:8). But the people are unstable in their faith. They need to enter unto covenant with God and it is this perspective on salvation which challenges us in the same way it confronted both the Jewish exiles who found comfortable positions in Babylon and the pioneers who returned to Judah shortly after 583 B.C. The story of the Exodus forced the majority of Jews who stayed in Babylon after Cyrus' decree of liberation to examine their motives for staying. Were they like the reluctant Israelites whose attachment to security enslaved them in the land of captivity so that they would not venture out into the freedom of God's call? And did those who returned to Judah tend to complain like the Israelites when difficulties they encountered in Judah tempered their initial enthusiasm for liberation (see Ezr 1:1-6:22; Hg 1-2; Zec 1-8)? The fear and instability of our hearts expose our need to enter into a covenant relationship with god. God invites us into convenient with Him so that His work of salvation will become the secure foundation on which we build our lives together as His people.

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, as we saw with the last post, was traditionally accepted to have been a letter written by St. Paul. He twice identifies himself thus (1:1 and 3:1). However it's authorship was first questioned by Erasmus of Rotterdam in the sixteenth century and since then there has been much dialogue regarding this matter. 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. John is deep. It was the last one written, it used to be thought in the second century, but recent fragments were dated at 120 A.D. from Egypt, which means the Gospel had to have been written for some time by then, in order to have circulated so far away from Asia Minor (from modern Greece all the way to Africa). Some have argued for a date as early as 60 A.D. due to description of the sheep gate of Jerusalem in the present tense ("there is...") which was destroyed by the Roman sacking in 70 A.D. I think this Gospel was written by the beloved disciple, John, one of the sons of Zebedee (Mt 4:21) for lots of reasons. I think he thought long and hard about what had happened and then wrote this incredible account, so rich in detail and deep in theological significance. Known as the spiritual Gospel in the ancient Church, this is a book of magnificent beauty & artistry. The richness of its expression and imagery has made it one of the most celebrated books in Christian history. Much of it is dedicated to the heavenly identity and mission of Jesus, perhaps the master key that unlocks the Gospel as a whole is the revelation of God as a family. Nearly every chapter is marked by familial language that explains the inner life of God as well as our relation to God through the grace of divine generation.

The divine family of God revealed as Father, Son and Spirit is the towering mystery of the Fourth Gospel. The heart of Jesus' message is that the children of men are invited to become the children of God (1:12). This new life begins with a spiritual rebirth in Baptism (3:5) and is sustained as the Father nourishes us with divine food and drink (6:32, 51; 7:37-39), educates us in the truth (8:31-32; 16:13), and protects us from spiritual danger (17:15). Christ models the life of divine Sonship to perfection (13:15), showing us how to worship the Father (4:23-26), how to obey his commandments (15:10), and how to love our spiritual siblings (13:34). We are not left orphans (14:18) after Christ returns to the Father (20:17) because his presence dwells with us and even within us (14:17-18, 23). Our full union with the Trinity awaits only the coming of Jesus Christ, who will return in glory to escort the children of God into the house of their heavenly Father (14:2-3).

Drawing them all together:

Today's liturgy is like another Corpus Christi: we are asked to think of the Lord's wonderful provision, the demonstration of His enduring presence with us, and love for us, as expressed in the Eucharist. He has always loved us—His people, and thus He has always cared for us. The readings this week show us how the Eucharist was prefigured in the Old Testament, how it was always in God's plan right back at the beginning; we see it here, in Exodus (and also in Genesis 14:18-20). This gives us a great insight into providence, and the way in which things work out according to His plan, if we trust to God.

The story of the Exodus, when the Lord freed the Israelites from and accompanied them on their subsequent long wanderings in the desert, demonstrates the existence of this love from ages past. In spite of their grumblings and unfaithfulness, the Lord supported His people, fed them, giving them manna in the desert as a pledge of His providence, His provision and saving love: "Mere men ate the bread of angels. He sent them an abundance of food." All this pointed to the fulfilment of His promises (as the Psalm says: "the things our fathers have told us, we will tell to the next generation: the glories of the Lord and His might") as He brought them to His Holy Land, "to the mountain His right hand had won," so that they could be a people for Him, an example to the nations. The story in Exodus is presented in the context of Israel's 'murmuring'; they grumbled for lack of richer food and God sent them quails and manna in the morning. Regardless of man's lack of faith, God always remains faithful to His covenant.

He was always with them throughout their history, and the ultimate expression of His saving presence was to be made manifest to them in Jesus. In Him the promises are spiritualised, and become the gateway to eternal life. To listen to Jesus is to be changed, to have our minds renewed by what St. Paul writing to the Ephesians calls a spiritual revolution, "so that we can put on the new self that has been created in God's way." Jesus, in His great discourse on bread in the sixth chapter of John's Gospel, is challenged to match the provision of manna by Moses. He responds by stressing that although manna had a heavenly origin (6:32), it did not bring the Israelites into their heavenly destiny (6:49). Manna is rather a food that perishes, since it melted away every morning (Ex 16:21) and turned foul if it was stored overnight (Ex 16:19-20). Manna was not false bread, it was merely a sign of the imperishable bread eucharistic bread that the Father sends down from heaven in Jesus (6:51; CCC 1094). Jesus makes clear to the Pharisees that we can no longer be satisfied by material things, but must work for the food that endures to eternal life. This was a lesson that had already been worked out by Jewish thought: the Wisdom literature presents the wisdom that is substantially accessible and present in the Law as "bread" (Prov 9:5) and the rabbinic literature went on to develop this idea still further. This is the perspective from which we need to understand Jesus dispute with the Jews here. He points out first that they have failed to understand the multiplication of the loaves as a "sign", which is its true meaning. Rather, what interested them was eating and having their fill (c.f. John 6:26). They have been looking at salvation in purely material terms, as a matter of universal well-being, and they have therefore reduced man, leaving God out altogether. But if they see the manna only as a means of satisfying their  hunger, they need to realise that even the manna was not heavenly bread but only earthy bread— man hungers for more, he hungers for the Word of God Himself.

Like them, we say "Sir, give us that bread always." Jesus' answer "I am the bread of life" shows Him to be our provider and our Saviour: to partake of the flesh of His word and to eat the flesh of His body in the Eucharist is to find true fulfilment, the answer to all our hunger, our needs, and our spiritual yearning. He gives us the gift as the reminder of His saving presence in our midst, always nourishing us, binding us together in communion, and leading us onwards to the Promised Land of the Heavenly Kingdom.

This is a bit shorter than I would have liked, but the time pressures of being a new dad are mounting! There certainly is so much to talk about regarding the readings this Sunday. If you want to discuss anything specifically, please leave a comment and I will try to respond.

God bless


If you are enjoying this series of readings and are interested in learning more about the Eucharist or want more detail, I have posted a rather in depth theological post on understanding the Eucharist here.

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