Sunday Scripture: Twentieth 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-sixth of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass. A bit late, due to my wifi-less holiday, but I figure, better late than never!

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 stunning Martyr's Picture in the Venerable English College, Rome.

Martyrdom & Victory with Christ.


O God, who have prepared for those who love you good things which no eye can see,
fill our hearts, we pray, with the warmth of your love,
so that, loving you in all things and above all things,
we may attain your promises,
which surpass every human desire.
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: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10.
  • Psalm 39: 1-3, 6-8; Response: v. 14b. 
  • Second Reading: Hebrews 12:1-4.
  • Gospel: Luke 12: 49-53.
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 Jeremiah is one of the latter prophets of Israel, his service to the LORD and His people spanned more than forty years (627-c. 582 B.C.), long enough for Judah to pass under the rule of five kings and a governor who were subservient to the dominion of three successive foreign empires. This was one of the most troubled periods in the history of the near East. Jeremiah witnessed the fall of a great empire and the rise of one even greater. In the midst of his turmoil, the kingdom of Judah, then in the hands of deplorable kings, comes to its downfall by resisting this overwhelming force of history.

The prophet's message is one of action. Genuine prophecy is more than a mere message from another world, momentarily altering the speaker's state of consciousness, and then passes through his lips (arguably the way Mohammedan prophecy is purported to have been revealed). Jeremiah teaches us that this is counterfeit prophecy (c.f. 23:25-40). Genuine prophecy is a word from God intended to take flesh permanently in the life of His people. By God's action, the word is first embodied in the prophet's life and, over time, shapes his whole existence. The prophet stand-in the midst of God's people as a sign illustrating the effectiveness of God's judgement and promise contained in the word he speaks. We find the interaction between the divine and human life illustrated most fully in Jeremiah whose life is described in detail unparalleled among all the prophets.

This weekThe relationship between this Old Testament story and the Gospel is clear: Jeremiah's message is not well received, despite the fact that his word does not change: Jerusalem's fate is irrevocable, and he delivered the same message delivered to the people at the beginning of the siege (21:8-10), urging them to avoid foolish political alliances and to trust humbly in God's love. His message is condemned as disheartening the soldiers but the truth can only be that success or failure is the responsibility of the official—don't shoot the messenger! They decide to kill Jeremiah without bloodshed (cf. Gen 37:18ff), but he is saved through the sympathy of an Ethiopian courtier. Jeremiah has to speak, for he is testifying to God's wishes for His people. In this way, he explores the mystery of discipleship, and the call to suffering it so often entails. Jeremiah's closeness to the Lord made him a type of the Suffering Servant, and the pattern of his life and ministry looks forward to the mystery of Jesus' life and work.

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 seems connected to the other readings in several ways. Firstly, the psalmist uses the image of the river ordeal, known from Mesopotamian literature. This links with Jeremiah's ordeal in the first reading where he is cast into the well. There is also a great sense of humility 'As for me, wretched and poor, the Lord thinks of me.' This makes me think of the great levelling value of our faith, where all are equal before God; He does not rescue the rich and important before the poor and afflicted, in fact, quite the opposite was shown to us in His greatest manifestation: His Son Jesus.

St. Paul's Letter to the Hebrews claims to be a “word of exhortation” (13:22) and lacks the formal features common to a letter of the time; an introduction by the sender to the recipients and an opening word of thanksgiving. Rather, it reads somewhat like a homily, its literary rhythm alternating back and forth between doctrinal exposition and moral exhortation in the same way any oral preaching tends to.Hebrews follows a carefully planned literary structure expressed with a rhetorical finesse unmatched in other writings of the New Testament. The work is equally unique in its subject matter, drawing on a extensive and sophisticated use of the Old Testament in comparison with the New, with particular emphasis on priestly and sacrificial issues. No New Testament writing reflects more deeply on the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and none gives more attention or puts more emphasis on covenant theology.

This week: Endurance. After turning his gaze to the past to survey the OT figures of persevering faith as we saw last week, the author returns to the present to exhort his readers to perseverance in their own faith, no matter what hardship it costs. Christian existence in this world is likened to a school of endurance and toughening in hardship, in which the training and formation are divine. This connects with Jeremiah in the first reading, who was faithful and did persevere, in spite of his being persecuted for proclaiming God's truth. Similarly, in the Psalm, we hear how God never abandons us. Now, in the Second Reading we are admonished to stay the path, no matter the fire we must endure as a result of Christ's revelation!
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 weekThe text seems very strange to our modern ears indeed! It always reminds me of Rev 3:16. The coming of Jesus marks a moment of truth; a time for decision, a crisis in which none can be neutral. The fire which Jesus wants to see kindled is that which purifies souls, a fire lighted on the Cross (cf John 12:32). He wants people to be able to discern dross from the genuine article. The 'baptism' is a metaphorical allusion to the Passion which will 'plunge' Jesus into a sea of suffering. He looks with desire (22:15) to that event which will inaugurate the new age. Jesus is 'set for the fall and rising of many in Israel' (2:34): men will be for or against Him. The description of family dissension (an emphatic presentation of the division He brings) is a fulfilment of Micah 7:6

Drawing them all together...

Father Kevin, my Parish priest, did an wonderful job of explaining this difficult Gospel this week, and so asked him if I could share a transcript of his homily with you all:

I hope none of you ever have to experience a trial by fire. A dear friend recently almost died in a house fire, a pious woman, she went to bed after her nightly devotions and left a candle alight. It turned into a blaze. Fortunately her Guardian Angel was working overtime and she got out of the house before it was too late. Whilst the damage done to the property was not irreparable it was certainly all pervading. If you have ever seen the aftermath of a fire, you’ll know how the stench and mess can hang around for weeks.

In the Gospel of the Mass, we hear some words of Jesus which don’t chime comfortably with an image of God, which we may have, that only sees him as meek, mild, patient and non-judgmental.
"I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already blazing."
The Greek verb used is ballo - to cast down fire. It is one of the disquieting expressions of Jesus in the Gospel. In both Testaments, Old and New, we are shown a God who is loving, merciful and indulgent towards His people. But it is the same God who is just, demanding and judgemental. The God who destroys with fire Sodom and Gomorrah and chastises when correction is required.

However, though we tend to think of fire as something destructive, destroying everything in it’s path, it is also a force that purges and clears. It is a symbol of life and energy as well as of death and destruction; it is an element that above all, expresses intensity. This is why it is a symbol of God the Holy Spirit. It is this intensity that Christ wants to cast down upon the earth, not to consume and destroy but to purify and test. It is Christ’s way of speaking about His love for the human race and His desire to light up the hearts of all people.

If you ever visited the Venerable English College in Rome, there hangs a famous painting depicting the Blessed Trinity. It has inscribed across the canvas, these words of Jesus: Ignem veni mittere in terram.

During the dark years of Catholic persecution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, whenever news reached Rome that one of the priests who had returned home to England had been martyred, they would gather before this picture to the sing the Te Deum, the ancient hymn of praise and thanksgiving to the Trinity. Someone had loved God so much, that they had been prepared to give their lives for that love; this was the cause of their thanksgiving!

When those same martyrs would set off from Rome back to England - as they did form my own College, Allen Hall at Douai in France - they did so in full knowledge of the fate that awaited them. St Philip Neri who lived in rooms opposite the College would bless them before they travelled saluting them: Salvete flores martyrum…Hail flower of the martyrs. It echoes those words of St Thomas More when from his confinement in the Tower saw the monks of the London Charterhouse being carried off to Tyburn for execution said: See how gladly they go, cheerfully as men going to their wedding feast!

God perhaps asks a different kind of sacrifice from each of us. St Jane Francis de Chantal who feast was at the beginning of the week, writes in her memoirs: If you give God your unconditional love, this will be a form of martyrdom. The martyrdom of love is no less painful than the other, because love is a strong as death, and martyrs of love suffer infinitely more by staying alive to do God’s will than if they had to give up a thousand lives for their faith and love and loyalty.

This is how we say Yes to God each day, in the thousand small things that come our way, the people who need us, the sacrifice we make to live holy lives, making time for God and for others. This is how Mary said Yes to God, and her Assumption last Thursday was the crown of that willing fulfilment of God’s Will. With her we have the impetus to continue to spread the divine fire of God’s love for the human race, at whatever cost.


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