Sunday Scripture: Thirteenth 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-ninth 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:

Jesus The Lord Whom We Serve.

O God, who through the grace of adoption chose us to be children of light,
grant, we pray,
that we may not be wrapped in the darkness of error
but always be seen to stand in the bright light of truth.
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 19:16, 19-21.
  • Psalm 15:1-2, 5, 7-11; Response: cf. v. 5. 
  • Second Reading: Galatians 5:1, 13-18.
  • Gospel: Luke 9:51-62.
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 weekThe vocation of Elisha who, along with Elijah, when read by the exiles, offered them assurance that, through His prophets, God can heal and deliver His people, even in their darkest days. In contrast to Elijah, who was a radical reformer who roamed the margins of society, living in caves and camping on mountains, Elisha is a farmer who moved into a house in the city of Samaria. He walked among the common folk in the northern kingdom for half a century from Ahaziah to Jehoash (853—c. 783 B.C./ 1 Kgs 19:19—21; 2 Kgs 2:1—11:20; 13:1—21). He was a healer who cared for ordinary people and, at the same time, advised the king on military strategy. His counsel enabled the Israelites first to defeat Moab and then to survive a prolonged siege of Samaria by the Aramaeans (2 Kgs 3:1—27; 6:24—7:20). His disciple anointed Jehu, the king who carried out a bloody purge of the Omrides, killing Jezebel in the process (2 Kgs 9:1—37).

Elisha's example reassures us that the Lord's concern extends beyond international developments to focus on the needs of individuals and families who struggle with life's difficulties. He reflects the Lord's compassion on the poor and the needy and when his instructions bring about Naaman's healing, the pagan professes faith in YHWH as the sovereign God above all others worshipped by the nations, and so calls our attention back to the main theme of the whole work (2 Kgs 5:1—27).

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 this week tells us about the joy of the Psalmist, at one with the Lord. It expresses the importance and centrality of God in relationship with the Psalmist. Not as some distant, un-encounterable deity, but as a real, living presence one recognises, longs for and in whom one feels completely at peace and secure.

St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians I absolutely love Galatians as, when I was studying Paul, 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 unequaled 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 defense 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 issues us with a warning not to walk with according to the Flesh, but according to the Spirit. Paul juxtaposes the Mosaic law, with its burdensome ceremonial requirements with the freedom of faith in Jesus who liberates us from sin and death (Acts 13:38-39). Thus:
The New Law is called a law of love because it makes us act out of the love infused by the Holy Spirit, rather than from fear; a law of grace, because it confers the strength of grace to act, by means of faith and the sacraments; a law of freedom, because it sets us free from the ritual and juridical observances of the Old Law, inclines us to act spontaneously by the prompting of charity and, finally, lets us pass from the condition of a servant who "does not know what his master is doing" to that of a friend of Christ - "For all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you" - or even to the status of son and heir. (CCC 1972). 
Although as Christians we are free from the heavy yoke of the ceremonial requirements of the law, Christian liberty is not a license to indulge in sin and selfishness. We are free, rather to mature in grace and become the saints we are called to be (Jn 8:31-32). Our freedom must be one of service of love, a freedom for others. The Torah aims to promote the love of God, neighbour and self (Mt 22:34-40) and Jesus lived this intention of the Law to perfection, so that the law of love has become the "Law of Christ" (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21). Our ability to fulfil this law is made possible by the grace of the Spirit (Rom 5:5; 8:4).

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: This week's Gospel forms the first part of Jesus' instruction on the meaning of the Christian way. This part of the Gospel of Luke contains many lessons about the nature and demands of discipleship, however some of the things sound strange to modern ears and need to be understood in their socio-historical context to properly take the lesson from the text.

The Gospel starts with a reference to the Ascension (9:51). Jesus will follow Elijah and Moses by going up to heaven and imparting a share of His Spirit to the Apostles (Deut 34:9; 2 Kgs 2:9-15). Jesus begins on the long journey to Jerusalem and Luke describes Jesus' resolute turning to this journey in the same terms that recall how YHWH commissioned the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel to preach against Jerusalem for its corruption (Jer 21:10; Ezek 21:2). So here we can see a further link to the theme of vocation.
The Samaritans are distant relatives of the Jews who had intermarried with foreign immigrants and honoured foreign gods (2 Kgs 17:24) and were thus considered impure. Samaritan territory lies in central Palestine, between Judea (south) and Galilee (north). Despite the fact that they were bitter enemies, Jesus shows mercy and even praises some of them (10:33; 17:11-19; Jn 4:39-42). Many Samaritans embraced the Gospel in the early Church (Acts 8:14). The disciples want to call down fire on them as Elijah (2 Kgs 1:9—14) but they lack mercy and this episode could be the reason that James and John are called "the sons of thunder" (Mk 3:17).

At 9:59 we have what seems a very strange instruction from Jesus "Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." To bury one's father is a sacred responsibility and practical extension of the commandment to honour your parents (Gen 50:5; Ex 20:12; Lev 19:3; dent 5:16; Tob 4:3—4). According to Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, Jesus is teaching us that Christian discipleship is even more important than this. Raymond Brown explains that this proverb has been so successful in subverting the way people normally order their moral universe that endless discussion reigns that Jesus could not have meant what He said. However, the ways of God;s kingdom are not necessarily in step with our human ways. The common interpretation is that the proverb means that the spiritually dead should bury the physically dead.
Finally we have an interesting reference to "...the plough". The Palestinian plough was very light, guided by one hand while the other hand drove the unruly oxen.
"This primitive kind of plough requires dexterity and concentrated attention. If one looks back, the new furrow becomes crooked"—J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, New York: 1963, p. 195. 
This parable challenges expectations of who would be fit to receive the reign of God into their lives. Looking back refers to postponing commitment to the kingdom. Jesus is saying that postponing commitment to the kingdom is tantamount to rejecting it. He is more demanding than Elijah, who permitted Elisha to kiss his parent good-bye in the first reading before following him.

Drawing them all together...
The sense of call runs clearly through today's readings, underlying our great Easter theme of vocation. We see Elisha called to assume the prophetic mantle of Elijah; we see Jesus saying "Follow me," and St. Paul tells us that we are "called to liberty". But we might ask ourselves what precisely this means for each of us in the modern age and our current circumstances? Interestingly, the focus of the Gospel is the beginning of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem, where He would bring His ministry to its sacrificial high point. His entire ministry was a journey, and in a sense, His journey becomes symbolic of the journey all Christians make. We are not headed for an earthly destination, but rather, we are on a pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem. And on that journey we are very much pilgrims with Jesus, just as the Apostles are in the Gospel.

All the incidents that Luke has gathered together in today's reading are in fact instructions meant to guide us on the way, almost like a manual of Christian discipleship. They tell us how to respond to Jesus' call; how to follow Him; how to walk with Him. We can see that the requirements are radical: they involve challenging all our presuppositions about life, the usual human experiences of rejection and anger, our solutions to social and political problems, racial and cultural differences, religious prejudices; our attitudes to home and possessions, undue possessiveness; attitudes to families and friends, introverted and self-centred affection. We are required to hear the urgent and uncompromising call of Jesus, to answer Him without fear, knowing that He has already attained the goal on our behalf. In fact, we are to assume a prophet's mantle, and to become spokes-people for the Truth. This is possible because His service is perfect freedom in the service of each other through the love of Christ. St. Paul tells us that the Spirit will enable us to discover the true meaning of liberty in the mystery of love and the assumption of Jesus' yoke which is light. He will bring us rest and refreshment for our souls. He will free us so that we can help to set others free in His name.


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