Sunday Scripture: The Third Sunday in Lent (Year C)



Welcome to this, the thirty-second 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. You might find that it answers a few questions you may have, but most of all I hope that it will show you how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps enable you to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted it is, 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.

I would like to think this regular blog would be a great help to anyone who reads at Mass, to enable them to foster a deeper understanding of the message they are trying to impart to the congregation.

There are several different ways to read this post. I would suggest the first thing to do is to look at the relevant readings. You might then want to look at the specific commentary for a particular reading. I post the same summary of the featured Biblical books each week, but at the end, under the subheading this week, you will usually find some commentary specific to each week. At the end I post a passage which attempts to draw all the readings together and understand the message.

My reflections are not definitive, but based on my study and perhaps authenticated by careful reference to the Biblical Commentaries and books I list at the bottom each week.

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

The God Who Transforms Us.


  • First Reading: Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15.
  • Psalm 102:1-4, 6-8, 11; Response v. 8. 
  • Second Reading 1 Corinthians: 10:1-6, 10-12.
  • Gospel: Luke 13:1-9.
First, a short 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 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.

This week: The message really is that when times are tough you often find that God is most present in your life. When you have faith, real trouble often means God shows up and takes charge, just like the footprints story:
One night,  a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the LORD.Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand: one belonging to him, and the other to the LORD.
When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand.
He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints.
He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life.
This really bothered him and he questioned the LORD about it:
"LORD, you said that once I decided to followyou, you'd walk with me all the way.But I have noticed that during the mosttroublesome times in my life,there is only one set of footprints.I don't understand why whenI needed you most you would leave me."
The LORD replied:
"My son, my precious child,I love you and I would never leave you.During your times of trial and suffering,when you see only one set of footprints,it was then that I carried you."
There is a theme of divine providence carried over from Genesis here. Just as Joseph is is driven away from his own people by the treachery of his brothers, so the threat of betrayal by a fellow Hebrew forces Moses to flee into the wilderness (2:11-15). As in the case of Joseph, so for Moses: banishment from the clan and life with strangers becomes the setting to prepare God's chosen one to rescue his people (2:16-25). A time of suffering can be a time of great revelation.

The story of Moses' calling presents us with a fascinating insight into what it is like to experience God's revelation for the first time. We read an extended dialogue that God initiates and into which Moses interjects with five objections (3:11, 3:13, 4:1, 4:10, 4:13). The conversation reflects the difference between the minds of God and man. The Lord speaks positively, offering an extensive outline of His plan to redeem His people and care for every eventuality in the process. By contrast, Moses exhibits and emerging pessimism in his abrupt, short questions and protests. At first, his questions appear to reflect humility and an honest search for comprehension (3:11, 13); however, they are increasingly charged with self-concern and manifest a desperate attempt to avoid the call, climaxing with his anxious plea, asking the LORD to send someone else (4:1, 10, 13). This example teaches us that while the experience of God's revelation can be disconcerting initially, such an encounter with God will ultimately become more important than anything else for the individual who allows God to work in their life. It will change you forever.

When God speaks His name to Moses, everything about the relationship between mankind and God is cast in a new light. The Catechism states:
“The divine name, ‘I Am’ or ‘He Is’, expresses God's faithfulness: despite the faithlessness of men’s sin and the punishment it deserves, he keeps ‘steadfast love for thousands.’ By going so far as to give up his own Son for us, God reveals that he is ‘rich in mercy.’ By giving his life to free us from sin, Jesus reveals that he himself bears the divine name: ‘When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will realize that I AM.’” CCC 211
In his book Introduction to Christianity, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, explains that this revelation constitutes a radical break from the norm:
In a world swarming with gods Moses could not say, "God sends me", or even "The God of our fathers sends me." He knew that this meant nothing, that he would be asked, "Which god?" But the question is: Could one have ever given the Platonic "Being" a name and referred to it by this name as a kind of individual? Or is the fact that one can name this God not a sign of a fundamentally different conception?...In the tangle of gods with whom people dealt, this word formation refers to the personal god, that is, the god who is concerned with man and is himself personal and person-centred. It is the God who, as the personal Being, deals with man as man. pp 109 & 121.
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.

This week: we are treated to an epic of creation which is often paralleled with Egyptian Hymn to Aten of the 14th century B.C. The imagery of creation, occupations of daytime and nighttime (vv 19-23) are of particularly good poetic invention. All creation is pictured as serving God.

1 Corinthians is a letter motivated by reports made to him from the house of Chloe (1:11) concerning factions in the community (1:12), quarrels between brethren (6:1), the scandolous acts of some (5:1; 6:12-20). Members of the community had sent a letter to Paul containing questions about various matters (7:1): the use of meat sacrificed to idols (8-10), the hierarchy of charisms (12-14). Moreover, the Apostle was most probably informed by those who had carried the letter to him, i.e. Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus (16:17) of certain abuses which had crept in to the assemblies of the members of the community and even into the celebrations of the Eucharist (10-11), and of certain difficulties raised by the doctrine of the general resurrection (15). Paul's motives for writing show that one does not acquire a profoundly Christians sense overnight; that after the original commitment to Christ one must avoid dangers and acquire further instruction.

This week is all about warnings from Israel's history. The cloud relates to the divine protection spread over Israel (Ps 105:39). Paul explains the solidarity of Israel with Moses passing through the Red Sea (Ex 14:21-31) prefigures our union with Christ when we pass through the waters of Baptism (Rom 6:3; Gal 3:27). The deliverance of Israel from slavery is a type of the Church's deliverance from bondage in sin (Rom 6:17-18).By supernatural food, Paul means the manna the Israelites ate in the desert (Ex 16:4-31) which prefigures the Eucharist, the food which nourishes us in the wilderness of life (1 Cor 10:16; Jn 6:31-35). The supernatural rock alluded to is the rock of Horeb (Ex 17:6) which brought forth water and Jewish tradition believed followed the Israelite through the desert to keep them refreshed. This is another type of Christ who refreshes us with the waters of the Spirit in Baptism (1 Cor 12:13; Jn 4:14) and the sacramental gift of Himself in the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16; Jn 6:53). St. Ambrose says:
“This surely referred not to his divinity but to his flesh, which flowed over the hearts of the thirsting people with the perpetual stream of his blood.”
In v. 5, Paul is alluding to the great massacre of Israelites who rebelled against YHWH in the wilderness as described in the Greek version of Number 14:16.

In v. 6, Paul explains how the warnings, dangers, and judgements that Israel experienced during its wandering in the desert show us the way that our lives as Christians constitutes a probationary period of testing that stretches between our Baptism and our final salvation. We need to fight the temptations we encounter in order to reach our heavenly homeland. If we do not, we run the risk of perishing as many of the Israelites perished without crossing over into Canaan. Paul is using Exodus typology to show the way in which the Church lives out the Israelite's experiences on a spiritual level (CCC 128-30, 1094).

The Gospel According to St. Luke: The Gospel According to St. Luke: Luke is not only a theologian; he is also a consummate literary artist with a mind that is tuned to the aesthetic. Luke begins his Gospel with a clearly stated aim: “to draw up an account of the events that have happened”. Luke’s Gospel is the longest of the four gospels, this despite the fact that it only represents half the Lucan writings; Luke’s Gospel was originally joined to Acts as part of a two-volume work. This is evident in the Gospel itself, which frequently looks forward to Acts and Paul’s mission.

Brown indicates that the Gospel was written for churches in Greece and Syria, areas affected by Paul’s mission either directly, or indirectly. Lucan thought and proclivities can be detected in the extent to which the author changes the Marcan material, which makes up about thirty-five percent of Luke. Luke certainly improves Mark’s Greek, bettering the grammar, syntax and vocabulary, as evidenced in 4:1,31 and 38. Luke alters the Latinism kēnsos (= census) in 20:22 from Mark 12:14 and substituting the more exact “craftiness- treachery” for “hypocrisy” in Mark 12:15 .

Luke alters the Marcan sequence to accomplish his goals as stated in the prologue: to write carefully and in an orderly manner, for example he puts Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth at the opening of the Galilean ministry (Luke 4:16-30) rather than after some time had elapsed (Mark 6:1-6) in order to explain why his Galilean ministry was centred at Capernaum.

Christologically, Luke is more reverential about Jesus than Mark and he avoids Marcan passages that might make Jesus seem weak, harsh or emotional (e.g. Mark 10:14 where Jesus is indignant). He also stresses detachment from possessions (Luke 5:11,28), the Twelve are even forbidden to take a staff!

Adrian Hastings, in his book Prophet and Witness in Jerusalem, makes particular capital over Luke’s allusion to the guilt of Jerusalem. Hastings suggests that this is because Jerusalem represented the old, exclusive Israel. Brown also draws attention to this point in An Introduction to the New Testament, where he asks if Pilate’s triple declaration of Jesus’ innocence represents an attempt to convince Greco-Roman readers that the Jews were totally responsible for the crucifixion. For Hastings, Luke demonstrates a strong affinity for the universality of Christianity and its apostolate to the Gentiles and points out to the Jews that they are the ones who have constantly rejected the messengers of God:

Hence it is not surprising if they now find themselves cut off from the new church and Holy People of God. Hastings states that this demonstrates that Luke was writing so that Christians might understand that Jerusalem had rejected Our Lord and thus had been rejected and was no longer the centre of God’s church, which had turned to the conversion of the Gentiles. It would seem to me that this idea would have been greatly aided by the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Brown however, notes that Acts 4:25-28 clearly blames Pilate and mitigates that this may have been an attempt to persuade Roman officials to deal fairly with Christians. Brown eventually concludes that the description of Jewish leaders resisting the spread of Christianity springs from a desire to explain why Christian preachers and especially Paul turned to the Gentiles.

The fact that the last half of Acts concentrates on Paul’s career raises the likelihood that Luke-Acts was addressed to the churches descended from the Pauline mission. Talbert concludes his study of Luke-Acts with the finding that the Gospel was indeed motivated by the “churchly situation”; The community was troubled by a concern for the true Christian tradition. Luke writes to aid Christians in these communities in their self-understanding, helping them to know that there was nothing subversive in their origins that should cause them to come into conflict with their Roman rulers.

The Lucan Gospel differs in many ways to Matthew making it seem likely that this Gospel was addressed to a different church (q.v.). The end of Acts attributed to Paul also indicates that the future of the Gospel lies with the Gentiles, which makes the intended audience unlikely to be Jewish Christians. This is corroborated by the way that Luke drops Marcan Aramaic expressions and place-names in his work.

Luke intends to trace the history of God’s plan from the coming of Jesus, to the fulfilment of the mission He gave to His disciples to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The earthly ministry of Jesus and all the events before the Ascension are the turning point in human history for Luke.

If this post on Luke sparked your interest, there's a post on the historicity of the Synoptics here.

This week: The Gospel this week starts with a reminder from Jesus about the urgency of repentance. He uses current events in order to teach that to reject or neglect Christ's call to repentance is to gamble with disaster (Heb 2:3). In v. 2, Jesus is contradicting contemporary thought that God permits only grievous sinners to suffer violent deaths (Job 31:3; Prov 10:24).

The fig tree is, on one hand, a parable of compassion. The tree is a source of comfort for the disciple who stumbles along the Christian Way. On the other hand, it is a parable of crisis, which should light a fire under procrastinators and the unproductive.

The tree represents Old Covenant Israel (Jer 8:13; Hos 9:10) which was spared and given an ample time to accept the Messiah, despite the fact that God found no fruits of repentance (Rom 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9). The impenitence of Jerusalem would later bring divine judgement upon the city (19:41-44; 20:9-19; 21:6).

This parable about the barren fig tree in its import is redolent of Christ’s discourse about the vine and the branches (Jn 15:1-10; see also Mic 4:4 and Joel 2:22)—among Christ’s final words the night before he dies at the Last Supper: “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

Drawing them all together...

I have to apologise this week because I can't help but be honest in that I am struggling a bit to link things up. I want to do a good job because it's my birthday this Sunday, so I'm going to just wade in and see where we go.

The first reading is one of those monumentally important moments of revelation in Scripture, and I do hope I have done it some justice above. I wanted to tease out the philosophical dimension as well as the spiritual one. If you can imagine the Fathers of the Church, with their deep understanding of Greek philosophy. An understanding which had become necessary in order to communicate the complexities of the mysteries of faith to a culture which only spoke in that metaphysical language, it must have seemed a bold and unexpected confirmation of their own intellectual past to read this account in Scripture. You see, Greek philosophy regarded it as its decisive discovery that behind all the many individual things which man has to deal with on a daily basis, lies the comprehensive idea of Being, which is also considered the most appropriate expression of the divine.

For them to find this passage in Scripture, moreover, in the Bible's central text on the image of God, must have been an absolutely amazing confirmation of the unity of belief and thought, and in fact the Fathers of the Church believed that they had discovered here the deepest unity between philosophy and faith. Plato and Moses, the Greek mind and the biblical mind. So complete did they find the identity between the quest of the philosophical spirit and the acceptance that had occurred in the faith of Israel that they took the view that Plato could not have advanced so far in his own but had been familiar with the Old Testament and borrowed his idea from it. Thus the central concept of Platonic philosophy was indirectly traced back to revelation; people did not dare to attribute an insight of such profundity to the unaided power of the human mind. (cf. Ratzinger, Ibid, p. 118).

So, what we have here is revelation, in a huge way. God's revelation of His nature was borne out of His actions in the Exodus, where He saved a people from slavery in order that they might reveal the truth about Him to the world in a way which did not contradict free will. The decisive events in the desert; the gift of the Law which they fail to obey and instead, turn so quickly to unbelief and idolatry, worshipping the golden calf show us that irrespective of how clearly God reveals Himself to us, in spite of all the LORD did in guiding and sustaining the Israelites in the desert, many forgot the wonder of His deeds and fell away from belief.

God has spoken to humanity and given us His promise of help. Our job is to turn to Him in faith, doing our utmost to reconcile the perplexities of life with the revelation of His glory. Jesus is the Gospel, the Word of God itself, He speaks directly to our confusion about the meaning of providence. He singles out the extraordinary events of His day, the atrocity of political oppression and the inescapable randomness of a tragic accident and uses these examples to assure us that there is no facile correlation between sorrow and punishment. We are all caught in the coils of our own human and natural conditions and we are not going to avoid sickness and sorrow by the intensity of our faith.

Faith does have an effect though. It changes our attitudes to life with all its seeming arbitrariness and distress. By slowly conforming our lives to the LORD, by undergoing a deep and true repentance, we open ourselves to perception of the truth and to transformation. St. Paul assures us of this: "I want to remind you how...our fathers were guided by a cloud above them and how they all passed through the sea." We understand that the One WHO IS, also forgives, heals and redeems our lives from the grave. By turning to Him, we proclaim our faith in His power, and so help our brothers and sisters.


Bibliography:

Baker, K., SJ, Inside the Bible, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998.
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.
Dodd, C.H., The Founder of Christianity, (London: Collins, 1978).
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. 5/ March 2013.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, (New York, Touchstone, 1995).
Ratzinger, J., Introduction to Christianity, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004).
Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, (Bloomsbury, London, 2007).

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