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

Welcome to this, the twenty-ninth 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:

A Call to Witness.

Boats on the Sea of Galilee

  • First Reading: Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8.
  • Psalm 137[138]:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 7-8. Response: v.1.
  • Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.
  • Gospel: Luke 5:1-11.
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 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. 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.

This prophet 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 computer 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.

This week: We have a vision of angels involved in the call narrative of the prophet. The Seraphim cry continually to each other, "Holy, holy, holy, is YHWH of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory." (verses 2-3) One seraph then carries out an act of purification for the prophet by touching his lips with a live coal from the altar (verses 6-7). Seraphs are those closest to God and their named literally means 'burned ones'.

While the creatures that we call "angels" are known as such, the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers an interesting distinction. The word "angel" is really what these creatures do- "angel" designates their mission, which is to act in the corporeal world as emissaries of the Lord God. This mission is readily apparent from the manner in which the angels are identified in the Scriptures. The Catechism provides this insight:
"Angels have been present since creation and throughout the history of salvation, announcing this salvation from afar and near and serving the accomplishment of the divine plan: they closed the earthly paradise; protected Lot; saved Hagar and her child; stayed Abraham's hand; communicated the law by their ministry; led the people of God, just to cite a few examples. Finally, the angel Gabriel announced the birth of John the Baptist and that of Jesus himself" (CCC 332).
Saint Thomas Aquinas considered the mission of these spiritual creatures to be to inform humanity of divine realities and so lead people to God. If angel denotes the mission of these creatures, what precisely are they? These creatures are spirits, which means that they are incorporeal beings of intellect and will, immortal by nature, and possessing abilities that exceed that of corporeal creatures. These spirits are not, as some propose, the souls of deceased humans, but are a distinct species of created beings. The Catechism clarifies:
"The profession of faith of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) affirms that God "from the beginning of time made at once out of nothing both orders of creatures, the spiritual and the corporeal, that is, the angelic and the earthly... " (CCC 327).
The interactions of these spirits with humanity are enveloped in mystery. While the Catechism records the positive interventions of angels as they act to announce the great events of salvation history, the Scriptures record other angelic actions which are much more upsetting and off-putting. Angels announce the doom of Sodom and Gomorrah (Exodus 19). Angels act to bring terrifying chastisement upon both Israel and their enemies (2 Samuel 24, 1 Chronicles 21,2 Kings 19). Thus we can understand the response of both the shepherds (Luke 2:9) and the Mother of God (Luke 1:30) to the appearances of angels as being one of fear. These spirits are not the charming entities that have been popularised by some of the imagery of the culture, but are fierce creatures of incredible presence and power.

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 an everyday sort of psalm, straight forward for use on various occasions. Angels come up again in this week's psalm, representing the court of heaven. The words of the psalm remind me of the way in which we join with heaven in praise of the almighty at Mass. The Mass is an opening into heaven, the door through which we gaze into the eternal worship of the angels and the saints in heaven. As we sing, "Holy, holy, holy," we join our voices to those of the angels: "May our voices be one with theirs." At the "Lamb of God," we participate even now in the heavenly worship of the Lamb of God, which never ends. When we hear the word of God here below, we listen to the eternal proclamation of the word in heaven.

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: Paul refers to the transmission of oral and liturgical tradition as is still taught today by the Church:
Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort. — Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum n. 10
St. Paul stresses the emptiness of the tomb, setting Jesus' Resurrection over and against His burial by stating "that He was buried" (v.4). We can see from this how the Resurrection was reported as historical, physical and bodily event, it is not a mere metaphor for new life (CCC 639-40). Of course, where St. Paul mentions 'the Scriptures' he is referring to the Old Testament, to where belief in the bodily Resurrection can be traced (CCC 652). Paul next notes the first witnesses to the Resurrection, using the Aramaic word for rock, 'Cephas' for Simon bar Jonah who we call Peter. Of course, this is a derivative of the Greek Petros, which also means rock from Mt 16:18. Jesus appeared to more than five hundred, many of whom would have been alive at the time of Paul's writing and could therefore have personally verified their witness to the Resurrection. Paul also alludes to his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus when he states that Jesus also appeared to him (v.8). Paul both saw the risen Christ and received a missionary mandate from Him (Acts 9:1-15). We can see from v. 12 that someSadducees held a minority view within Judaism that denied the Resurrection of the dead. The Greek belief was Manichean duality which considered the body as a prison for the soul which decayed once the soul was liberated from it at death. In contrast we belief that we are hylomorphic (that is, body—soul composite beings).

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: Pope Benedict XVI commented on this Gospel thus: "Today too the Church and the successors of the Apostles are told to put out into the deep sea of history and to let down the nets, so as to win men and women over to the Gospel – to God, to Christ, to true life. The Fathers made a very significant commentary on this singular task. This is what they say: for a fish, created for water, it is fatal to be taken out of the sea, to be removed from its vital element to serve as human food. But in the mission of a fisher of men, the reverse is true. We are living in alienation, in the salt waters of suffering and death; in a sea of darkness without light. The net of the Gospel pulls us out of the waters of death and brings us into the splendour of God’s light, into true life. It is really true: as we follow Christ in this mission to be fishers of men, we must bring men and women out of the sea that is salted with so many forms of alienation and onto the land of life, into the light of God. It is really so: the purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men. And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him. The task of the shepherd, the task of the fisher of men, can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world."

Drawing them all together...

This week we continue to consider the calling of last week's Scripture, to participate in the prophetic ministry of Jesus, in the context of discipleship and vocation. The stories in the readings are of calling; the call of Isaiah, the call of Peter, and of Paul. Each constitutes a profound religious experience which shaped the life it touched. The telling of these stories mould our own lives and determines our awareness of God's action in our lives. This is an idea which resonates very strongly in me as my own experience of this is very profound indeed. Isaiah's mystical experience in the Temple may seem to have little in common with the story of fishing on the Sea of Galilee, but in fact, we can find remarkable parallels.

Equally, in both passages, we find a place were humanity confronts the divine, albeit using very different imagery. We can note a very palpable perception of wonder—be it at the heavenly majesty of holiness, or the over-whelming generosity and insight of Jesus. In both instances, this leads to a recognition of the unworthiness of the subject "What a wretched state I am in"; "depart from me, for I am a sinful man."Despite these protestations, the Lord is with you, He has gotten into your boat, He has called you and He wants YOU! The overwhelming sense we gain from a reflection on these passages is not so much of personal sinfulness as a realisation of the wretchedness of creaturehood with all its limitations: the imperfection of our fallen human condition.

We might consider that faced with the All-Holy, we would retreat into futility and feel alien; distant. Shockingly, the opposite is in fact the case. Holiness cleanses, and, for the open heart which recognises and accepts the forgiveness freely offered, there is change, invitation, and a call to purification. Isaiah and the Apostles can now hear the question "Whom shall I send?" and grasp the intention: "I will make you fishers of men." There is a new impression of hope, strength and purpose: "Here I am, send me." "They left everything and followed Him." When we encounter the redemption stories of those who seem almost lost to sin, and yet were called, like St. Paul, or St. Augustine, we can feel a great sense of hope that we too can achieve sainthood. We must, like them, be aware of our unworthiness, yet still have the courage to say "yes" to the dynamism arising from the conviction of forgiveness, and the acceptance of mission.

The Sea of Galilee

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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