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


Welcome to this, the thirteenth 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 Treasure of Wisdom

Sunrise over the Sea of Galilee

The readings are:
  • Wisdom 7:7-11
  • Psalm: 89:12-17; Response: v. 14.
  • Second Reading: Hebrews 4: 12-13
  • Gospel: Mark 10: 17-30
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.

The Book of Wisdom is one of my favourite books of the Bible. It speaks more directly to modern people that The Law or The Prophets because it is preoccupied with the experience of life common to all.

The book was written about a hundred years before the coming of Christ. Its author, whose name is not known to us, was a member of the Jewish community at Alexandria, in Egypt. He wrote in Greek, in a style patterned on that of Hebrew verse. At times he speaks in the person of Solomon (see Wis 6:22-9:18; cf. 1 Kgs 3:4-15; 5:9-14), placing his teachings on the lips of the wise king of Hebrew tradition in order to emphasise their value. His profound knowledge of the earlier Old Testament writings is reflected in almost every line of the book, and marks him, like Ben Sira, as an outstanding representative of religious devotion and learning among the sages of postexilic Judaism. He stands in the tradition of Ben Sira as a theologian who demonstrates how faith illuminates understanding to provide the most truthful, profound, and comprehensive vision of reality.

The primary purpose of the sacred author was as a apologia for Jewish students and intellectuals who were abandoning their faith as they embraced Hellenistic philosophy and religion. His work demonstrates how Judaism surpasses Greek systems of thought as the ultimate embodiment of wisdom in the world. He challenges the self-indulgent agnosticism of the Epicureans (cf. 1:16-2:9); and he implies that the biblical revelation of wisdom already contains the nest insights of Stoicism and Platonism (cf. 7:22-26; 8:7). Furthermore, his book represents a vehement polemic against the popular Hellenistic mystery cults that were alluring fashion-sensitive Jews away from the synagogue. Pastoral concern motivated him to provide a chastising analysis of idolatry (13:1-15:19) designed to win back those of his people who had begun partaking in the rites of Isis and Dionysius (cf. 12:5; 14:22-31).

The Book of Wisdom addresses big questions. It asks a question which resonates with so many of us today: How is it possible for a God of justice to allow His righteous ones to suffer at the hands of the godless who enjoy prosperity and comfort? It provides a two-fold response to this dilemma based on the premise that earthly evaluations are erroneous because they take no account of God's eternal Kingdom. First, God's judgement will reverse the present order of fortunes. even in the present moment, the cynicism of the godless produces despair, which they try to escape by practising debauchery and oppression (2:1-5, 6-9, 10-20). However, in the end, they will behold the vindication of the righteous even as they themselves disintegrate into the void of eternal death (2:21-24; 3:10-12; 4:20-5:14; 5:17-23). The righteous, by contrast, will experience eternal peace in God's presence in His Kingdom (3:1-9; 5:15-16).

Secondly, the sufferings of the righteous prepare them for eternal life. Such texts as the Confessions of Jeremiah (e.g. 11:18-12:6), the Song of the Suffering Servant (Is 52:13-53:12) and the psalm of the innocent in anguish (Ps 22) inspired the author of Wisdom to perceive that God identifies Himself most closely with the righteous one whom the world despises (2:10-20). "The upright man is God's son"; he can "boast...of having God for his father" (2:16-20; cf. 16:10, 26; 18:4, 13). If physical death should overtake the youth who obeys the Lord, it acts more as a servant than as an adversary insofar as it rescues him from the peril of evil and brings him into the safety of God's eternal embrace (4:7-19). The first-person confession of the adversaries in the Song of the Suffering Servant (Is 53:1-10) echoes in the words of the godless who acknowledge the victory of the righteous whom they had afflicted (Wis 4:20-5:14).

In summary, the book of Wisdom stands in the tradition of Daniel and 2 Maccabees insofar as it proclaims a life after death as God's reward for the righteous individual, especially the one who suffers persecution and martyrdom (Wis 3:1-9; 4:7-19; 5:15-16; cf. Dan 12:1-2; 2 Mac 7:11, 23, 36). However the book of Wisdom incorporates a Hellenistic dimension into the biblical tradition by describing life beyond the grave in terms of immortality of the soul rather than in terms of resurrection from the dead.

This week's passage tells us how Solomon preferred wisdom over riches, power, health etc. He prayed for her and she came to him, as all these good things besides, much to Solomon's joy.

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...

This week we continue with the mystery of the world in relation to Wisdom and the Word of God. It is important to remember that Jesus is the Word personified and in the Second Reading we hear how the power of the Word of God is decisive, active, and penetrates into the most secret places, exploring every hidden motive. The model of the wise man who hears and obeys the Word of the Lord is reinforced by the figure of Solomon in the First Reading, proverbially the wisest man in history, who prays for true understanding: "I prayed, and understanding was given me; I entreated, and the spirit of Wisdom came to me." He possessed wisdom and knew that to open his heart to the transforming power of God's will and His love (His Law and Wisdom), is to have the true answer to the mysteries and perplexities of life. No matter what the challenges, such faith provides a vision beyond death itself and gives meaning where there might be only confusion or despair. It is the heart of discipleship or true following of Jesus. He has inaugurated the Kingdom, the situation of true peace and justice in communion with the life-giving Word/Wisdom.

Participating closely in the spread and witness to the Kingdom involves choice and discernment in discipleship,  it involves the constant examination and re-examination of our attitudes to life and possessions. As the Gospel shows us at length, the issue of wealth is a never-ending challenge. The example of Solomon is before us: although possessed of such insight and knowledge, the piling up of wealth, luxury, power and prestige blunted the sharpness of his witness, the purity of his discipleship. For some, the issue of riches is a difficult one, and results in a preoccupation with the world which hampers the freedom of the Spirit, can clutter perception, and can deform the ideal. Jesus does not ask everyone to give up everything: for some, wealth will be necessary and may form a part of their mission in the world. Material wealth can make things spiritually more difficult, but with God all things are possible. We must look to His wonderful and efficacious Word for guidance and help, knowing that it is "something alive and active: it...can judge the secret emotions and thoughts." It puts the treasures of Wisdom at our disposal, and helps us live as witnesses to the Kingdom.


Bibliography:

Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Brown, R. et al (Ed) The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Chapman, 2000).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 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.
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001.
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005.
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, New York: St. Pauls, 2011.
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 2, No. 13/ October 2012.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, New York, Touchstone, 1995.

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