Sunday Scripture: Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year

Welcome to this, the fifteenth of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I sincerely hope that this reflection will inspire you, answer some questions you may have, help you to see how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps begin to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted, and what a carefully considered part of the Mass the readings are. If you want to know how these posts came about, please read my first post in this series here. My particular hope is that these blogs will help you develop a love of the Old Testament, and help to foster a better understanding of its value in understanding how Jesus fulfils what is prefigured therein.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

Jesus: the Priest of the New Covenant

The Sacrament of the Last Supper by Salvador Dalí. Completed in 1955, after nine months of work.

The readings are:
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, although I may add a little detail specific to each week's readings.

The Book of Deuteronomy bears the title Haddebharim in Hebrew meaning 'the words' (1:1) and indicating the central contents of this book: three long speeches by Moses (1:1-4:43; 4:44-26:19; & 27-34) to prepare Israel for the conquest and inhabitance of the promised land. The speeches address the people in an "I—You" language of person-to-person discourse. It is existential; it puts us on the spot by challenging us to enter into covenant with the LORD now.

Deuteronomy is the last will and testament of Moses. His speeches in the first four sections follow the outline of a covenant renewal programme, beginning with a historical prologue recounting God's faithfulness to the Israelites throughout their wilderness journey (1:1-4:43) followed by a presentation of the general laws of the covenant (4:44-26:19), and the specific precepts deriving from the laws (12:1-26:19), concluding the speeches with the rites of the covenant renewal at Moab. The final section of the book brings to a conclusion the Pentateuch as a whole by communication Moses' last words and account of his death (31:1-34:12).

This week's reading is the She'ma considered the most important prayer in Judaism. It is a Jewish religious commandment (a mitzvah) that this prayer is said twice daily. It is traditional for Jews to say the Shema as their last words, and for parents to teach their children to say it before they go to sleep at night. The Israelites considered this passage a summary or creed of their faith in the one God of the universe.

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.

The Letter to The Hebrews, claims to be a “word of exhortation” (13:22) and lacks the formal features common to a letter of the time; an introduction by the sender to the recipients and an opening word of thanksgiving. Rather, it reads somewhat like a homily, its literary rhythm alternating back and forth between doctrinal exposition and moral exhortation in the same way any oral preaching tends to.
Hebrews follows a carefully planned literary structure expressed with a rhetorical finesse unmatched in other writings of the New Testament. The work is equally unique in its subject matter, drawing on a extensive and sophisticated use of the Old Testament in comparison with the New, with particular emphasis on priestly and sacrificial issues. No New Testament writing reflects more deeply on the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and none gives more attention or puts more emphasis on covenant theology.

This week: We hear about the way in which Jesus exercises an ongoing priestly ministry in heaven, this priesthood is described in Hebrews as being of the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is the first person in Scripture to be referred to as a "priest"(Gen 14:18). The expression used in Hebrews: "the order of Melchizedek" is from Psalm 110. The statement is striking, as for well over a thousand years Israel only knew only the Levitical priesthood of Aaron and his descendants established by the Mosaic covenant (Ex 40:12-15). No other priesthood was acknowledged by the Law or permitted to officiate on behalf of the covenant people (Num 17:1-13; 18:1-7). Melchizedek's priesthood is, in fact, the pre-Levitical priesthood exercised during the pre-Mosaic history. There is much that can be said about this important biblical character and I may well write something separate in him if I get a chance.

Meanwhile, in heaven, Jesus intercedes for the saints at the Father's right hand (8:1-2: Romans 8:34; CCC 519, 662). The high priests of Israel were sinful (7:27) and mortal (7:23), and the Law they administered brought nothing to perfection (7:19). The high priest of the New Covenant is sinless (7:26) and immortal (7:24), and He embodies the perfection of humanity (5:9) made possible in the new economy of grace (10:14; 12:23; CCC 1540).

The Gospel According to St. Mark
The first thing that strikes you about Mark’s Gospel account is the pace at which the story develops. Mark’s work contrasts Matthew’s sure pedagogy and Luke’s composed account which keeps an eye on literary effect and chronological continuity. Mark simply proclaims the Good News that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come down to save mankind from death and sin by means of his death and resurrection. In this Gospel it seems possible to overhear, through the informality of writing, the voice of the storyteller himself. In this sense, Mark allows us to reach behind the Gospels to a time in history when the gospel story was circulating among the churches in fragmentary and oral form. 

Henry Wansborough O.S.B., in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, argues that a study of Mark’s gospel in particular may lead us to a clearer understanding of the personality of Jesus himself. It was Wrede, in his ground-breaking work Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien. Zugleich ein Beitrag zum Verständnis des Markusevangeliums who first proposed Mark as a theologian concerned with a two-fold mission. Wrede developed a theory that suggested that a secret about the Messiah was an important factor in Mark: although Jesus is the Messiah, he hides this and instructs his disciples to do likewise, only demons recognise his identity. Brown attacks Wrede’s position on this, although he agrees with Wrede’s conclusion that Mark is clearly a theological work, he suggests that it is possible that the christology goes back as far as to Jesus Himself. Brown goes on to state that in his opinion Wrede exaggerated Marcan secrecy that in any case, may have its roots in Jesus’ historical rejection of some messianic aspirations that circulated at the time. Kermode also picked up on Wrede’s discovery in his book The Genesis of Secrecy stressing Marcan obscurity, and suggesting that the Gospel, like the parables, remains a mystery amid moments of radiance, excluding readers from the kingdom. Brown suggests that Kermode has “isolated Mark’s writing from its ultimate Christian theology” and points out that although it is true that the prominent motifs in Mark are disobedience, failure, misunderstanding and darkness, God’s power breaks through at the Gospel’s darkest moment, Jesus’ death on the cross and an outsider like the Roman centurion is not excluded, but rather gains understanding of the truth about Jesus. 

Mark then, writes with a two-fold mission. First and foremost seems to be a pastoral aim geared towards building his reader’s faith. Daniel Harrington confirms this in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, explaining that Mark’s writing shows the members of his community how their belief in the salvific significance of the cross related to the traditions about Jesus’ life. Secondly, Mark seems to have been presenting a biographical record of Christ’s life in order that early Christian’s might understand the reality of Jesus’ life and avoid a slip into Gnosticism, where Jesus was considered a myth rather than a reality. This juxtaposed with the writings of Paul, who concentrated his emphasis on the death and resurrection of Christ, saying little about the details of his life, though he undoubtedly exhorted his disciple Timothy to “Remember Jesus Christ”(2 Timothy 2:8). It is interesting to note, however, that even when Mark does engage in polemic, it appears to be polemic with a pastoral aim. The rough form of Greek used by Mark is one internal evidence often cited to prove the Gospel’s Roman origin. There are present numerous loan words derived from Latin as well as some expressions of Latin grammar. This type of Greek was commonly spoken among the lower classes in Rome. Luiz Ruscillio in his work The Synoptic Gospels, also notes these linguistic peculiarities. Clement of Alexandria cites Rome as the place where Mark wrote the gospel (E.H. 6.14.6) and Brown notes that this is a “thesis supported by a large number of scholars”. Ruscillio also notes several other evidences: the connection between Peter and Mark suggested by Papias of Hierapolis; in 2 Tim 4:11 Paul tells Timothy to bring Mark with him to Rome, he is later described as Paul’s fellow prisoner (Philmn 24) and Peter sends greetings from Rome (Babylon) at the end of his first letter (1 Pet 5:13) “…also from my son Mark.”42. Harrington adds to this the evidence of the growing sense of impending persecution that pervades the Gospel; drawing a parallel to the threat of persecution the Christian community lived under in Rome at around 60 B.C.43.

This week: when asked which commandment is the first of all, Jesus recites the She'ma (see commentary on the first reading). He then adds to it the injunction from Lev 19:18. This sums up the the underlying principle of all of the six hundred and thirteen ha'Torah hamizwat Adonai (the Law and the precepts of the LORD) and especially the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments: Ex 20:2-17; Deut 5: 6-21). It's amazing to think that this act of Jesus: the distillation of YHWH's revealed Law into two commandments, was prefigured by the two stone tablets of the Decalogue (Ex 34:1) and elsewhere in the Old Testament; one of my own favourite examples being Micah 6:8. The Scribe is 'not far from the kingdom of God' because he correctly ascertains that the Scriptures teach that the moral laws of God are superior to the sacrificial laws of the Temple (1 Sam 15:22; Jud 16:16; Ps 40:6-8; Hos 6:6; Mic 6:6-8). It is implied that growing close to the New Covenant kingdom means backing away from the Old Covenant Temple (12:34).

This is where it gets really interesting. The sacrificial system as managed by the Levitical priesthood was not part of the Mosaic covenant in Ex 19-24 but was imposed upon the Israelites after they worshipped the golden calf in Ex 32. Originally the Mosaic covenant was to consist only of the Decalogue and a single sacrificial ceremony where the Israelites would renounce idolatry once and for all by slaughtering the very animals they had begun to worship in Egypt (Ex 24:3-8; Ezek 20:7-8). However, the golden calf episode in Ex 32 proved that the Israelites were still attached to their idols and needed a permanent means to eradicate idolatry from the nation. Detailed legislation for priesthood and sacrifice were thus added to the Mosaic covenant as YHWH's temporary solution to this problem (Ex 25-31, 35-40; Lev 1-27).

Drawing them all together...

Now we can see what elements in the readings interrelate. The first reading contains the She'ma, the credal formula used by Jesus to sum up the Law. The second reading shows us how Jesus takes on the role of the order of the priesthood of Melchizedek and continues to stand before His Father in heaven as a constant reminder of the covenant made in His own blood. The Gospel reading shows us how the Levitical priesthood was only a temporary and imperfect solution to the problem of Israel's infidelity to the covenant. Thus today's readings present us with the core summary of our faith; the blueprint for the spiritual life. In the first reading, Deuteronomy explains the way in which the Law and its saving power relate directly to the power of prayer. And what a prayer: the prayer of prayers, the She'ma Yisreal. This, the first formulaic prayer in Scripture, shows us where our priorities lie, and indentifies God as the LORD, the uniquely omnipotent One who alone has ultimate power, the infinite Creator who loves and saves. Jesus, God's Word and Wisdom, comes to complete the saving revelation of the Old Covenant. He had to deal with the formalisation and ossification of the Law, turned into dry regulation with elaborate glosses, a game of adherence rather than a life-giving path. People were always anxious to have a pithy definition, a way of holding on to the essence of the Law, and the Scribe's question to Jesus in today's Gospel is no different: "What is the first of all the commandments?"

Jesus provides him with exactly what he asked for, and so gives us in the clearest possible way the essentials of our spiritual life. He stresses the double aspect of this commandment: first, to love God with all our hearts, then second, to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Jesus doesn't tell the Scribe anything new—anything that the man doesn't already know: He used Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, as we have seen, to show the Law as being completed and fulfilled in His life and works and it seems that when the Scribe hears the voice of the Word, he listens to his own heart in a new way, with new sensitive attentiveness. He cries out to Jesus that He speaks truth, because that truth has been verified in the infallible experience of his own heart. Christ the high priest's "power to save is utterly certain, since He is living for ever to intercede for all who come to God through Him".

The Letter to the Hebrews shows us that Jesus alone is the new high priest, the eternal and ineffable servant, who makes perfect intercession for us. To know Him is to find the perfect way to the Father, to learn complete self-surrender. Only then can the true meaning of the Law—the depth of its justice, compassion, and love—take root in our hearts and change us into witnesses of the Kingdom. In accepting God's love for us, we become open to the energising, empowering love of the LORD that enables us to love truly in return. "Jesus, seeing how wisely he had spoken, said, 'You are not far from the Kingdom of God.'" Let us all take up & pray for this wisdom!


Bibliography:

Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Brown, R. et al (Ed) The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Chapman, 2000).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991.
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, London: Nelson, 1969.
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001.
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005.
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, New York: St. Pauls, 2011.
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 3, No. 1/ November 2012.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, New York, Touchstone, 1995.

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