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


Welcome to this, the eighth of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass. 

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 Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. 

The Lord's Love for Everyone


The readings are:
  • Isaiah 35: 4-7
  • Psalm: 145: 7-10; Response: v. 1
  • Second Reading: James 2: 1-5
  • Gospel: Mark 7: 31-37
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 spent a good bit of time and thought contemplating the wonderful book of Isaiah and developing the prelim on the Epistle of St. James, which I have always held in great affection.

The Book of Isaiah as we know it today in the Bible is actually a collection of writings which represent a tradition that extended over a span of some three hundred years. The whole text can be sub-divided into three major parts: (i) Isaiah 1-39, for the most part, presenting the teaching of the prophet himself, who laboured in Jerusalem from 740 until sometime after 701 B.C.; (ii) Isaiah 40-55 (generally referred to as Deutero-Isaiah (second -Isaiah)), containing the oracles of another prophet in the tradition of Isaiah, who announced God's word to the exiles in babylon sometime between 550 and 539 B.C.; and (iii) Isaiah 56-66, Trito-Isaiah (third Isaiah), reflecting the same tradition at a later stage in Jerusalem after the Exile but before the arrival of Ezra and Nehemiah, perhaps around 500 B.C.

Isaiah is often considered the greatest of the Old testament prophets because of the sheer range and vision of his prophecy. he matches Amos and Hosea for intense anger against oppression and injustice. In Isaiah 3:15 for example, he asks: "What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding down the faces of the poor? says the Lord God of Hosts." This Sunday's reading comes from the end of the first part, the original Isaiah who deals with six themes in his book: 1). announcements concerning Jerusalem's situation internally and internationally (1-12); 2). oracles against foreign nations (13-23); 3). the Isaian Apocalypse (24-27); 4). oracles about Judah's alliances and survival (28-33); 5). promise of healing and victory for Zion (34-35); and 6). the Assyrian attack on Jerusalem in 701 B.C. (36-39).

As I wrote in my post on the Eucharist, words have great meaning and power for the Hebrews. Thus their names are more than mere labels; they tell the identity, the significance, the sign-value of the person who bears them (hence the significance of the divine name of God for example). The name Isaiah means "God is salvation" and what is most extraordinary perhaps, about this book is that it contains prophecies of Jesus, so numerous, so beautiful and so much more famous than any other prophet that it has been referred to as the "Gospel of Isaiah".

Isaiah has also been called "the Shakespeare of the prophets", for his poetic turn of phrase rivalled only by Job and Psalms for poetic grandeur. At least ten of Isaiah's passages have become unforgettable to all English-speaking peoples, immortalised in Handel's world famous oratorio, The Messiah: 11:1-5; 7:14; 40:9; 60:2-3; 9:2; 9:6; 35:6-6; 40:11; 53:3-6; 53:8.

Isaiah and his followers lived long before Christ, yet the detailed prophecies of the life of Christ we find in Isaiah are far more numerous and far more specific than anything else in the Bible. At least seventeen of them were fulfilled in truly remarkable detail.

Take the time to look up the following seventeen passages. These are only part of the more than three hundred different prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled by Christ. Even though the New testament writers (especially Matthew) deliberately used the style and language of Old Testament prophecies to describe events in the life of Christ—as a modern preacher might use the King James English to describe current events—the statistical odds that one man could fulfil all of these prophecies so completely is not much better than the odds that a monkey could type out Isaiah by randomly throwing marbles at a typewriter keyboard. Compare:-

1). Isaiah 7:14 with Matthew 1:22-23;
2). Isaiah 9:1-2 with Matthew 4:12-16;
3). Isaiah 9:6 with Luke 2:11 (see also Ephesians 2:14-18);
4). Isaiah 11:1 with Luke 3:23, 32 and Acts 13:22-23;
5). Isaiah 11:2 with Luke 3:22;
6). Isaiah 28:16 with 1 Peter 2:4-6;
7). Isaiah 40:3-5 with Matthew 3:1-3;
8). Isaiah 42:1-4 with Matthew 12:15-21;
9). Isaiah 42:6 with Luke 2:29-32;
10). Isaiah 50:6 with Matthew 26:26, 30, 67;
11). Isaiah 52:14 with Philippians 2:7-11;
12). Isaiah 53:3 with Luke 23:18 and John 1:11; 7:5;
13). Isaiah 53:4 with romans 5:6, 8;
14). Isaiah 53:7 with Matthew 27:12-14, John 1:29 and 1 Peter 1:18-19;
15). Isaiah 53:9 with Matthew 27:57-60;
16). Isaiah 53:12 with Mark 15:28; and
17). Isaiah 61:1-2 with Luke 4:17-21.

Specifically, this weeks excerpt constitutes part of a passage referred to as the Flowering of the Southern Desert (35:1-10). It is a promise of salvation, which depicts the flowering of that same desert where Edom lay. (Edom being the name of a people and a land in the OT, the kinship of whom with the Israelites is explained in folklore by the descent of Edom from Jacob's elder son Esau (Genesis 25:30; 32:4; 36:1 ff; 1 Ch 1: 35 ff)). v. 5-7 are quoted in Matthew 11:5 in a literal sense.

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). 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 what 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's reading addresses Christian communities which come together into what is still being called a synagogue (a literal rendering of 2:2 which is often translated as "assembly"), and that there rich members tend to be received with favour and special distinctions. James cautions believers not to favour the rich and discriminate against the poor because, though the world despises and discriminates against the poor, God honours and blesses them with abundant faith (2:5; 1 Cor 1: 26-31). These verses are followed by a warning that partiality and prejudice against the less fortunate violate the Levitical Law of charity (Jas 2: 8-13). The inevitable institutionalisation of a community called into being by the preached Gospel (kerygma Gk: κήρυγμα) has taken place, and James 2:5 is correctively calling on what they were taught in the past about the poor inheriting kingdom. particularly eye-catching is the claim that the rich Christians are oppressing "you" and dragging "you" into court. (In 5:6 James accuses the rich of having condemned and put to death the just.) Was the writer facing an actual situation similar to that criticised by Paul in 1 Cor 6: 1-8 where Christians were resorting to secular courts to settle their disputes, or is this simply a generalised echo of Old Testament language (Amos 8:4; Wisdom 2:10)? As previously for Jesus (Matthew 22:39-40, from Lev 19:18), so now for James 2:8-10, love of neighbour sums uo the Law and the commandments; and to offend on this point makes one guilty of breaking the Law as a whole. The point is not that poverty is a blessing in itself, but that those with little in the world are better prepared to rely on God for their needs. It is the attitude of a child who trusts in his heavenly Father (Jas 1:17) that secures our inheritance in the kingdom of heaven (Mt 18:1-4; CCC 2546-47).

The Gospel According to St. Mark is widely accepted as the earliest Gospel, written before 70 A.D. in Rome for Gentile believers by a disciple of Simon Peter who Peter refers to as "my son Mark" (1 Pet 5:13). Mark was also notably an associate of the apostle Paul (Acts 12:25; 15:37). He is the cousin of the missionary Barnabus according to Col 4:10. Tradition states that after the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, Mark was the first to establish churches in Alexandria in northern Egypt. Mark's Gospel is the shortest, and the fastest moving and paints a picture of Jesus that is vivid and dynamic, focusing most of his attention on Jesus' mighty works.

The site of Calvary in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.

Drawing them all together...

One of the few original Aramaic statements from the mouth of Jesus gives the clue to the readings: ephapthata, is an Aramaic expression meaning "be-opened" which Mark translates for his, largely Roman, Latin speaking, audience. Jesus, unlike popular miracle healers, exercises His ministry of healing in a special way that distinguishes Him and His use of miracles. He works out of compassion, giving thanks to the power of His Father in secret, and with injunctions to secrecy (Mk 7:33). But the action results in eyes opened for enlightenment, ears opened to hear the message, tongues loosened to proclaim the Word, limbs freed to carry the Gospel. Jesus' healing represents not just the restoration of health, his actions are outward signs of anointing which wrought a deeper spiritual healing. The physical change was (presumably) temporary. Their physical cure would thus seem to be subordinate to a deeper, more permanent healing, one which will survive beyond the death of the body. This permanent healing constitutes a vanquishing of sin and the evidence of the renewed presence of the God who saves. So when in the Gospel they observed of Jesus' actions, "He does all things well," (Mk 7:37) they are reflecting a perception of the manifestation of God's saving love in Christ, and recalling the messianic blessings prophesied in Isaiah 35: 4-6 (Wis 10:21; CCC 549) which are already attested in the Psalm. The picture given to us there of the Lord is the picture realised in Jesus: "It is the Lord who gives sight to the blind, who raises up those who are bowed down, the Lord who protects the stranger."

The Old Testament is consistent in testifying to the depth of implication in the words of the Prophet Isaiah. In the midst of the people's sorrow and abandonment, he speaks of the vindication, healing and transformation not only of human bodies and minds, but of the whole of nature: "...the tongues of the dumb sing for joy; for water gushes in the desert, streams in the wasteland." This is an all-encompassing vision of the future, one that gives hope and meaning to our lives, to the whole world, its future and its destiny. Only with this hope in the manifestation of the fullness of divine healing can we have a transformed vision of the present. It is this vision which helps is to hold on to the meaning of Jesus' miracles. Then we too can say, "Be opened," and view the world with new insight and new wisdom that changes our perception of the world, and gives us the motivation to act. St. James tells us how to express our faith in a dynamic outreach that contradicts the expectations of the world. "My brothers, try not to combine faith in Jesus Christ, our glorified Lord, with the making of distinctions between classes of people." We must testify to God's inclusive love, and so proclaim the Kingdom which He promised to those who love Him.

There is a deeply sacramental dimension to all this as well that revolves around the physical act of healing which Jesus often uses. It is worth noting the essential nature of Christ’s ministering to those He heals by touch. He could heal with just a word (and did, Luke 18:35-43 for example), but more often, He lays on His hands or uses some other sign, as when healing the blind man at Bethsaida (Mk 8:22), where the man is anointed with saliva. CCC 1084 notes how the sacraments are ‘perceptible signs’, consisting of words and actions. CCC 1116 shows how these are ‘powers’ that come from the body of Christ and actions of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church. Consider how the man gradually begins to see again, the slow return of sight suggested through the man’s remarking that he sees people walking like trees. Jesus does not rush, in verse 25 He lays on His hands again, demonstrating His compassion and care. He knows that people need time to heal. This manifests a tactile element to Jesus’ ministry which speaks to our human need for physical affirmation of spiritual realities. Today we still meet Jesus in a tangible, physical way in the Sacraments of the Church.




Bibliography:

Magnificat Monthly Vol. 2, No. 12/ September 2012.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
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.
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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