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



Welcome to this, the twenty-seventh 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 Word & the Law of the LORD.

A view of the Sea of Galilee from near Caphernaum 

  • First Reading: Nehemiah 8:2-6, 8-10.
  • Psalm 18:8-10; Response: John 6:63.
  • Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:12-30.
  • Gospel: Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21.
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.

The Book of Nehemiah as begins with the news brought to Nehemiah, son of Hacaliah, butler of Artaxerxes, king of Persia (Ne 2:1), of the troubles in the territory of Judah and of the destruction of the walls and gates of Jerusalem (Ne 1:3). As butler, Nehemiah had intimate contact with the king and was able to tell him, whilst serving his dinner, that he was unhappy because of the state of Jerusalem. The king granted him permission to go and rebuild it. This dates Nehemiah at 445 BC, a date which is confirmed by a reference to the sons of Sanballat in the Elephantine papyri about 408 BC, a generation after Nehemiah.

Nehemiah (along with Ezra) tackles concerns about how one builds a community of faith among an apathetic people (assiduous reading for us today and especially for any pastor who sees his people suffering from spiritual desolation). It attempts to answer the question of what it takes to overcome the spiritual inertia of nominal believers and form them into a body of people who are alive to God and to one another.

Nehemiah describes one of the most significant renewals in the Old Testament era—the one that gave Judaism a definitive shape, a shape which endured all through the New Testament period and continues even to this day.

Nehemiah presents us with a model of the way in which clergy and laity should compliment each other's offices and personal talents. Nehemiah is a governor, manager, politician, a pragmatist whose gifts of leadership marshal the people to complete his plan for the urban renewal of Jerusalem.

This week: This is the first time Ezra is mentioned in Nehemiah. The texts of Ezra and Nehemiah form a single book. The Hebrew editions published them as one volume up to the fifteenth century A.D. Their separation into two books seems to derive from their transmission through Christian circles under the influence of the Septuagint. Ezra is a priest, a scholar and pastor who communicates to his people a love for God's Word while he teaches them the Law of Moses and offers them a sense of the dignity that will be theirs as they conform their lives to its precepts. Ezra brings the book of the Law of Moses into public view for the community that has already committed itself to enter into covenant with the Lord. A sign of a healthy community of faith is its apparently paradoxical reaction to God's Word: the community's initial joy at the prospect of hearing the Sacred Scriptures becomes muted as God's Word cuts to the heart and bears the community's failure to live according to the divine precepts. However unlike the sullenness of the hardhearted in their pre-conversion days (Ezr 10:1-17), this sorrow is godly and opens up the prospect of deeper conversion and new life. Such a hearing of God's Word is a cause for joy and celebration because the Lord will heal and forgive a people who cling to His Word (Neh 8:1-12).
The community's members begin to study the words of the Law for themselves, a sign of the maturity of the community. Ezra (ever the concerned strategist) trains his Levites to answer people's practical questions about issues of interpretation and application of the Law to their lives (Neh 8:7). Ezra's methodology of first instructing the clergy and heads of families so that they in turn can teach others to reflect on the Scriptures proves an effective means of building the community (Neh 8:13).

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 response is taken from John 6:63: "It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life." Here Jesus contrasts the Spirit's ability to enlighten our minds (Jn 14:26) and human reason's inability to comprehend revealed truths apart from faith (Jn 8:15). In the face of divine mysteries, this earth-bound perspective is profitless. The Psalm is a meditation on the delights of the Torah which shares much with the great didactic Psalm 119.

The famous word Torah, which we see translated in the New Testament and the Septuagint as 'Law', more exactly means 'guidance', 'direction', 'teaching'.  Verses 8-10 describe God's guidance of humanity, and each couplet begins with another of the great didactic words, almost synonyms of Torah: God's 'testimony' or 'witness of justice', His 'precepts', His 'commandments', the 'fear of the LORD', His 'judgements'" all these are words reappearing throughout Ps 119.

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 scandolous 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: Paul uses the metaphor of one body to explain to the Corinthians how the Church is one organisational unity, whilst also expressing the metaphysical reality that every believer is truly united with Christ by the Sacraments (10:17; CCC 790). The Spirit is the soul of this mystical body, giving life, growth, and direction to each of its members (CCC 797). Union with Christ makes no ethnic or social distinctions, we are share equal dignity in the eyes of God (Gal 3:28; CCC 1267, 782).

Paul addresses conflict between the Corinthians regarding the validity of certain gifts—a presumptuous attitude that called into question God's wise arrangement of the body (1 Cor 12:18) and his free distribution of charisms (12:11). Everyone serves a vital function in the Body of Christ, each part is assigned an important task for the good of the whole (CCC 791). There is also an allegory embedded in Paul's teaching here. The eyes serve knowledge and signify the contemplative life of the Church, whereas the hands serve movement and signify the active life of the Church. So too, the head of the body is the clergy in authority over the Church, while the feet are the laity who follow the lead of their head (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:3).

Caravaggio—Madonna dei Pellegrini
This theme of the laity as the 'feet' was used to shocking effect by Carravagio in the painting above which broke with propriety because it did not depict the pilgrimage of wealthy donors, but poor proletarian figures whose filthy naked feet, turned upwards towards the viewer, emphasise this shockingly complete inversion of an old pictorial tradition.

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 returns to Nazareth and reads at the synagogue, which is a building reserved for worship and and biblical instruction. Sabbath services consisted of the reading and exposition of the Law of Moses (Acts 15:21) and the prophets (Luke 4:17; Acts 13:15). Jesus finds a quote from Isaiah, Luke uses Is 61:1-2 with an additional excerpt from Is 58:6. The townsfolk mistakenly interpret these verses to foretell the liberation of Israel by the Messiah from the political domination of the Romans. Many Jews and even certain Gentiles who shared their hope recognised in Jesus the fundamental attributes of the messianic "Son of David", promised by God to Israel (cf. Mt 2:2; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30; 21:9,15). Jesus accepted his rightful title of Messiah, though with some reserve because it was understood by some of his contemporaries in too human a sense, as essentially political (CCC 439).

Pope Benedict XVI explains that to "take the good news to the poor" means that Jesus has the responses to our fundamental questions; hHe will show us the path of life, the path toward happiness— indeed, He is that path!

Drawing them all together...
The readings today present us with some powerful narratives about the Word of God, its efficacy, power, and influence. In the first reading , Ezra's reading of the Law shows us the foundations of our liturgical practice as the archetypal gathering of "the People of God". They are brought together in an assembly or qahal where they hear the Word of the Law after the long years of Exile. This constitutes a deeply emotional event which affects all aspects of their lives and behaviour very deeply. As we saw in our exposition of the first reading, the revelation of God's will in this way cuts to the heart and bears the community's failure to live according to the divine precepts. However unlike the sullenness of the hardhearted in their pre-conversion days (Ezr 10:1-17), this sorrow is godly and opens up the prospect of deeper conversion and new life. To accept God's will, to open one's heart to it, is to be changed by it. This is reflected in the Psalm which sums up the miracle of the gift and its power: "The Law of the LORD is perfect, it revives the soul."
The purpose then, of divine inspiration, is to affect conversion, a real change and reform in our lives grounded on an honest appraisal of our behaviour measured against the objective benchmark of God's revelation. The Gospel presents us with this same theme. The reading of the Word of God in the context of the Law and the Prophets in the midst of the People of God. Surely, then we are being shown the special role of the Word in inspiring and transforming our lives? Jesus reads to the assembly painting a perfect picture of Himself as the anointed prophet, priest and king—in fact the Suffering Servant—which focuses on the nature of His messianic work. This work, contrary to the expectations of the people, is to bring Good News, light, sight, healing and freedom, and many blessings which Christ reserves for the lowly and the powerless (Lk 1:52; 6:20; 14:12-14; 16:19-26; 18:1-8; 19:8-10; CCC 544, 2443).
Today, the Word still challenges us and asks us to be Christ-like in all we do, to love our neighbour as ourselves. We must respond together as the People of God, as illustrated in the image provided by St. Paul in this week's second reading. In this image, we are described as being linked with the head, Jesus, in an organic unity as members of a body. We are united to the head; we commune with Him and each other in unity, and we are challenged to respond. Through our realisation of the love enshrined in the Law; the living Word, God facilitates our continuation of His work and the key sign to this Holy Communion is the Eucharist itself.

Christ on the Tree of Life (Church of San Clemente, Rome), which I think, beautifully illustrates the organic unity of the Church as depicted by Paul in this week's second reading.


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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