Sunday Scripture: Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (YEAR C)

"Thy word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path." Ps 119:105

Welcome to this, the forty-sixth of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass.

I have undertaken this project, regularly posting background information on the readings at Sunday Mass as part of my own prayer life. I have found it helps me to do a little study before I go to Mass about the readings, what the theme of the week is, how it follows on from the previous week's readings and what is being said.

In sharing this, I hope to help you too get more from the Bible and Sunday Scripture readings. Perhaps it might give you confidence in the value and legitimacy of the Bible, or perhaps it might inspire you to pray the Divine Office or investigate the weekly readings for yourself.

I see this as very clearly part of what the Church teaches about the Bible:
This heaven-sent treasure Holy Church considers as the most precious source of doctrine on faith and morals. No wonder herefore that, as she received it intact from the hands of the Apostles, so she kept it with all care, defended it from every false and perverse interpretation and used it diligently as an instrument for securing the eternal salvation of souls, as almost countless documents in every age strikingly bear witness. ~Divino Afflante Spiritu
When fideism said that we should turn away from science and study and rely on the Bible for exactly what it is, in a literal sense, the Church said "no", we have nothing to fear from a proper understanding of Scripture and thus we were encouraged to delve ever deeper into the treasure chest of sacred Scripture to see what riches we could find there.

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:

Lucas Cranach der Jüngere "Auferweckung des Jünglings zu Nain" (Raising the Youth of Nain) 1569 in the Stadtkirche (City Church), Wittenberg

The Lord Who Restores us to Life.

O God, from whom all good things come,
grant that we, who call on you in our need, 
may at your prompting discern what is right,
and by your guidance do it.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever.

This week's readings are:
  • First Reading: 1 Kings 17:17-24.
  • Psalm 29:2, 4-6, 11-13; Response: v. 2. 
  • Second Reading: Galatians 1:11-19.
  • Gospel: Luke 7: 11-17.
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 First Book of Kings is the first part of the Deuteronomist's chronicle of the rueful story of Israel's decline from the height of magnificence under Solomon to the depths of ruin in the Exile. Everything that Solomon constructs in the beginning, the Babylonians destroy in the end. The books are the fourth part of what tradition calls the Former Prophets (Josh, Judges, 1-2 Sam, 1-2 Kgs). In fact the division between Sam and Kgs is arbitrary and varies in ancient manuscripts. There is a simple three stage chronology to the two books: 1). The reign of Solomon (1 Kgs 1-11); 2). The kingdom divided into Judah and Israel (1 Kgs 12 to 2 Kgs 17); and 3). the kingdom of Judah (2 Kgs 18-25). It's not just a monotonous chronicle however, the Deuteronomist redactors chose what to emphasise. For example, they devoted fourteen chapters in the middle of their text (1 Kgs 16:23 to 2 Kgs 8:24) to the dynasty of Omri in Israel (884-841 B.C.) while dedicating only a few lines to each of the forty-year reigns of Jehoash (835-796 B.C.) and Manasseh (687-642 B.C.) in Judah (2 Kgs 12:1-22' 21:1-18). This is not because they were particularly interested in the Omirides however, the text is carefully arranged so as to make the missions of Elijah and Elisha the centrepiece of the whole work (1 Kgs 17 to 2 Kgs 13:21). Prophecy is in fact the key for unlocking the treasure-house of God's purposes in history; this is not a social or political history, so much as a theological one.

Kings brings us to a climax in our search for an answer to the question dominating the whole Deuteronomic History: "Why did God allow the Assyrians to destroy Israel and then the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple?" We can grasp the response of the sacred authors by focusing on three themes that form the primary undercurrents of Kings:

1. The mission of kingship
2. The importance of the Temple; and
3. The role of prophecy

This weekWe hear part of the narrative about Elijah and the Drought. The editorial method can be seen here. The plot which surrounds our story is that the sin of Ahab introduces the drought, a punishment for idolatry and a challenge to Baal, god of fertility (1-7); this in turn leads to the miracle described in 8-16; and this then serves to introduce the raising of the dead child, which is not automatically connected chronologically with the foregoing passages. The name 'Elijah' actually means 'My God is YHWH'. The exclamation of vs 18: mah li walak; literally 'What (is there) to me and to thee', has various nuances as particularly commented on in Jn 2:4. In the context we encounter it here it expresses surprise and concern. The prophet's presence had seemed a blessing, but in the end it only called attention to her sins. The rite which accompanied the prayer signified that the warmth of life should pass from the prophet to the child. The mother then reaffirms her in the divine mission of the prophet (cf Luke 4:25) and further that YHWH had been faithful all along to his first promise of blessing. It is important to note that the widow lauds Elijah not for miracle working prowess—but "because the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth itself". What gives us back life and rescues us from death is the Good News which comes "through a revelation of Jesus Christ".

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: the Psalm is an song of thanksgiving for delivery from death.

St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians. I do believe this is the first time we have encountered this epistle since starting this project. I absolutely love it as it formed part of a most memorable lecture which involved reading the Epistle from start to finish. The idea was that this was the way it was written to be read, not in the snippet form we digest it in through the lectionary. The letter is fascinating; it literally teems with impassioned fervour unequalled in any other Pauline letter. It reveals an embattled Paul in a fierce struggle to preserve his own Apostolic credentials, the Gospel that he preached, and of course the spiritual health of Galatian communities that he had founded a few years earlier. It contains some of Paul's most bold and impetuous theological reasoning, reasoning that he seems to have adjusted somewhat in context and tone in his letter to the Roman Christians, perhaps in order to better win the argument?

In Galatians we get a glimpse of Paul in a mode of impulsive reflex, assembling theological arguments to influence the corporate and personal life of the Galatian Christians in a situation that deeply disturbed him. As a consequence of Paul's ministry among them, the Galatians had profound experiences of the Spirit (2:3-5) that instilled in them a hardy sense of Christian identity that continued for some time (5:7). At some point Pail left and later received news that a group of Jewish Christian evangelists had influenced the Galatian communities, advocating a gospel that differed considerably from his own. Paul makes it clear that these are 'trouble-makers' or 'agitators' (1:7; 5:10).

Fundamentally, Paul writes this letter to defend his Gospel and to dissuade the Galatians from receiving circumcision, which, along with the ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant, were being preached as indispensable requirements for salvation by these trouble-makers (5:2-12; 6:12-13). Although these 'Judaizers' professed to be Christian, they asserted Paul's gospel of "faith working through love" (5:6) was incomplete without the ritual observances of the Mosaic Law.

Paul's response is a vigorous defence of the gospel (1:11-2:10) and a sophisticated explanation of how the New Covenant inaugurated by Christ dispenses with the ceremonies of the Old (chapters 3-4). In Paul's view, to add circumcision and other Mosaic requirements to the gospel is to exchange freedom in Christ for spiritual slavery (2:4; 5:1). Stern warnings punctuate his writing as Paul appeals to the Galatians to distance themselves from the Judaizers and to disregard their propaganda.

This week: Paul explains how he received his gospel directly from Christ, independent of apostolic tradition and instruction (Acts 26:12-18; CCC 153, 442). This means that it cannot conflict with that of the Apostles in Jerusalem who were also instructed by Christ. In any case, Paul has actually verified it with them (Acts 15:2, Gal 2:2). Paul focuses on the the foundational message of faith and salvation in Christ; other things, such as creeds and liturgical traditions, were indeed passed along to him by others (1 Cor 11:23-26; 15:3-7).

Paul recounts his conversion story in order to demonstrate that he declares the Gospel of Jesus Christ which was directly revealed to him just as it was to Peter (Mt 16:16f., Gal 1:16). This means he was exempt from having to verify the truth of what was revealed to him because of the truth of it and its source. He did, however consult the original Apostles eventually, whereupon he found that they were all in agreement.

I also think it is striking that Paul refers to Peter as Cephas here (1:18). Cephas is Aramaic for 'Rock'. Now think about this passage in Matthew's Gospel:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. ~Mt 16:18
This means that we have Paul here writing in the mid 50's and referring to Peter in the terms Jesus did, as the rock on which He founded His Church.

The last line of the reading refers to "James, the Lord's brother". Tradition refers to James as the first bishop of Jerusalem, being appointed to this position by the apostles. He was not a blood brother of Jesus, but a near kinsman (CCC 500). If you would like to know more about this, there's a more detailed post on it here. It's an interesting point, because it demonstrates how holding fast to Tradition trumps strict adherence to a translated ancient text!

The Gospel According to St. LukeLuke 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.

The biblical scholar Raymond Brown deduces that the Gospel was written for Church communities in Greece and Syria. These were 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 also 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. Raymond 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 assisted 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: we have the first of three miracles of Jesus in the canonical gospels in which he raises the dead, the other two being the Daughter of Jairus and the Raising of Lazarus. As always with the Gospel, there is a depth of meaning beyond the literal reality. Both hold tremendous significance. The widow here can be said to signify Mother Church, weeping for those who are dead in sin and carried beyond the safety of her gates. The multitudes looking on will praise the Lord when sinners rise again from death and are restored to their mother.

Notice Jesus use of touch; an important element in all of the sacraments, a kind of condescension to our human condition in that God knows that we require physical, tangible, contact. You will notice it recurs whenever Jesus heals someone in the Gospels. Jesus' touching the bier here has a shock value which might be lost on the modern reader. The Mosaic Law warns that contact with the dead renders Israelites unclean for an entire week (Num 19:11-19), yet rather than making Himself unclean, Jesus commands "arise!" thus eliminating the very cause of legal defilement and therefore its undesired effects. More on Resurrection in the Catechism.

Note that Luke takes verbatim the line from the first reading "he gave him to his mother", which accentuates the link between Jesus and Elijah, the 'great prophet'. Of course as we have seen in the first reading, the widow rightly ascribed the glory not to Elijah, but to God.

Frederic Leighton - Elijah healing the son of the Shunamite widow

Drawing them all together...

I am always deeply moved by the Gospel stories of Resurrection, though it leaves many questions in my mind. Mainly because these 'Resurrections' must be quintessential different to Jesus' Resurrection, more accurately perhaps one might say resuscitation, a bringing back to life. Presumably each of the individuals Jesus resuscitates go on to die. Jesus' body is remade after His Resurrection, so much so that He can walk through closed doors and the Apostles can't easily recognise Him. This means the real 'healing' must have been done on a deeper level. It also says that Jesus did these things to demonstrate His mastery over death. Thus it explains something about our mortality and the inevitability of physical death.

I find the picture by Leighton, above, particularly emotional, perhaps because I have cradled the body of my dead child and pleaded, begged, cried out, for her to be returned to me, only to be forced to confront the awful reality of the situation and that awful absence of the soul of person you love (there is nothing as convincing to me of the reality of life after death than a dead person, because they are so different to the live person, despite their physical presence). And yet, despite our desperation to postpone it, avoid it, ignore it, death is a part of life and we all will die. My personal experiences, and the answers I have been given in prayer are strongly that it is the life that comes after this very finite one that is important. That the love we have for each other lives on somewhere else and is reciprocated from there.

And this is at the heart of our faith:. It is expressed in a profound belief that God made us and saves us. He has power over life and death, as the One who is, the master of all time and space. He is the vanquisher of death, and even in the Old Testament He shows His power in this way. The Prophet Elijah is the first of the great prophets, and a crucial example through all the ages of the power of God's prophetic Spirit at work in the world. He demonstrated his oneness with God's work and will throughout his entire entire ministry, and was able to show his gratitude to the widow of Zarapath by asking God to bring her dead son back to life. Such was Elijah's faith that God heard his prayer and answered him. The Psalm presents us with a historical account of the way in which the people looked to the Lord to save them from illness and distress, to show the power of His love: "The Lord listened and had pity; the Lord came to my help [and] changed my mourning into dancing."

We can see all these shadows fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus, who identified particularly with the sick, and with those grieving and mourning. In raising the son of the widow of Nain, He repeats the actions of the great prophet, and, as with the later raising of Lazarus, shows Himself the Lord of life and death. The people sense that "God has visited His people", that life has changed and that there is a new sense of hope.

We learn, like St. Paul, "through a revelation of Jesus Christ." If we open our hearts to His message of love and life, we will be changed through the power of the Spirit. Every such change of heart, every conversion to God's saving love in Jesus Christ, is a rising to new life. Each one of us is chosen to reveal the Son of God, and to preach the Good News to the world. "Then God...called me through His grace and chose to reveal His Son in me, so that I might preach the Good News about Him to the Pagans."


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