Sunday Scripture: Seventeenth 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 fifty-third 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:

The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-90)


Praying to the Father.

Collect:

O God, protector of those who hope in you,
without whom nothing has firm foundation,
nothing is holy,
bestow in abundance your mercy upon us and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide,
we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure.
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: Genesis 18:20-32.
  • Psalm 137: 1-3, 6-8; Response: v. 3. 
  • Second Reading: Colossians 2:12-14.
  • Gospel: Luke 11: 1-13.
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 Genesis: Genesis (from the Latin Vulgate, in turn borrowed or transliterated from Greek γένεσις, meaning "origin"; Hebrew: בְּרֵאשִׁית‎, Bereʾšyt, "In [the] beginning"), is the first book of the Hebrew Bible (the TaNaKh) and the Christian Old Testament. It is of huge importance to me, as it is the source of much controversy. Today, Atheists erroneously consider that it is a scientific manual with which Christians prescribe the blue-print of creation. Although some literalists still consider that creation happened just as the English translation of the TaNaKh recounts, this idea is broadly discounted; again, I refer you to the teaching of Dei Verbum which asks that scholars pay attention to the literary forms:
"The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another." Dei Verbum 12.
Genesis is typically Jewish in its purpose as a story to explain the origins of the world. That's not to say that Genesis is just made up nonsense; far from it! It contains some of the most important and beautiful truths of our being. This is the Jewish way of thinking about things though: if they want to understand how something works, they tell stories.

One of the major questions that confronts any reader of the Bible, and especially pertinent if you consider it to be the Word of God, has to relate to the factual authenticity of its contents. The book of Genesis offers an account of creation which many mock in today’s scientific community and may seem at best, simplistic to the uninitiated. If the whole of the Bible is inspired, how does one understand the figures and dates of the primeval age alone? What about God’s direct intervention in the affairs of men? For example, the book of Exodus itself proclaims:
“the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders…” (Deut. 26: 5-9) 
Did these miraculous events really occur the way they are documented in the Bible? In his work Reading the Old Testament, Lawrence Boadt suggests that slaves escaping into the Sinai were probably a common occurrence. He gives examples of Egyptian documents which mention attempts to stop such groups (Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament (New York: Paulist Press, 1984) p.163-165). He goes on to note that the important difference with the Exodus escape is the Divine element it held for Israel. He postulates that Egypt may not have even realised this aspect at all!

Another valuable dimension to this is given by the great Biblical Scholar, Dr. Gerhard von Rad. He describes the way that some academics only analyse the historical veracity of the Torah as “historical materialism” in his book Genesis (von Rad, G. Genesis (London: SCM Press, 1961) p.31). Designating this kind of narrative as “saga”, von Rad explains that the expectation that the saga should either contain historical fact, or else it can be described as merely a product of poetic fantasy is an extremely crass misunderstanding of its essence. It is true, however, that this scepticism has been the attitude prevalent since the 19th Century. The saga then offers a product born of a completely different kind of intellectual activity from that of history (historie), although history (Geschichte) is what it is concerned with.

What then are these narratives? How can they be concerned with fact and yet not be tied to fact by their contents? von Rad answers by stating:
“Whatever saga we examine, we find with respect to its simplest and most original purpose that it narrates an actual event that once and for all occurred in the realm of history. It is therefore to be taken quite seriously – it is to be believed. In all that follows, therefore, let us hold fast to this: by no means is a saga merely the product of poetic fantasy; rather it comprises the sum total of the living historical recollection of peoples. In it is mirrored in fact and truth the history of a people. It is the form in which a people thinks of its own history.” 
The Old Testament sagas then, are concerned with Israel itself and the realities the people of Israel found in themselves. In this way they contain a much more real history, a history with much more truth in it than a purely factual historical writing would. They contain the secret contemporary character of apparently past events. This character is more than a list of the achievements, wars, political struggles, victories and defeats experienced by a people. It takes place on another level and speaks of inner guidance working and maturing in life’s mysteries. It is a history with God.

This weekWe can learn so much from this Old Testament story. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “This great argument between Abraham and God is the turning point in the history of the spirit. For the first time, a human challenges God Himself on a matter of justice.

This is the birth of one of the great Jewish traditions: The argument with Heaven for the sake of Heaven, the covenantal dialogue between God and man in the name of justice. We hear it again in the words of Moses, when his initial intervention on behalf of the Israelites in Egypt only seems to make matters worse: Moses said, ‘O Lord, why have You brought trouble to this people’ (Exodus 5:22)? We hear it again when during the Korah rebellion, God’s anger threatens to destroy the Israelites as a whole: But they fell on their faces and said, “O God…when one man sins, will You be angry with the entire congregation?’(Numbers 15: 22) Jeremiah questions the justice of history, ‘…Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?’(Jeremiah 12:1) Habakkuk (one of the twelve Minor Prophets who appear in the Bible) also questions God. He wrote, ‘How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but You do not listen? Or cry out to You, Violence but You do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do You tolerate wrong…? (Habakkuk 1:2-3) Nor does this argument end with the Hebrew Bible. It continues into the rabbinic tradition. It is clear, in this Torah portion, that God wants Abraham to speak.

The Torah is introducing a profound truth, not about a human challenge to God, but the opposite: God’s challenge to humans. God wants Abraham and his descendants to be agents of justice.

FOR JUSTICE TO BE DONE AND SEEN TO BE DONE, BOTH SIDES MUST BE HEARD. 

There must be not only an advocate for the prosecution but for the defense. So deep does this principle go in Jewish law, that it contains the extraordinary proviso that if, in a capital case, the judges are unanimous in finding the plaintiff guilty, the case is dismissed. Since no argument has been heard or mitigation of the accused, the presumption is that justice has not been seen to be done. This is what God wants of Abraham: to be the defense attorney for the people of Sodom; to argue their case; to be the voice of the other side. And that is precisely what Abraham does. Justice is a process, not just a product. Justice, as the philosopher Stuart Hampshire has argued, always involves conflict. There is always more than one point of view. Justice involves conversation, dialogue, argument. Even Divine justice, can only be seen to be done if there is a counsel for the defense. That is what God empowers Abraham and subsequent prophets to be. God needs humanity to become His partner in the administration of justice. Judaism--the religion for which justice is essential--is a religion of argument and debate, for the sake of heaven, even if it involves argument with heaven itself. And it all began with Abraham, the man empowered by God to argue with God so that justice might be seen as done.”

Prayer can often take the form of wrestling over ideas and experiences, a discussion, or a wrestling with God and our understanding. We must not be afraid to question God when we do not understand something that has happened in our lives, but we must be brave enough to accept the answer He gives us.

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: This psalm continues the prayer theme, and speaks from the perspective of one who has had their prayers answered. We often think that our prayers are not answered. Someone once said to me that prayers are not answered by God changing reality, but rather by our hearts changing to accept reality. I think that God does intervene in a very profound way through prayer, but we much be changed by His grace in order for our requests to be in our best interests. If you have understood any of what I have previously written about our freedom being a freedom for excellence, this might make more sense to you.

St. Paul's Letter to the Colossians addresses a unique situation in the early Church and its theology is equally unique, concerned with stressing two main themes against errors reported about the Church in Colossae (2:4, 8, 16, 18-22). Paul stresses the supremacy of Christ and the completeness of Christians in Christ. One of the main areas of study with regard to this epistle has been the attempt to identify the opponents who were misleading the community in Colossae. According to the epistle itself, the false teaching is a philosophy and an empty receipt (2:8), a human tradition (2:8); it concerns the elemental spirits of the universe (2:8) and angels (2:18); it demands the observance of food regulations and festivals, new moons, and sabbath (2:14, 16, 20, 21); and it encourages ascetic practices. Since the opponents are charged with "not holding fast to the head," the error must have arisen within the believing community. Jewish and Hellenic influences seem to be interwoven in what can be inferred of the error. A complex syncretism that incorporates features of Judaism, Paganism, Christianity, magic, astrology, and mystery religions forms the cultural background of the letter and consequently it may be impossible to identify the opponents in Colossae with any particular group.

This week: Paul sees the rite of immersion an an inclusion in what happened to Christ. From this insight it is a short step to understanding baptism as a participation in the two events which are linked by the tomb of Christ, His death and Resurrection. Paul's principle is: what happened to Christ happens to all Christians. Compare the kerygmatic proclamation of 1 Cor 15:3-4 with Rom 6:3-4. Colossians' emphasis is on the present character of the Christian's resurrection. Baptism is not a magical rite because faith on the part of the recipient is an essential prerequisite, cf Gal 3:26-27.
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 weekHow beautiful that in this week's Gospel, Jesus teaches us how to pray. Luke recounts His instruction in the context of His own prayer, thereby involving us all in Jesus' own prayer; the interior dialogue of triune love. By following His instruction, He draws our human hardships deep into the very heart of God. In this way, we can also see that the words of the Our Father are signposts to deeper interior prayer. They present us with a basic direction for our being, and they aim to configure each one of us to the image of the Son. This Gospel story then, is not a mere prescription for messaging heaven, it constitutes a training programme which will form our being and train us in the inner attitude of Jesus (Phil 2:5).

Drawing them all together...

One of the most profound insights we can draw from the Scripture this week is about our relationship with God. When you consider the utter transcendence of YHWH as held by Jews to this day, to the extent that His mighty name is unutterable, how shocking must Jesus's instruction to the disciples have been to call God "Abba", literally, "Daddy". Linking this with our first reading, we can see the effects of real discipleship and the incredible consistency of Scripture through both Testaments. Abraham's intercession for the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah demonstrates God's loving patience and justice. The psalm speaks to us of the affirmation of faith wrought by a deep relationship with God in prayer: "I thank you Lord with all my heart, you have heard the words of my mouth,".

We are connected to God through Baptism. This sacrament confers on us a new dignity as sharers in Jesus' divine Sonship. We have been forgiven and have the promise of glorious new life.

Bibliography:

Baker, K., SJ, Inside the Bible, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998).
Barret, C. K., Acts a Shorter Commentary, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2002).
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).
Cotter, D., Genesis, Collegville: Liturgical Press, 2003.
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).
Dunn, James D. G. (Ed) The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul (Cambridge: CUP, 2003).
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, (London: Nelson, 1969).
Hahn, S., The Lamb's Supper (London: DLT, 1999).
Harrington, W. J., John: Spiritual Theologian (Dublin: The Columbia Press, 2007).
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001).
Jeremias, J. The Parables of Jesus, New York: 1963.
Kereszty, R., O. Cist., Jesus Christ—Fundamentals of Christology (New York: Alba, 2010).
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. 9/ June 2013.
Rahner, K., Encyclopedia of Theology, (St. Pauls, New York, 1975).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).
Talbert, C.H., Literary Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts, (Montana: SBLMS, 1974).
von Rad, G., Genesis (London: SCM Press, 1961).
von Rad, G., Wisdom in Israel, (SCM Press, Tottenham, U.K., 1993).


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