Sunday Scripture: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)




Welcome to this, the twenty-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. You might find that it answers a few questions you may have, but most of all I hope that it will show you how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps enable you to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted it is, 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.

I would like to think this regular blog would be a great help to anyone who reads at Mass, to enable them to foster a deeper understanding of the message they are trying to impart to the congregation.

There are several different ways to read this post. I would suggest the first thing to do is to look at the relevant readings. You might then want to look at the specific commentary for a particular reading. I post the same summary of the featured Biblical books each week, but at the end, under the subheading this week, you will usually find some commentary specific to each week. At the end I post a passage which attempts to draw all the readings together and understand the message.

My reflections are not definitive, but based on my study and perhaps authenticated by careful reference to the Biblical Commentaries and books I list at the bottom each week.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

The Prophetic Ministry.

Statue of Elijah on the top of Mt. Carmel, Israel.

  • First Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19..
  • Psalm 70: 1-6, 15, 17; Response: v. 15.
  • Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13.
  • Gospel: Luke 4:21-30.
First, a short 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, although I may add a little detail specific to each week's readings.

Jeremiah is one of the latter prophets of Israel, his service to the LORD and His people spanned more than forty years (627-c. 582 B.C.), long enough for Judah to pass under the rule of five kings and a governor who were subservient to the dominion of three successive foreign empires. The prophet's message is one of action. Genuine prophecy is more than a mere message from another world, momentarily altering the speaker's state of consciousness, and then passing through his lips (arguably the way Mohammedan prophecy is purported to have been revealed). Jeremiah teaches us that this is counterfeit prophecy (cf. 23:25-40). Genuine prophecy is a word from God intended to take flesh permanently in the life of His people. By God's action, the word is first embodied in the prophet's life and, over time, shapes his whole existence. The prophets stand in the midst of God's people as a sign illustrating the effectiveness of God's judgement and promise contained in the word he speaks. We find the interaction between the divine and human life illustrated most fully in Jeremiah whose life is described in detail unparalleled among all the prophets.

This week: One of the unique things about Jeremiah's prophetic ministry is that in contrast to Isaiah a century before, and Ezekiel, his contemporary at a distance in later days, he does not mention a vision of the LORD's glory in his call (1:4-10, cf. Is 6:1-13; Ez 1:1-3:21). Rather, it is God's divine WORD that stands at the centre of Jeremiah's experience. The dialogue which takes place between the prophet, utterly over-whelmed by his inadequacy, and the LORD, who indicates His resolute decision, recalls the primary event in Moses' life at Sinai (Ex 3:1-4:17). This dialogue in the text bears almost exclusively on the personal effects of this call. We can see a parallel in vs. 17-19 between Jeremiah and Isaiah and Ezekiel, in that they all had a vocation which entailed taking God's Word to people who were obstinate and unreceptive. God explains to Jeremiah how he forms a child in its mother's womb. The significance of this is that God knows the human person and stands as a unique master from the very moment of conception. The knowledge referred to by God is not exclusively an intellectual knowledge, but it involves an action of the will and sensibility. God tells Jeremiah that He has 'dedicated' or 'consecrated' him. The verb used here qadas, can also mean 'to sanctify' and it means to separate something or someone for a divine mission.

On an interesting aside, I was talking with some learned Jewish friends on twitter last week about this reading in the context of the Church's teaching against the scandal of abortion. It shows the extraordinary depth of care for us, and knowledge of us, that God has.

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.

This week's psalm is a personal hymn of confidence and thanksgiving for a lifetime of service: old age is mentioned in vv 9 and 18. Again we note a reference to the womb; that God has protected the psalmist from his birth.

1 Corinthians is a letter motivated by reports made to Paul from the house of Chloe (1:11) concerning factions in the community (1:12), quarrels between brethren (6:1), the scandalous acts of some (5:1; 6:12-20). It's Pauline authorship is not seriously disputed by modern scholars as both the Corinthian epistles bear the intensely personal style which is so evident in the unquestioned Pauline epistles, including a deep and changing emotional content. The epistles are the result of a complex series of events which must be reconstructed from the epistle itself. Members of the community had sent a letter to Paul containing questions about various matters (7:1): the use of meat sacrificed to idols (8-10), the hierarchy of charisms (12-14). Moreover, the Apostle was most probably informed by those who had carried the letter to him, i.e. Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus (16:17) of certain abuses which had crept in to the assemblies of the members of the community and even into the celebrations of the Eucharist (10-11), and of certain difficulties raised by the doctrine of the general resurrection (15). Paul's motives for writing show that one does not acquire a profoundly Christians sense overnight; that after the original commitment to Christ one must avoid dangers and acquire further instruction.

This week: We have a wonderful and famous passage, often considered to be one of the greatest definitions of love ever written. His words to the Corinthians must have stood in stark relief against the pagan lust of an over-sexualised society which surrounded them. Paul calls them to a clear and distinct lifestyle and Christian witness true to Christ's prophecy that the world would know His followers by their distinctive love (Jn 13:35). This is a call to a love which puts the essential dignity of the human person first; as Dostoyevsky put it, "love in action", as opposed to "love in dreams". Love cannot be reduced to mere sentimentality which waxes and wanes over time. This chapter stands as the centre-piece of Paul's teaching on spiritual gifts (chapters 12-14) and summarises Paul's moral instruction in this letter.

The Gospel According to St. Luke: The Gospel According to St. Luke: Luke is not only a theologian; he is also a consummate literary artist with a mind that is tuned to the aesthetic. Luke begins his Gospel with a clearly stated aim: “to draw up an account of the events that have happened”. Luke’s Gospel is the longest of the four gospels, this despite the fact that it only represents half the Lucan writings; Luke’s Gospel was originally joined to Acts as part of a two-volume work. This is evident in the Gospel itself, which frequently looks forward to Acts and Paul’s mission.

Brown indicates that the Gospel was written for churches in Greece and Syria, areas affected by Paul’s mission either directly, or indirectly. Lucan thought and proclivities can be detected in the extent to which the author changes the Marcan material, which makes up about thirty-five percent of Luke. Luke certainly improves Mark’s Greek, bettering the grammar, syntax and vocabulary, as evidenced in 4:1,31 and 38. Luke alters the Latinism kēnsos (= census) in 20:22 from Mark 12:14 and substituting the more exact “craftiness- treachery” for “hypocrisy” in Mark 12:15 .

Luke alters the Marcan sequence to accomplish his goals as stated in the prologue: to write carefully and in an orderly manner, for example he puts Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth at the opening of the Galilean ministry (Luke 4:16-30) rather than after some time had elapsed (Mark 6:1-6) in order to explain why his Galilean ministry was centred at Capernaum.

Christologically, Luke is more reverential about Jesus than Mark and he avoids Marcan passages that might make Jesus seem weak, harsh or emotional (e.g. Mark 10:14 where Jesus is indignant). He also stresses detachment from possessions (Luke 5:11,28), the Twelve are even forbidden to take a staff!

Adrian Hastings, in his book Prophet and Witness in Jerusalem, makes particular capital over Luke’s allusion to the guilt of Jerusalem. Hastings suggests that this is because Jerusalem represented the old, exclusive Israel. Brown also draws attention to this point in An Introduction to the New Testament, where he asks if Pilate’s triple declaration of Jesus’ innocence represents an attempt to convince Greco-Roman readers that the Jews were totally responsible for the crucifixion. For Hastings, Luke demonstrates a strong affinity for the universality of Christianity and its apostolate to the Gentiles and points out to the Jews that they are the ones who have constantly rejected the messengers of God:

Hence it is not surprising if they now find themselves cut off from the new church and Holy People of God. Hastings states that this demonstrates that Luke was writing so that Christians might understand that Jerusalem had rejected Our Lord and thus had been rejected and was no longer the centre of God’s church, which had turned to the conversion of the Gentiles. It would seem to me that this idea would have been greatly aided by the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Brown however, notes that Acts 4:25-28 clearly blames Pilate and mitigates that this may have been an attempt to persuade Roman officials to deal fairly with Christians. Brown eventually concludes that the description of Jewish leaders resisting the spread of Christianity springs from a desire to explain why Christian preachers and especially Paul turned to the Gentiles.

The fact that the last half of Acts concentrates on Paul’s career raises the likelihood that Luke-Acts was addressed to the churches descended from the Pauline mission. Talbert concludes his study of Luke-Acts with the finding that the Gospel was indeed motivated by the “churchly situation”; The community was troubled by a concern for the true Christian tradition. Luke writes to aid Christians in these communities in their self-understanding, helping them to know that there was nothing subversive in their origins that should cause them to come into conflict with their Roman rulers.

The Lucan Gospel differs in many ways to Matthew making it seem likely that this Gospel was addressed to a different church (q.v.). The end of Acts attributed to Paul also indicates that the future of the Gospel lies with the Gentiles, which makes the intended audience unlikely to be Jewish Christians. This is corroborated by the way that Luke drops Marcan Aramaic expressions and place-names in his work.

Luke intends to trace the history of God’s plan from the coming of Jesus, to the fulfilment of the mission He gave to His disciples to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The earthly ministry of Jesus and all the events before the Ascension are the turning point in human history for Luke.

If this post on Luke sparked your interest, there's a post on the historicity of the Synoptics here.

This week: Jesus' first words as an adult in Luke deal with the theme of prophecy and God's fidelity to promise. What we have in this narrative is a fascinating account of Jesus beginning His public ministry, preaching in the synagogues of Nazareth and Capernaum. At first, the people speak highly of Him and are amazed at His gracious words. But then, very suddenly it seems, things change. This change comes about when Jesus challenges their ideas and convictions. There perspective is that they know they are the chosen people. When Jesus recounts the stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha going outside to pagan peoples to work the wonders of God, they are offended. Jesus had exceeded His mandate and gone beyond simply telling them what they wanted to hear. Jesus was preaching a universal message from God: Salvation for all!

St. Cyril of Alexandria, the great church father of the fourth century who commented extensively on Luke’s gospel said that those who heard Jesus speak treated his words as worthless.

Isn't this very familiar today? When we hear words pleasing to us, we accept them, but when they disturb our consciences we commonly dismiss them as worthless. Many people I know choose a church that meets their expectations and does not challenge their comfortable perceptions. I cannot help by be reminded of a poster I saw on the door of the Anglican church in South Woodham Ferrers. It was a picture of a cup of tea with the words: "Try church, it might be your cup of tea". We need to ask ourselves what it is that creates these perceptions? Is life simply about never being challenged? Should we limit our interactions to good feelings from warm and fuzzy words? Certainly it is true that the gospel is a great word of consolation and refreshment, but we mustn't forget that it can also be harsh and demanding, as Jesus himself could be harsh and demanding. Our “precious” Saviour can also be an “angry” God. Jesus certainly succeeded in challenging the perceptions of the people in the Gospel today. They were so upset they wanted to drive Jesus over the edge of a cliff, but, interestingly, His time had not yet come. (If you want to learn more about 'The Hour of Jesus' and the theological significance of Jesus' slipping away here, there is more in my post on the Gospel of St. John).

So what can we learn from this? When we listen to the Gospel, it is good to do so with an open heart and mind. The Church will guide us and teach us, in fact, She must. And we must trust Her to do so.

Drawing them all together...
The Prophets felt a divine calling to speak the truth about society and its relationship to God at all stages of Israel’s history as a nation (kingdom, division, exile and return). Along with the Law, prophesy constitutes one of the major themes of the Old Testament and when one dedicates oneself to reading them, one can easily see why. Indeed our religious consciousness is haunted by the beauty, power and disturbing honesty and integrity of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Minor Prophets. This is especially true in our Advent and Lenten liturgy.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Old testament Prophets constituted a break with the norm. The new strain of prophecy stressed the worthlessness of dreams and visions without a sense of truth and justice (cf. Jer. 23-9 ff.) Ezekiel reproaches the prophets who speak people fair and cover up the grievous offences of the nation with deceitful visions and lying oracles (Ezek. 13). Most importantly, the spoken word becomes more and more prominent as the proper instrument for prophetic activity, closely followed by the written word as time goes by. In keeping with this transition, the prophets start to exhibit outstanding qualities as orators and also in many cases, poets. In this way the word is given its full effectiveness.

The constitutive element of the incomparable and inimitable originality and creative authority evidenced in the prophetic preaching is the fact that it derives from the experience of a new reality with dire and compelling seriousness and with incredible power, drives them to utterance leaving no room for theoretical controversy, but only for testimony to an immediate certitude.

The Prophets' thought was developed under the impact of a new reality, which threatens the Prophets' own personal life as well as that of their nation; the radical overthrow of everything that had held good for them to this point. Every one of them received a new certainty of God through their calling in such a way as it entirely smashed through everything that constituted the previous pattern of his life and relationship to the world, turning him around and setting him on a new path driven by a mighty divine imperative that plotted a course he could not have even considered as a possibility before. The prophet is set apart; singled out and elected, called to fulfil a special task of preaching, a ministry of truth. He is asked to reveal what is hidden, to shine a light on nefarious intent and hypocrisy and to direct the people in God's Way. This is not necessarily a happy task, and involves much provoking, prodding and poking, generating resentment, anger, misunderstanding, isolation and rejection. Sometimes, the Prophets are even put to death. Despite the challenges, when we read the story of the Prophets, we can always detect running through all the challenges a promise of complete support from God because this is His work: the proclamation of truth, no matter how uncomfortable that might be.

We can observe a dramatic parallel between Jesus and Jeremiah, the most tragic of the prophets. Throughout their life's stories they are joined by the image of the Suffering Servant. The Gospel this week shows us the work of the Prophet in action. People begin listening favourably until they hear something they don't like, then there admiration turns to fury and rejection. This is fascinating when we think of the context of how speaking the truth taught by the Church can get us into hot water. I have been told many times I should not be expressing a pro-life opinion about abortion, or that I am a fool for disagreeing with received opinion about contraception. Even this very week, after being asked to draft a letter to our local MP on behalf of the School Governors, a member of the governing body resigned, flushed out, if you like, by speaking the truth to power.

The universality of Jesus' message in the Gospel reveals the love for all mankind the Father has. This love is always present, attested to by the Prophets and brought to complete clarity by Jesus Himself. This is the same thing as Jesus does with the Law, exploring its depth and revealing the total mercy and justice which lies at its heart. This traits point to the very nature of God Himself---which is love. Obviously, this is the great theme of St. Paul's writing in the second reading this week. St. Paul shows that even prophecy and martyrdom take their true dynamic from love. Through the anointing of Baptism, we all are called to share in this ministry. "In short, there are three things that last: faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these is love." So we must speak truth to power, but we must have foremost in our mind, the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Above All: Charity.
The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love. ~ CCC 25
I have written a full article on the Prophetic Ministry here if you're interested.

The Synagogue at Capharnaum



Bibliography:

Baker, K., SJ, Inside the Bible, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998.
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.
De la Potterie, I., The Hour of Jesus, (Alba House, New York, 1997).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. 3, No. 2/ December 2012.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, New York, Touchstone, 1995.
Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, (Bloomsbury, London, 2007).

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