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

Welcome to this, the fifth 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 and what a carefully considered part of the Mass. 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:

The Gift of True Nourishment: The Eucharist

The readings are:

  • First Reading: Proverbs 9: 1-6
  • Psalm: 33:2-3, 10-15; Response: v. 9
  • Second Reading: Ephesians 5:15-20
  • Gospel: John 6: 51-58
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. This week I have added a bit of detail on the Proverbs reading as I thought it was very relevant.

The Book of Proverbs is one of the books of the Bible which are known collectively as the wisdom literature. Proverbs constitutes the Bible's compendium of practical wisdom and is an anthology of ancient collections: 1). Poems of wisdom (1:1-9:18); 2). "The Proverbs of Solomon" (10:1-22:16); 3). "Thirty Sayings of the Sages" (2:17-24:22); 4). "More Sayings of the Sages" (24:23-34); 5). "Proverbs of Solomon Transcribed under Hezekiah" (25:1-29:27); 6). "The Words of Agur" (30:1-14); 7). Numerical Proverbs (30:15-33); 8). "The Words of Lemuel" (31:1-9); and 9). an Ode to the Exemplary Wife (31:10-31).

Perusing proverbs is like walking through a shop of fine antiques. We appreciate the value of the collection more when we identify its assorted portions according to the place and time of their origin. The proverbs come from outside as well as inside Israel's borders. The notation that Agur and Lemuel both come from the tribe of Massa in northern Arabia attests to the book's international flavour (30:1; 31:1; Gn 25:14). This cosmopolitan dimension is consolidated when we discover the "Thirty Sayings of the Sages" (22:17-24:22) derive from The Wisdom of Amenemophis, an Egyptian document of the eleventh century B.C.

Biblical tradition ascribed the Wisdom Literature to Solomon, who was responsible for creating a climate in Jerusalem that allowed the wisdom tradition to take root and to flourish. From Solomon we realise that wisdom in proverbs leads to action, not idle speculation.

Today's reading from Proverbs is a passage known as the 'Invitation to the Banquet of Wisdom.' The house symbolises the school over which Wisdom presides, the banquet her teaching. The house is also the world with its seven pillars (cf. Job 26:11), at whose construction Wisdom was present (8:27-30) and within which she delights to live (8:31). These pillars prefigure the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and the seven Sacraments and signify completeness."Leave your folly and you will live, walk in the ways of perception." (v. 6) The fruit of Wisdom is life in the deepest sense of the word (cf. Jn 17:3) and here, when we understand that Jesus, referred to as the λόγος in John's Gospel and Wisdom personified throughout the Old Testament, especially with regard to the conception of Wisdom as the Law, we start to see the depth of the relevance of this Scripture reading to the doctrine of the Eucharist.

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 disquisition on the Eucharistic chapters of John continues this week. Each reading makes mention of food (banquet, hungry lions, wine, food, bread), and in conjunction with some kind of spiritual attitude. Jesus utters the most startling of all His words on bread and eating. He links Himself with bread, with heaven, with His flesh, with life. Even now the words can seem shocking, and there are always attempts to play them down. Food and eating were (and are) integral to the Jewish perception of and adherence to the Law. Now not only did Jesus link Himself to heaven, but He spoke in repulsive terms about consuming blood, proposing His flesh as a link with immortality. For Jews, for dissenters, this seems to much. The crowd is thinking of cannibalism, i.e., the sin of eating a human corpse, obviously a thoroughly repugnant idea (cf. Deut 28:53). However this is a misunderstanding. Jesus gives us, not His mortal flesh as it was during His early ministry, but His glorified humanity as it was after rising from the dead. This is why He calls Himself the "living bread" (6:51). Jesus is speaking literally and sacramentally (6:53). If He were speaking metaphorically or figuratively, His words would echo a Hebrew idiom where consuming flesh and blood refers to the brutalities of war (Deut 32:42; Ezek 39:17-18).

The clue to its proper understanding lies in the mixture of the basic and physical with the mystical and spiritual. The Jews had always been concerned about the presence of God with them (the Garden, the Patriarchs, the Wilderness, the Temple, and the Prophets). Then, the extraordinary notion of Wisdom, not a gift, but an actual emanation from God Himself, shedding light on life's mysteries. Wisdom is envisaged as the host of a marvellous banquet offering true refreshment and clarity of vision: "Come and eat my bread, drink the wine I have prepared! Leave your folly and you will live, walk in the ways of perception." The banquet is a presentation of spiritual enlightenment in terms of the basic connotations of food. Food is nourishment, it is fellowship, it is a gauge of attitude and behaviour, an indicator of compassion, a pointer to God's blessings and His Law or way of life: "Strong lions suffer want and go hungry, But those who fear the Lord lack no blessing." Dealing with food properly is an aspect of responding to God's call and His way of life. St. Paul urges the Ephesians: "Be careful about the sort of lives you lead, like intelligent and not like senseless people." Perhaps there is a warning here about preparing ourselves for reception of the blessed sacrament? Have we considered the state of our souls? Have we examined our consciences? Have we been to confession? He recommends balance and moderation as spiritual quality: "Do not drug yourselves with wine, this is simply dissipation; be filled rather with the Spirit...So that always and everywhere you are giving thanks to God who is our Father." Note the Paul advocates temperance and not strict abstinence from alcohol (1 Tim 5:23; CCC 1809). Jesus comes as the ultimate purveyor of the gift of food. To hear Him is to hear the divine word; to eat Him is to be in communion with immortality, and a changed way of life. "So whoever eats me will draw life from me...and anyone who eats this bread will live forever." The expression occurs rarely in the Bible, only twice in John (6:51, 58) and once in the Greek translation of Genesis 3:22. A comparison is thus implied between the Tree of Life, which bore the fruit of immortality, and the Bread of Life, which tradition calls the "Medicine of immortality" (CCC 1331). Because of this glorious promise, we must follow Him and become a source of change in the world. As the Psalmist says: "Turn aside from evil and do good; seek and strive after peace."

Eats (Jn 6:54)
I want to draw special attention to the word "eats" in John 6:54. The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible notes that the Greek word translated here is trogo, a verb meaning to "chew" or "gnaw". It is used five times in John's Gospel and only once elsewhere in the New Testament. Greek literature used ut to describe the feeding of animals such as mules, pigs, and cattle, and in some cases for human eating. In John the verb is used four times in the second half of the Bread of Life discourse (Jn 6:54, 56, 57, 58). This marks a decided shift in Jesus' teaching, which up until Jn 6:54 made use if a more common verb for eating (Gk. esthio, Jn 6:49, 50, 51, 53). The change in vocabulary marks a change of focus and emphasis, from the necessity of faith to the consumption of the Eucharist. The graphic and almost crude connotation of this verb thus adds greater force to the repetition of His words: He demands we express our faith by eating, in a real and physical way, His life-giving flesh in the sacrament.

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

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