Exploring the Readings at Mass— Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)


Welcome to this reflection on this week's Sunday readings at Mass, where I look at the Scripture we have heard at Mass today in its historical, social and theological context to see what wisdom can be gleaned.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I sincerely hope that this reflection will inspire you, answer some questions you may have, help you to see how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps begin to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted, and what a carefully considered part of the Mass the readings are. If you want to know how these posts came about, please read my first post in this series here.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

Jesus the Wisdom of God


The readings are:
  • Wisdom 2:12, 17:20
  • Psalm: 53:3-6,8; Response: v. 6
  • Second Reading: James 3:16-4:3
  • Gospel: Mark 9:30-37
First, a little 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. I've re-done the one on the Gospel of Mark this week, adding much more detail.

The Book of Wisdom is one of my favourite books of the Bible. The Book of Wisdom was written about a hundred years before the coming of Christ. Its author, whose name is not known to us, was a member of the Jewish community at Alexandria, in Egypt. He wrote in Greek, in a style patterned on that of Hebrew verse. At times he speaks in the person of Solomon (see Wis 6:22-9:18; cf. 1 Kgs 3:4-15; 5:9-14), placing his teachings on the lips of the wise king of Hebrew tradition in order to emphasise their value. His profound knowledge of the earlier Old Testament writings is reflected in almost every line of the book, and marks him, like Ben Sira, as an outstanding representative of religious devotion and learning among the sages of postexilic Judaism. He stands in the tradition of Ben Sira as a theologian who demonstrates how faith illuminates understanding to provide the most truthful, profound, and comprehensive vision of reality.

The primary purpose of the sacred author was as a apologia for Jewish students and intellectuals who were abandoning their faith as they embraced Hellenistic philosophy and religion. His work demonstrates how Judaism surpasses Greek systems of thought as the ultimate embodiment of wisdom in the world. He challenges the self-indulgent agnosticism of the Epicureans (cf. 1:16-2:9); and he implies that the biblical revelation of wisdom already contains the nest insights of Stoicism and Platonism (cf. 7:22-26; 8:7). Furthermore, his book represents a vehement polemic against the popular Hellenistic mystery cults that were alluring fashion-sensitive Jews away from the synagogue. Pastoral concern motivated him to provide a chastising analysis of idolatry (13:1-15:19) designed to win back those of his people who had begun partaking in the rites of Isis and Dionysius (cf. 12:5; 14:22-31).

The Book of Wisdom addresses big questions. It asks a question which resonates with so many of us today: How is it possible for a God of justice to allow His righteous ones to suffer at the hands of the godless who enjoy prosperity and comfort? It provides a two-fold response to this dilemma based on the premise that earthly evaluations are erroneous because they take no account of God's eternal Kingdom. First, God's judgement will reverse the present order of fortunes. even in the present moment, the cynicism of the godless produces despair, which they try to escape by practising debauchery and oppression (2:1-5, 6-9, 10-20). However, in the end, they will behold the vindication of the righteous even as they themselves disintegrate into the void of eternal death (2:21-24; 3:10-12; 4:20-5:14; 5:17-23). The righteous, by contrast, will experience eternal peace in God's presence in His Kingdom (3:1-9; 5:15-16).

Secondly, the sufferings of the righteous prepare them for eternal life. Such texts as the Confessions of Jeremiah (e.g. 11:18-12:6), the Song of the Suffering Servant (Is 52:13-53:12) and the psalm of the innocent in anguish (Ps 22) inspired the author of Wisdom to perceive that God identifies Himself most closely with the righteous one whom the world despises (2:10-20). "The upright man is God's son"; he can "boast...of having God for his father" (2:16-20; cf. 16:10, 26; 18:4, 13). If physical death should overtake the youth who obeys the Lord, it acts more as a servant than as an adversary insofar as it rescues him from the peril of evil and brings him into the safety of God's eternal embrace (4:7-19). The first-person confession of the adversaries in the Song of the Suffering Servant (Is 53:1-10) echoes in the words of the godless who acknowledge the victory of the righteous whom they had afflicted (Wis 4:20-5:14).

In summary, the book of Wisdom stands in the tradition of Daniel and 2 Maccabees insofar as it proclaims a life after death as God's reward for the righteous individual, especially the one who suffers persecution and martyrdom (Wis 3:1-9; 4:7-19; 5:15-16; cf. Dan 12:1-2; 2 Mac 7:11, 23, 36). However the book of Wisdom incorporates a Hellenistic dimension into the biblical tradition by describing life beyond the grave in terms of immortality of the soul rather than in terms of resurrection from the dead.

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.

The Letter of St. James, was written not to a single congregation but to "the twelve tribes in the Dispersion" (1:1). This may refer to Hebrew Christians who were exiled from Palestine and had settled throughout the Mediterranean world. This living situation beyond the borders of Israel was known in Jewish tradition as Dispersion, or Diaspora. Others read this as a reference to the universal Church, the family of Christian Jews and Gentiles who together formed "the Israel of God" (Gal 6:16).

It is difficult to date because it contains very little information about the historical circumstances. If the epistle was written by James of Jerusalem, the "brother of the Lord", then it must have been composed before his death in the early 60's. How much earlier than this it can be dated is all but impossible to determine. Evidence within the letter is supportive of an early date: it is markedly Jewish in its outlook; it addresses believers who gather together in an assembly (literally "synagogue", 2:2); and its illustrations drawn from nature and experience are suggestive of a Palestinian setting (1:11; 3:6, 12: 5:7). Of course, no one of these considerations proves that the letter must have been written in the days of James of Jerusalem, but together they create an impression that its author was living in the earliest decades of the Church, i.e. at a time when the mission field of the Gospel was still concentrated in Israel and its environs and before Christianity and Judaism had irrevocably distinguished themselves from one another (the parting of the two is clear by the late first century).

Some scholars maintain that an unknown Christian wrote the letter using "James" as a pseudonym. The Scripture scholar Raymond E. Brown suggests that if the book is pseudonymous, the most likely date is after the death of James ca. 62, in the range 70-110; most likely the 80's or 90's. However he also posits that 'James listed first among the "brothers" of Jesus in Mark 6:3; Matt 13:55, not a member of the Twelve but an apostle in a broader sense of the term (1 Cor 15:7; Gal 1:19)...is the only truly plausible candidate' (Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997, p. 725 f.).

Modern scholarship often distinguishes between James the Just and the author of the letter bearing his name. In other words, despite general agreement that 1:1 refers to James of Jerusalem, it is held that a later admirer of James wrote in the name of this revered figure in order to instruct believers near the end of the first century. Often the proponents of this theory contend that the Greek style of the letter is too smooth and sophisticated for the work of a Galilean Jew, whose first language must have been Aramaic. They also state that the epistle's mention of "elders" in 5:14 reflects a stage in the development of Church leadership more advanced than that which existed in James' lifetime. Neither argument is decisive, for one thing, scholarship continues to produce evidence that Galilee was thoroughly bi-lingual during the New Testament period (residents being conversant with both Aramaic and Greek), so the ability of a Palestinian Jew, especially one who was intellectually gifted, to write in excellent Greek is far from impossible (a good example of this would be the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who was educated in first-century Jerusalem and acquired an impressive command of Hellenistic Greek, as well as classical Greek literature). Second, unless one disregards the Book of Acts as a witness to history, it is clear that a hierarchical system of leadership (with "elders" or "presbyters") had emerged well before the end of the first century (Acts 14:23; 20:17; cf. 1 Pet 5: 1-2). Further, it reasonable to say that the opening self-description of James as a "servant" of the Lord Jesus (Jas 1:1) makes the most sense if James himself is the author of the letter. In other words, it presupposes that he is already known to his readers and feels no need to assert his authority or credentials. A pseudonymous author, hoping to borrow the reputation of James for himself, would have given a sufficiently explicit description of James to help readers identify precisely which James he was claiming to be.

Excursus: If the brother of Jesus thing is bothering you, read this.

James' letter is an amalgam of literary themes, it is full of maxims and practical advice about living. It is not primarily doctrinal and does not have a systematic outline. It does have a unifying theme, however, which is "Be doers of the word, and not hearers." (1:22) Perhaps it was this, combined with Luther's misunderstanding of the relationship between faith and works that led him to brand the work a "right strawy epistle".

The Gospel According to St. Mark
The first thing that strikes you about Mark’s Gospel account is the pace at which the story develops. Mark’s work contrasts Matthew’s sure pedagogy and Luke’s composed account which keeps an eye on literary effect and chronological continuity. Mark simply proclaims the Good News that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come down to save mankind from death and sin by means of his death and resurrection. In this Gospel it seems possible to overhear, through the informality of writing, the voice of the storyteller himself. In this sense, Mark allows us to reach behind the Gospels to a time in history when the gospel story was circulating among the churches in fragmentary and oral form. 

Henry Wansborough O.S.B., in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, argues that a study of Mark’s gospel in particular may lead us to a clearer understanding of the personality of Jesus himself. It was Wrede, in his ground-breaking work Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien. Zugleich ein Beitrag zum Verständnis des Markusevangeliums who first proposed Mark as a theologian concerned with a two-fold mission. Wrede developed a theory that suggested that a secret about the Messiah was an important factor in Mark: although Jesus is the Messiah, he hides this and instructs his disciples to do likewise, only demons recognise his identity. Brown attacks Wrede’s position on this, although he agrees with Wrede’s conclusion that Mark is clearly a theological work, he suggests that it is possible that the christology goes back as far as to Jesus Himself. Brown goes on to state that in his opinion Wrede exaggerated Marcan secrecy that in any case, may have its roots in Jesus’ historical rejection of some messianic aspirations that circulated at the time. Kermode also picked up on Wrede’s discovery in his book The Genesis of Secrecy stressing Marcan obscurity, and suggesting that the Gospel, like the parables, remains a mystery amid moments of radiance, excluding readers from the kingdom. Brown suggests that Kermode has “isolated Mark’s writing from its ultimate Christian theology” and points out that although it is true that the prominent motifs in Mark are disobedience, failure, misunderstanding and darkness, God’s power breaks through at the Gospel’s darkest moment, Jesus’ death on the cross and an outsider like the Roman centurion is not excluded, but rather gains understanding of the truth about Jesus. 

Mark then, writes with a two-fold mission. First and foremost seems to be a pastoral aim geared towards building his reader’s faith. Daniel Harrington confirms this in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, explaining that Mark’s writing shows the members of his community how their belief in the salvific significance of the cross related to the traditions about Jesus’ life. Secondly, Mark seems to have been presenting a biographical record of Christ’s life in order that early Christian’s might understand the reality of Jesus’ life and avoid a slip into Gnosticism, where Jesus was considered a myth rather than a reality. This juxtaposed with the writings of Paul, who concentrated his emphasis on the death and resurrection of Christ, saying little about the details of his life, though he undoubtedly exhorted his disciple Timothy to “Remember Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:8). It is interesting to note, however, that even when Mark does engage in polemic, it appears to be polemic with a pastoral aim. The rough form of Greek used by Mark is one internal evidence often cited to prove the Gospel’s Roman origin. There are present numerous loan words derived from Latin as well as some expressions of Latin grammar. This type of Greek was commonly spoken among the lower classes in Rome. Luiz Ruscillio in his work The Synoptic Gospels, also notes these linguistic peculiarities. Clement of Alexandria cites Rome as the place where Mark wrote the gospel (E.H. 6.14.6) and Brown notes that this is a “thesis supported by a large number of scholars”. Ruscillio also notes several other evidences: the connection between Peter and Mark suggested by Papias of Hierapolis; in 2 Tim 4:11 Paul tells Timothy to bring Mark with him to Rome, he is later described as Paul’s fellow prisoner (Philmn 24) and Peter sends greetings from Rome (Babylon) at the end of his first letter (1 Pet 5:13) “…also from my son Mark.”42. Harrington adds to this the evidence of the growing sense of impending persecution that pervades the Gospel; drawing a parallel to the threat of persecution the Christian community lived under in Rome at around 60 B.C.43.



Drawing them all together...

The themes from last week are reiterated today, and involve us in the mysteries of Incarnation, discipleship and suffering. Jesus repeats the teaching of Mark in last Sunday's Gospel, that He would die a shameful death, "but they did not understand Him, and were afraid to ask Him." The reading from the book of Wisdom gives us another prophetic reading similar to that of the Suffering Servant ("Let us test him with cruelty and torture, and thus explore this gentleness of his"), and the Psalm again affirms God's ultimate saving help ("But I have the Lord for my help. The Lord upholds my life"). But the mystery and incomprehension remain, and the challenge is to understand what this means for us as Jesus' followers. We do not understand why Jesus' had to die, why we are surrounded by suffering. The clue to some understanding lies in wisdom. Jesus is the Wisdom from above, Wisdom personified, and this is essentially something pure. Who Jesus was and what He did, and the good, positive consequences for us are there, in James' Letter: "...the wisdom that comes down from above is essentially something pure; it also makes for peace, and is kindly and considerate. It is full of compassion and shows itself by doing good." As we saw last week, Jesus comes not to change, but to transfigure human experience and our understanding of it. As the French poet and philosopher Paul Claudel put it:
“Jesus did not come to explain away suffering, or to remove it. He came to fill it with His presence.” 
Underlying it all was Jesus' openness, His acceptance of the Father's love, even though it asked for obedience unto death. This is so strange that no human person could conceive of it, only God can. It means total acceptance, total openness, and total self-giving. It means lowering all the barriers of self-esteem, self-interest and self-ambition, and allowing the spirit of wisdom to fill the void. The disciples were still not able to grasp, let alone comprehend, God's plan. Self-centred ambition still kept them imprisoned in an old world-view. Jesus shows the disciples that the exercise of authority is an act of service. The word authority actually comes from the Latin word auctor, which is to say, the author, promoter or source of something. It suggests that the function of one who watches over the interests or development of a social grouping. As a consequence, authority and obedience are not to be understood as contradictory concepts. In the Church they both have their origins in the same love for Christ. One commands for the love of Christ, while the other obeys for the same reason. The charism of authority and the virtue of obedience have both to be viewed with the eyes of faith. The great enemy of authority and community is self-love. This is something we all suffer from. It is our shared inheritance of Original Sin. We have to be humble. The proud person will seek any excuse to avoid obedience. The humble person seeks to accept and complete God's Will in all things and in the way that it comes to them. True understanding requires an open trust in God's love, like the simple openness and uncluttered trust of a child. Only by reversing the world's priorities and expectations can we find the acceptance, openness, and self-giving that gives birth to a Christ-like wisdom, and puts us in tune with the plan of salvation. "Peacemakers, when they work for peace, sow the seeds which will bear fruit in holiness."

Bibliography:

Best, E., Mark: The Gospel as Story, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1983).
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).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Dodd, C.H., The Founder of Christianity, (London: William Collins and Sons, 1971).
Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991.
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, London: Nelson, 1969.
Horrell, D. G., An Introduction to the Study of Paul, London: T&T
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001.
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005.
Léon-Dufour, X., The Gospels and the Jesus of History, (London: William Collins and Sons, 1968).
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, New York: St. Pauls, 2011.
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 2, No. 12/ September 2012.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, New York, Touchstone, 1995.
Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, London: Bloomsbury, 2007.
Ratzinger, J., Saint Paul, San Francisco: Ignatius, 2009.
Ruscillo, L., The Synoptic Gospels, (Birmingham: Maryvale, 1997).
Wrede. W., The Messianic Secret, (London: James Clarke & Co., 1971).




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