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

Welcome to my reflection on this week's Sunday readings at Mass, where I look at the Scripture we will hear at Mass on Sunday 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:

The Work of the Holy Spirit in Our Hearts

The readings are:
  • Numbers 11:25-29
  • Psalm: 18:8, 10, 12-14; Response: v. 9.
  • Second Reading: James 5:1-6
  • Gospel: Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48
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 Numbers Is the fourth book of the Bible. It's name was taken from the census, or counting of the people, that takes place in chapters 1 and 26. The book was composed over a period of about 1,000 years. It tells the story of thirty-eight years of wandering in the desert from Sinai to the Plains of Moab just before the invasion of Canaan under Joshua. On a deeper level it is the story of how God acted in history to guide and protect His chosen people from Sinai to the Jordan River.

It was designed to give young people a vision for their lives. The book calls them to risk, to step beyond the confines of the ways their elders had gone about living. Numbers tells young people they can and must forge a future about which people of former times had only dreamed. It challenges them to be a generation that will bring about a whole new way of life and set the standard for God's people in future centuries.

This week's passage speaks of Joshua's concern for Moses' honour and pre-eminence which he thought, would be seriously jeopardised if similar prophetic outbreaks were permitted outside the control of his leader. Moses, however, was far more concerned for the good of the people and his nonchalance with regard to his own power is noticeable. Real prophecy, real knowledge of God does not fear, it trusts.

The story besides illustrating the principle that the prophetic gift is not restricted to any class, reveals also a fine trait of Moses' character, as is illustrated in the Gospel.

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".

This week, James rails against wealthy landowners who love their possessions more than God (cf. 1 Tim 6:9), true idolatry. The disastrous end of their wealth is so near and so certain that James describes it as already perishing (5:2-3). Echoes can be head of sayings from the Old Testament (Job 13:28; Is 51:8), as well as the teaching of Jesus (Mt 6:19-21; Lk 12:15-21).

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...

There is a very clear correlation between the first reading and the Gospel today but at first glance it may not be obvious to you. Certainly, Jesus' words can see jarring and severe: "and if your hand causes you to sin cut it off" (Mk 9:43) but it is precisely here that you need to consider the teaching of Dei Verbum with regard to literary genre, style and context in order to discern what is going on. Jesus uses a typically rabbinic device, hyperbole, in order emphasise that drastic measures are needed to avoid sin (CCC 18612284-87). This in the face of the Apostles' inability to to grasp the necessity of suffering (this is why Mark concludes here with the threatening 48-50). Jesus is teaching us that public sin can embolden others to sin likewise, the consequences that await those who cause scandal are worse than drowning by the weight of a great millstone (9:42). Morally speaking, the severing of bodily limbs signifies the amputation of intimate friends. When close companions drag Christians away from holiness, they must be cut away. It is better for us to enter heaven without them than to maintain their company in everlasting misery.

With these stark images before us, we may see very different ideas in all the readings today. Actually, they all focus on the work of the Spirit in our hearts and in the world. At our Baptisms were marked with the Spirit, and it is by means of our Baptism that we are enabled to participate in the threefold ministry of our Saviour: to speak and act (like prophets), in a work of holiness and consecration (like priests), in a ministry of service and compassion for the spread of the Kingdom (like kings). Each one of us had this given to them at Baptism, and each one of us has his or her role to play in making known the Way of the LORD. This involves the whole of life, and makes us agents in the spread of God's life-giving-word (Sacred Scripture) and way of life (Law):
"The Law of the LORD is perfect, it revives the soul. The rule of the LORD is to be trusted; it gives wisdom to the simple." 
This must affect us radically, giving us the power to see and reject harmful things or obstacles. We need to be full of insight and sensitivity. We must be prophetic about everything in life, from the smallest everyday things to the way we witness to the use of wealth in society and throughout the world, as the Apostle James warns us in his Epistle.

We must also be open and generous in our prophetic ministry. The Apostles were indignant that others who were not personal followers of Jesus were healing in his name: "because he was not one of us, we tried to stop him." They fail through arrogance to understand the nature of their mission of service. Jesus tells them: "If anyone gives you a cup of water to drink just because you belong to Christ, then I tell you solemnly, he will most certainly not lose his reward." The Spirit is present wherever and by whomever good is done, and something of God's rule of justice and peace is established. This may come in and through the regular channels of the established Church and its ministers; it may come through ordinary people reborn in the Spirit; it may come from unexpected sources ("The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." John 3:8; cf. CCC 691).

The point is that we must be concerned for the proper results and not just with the manner in which they are obtained. Structure and institution are essential to our human situation, but are not the final goal of our existence. The Spirit can and does operate outside these contexts. Moses and Jesus recognised this, so amazingly did the priestly author of the Book of Numbers. We want to posses religious truth, but the Spirit blows where He wills, and possesses whom He wills. Let us pray with Moses: "If only the whole people of the Lord were prophets, and the LORD gave His Spirit to them all."


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.
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.
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.
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.


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