Sunday Scripture: Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

Welcome to this, the sixth of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass. Thank you for taking the time to read it. I sincerely hope that this reflection will inspire you and help you to see how fantastic Sacred Scripture is, how layered and multi-faceted, 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 might be summed up as:

Our Union with the Body of Christ

The readings are:
  • Joshua 24:1-2, 15-18
  • Psalm: 33:2-3, 16-23; Response: v. 9
  • Second Reading: Ephesians 5:21-32
  • Gospel: John 6: 60-69
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 First Reading from the book of Joshua as I thought it brought up some very interesting issues about how we see violence in the Old Testament.

The Book of Joshua is the sixth book of the Bible following Pentateuch and preceding Judges. Joshua, the main protagonist, is an associate of Moses during the 40 years of wandering in the desert and then his successor as the leader of the People of God.

The Bible is essentially "sacred history" though interspersed with long stretches of sermon, song, poetry, prophecy, parables, wisdom and laws. The unity and continuity of the Bible is its historical "story line" running from the beginning if time itself in Genesis, to the end of time in Revelation. Sacred History is not somehow less historically valid than secular history, but it does tell the story from a dual perspective; the human, and the divine. Thus Joshua presents us with a factual history, and an underlying theology to reflect on.

The book of Joshua is the end of the story of the Israelites epic journey and deliverance from Egypt and slavery and the beginning of the story of Israel's conquest of the land that was promised to Abraham in Genesis. As such, the book is quite grisly, and charts the success of the Israelite's over insurmountable odds by utilising a strategy of "trust and obey", which constitutes good military wisdom, if you commander is the Almighty! Despite its obvious value as military history, the Deuteronomic editors and their audience saw the military concepts as metaphors describing the continual battle of God's people in every age, especially in the Exile, where the paganism of Babylon surrounded them. Canaan represents the world (including Babylon) that man creates without knowledge of God. The story of Israel's conquest of the land provides an instruction about how God's people must take control of this environment that is hostile to faith. No compromise is possible. The world will turn the people away from true fidelity to the LORD unless the community of believers subdues it and takes it captive. The real battle is about preserving faith in a glamorous world of distraction and temptations—a theme most relevant to the exiles living under the spell of Babylon's enchantments in the middle of the sixth century B.C.

Joshua is a hugely important book of the Bible as it provides the climax of what the Pentateuch anticipated. The Church has traditionally interpreted Joshua as a type or symbol of Jesus for at least six reasons:

1). The name and its meaning are the same (God saves).
2). Jesus, like Joshua is the new Moses.
3). He is the commander of God's chosen people and the conqueror of God's enemies.
4). He is the one who leads his people even though the waters of death (symbolised by the Jordan river in Joshua and the water of Baptism in the New Testament—see Romans 6:4).
5). He does what Moses could not do: he brings his people into the Promised Land (symbolic of heaven).
6). Further, the conquest and division of the land into the twelve tribes pre-figures the expansion of Christ's Church into the world by His twelve apostles.

This book brings us to one of the most difficult questions for Christians who often feel that there is some contradiction between the violence in the Old Testament and the loving God revealed to us by Jesus in the New Testament. How then are we to read the violent texts describing the complete extermination of Israel's enemies? Clearly the Deuteronomists' original audience of exiles in Babylon did not draw the conclusion that they were to kill their Pagan captures or attack their enemies in the land upon their return from exile (cf. 4:1-6:21; Neh 3:33-4:17; 6:1-7:3). They appreciated the actions of Joshua's army as graphic illustrations highlighting the importance of keeping the first commandment. The threat of judgement did not hang over the foreigners as much as over Israel herself. She had to banish from her environment every temptation to worship the idols of the world. For the exiles in Babylon, this imposed an obligation on the Jews to construct an environment free from the allurements of the pagan culture.

The reading this week is the climax of the whole book. The people are invited to renew their covenant with the LORD at Shechem. The covenant seals the work the Lord has accomplished in providing His people with the Promised Land. A Deuteronomic emphasis directs attention exclusively to the first commandment (24:14-18; Dt 5:6-10; 5:32-6:25). The covenant provides the foundation upon which the people will construct their future. The Deuteronomists make sure the exiles understand their banishment from the land to be a consequence of Israel's infidelity. This makes it all the more urgent for the Jews in Babylonian exile and every member of God's people down to our own generation to alter the course of history and to respond to the LORD with the wholehearted declaration, "Yahweh our God is the one whom we shall serve; His voice we shall obey!" (24:24).

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...

This week we come to the final instalment of the reflection of the mystery of the Eucharist which we have been treated to over the last few weeks. This week's reflection emphasises our union with the Body of Christ. In the Bread come down from Heaven, we are involved in nourishment, wisdom, thanksgiving and unity: we are also challenged in our commitment . After Jesus' teaching on the Bread of Heaven, many of His disciples left Him, and stopped going with Him (Jn 6:66). This is the only instance in the Gospels where followers of Jesus abandon Him in such large numbers. Even so, Jesus still makes no effort to soften His words or clear up potential misunderstandings about His eucharistic teaching—because there are none (see CCC 1336). Those listening to our Lord understood Him perfectly well; they no longer thought He was speaking metaphorically. If they had, if they mistook what He said, why no correction?

We note that on other occasions when there was confusion, Christ explained precisely what He meant (cf. Matt 16:5-12). Here, where any misunderstanding would be fatal, there was no effort by Jesus to correct. Instead He repeated Himself for greater emphasis. Jesus' simple, almost sad, question speaks to our own hearts: "Then Jesus said to the Twelve, 'Do you want to go away too?'" It is gentle and without threat, but it relates to what He has said which so many have found and still find intolerable. Jesus does not try to sell Himself, nor does He try to water down the content of His teaching. What He does is reveal its spiritual heart. To hear His words is to be strangely affected. To accept His teaching is difficult, but it is life transforming, and seems to make a difference to how we see life, and what we expect from it. St. Peter speaks the immortal words of faithful response: "Lord, who shall we go to? You have the words of eternal life, and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God." (6:68). It is interesting to reflect how it is on this doctrinal point of the Real Presence in the Eucharist that many, including Judas, turn away from Jesus (cf. Jn 6:64).

The scene was set centuries before in the Old Testament, which always prefigures the events we read about in the New Testament. God led His people out of slavery, and was about to take them into the Promised Land. Before this momentous event, Joshua reaffirmed his faith in God's providential love in the covenant. Joshua's invitation leads to a wonderful proclamation of faith: "As for me and my House, we will serve the Lord." (Joshua 24:15). The faith of the ancient Israelites is inspirational for us now, as is the undying faith of the Jewish people. Life can seem very hard, almost inexplicably so. Where is God's love, His caring providence that the Psalmist speaks of: "They call and the Lord hears, and rescues them in all their distress"? These words seem fanciful in the light of tragic deaths, accidents, natural disasters—and even more so in the context of the terrifying events of the 20th century, such as the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet the Jews still echo Joshua's words, still feel the wonder of the works of the Spirit and of life, and affirm the faith of the Psalmist: "The Lord ransoms the souls of His servants. Those who hide in Him shall not be condemned." This is not a question of right choice or of moral good: it is a mystery of the revelation of God's self, His personality, which is Trinity; communion-in love-without rivalry—in Jesus. It is a love story in an intimate union of love, like a marriage. "Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life."

In St. Paul's epistle this week we have a passage which is often labeled misogynistic by modern standards: "Wives, be the subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, His body, and is Himself its Saviour." As a friend of mine is fond of saying, "the husband maybe the head, but the wife is certainly the neck, and it is the neck that directs the head!" Actually, here Paul is talking about sacramental marriage, and what he is saying is truly beautiful. The language is not that of misogyny, but of sacrifice: the husband is to sacrifice himself for his wife as Christ sacrificed himself for the Church, taking care of her as he would his own body. When we get married, we must  be ready to imitate Christ's sacrifice, we must be willing to love as selflessly as He did, to give as much as He did, to commit as much as He did. Naturally the only correct response is for the wife to be equally loving and caring in return. Here we have a Trinitarian vision of a Christian marriage being taught to us through the lens of Christ's covenant love for the Church. A relationship and a love based on sacrifice, without the need for reciprocation, but which inevitably necessitates reciprocation by its very nature. This analogy of faith highlights the indissolubility of Christian marriage, since Christ will never withdraw from the Church or disown her (even though she has let Him down on many occasions). Also the sacramentality of Christian marriage, since marital love is a living sign of Christ's love for the Church, and finally the reciprocity of Christian marriage, since the Church submits to Christ's leadership even as Christ the bridegroom acquiesces to the prayers of His beloved bride. The marital union between Christ and the Church in the New Covenant (2 Cor 11:2; Rev 19:7-9) recalls the marriage covenant between Yahweh and Israel in the Old Covenant (Is 54:508; Hos 2:16-20; CCC 1612, 1641). So all in all this week, we have a masterclass in faith, what it faith costs us and what it yields us; in terms of Paul's exposition of Christian marriage, we can see why it is so good for us to follow the teachings of the Church which extoll the perfection of relationship, the sort of relationship we all would wish for our children and indeed, for ourselves, relationship that reflects the Trinity and our ultimate goal of life in perfect communion in Heaven.


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Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001.
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, New York: St. Pauls, 2011.
Baker, K., Inside the Bible, San Francisco, Ignatius, 1998.
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, New York, Touchstone, 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.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, London: Bloomsbury, 2007.
Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.

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