Sunday Scripture: Twenty-Second 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-eighth 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:

Fear of the Lord: The Beginning of Wisdom.


God of might, giver of every good gift,

put into our hearts the love of your name,
so that, by deepening our sense of reverence,
you may nurture in us what is good
and, by your watchful care,
keep safe what you have nurtured.
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: Ecclesiasticus 3:17-18,20, 28-29.
  • Psalm 67:4-7, 10-11; Response: cf v. 11. 
  • Second Reading: Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24.
  • Gospel: Luke 14:1, 7-14.
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 Ecclesiasticus contains some extremely important developments that constitute a significant advance in highlighting the Word of God. The book is a legacy of traditional pious Judaism in the middle of the Seleucid period. It is among the earliest of the deuterocanonical Old Testament books and contains the most extensive portion of Israelite wisdom literature to come down to us.

Somewhat confusingly, it is variously called The Book of the All-Virtuous Wisdom of Joshua (or Jesus) ben Sira; Wisdom of Sirach or simply Sirach, and also as The Book Ecclesiasticus, not to be confused with The Book of Ecclesiastes. The original title in Hebrew, according to the subscription of Cairo manuscript B, was "The Wisdom of Yeshua [Jesus] ben [son of] Eleazar ben Sira." The title "Sirach" is a transliteration of the the name found in the Greek manuscripts. The title "Ecclesiaticus," which probably means the ecclesiastical (or Church) [book], is found in many Latin manuscripts and can still be seen in the NJB, NEB, and RSV.

The author was the master of an academy in Jerusalem who devoted his life to drawing out the implications of faith for the culture of his people. At the end of a long an distinguished academic career, he arranged his lecture notes and personal reflections into the form of a book modelled after Proverbs.

The book covers the same variety of subjects as Proverbs and many short sayings; it also contains a more elaborate development of thought. Jesus Ben Sira personifies wisdom and praises her as God’s creature and His gift to men (1:7-8) acquired through demanding discipline (6:18-31). There are several interesting new ideas, for example the introduction of the idea of the Jerusalem Temple as the special home of wisdom among the Chosen People. Ben Sira’s first concern, from beginning to end is the cultivation of wisdom (1:1; 50:27) he asserts that God has touched human beings in such a way that directs them in search of wisdom.

Sira’s meditation on creation shows extraordinary insight, highlighting the role of God’s Word as the creative power (42:15 cf. Gn 1:1-2:3; cf. Ps 33:6). This insight leads to a conviction that wisdom is revealed to mankind through creation, and especially in the Law. Sira develops a synthesis between God’s work in creation and revelation, stating that wisdom is manifest in the temple and speaks through the Law. Sira sees the Mosaic Torah as the interior revelation of divine order to mankind, more than a mere set of external rules, but rather a deeply spiritual reality: the manifestation of the mind of God, adherence to which can only be of benefit. Indeed, it is through the acquisition of wisdom that leads to an deepening of understanding that will lead us to adhere to the Law:
“By allowing the Law to govern our actions, each of us develops a personal order that puts our lives in harmony with the rhythm of the divine symphony that resonates throughout creation.”
This week: Humility is portrayed as the essential tool necessary for our development. This is also emphasised in Proverbs and the Qumran Manual of Discipline. Here in Ecclesiasticus the author  speaks of a humble sense of one's own limitations. The high & mighty have a greater need for humility than the lowly & weak. The pious Jew should have no concern for "what is too sublime" or for "what is hidden". The pertains to the pretensions of Greek learning. The pious Jew has enough to occupy his mind in the Law (vv. 21-22). Ben Sira then gives us a contrast between the proud man and the sensible man, or the stubborn and the wise. "The heart of a sensible man will reflect on parables, an attentive ear is the sage's dream." "heart" here equals "mind" in western thought. The stubborn fair badly because they lack wisdom. The over-arching sense one gains from the reading is the importance of humility for the development of wisdom. The ancient writer identifies the pride of the human heart as a fatal malady, an evil growth in his heart. The true way to the Lord's favour is through humility, which creates no barriers.

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: We are once again reminded of God's loving concern for the poor and needy; the orphan, the widow, the prisoners.

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: Zion and the heavenly city of Jerusalem symbolise the goal of the Christian's pilgrimage (i.e. Heaven). This goal of the New Covenant is contrasted with the Old Covenant "...a blazing fire, or a gloom turning to total darkness, or a storm; or trumpeting thunder or the great voice speaking which made everyone that heard it beg that no more should be said to them."—these are all signs of theophany and refer to Old Testament Scripture. "nothing known to the senses" in the lectionary, or "what may be touched" as the RSV renders it (I always use the RSV as it tends to be closer to the original text) refers to Mount Sinai as the LORD descended upon it with fire, smoke, and blazing trumpets (12:18; Ex 19:16-20; Deut 4:11). The people were terrified and "...everyone that heard it beg that no more should be said to them..." after the LORD had uttered the Decalogue in a thunderous voice (12:19; Ex 19:19; 20:18-20; Deut 5:4). The Heavenly Jerusalem is described in apocalyptic terms by a celestial liturgy of Heaven, where Angels and Saints are gathered to worship God and to celebrate the redeeming work of Christ (Rev 4-5; 7-9-17; 14:1-5; etc). Christ is the mediator of the eschatological covenant realising through the liturgy the reconciliation between God and sinful humanity through the blood of Christ (cf also Acts 20:28; Rm 5:9; Eph 1:7; 2:13; Col 1:20; 1 Pt 1:19; 1 Jn 1:7; Apoc 1:5; 5:9). This is the consummation of that 'peace' and 'holiness' which Christians strive after as their goal (12:14).
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 weekThis week, the Gospel is fairly straight forward. Jesus quietly warns the Scribes and Pharisees that that they may be fortunate to get the lowest place in the Kingdom. Jesus teaches that a limited and interested love is worthless in the sight of God (cf. 6:32-34). Those who act from motives of disinterested charity will receive their reward at the resurrection.

Drawing them all together...
Today Ecclesiasticus counsels, "Be gentle in carrying out your business...The greater you are, the more you should behave humbly, and then you will find favour with the Lord." Christ promises us that "the man who humbles Himself will be exalted". Why is humility an integral part of Christian righteousness? Because it is humility that keeps us mindful of our inestimable privilege: we "have come to...Jesus, the mediator who brings a new covenant". Only humility disposes us to want what the Lord offers and to be ever receptive to His mercy in our midst. "Humility recognises God as He is...Humility and trust are what make a person truly human"—Pope Benedict XVI

This week we are drawn on a journey through salvation history, by the Scriptures, which teaches us to reflect on God's plan for the world. True fulfilment for us means finding definitive answers to the great questions of our existence; who am I? Where am I going? What do I do to put my life in order? The Old Testament Wisdom Literature forms a whole school of thought on these issues which takes a hard and honest look at the questions from the correct perspective (that is, a holistic one, rather than one which makes a priori assumptions about the nature of the existing reality).

Catholicism is concerned with truth; its revelation and transmission. In order for philosophers to genuinely engage with truth, they must have the courage to recover the range of authentic truth and wisdom. This range must include objective reality and metaphysics if it is to be complete and proper to philosophical enquiry, which grew out of asking for answers to big questions. Through the centuries, different philosophical systems have drawn people away from objective reality and into a microcosmic reality which only contains them. They have found in this introspective ideology that they can be their own masters deciding their own future and destiny in complete autonomy but as Pope John Paul II points out in the closing pages of Fides et Ratio;

“…this can never be the grandeur of the human being, who can find fulfilment only in choosing to enter the truth, to make a home under the shade of wisdom and dwell there. Only within this horizon of truth will people understand their freedom in its fullness and their call to know and love God as the supreme realisation of their true self.”

Despite our advances, it seems that the ancient's approach to these problems (at least philosophically speaking) was a more honest one. As we saw on the Eighteenth Sunday's First Reading from Ecclesiastes, a vivid realism was a part of this religious thought which reflected on whether life was truly transient and empty. The challenge was always to live a more moral existence and ultimately, these thinkers found that contentment was only possible through pursuit of the divine wisdom that opens the heart in humble attentiveness to God's ways. This truth is manifest in Jesus who humbles Himself in the Incarnation. 

Jesus came to renew the Covenant of God's saving love and to give it a final consecration. In contrast to the terrifying natural phenomena that accompanied the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, on the Mt. of Beatitude, God showed Himself in His Son, in gentleness and humility. We became His brothers and sisters, each of us a "first-born" made perfect through His mediation in the New Covenant. We ourselves become signs and symbols of God's saving power in the world when we live the life of the righteous one and emulate Jesus; become 'Christ-like'. In His parable this week, Jesus' urges us to embrace His example of humility, to do all things in love without calculated motive of social or mercenary return. Those who are wise reflect on parables, and listen to Jesus' saving words. Jesus wants humility, consistent with the ancient revelation where we read extraordinary words about the exaltation of the humble.


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