Sunday Scripture: Fourteenth 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 fiftieth of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass. Somewhat of a milestone by my reckoning!

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 Our Peace.

O God, who in the abasement of your Son
have raised up a fallen world,
fill your faithful with holy joy,
for on those you have rescued from slavery to sin
you bestow eternal gladness.
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: Isaiah 66:10-14.
  • Psalm 65:1-7, 16, 20; Response: cf. v. 1. 
  • Second Reading: Galatians 6:14-18.
  • Gospel: Luke 10:1-12, 17-20.
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 Isaiah as we know it today in the Bible is actually a collection of writings which represent a tradition that extended over a span of some three hundred years. The whole text can be sub-divided into three major parts: (i) Isaiah 1-39, for the most part, presenting the teaching of the prophet himself, who laboured in Jerusalem from 740 until sometime after 701 B.C.; (ii) Isaiah 40-55 (generally referred to as Deutero-Isaiah (second -Isaiah)), containing the oracles of another prophet in the tradition of Isaiah, who announced God's word to the exiles in Babylon sometime between 550 and 539 B.C.; and (iii) Isaiah 56-66, Trito-Isaiah (third Isaiah), reflecting the same tradition at a later stage in Jerusalem after the Exile but before the arrival of Ezra and Nehemiah, perhaps around 500 B.C.

Isaiah is often considered the greatest of the Old Testament prophets because of the sheer range and vision of his prophecy. As I wrote in my post on the Eucharist, words have great meaning and power for the Hebrews. Thus their names are more than mere labels; they tell the identity, the significance, the sign-value of the person who bears them (hence the significance of the divine name of God for example). The name Isaiah means "God is salvation" and what is most extraordinary perhaps about this book is that it contains prophecies of Jesus, so numerous, so beautiful and so much more famous than any other prophet, that it has been referred to as the "Gospel of Isaiah".

Isaiah has also been called "the Shakespeare of the prophets", for his poetic turn of phrase rivalled only by Job and Psalms for poetic grandeur. At least ten of Isaiah's passages have become unforgettable to all English-speaking peoples, immortalised in Handel's world famous oratorio, The Messiah: 11:1-5; 7:14; 40:9; 60:2-3; 9:2; 9:6; 35:6-6; 40:11; 53:3-6; 53:8.

This prophet and his followers lived long before Christ, yet the detailed prophecies of the life of Christ we find in Isaiah are far more numerous and far more specific than anything else in the Bible. At least seventeen of them were fulfilled in truly remarkable detail.

Take the time to look up the following seventeen passages. These are only part of the more than three hundred different prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled by Christ. Even though the New Testament writers (especially Matthew) deliberately used the style and language of Old Testament prophecies to describe events in the life of Christ—as a modern preacher might use the King James English to describe current events—the statistical odds that one man could fulfil all of these prophecies so completely is not much better than the odds that a monkey could type out Isaiah by randomly throwing marbles at a computer keyboard. Compare:-

1). Isaiah 7:14 with Matthew 1:22-23;
2). Isaiah 9:1-2 with Matthew 4:12-16;
3). Isaiah 9:6 with Luke 2:11 (see also Ephesians 2:14-18);
4). Isaiah 11:1 with Luke 3:23, 32 and Acts 13:22-23;
5). Isaiah 11:2 with Luke 3:22;
6). Isaiah 28:16 with 1 Peter 2:4-6;
7). Isaiah 40:3-5 with Matthew 3:1-3;
8). Isaiah 42:1-4 with Matthew 12:15-21;
9). Isaiah 42:6 with Luke 2:29-32;
10). Isaiah 50:6 with Matthew 26:26, 30, 67;
11). Isaiah 52:14 with Philippians 2:7-11;
12). Isaiah 53:3 with Luke 23:18 and John 1:11; 7:5;
13). Isaiah 53:4 with romans 5:6, 8;
14). Isaiah 53:7 with Matthew 27:12-14, John 1:29 and 1 Peter 1:18-19;
15). Isaiah 53:9 with Matthew 27:57-60;
16). Isaiah 53:12 with Mark 15:28; and
17). Isaiah 61:1-2 with Luke 4:17-21.

This week: The First Reading is taken from a passage in Trito-Isaiah (5-18a) where God apostrophises the righteous and condemns the indifferent or sceptical (5:11; 28:9-12). This immediately reminded me of Pope Francis' recent words:

Trito-Isaiah is especially concerned with devotional practices (prayer (56:7) and fasting (58:1-12), the Temple and the Sabbath (56:2-6; 58:13-14). In our reading this week, the Prophet speaks of Jerusalem becoming a mother to her children (66:10-11) and this is a variation on the theme of requisite for the essence of salvation being a new and intimate relationship with God based on humility. Trito-Isaiah couples this with an intense revelation of the divine glory of God and a prophetic foretelling of the new creation, foreshadowed in the renewal of Israel.

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 is a universal song of praise, which reminds us of the very real wonders He has worked for the people of Israel. This is a beautiful example of evangelisation, the Israelites singing God's praises and extolling His magnificence—making His wonders known "Before you all the earth shall bow". It fits in nicely therefore with the First Reading, providing us with an example of praise, humility and glory in action in prayer.

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 takes up the theme of humility also "The only thing I can boast about is the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ". Paul's boast does not constitute a self-reliance, like the vanity of the Judaisers who want to make a good showing in the flesh in order to save themselves from persecution (probably from Jewish nationalists who pressured them to make circumcision the focus of their missionary efforts)  (cf. 6:12). Rather it is dependence on the grace of God (cf. 1 Cor 3:21; 2 Cor 11:16-12:10).

In verse 15, Paul picks up the them from the First Reading of a new creation. It is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which renews us from within and makes us sharers in the divine life (2 Peter 1:14; CCC 1214). Paul signs off his letter with a beautiful reference to "the marks on my body". This alludes to the fact that property and slaves at the time were branded with a mark of ownership. Paul is announcing that the physical scars he bore from countless persecutions (Acts 14:19; 16:22; 2 Cor 11:23-29) constitute the brand marks which make him a slave of Christ (Rom 1:1).

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.

Søren Kierkegaard.
This week: Jesus teaches about mission in Luke's longest meditation on mission, concentrating on the nature of mission and the joys and sorrows that accompany it. This must strike a chord with anyone who is trying to live out God's mission in their own lives. The triumph's and frustrations we all experience in trying desperately to share the Good News with others. Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher who's book title forms the title of my blog De Omnibus Dubitandem Est [Everything Must Be Doubted which illustrates the existential consequences of assuming Cartesian doubt, the method of modern philosophy, to its last consequences.] summed up this in his story of the clown and the burning village. It goes like this: a travelling circus in Denmark caught fire. The manager thereupon sent the clown, already dressed and made up for the performance, into the neighbouring village to fetch help. This was especially important as there was a danger that the fire would spread across the fields of dry stubble and engulf the village itself. The clown hurried into the village and requested the inhabitants come as quickly as possible to the blazing circus and help to put the fire out. But the villagers took the clown's shouts simply for a clever advertisement; a means to get them all to the performance. They applauded the clown and laughed until they cried. The clown felt more like weeping than laughing; he tried in vain to get people to be serious, to make it clear to them that he was not pretending but was in deadly earnest, that there really was a fire and they were all in danger. His supplications only served to increase the laughter, the people considering he was playing his part splendidly—until finally the fire did engulf the village; it was too late for help, and both the circus and village were burned to the ground.

In today's secular world, increasingly priests and theologians are treated like the clown, in a medieval or at least, old fashioned costume, they are just not taken seriously. No matter how powerful their arguments, no matter what they do to try and demonstrate the seriousness of their position, people always know in advance that their are in fact just clowns. The audience has heard it all before and can listen without having to engage on any serious level with what is being said.

Drawing them all together...
Several themes strike me as running through this week's readings. Humility: our need to show reverence before God. This is a virtue sadly lacking in the world today and was central to the Old Testament understanding of happiness.

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament asserts that to live well, one must employ reason and the primary virtue essential for living a life of wisdom is tabin adonai (fear of the LORD). Reason breeds understanding which opens the heart (the centre of the Hebrew person) to the fear of the LORD (Prov 2:5-6) from which flows wisdom. We can see how this illustrates Israel looking inward; taking the law and individualising it, Israel exploring the extraordinary truth that she had unique knowledge of; asserting that every person must take responsibility for their own life, for coming to a knowledge of the truth and exercising the discipline necessary to live by it.

There is also the theme of the new creation. The idea, especially prevalent in Paul's writings. Christ is the principle of a new creation: if one is in Christ, one is a new creature (2 Cor 5:17). Christians are God's work, created in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:10). Christ has made of Jew and Gentile one new man (Eph 2:15). There is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision but a new creature (Gal 6:15).

Both of these themes lead us to peace. Not earthly peace, which often has to be fought for and seldom lasts, but real heavenly peace. This word in its original Hebrew is Shalom (שָׁלוֹם), rendered in the New Testament by the Greek irene. However, shalom is a word so widely used and with such rich content that no single English word can render it. shalom was the original greeting; an expression of good wishes. The Israelite conceived peace as a gift of YHWH, and as such it becomes a theological concept. When one possesses peace, one is in perfect and assured communion with God.

Peace, the fruit of preaching the Gospel (Eph 6:15), is brought by Jesus and is an achievement which is not possible to the world (Jn 14:27; 16:33). Peace reigns in the hearts of Christians, who are joined in the body of Christ (Col 3:15). Jesus being the bond of communion with god, He is our peace in a very real sense, and we refer to Him as the Prince of Peace. We can see this underpinned in the liturgy: "Grant is the peace and unity of your Kingdom"; "Let us offer one another a sign of peace", and the theme runs throughout all of revelation.

This peace is not just the absence of strife, or the prevalence of a calm state. Rather, it is a radical principle of life, a mode of being, a participation in God's life-giving nature. It is associated with God's acts and His self-manifestation. It was an aspect of the story of the return of the exiles from Babylon: Israel was to be the Lord's witness to the nations, and Jerusalem, the place of God's Temple, was to be a symbol of God's healing peace operating in the events of history, and guiding His people to a providential future. Jesus is the image of the unseen Father: those working for and with Him are also heirs to His peace.

We see this in the Gospel. The commission of the seventy-two sent out by Jesus is to bestow peace on others. This does not rest on any personal quality of theirs but is part of a spiritual gift, a link to heaven. Like Jesus, the first words they are to utter are a prayer of peace. Those of goodwill, with a heart open to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, will receive this precious gift of God's saving presence. This is the prelude to Jesus' works of gracious transformation, St. Paul's blinding vision of the Risen Lord gave him a very special understanding of Jesus' redemptive action. To become Jesus' disciple is to enter into a deep relationship with His Passion, to be "in Christ," to see one's relationship with the whole world in a new light. To be "in Christ" is to boast His Cross, "through which the world is crucified to me, and I to the world." The terrible mystery of suffering is given a new meaning in the agony of Jesus. In seeing ourselves sharing in it, we are transformed into His likeness and can share in His peace which can then flow from us to all those around us. The way to this peace is a question of discipleship, an attestation to the truth of Jesus, not an appropriation of personal piety. "Rejoice rather that your names are written in heaven."


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