Sunday Scripture: Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

This is the fourth of my posts talking about the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass. Thank you for taking the time to read it. I sincerely hope that reading my reflection on the Scripture readings this Sunday will inspire you and help you to see how fantastic Sacred Scripture is. 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 could best be summed up as:

God's Love in the Ordinariness of Life

The readings are:

  • First Reading: 1 Kings 19: 4-8
  • Psalm: 33: 2-9; Response: v. 9
  • Second Reading: Ephesians 4: 30-5:2
  • Gospel: John 6: 41-51
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.

1 Kings is the first part of the Deuteronomist's chronicle of the rueful story of Israel's decline from the height of magnificence under Solomon to the depths of ruin in the Exile. Everything that Solomon constructs in the beginning, the Babylonians destroy in the end. The books are the fourth part of what tradition calls the Former Prophets (Josh, Judges, 1-2 Sam, 1-2 Kgs). In fact the division between Sam and Kgs is arbitrary and varies in ancient manuscripts. There is a simple three stage chronology to the two books: 1). The reign of Solomon (1 Kgs 1-11); 2). The kingdom divided into Judah and Israel (1 Kgs 12 to 2 Kgs 17); and 3). the kingdom of Judah (2 Kgs 18-25). It's not just a monotonous chronicle however, the Deuteronomist redactors chose what to emphasise. For example, they devoted fourteen chapters in the middle of their text (1 Kgs 16:23 to 2 Kgs 8:24) to the dynasty of Omri in Israel (884-841 B.C.) while dedicating only a few lines to each of the forty-year reigns of Jehoash (835-796 B.C.) and Manasseh (687-642 B.C.) in Judah (2 Kgs 12:1-22' 21:1-18). This is not because they were particularly interested in the Omirides however, the text is carefully arranged so as to make the missions of Elijah and Elisha the centrepiece of the whole work (1 Kgs 17 to 2 Kgs 13:21). Prophecy is in fact the key for unlocking the treasure-house of God's purposes in history; this is not a social or political history, so much as a theological one.

Kings brings us to a climax in our search for an answer to the question dominating the whole Deuteronomic History: "Why did God allow the Assyrians to destroy Israel and then the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple?" We can grasp the response of the sacred authors by focusing on three themes that form the primary undercurrents of Kings:

1. The mission of kingship
2. The importance of the Temple; and
3. The role of prophecy

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.

Ephesians, as we saw with the last post, was traditionally accepted to have been a letter written by St. Paul. He twice identifies himself thus (1:1 and 3:1). However it's authorship was first questioned by Erasmus of Rotterdam in the sixteenth century and since then there has been much dialogue regarding this matter. Today it is widely accepted that Ephesians was written in Paul's name by one of his disciples who wished to honour the apostle by developing his doctrine and applying it to new situations in the Church. Indeed Ephesians is the most doctrinal of all the Pauline corpus. The letter is dated either early 60's (if you believe Paul wrote it), or late 90's. It constitutes Paul's mystagogical catechesis for the newly baptised, its towering theme is the "mystery" of Jesus Christ once concealed but now revealed (1:9; 3:4; 9). The mystery is the divine plan of vocation and predestination, redemption, and the recapitulation of all things in Christ.

The Gospel According to St. John is deep. It was the last one written, it used to be thought in the second century, but recent fragments were dated at 120 A.D. from Egypt, which means the Gospel had to have been written for some time by then, in order to have circulated so far away from Asia Minor (from modern Greece all the way to Africa). Some have argued for a date as early as 60 A.D. due to description of the sheep gate of Jerusalem in the present tense ("there is...") which was destroyed by the Roman sacking in 70 A.D. I think this Gospel was written by the beloved disciple, John, one of the sons of Zebedee (Mt 4:21) for lots of reasons. I think he thought long and hard about what had happened and then wrote this incredible account, so rich in detail and deep in theological significance. Known as the spiritual Gospel in the ancient Church, this is a book of magnificent beauty & artistry. The richness of its expression and imagery has made it one of the most celebrated books in Christian history. Much of it is dedicated to the heavenly identity and mission of Jesus, perhaps the master key that unlocks the Gospel as a whole is the revelation of God as a family. Nearly every chapter is marked by familial language that explains the inner life of God as well as our relation to God through the grace of divine generation.

The divine family of God revealed as Father, Son and Spirit is the towering mystery of the Fourth Gospel. The heart of Jesus' message is that the children of men are invited to become the children of God (1:12). This new life begins with a spiritual rebirth in Baptism (3:5) and is sustained as the Father nourishes us with divine food and drink (6:32, 51; 7:37-39), educates us in the truth (8:31-32; 16:13), and protects us from spiritual danger (17:15). Christ models the life of divine Sonship to perfection (13:15), showing us how to worship the Father (4:23-26), how to obey his commandments (15:10), and how to love our spiritual siblings (13:34). We are not left orphans (14:18) after Christ returns to the Father (20:17) because his presence dwells with us and even within us (14:17-18, 23). Our full union with the Trinity awaits only the coming of Jesus Christ, who will return in glory to escort the children of God into the house of their heavenly Father (14:2-3).

Drawing them all together...

The idea that God's love is evident to us in the ordinariness of every day life is a theme very close to my heart. Something I can truly identify with and say that I have experienced in a very real way. It is tempting for many of us to think of God as magical in some way, but I have never understood how or why we would expect God to act outside of the order He created. The Gospel miracles strike me this way. Extraordinary events, but were they seen as such by those present? Did the 5, 000 recognise what Jesus had done, or was it done quietly, without fuss, on reflected on and understood in context later on? Certainly God's intervention in my own life has often been the still small voice Elijah hears in the gentle breeze, not a flash and a puff of mystical smoke. Truth is, we have a tendency to rationalise that sort of experience with time in any case. The greatest miracles speak to the secret petitions we whisper to god in our hearts. When those prayers are answered, even if they are tiny requests, we feel God's presence in our lives in a profound and very real way.

The liturgy for this Sunday asks us to consider truth in the mystery of the paradox. It is summed up in the questioning of the Jews: after Jesus' amazing words, they are led to ask incredulously how can someone ordinary, that they know so well, claim to be from heaven, and have a link with divine prerogative? "We know his father and mother. How can he say, 'I have come down from heaven'?"

It is the same with the prophet: after the momentous events of Mount Carmel Elijah seems abandoned, a pathetic fugitive worn out by setback and apparent futility, the hardships and disappointments of his fugitive life wrung from him a plea for release: "'Lord', he said, 'I have had enough. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.'" And yet God was with him in the very ordinariness of it all. An angel touches him to show him bread and water. He is supported in such ordinary situations by the little daily things (bread and water) which sustain him and help to lead him on to the holy mountain so that he can continue God's work. Wishing to safeguard the Covenant and re-establish purity of faith, Elijah undertook a 300 mile pilgrimage to Sinai where the Covenant was first established. He thus attached his work directly to that of Moses. Both experienced a theophany at Sinai, and both were to be present also at Christ's transfiguration, the theophany of the New Testament (Mt 17: 1-9).

To the crowd, Jesus seemed like the boy next door, offering some bread, but in the ordinariness of the situation lay the deepest and holiest mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of god's saving plan. In the man Jesus there is the manifestation of God's creative and saving power. The bread is not what it seems: it is the means to a participation in the divine plan. An apparently ordinary bread is a divine source of nourishment, sustenance and movement towards God and His purposes. Similarly, the ordinariness of everyday life is merely a veil for the divine charge discerned by those called. Even the most trivial of human characteristics can be a way of communicating an awareness of Christ's saving power. Because of the divine love poured out in Jesus, we are to be changed and reflect this in all our words and deeds, even the most trivial: "Try then to imitate God, as children of His that he loves, and follow Christ by loving as He loved you, giving Himself up as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." That is why St. Paul urges us: "Be friends with one another, and kind, forgiving each other as readily as God forgave you in Christ." The Psalm is a sustained study in this paradox: the glory of the intangible Lord is seen supporting the most humble: "In the Lord my soul shall make its boast. The humble shall hear and be glad."

If you are enjoying this series of readings and are interested in learning more about the Eucharist or want more detail, I have posted a rather in depth theological post on understanding the Eucharist here.

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