Exploring the Readings at Mass— 30th 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 Lord Who Works Marvels

Jesus Heals the Blind Bartimaeus, by Nicolas Poussin, 1650

The readings are:
  • Jeremiah 31:7-9
  • Psalm: 125; Response: v. 3.
  • Second Reading: Hebrews 5: 1-6.
  • Gospel: Mark 10: 46-52.
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.

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. 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 passing through his lips (arguably the way Mohammedan prophecy is purported to have been revealed). Jeremiah teaches us that this is counterfeit prophecy (cf. 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 prophets 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.

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 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.

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 words of the wretched blind man of Jericho, Bartimaeus, "Son of David have pity on me," form the prayer of all our hearts: Lord look upon me with mercy in my wretched human condition. They are heavy with irony, for the blind Bartimaeus sees Jesus' messianic identity more clearly than most people in Mark's Gospel. Allegorically, St. Bede sees Bartimaeus as the Gentile nations saved by Christ. In response He bids them to rise up from their spiritual blindness, throw aside the mantle of their sinful habits and follow Him down the road to glory.

Some Biblical commentators observe the connection with Socrates's student Timeaus and his words on vision and the physical-eternal. Some believe this means St Mark made up the name to make a theological point. However, Mark is not usually that erudite or subtle. I think it more likely that there is a link, but one in which early church preachers made something of Bartimaeus' name—perhaps linking it to Plato, and Mark's emphasis on the name is a reminder of these early sermons and connection. It might be like someone preaching about Blessed John Henry Newman or St John Neumann and saying that in Christ they were 'New Men'.

In the Gospel, Jesus hears Bartimaeus' cries and looks, calls, responds—and brings healing. Not only does He restore sight, but brings His saving power. He addresses the sin which lies at the heart of all pain and alienation, and He enlightens us to be able to follow Him on the way—not the road from Jericho, but the path of discipleship, the way of Jesus, the way of love and service, the way of the Cross which leads through pain and death to a wonderful new life in the Resurrection. Jesus us the revelation of the Father, and God has always shown Himself to be one who promises His transforming love to the needy: "The Lord has saved His people" says Jeremiah to the exiles. God will lead them through the humiliation and loss of their nationhood to constitute them again as a spiritual people with a witness for the world that is different from the cultural political-artistic legacy of other nations. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus is uniquely able to bring the promise of salvation to fulfilment because in His Incarnation He has been appointed, elected to act for you and me. He too lived in the limitations of weakness. But through His great sin-offering on Calvary He has been enabled to enter heaven where He administers His high priestly work for the world, for us all. He heals what is broken, forgives where there is sin, and shows us the way. That is why we are one with the ancient exiles reflecting on their powerlessness in the midst of the vagaries of history and the disappointments and difficulties of life. The memory of God's saving work provides a context for present hope and prayers for delivery. Hope, founded on faith in love, transforms all our understanding of the problems of life, and gives us a wonderful expectation for the future. "Deliver us, O Lord, from our bondage, as streams in dry land. Those who are sowing in tears will sing when they reap."


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