Sunday Scripture: The Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year C)




Welcome to this, the thirty-third 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:

Our God Who is Full of Compassion & Forgiveness.

James Tissot-  Prodigal Son, The Return (1882). 
  • First Reading: Joshua 5:9-12
  • Psalm 33:2-7; Response v. 9. 
  • Second Reading 2 Corinthians: 5:17-21.
  • Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32.
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 Joshua is the sixth book of the Bible following Pentateuch and preceding Judges. Joshua, the main protagonist, is an associate of Moses during the 40 years of wandering in the desert and then his successor as the leader of the People of God.

The Bible is essentially "sacred history" though interspersed with long stretches of sermon, song, poetry, prophecy, parables, wisdom and laws. The unity and continuity of the Bible is its historical "story line" running from the beginning if time itself in Genesis, to the end of time in Revelation. Sacred History is not somehow less historically valid than secular history, but it does tell the story from a dual perspective; the human, and the divine. Thus Joshua presents us with a factual history, and an underlying theology to reflect on.

The book of Joshua is the end of the story of the Israelites epic journey and deliverance from Egypt and slavery and the beginning of the story of Israel's conquest of the land that was promised to Abraham in Genesis. As such, the book is quite grisly, and charts the success of the Israelite's over insurmountable odds by utilising a strategy of "trust and obey", which constitutes good military wisdom, if you commander is the Almighty! Despite its obvious value as military history, the Deuteronomic editors and their audience saw the military concepts as metaphors describing the continual battle of God's people in every age, especially in the Exile, where the paganism of Babylon surrounded them. Canaan represents the world (including Babylon) that man creates without knowledge of God. The story of Israel's conquest of the land provides an instruction about how God's people must take control of this environment that is hostile to faith. No compromise is possible. The world will turn the people away from true fidelity to the LORD unless the community of believers subdues it and takes it captive. The real battle is about preserving faith in a glamorous world of distraction and temptations—a theme most relevant to the exiles living under the spell of Babylon's enchantments in the middle of the sixth century B.C.

Joshua is a hugely important book of the Bible as it provides the climax of what the Pentateuch anticipated. The Church has traditionally interpreted Joshua as a type or symbol of Jesus for at least six reasons:

1). The name and its meaning are the same (God saves).
2). Jesus, like Joshua is the new Moses.
3). He is the commander of God's chosen people and the conqueror of God's enemies.
4). He is the one who leads his people even though the waters of death (symbolised by the Jordan river in Joshua and the water of Baptism in the New Testament—see Romans 6:4).
5). He does what Moses could not do: he brings his people into the Promised Land (symbolic of heaven).
6). Further, the conquest and division of the land into the twelve tribes pre-figures the expansion of Christ's Church into the world by His twelve apostles.

This book brings us to one of the most difficult questions for Christians who often feel that there is some contradiction between the violence in the Old Testament and the loving God revealed to us by Jesus in the New Testament. How then are we to read the violent texts describing the complete extermination of Israel's enemies? Clearly the Deuteronomists' original audience of exiles in Babylon did not draw the conclusion that they were to kill their Pagan captures or attack their enemies in the land upon their return from exile (cf. 4:1-6:21; Neh 3:33-4:17; 6:1-7:3). They appreciated the actions of Joshua's army as graphic illustrations highlighting the importance of keeping the first commandment. The threat of judgement did not hang over the foreigners as much as over Israel herself. She had to banish from her environment every temptation to worship the idols of the world. For the exiles in Babylon, this imposed an obligation on the Jews to construct an environment free from the allurements of the pagan culture.

This week: The Israelites celebrate the Passover for the first time since the Exodus, along with the crossing of the Jordan closes the period of Moses and the wandering which began with the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 12-15). The conclusion of that epoch is dramatically signalled by the cessation of the miraculous manna.

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: the themes of tasting the food of the settlement and agriculture from the first reading are married with the themes of renewal and change (metanoia) in the second reading and Gospel "Taste and see that the Lord is good" quoted in 1 Peter 2:3. When we call to the Lord He hears us and saves us, what we must do is have the courage and faith to call.

2 Corinthians was written on Paul's third missionary tour (Acts 18:23—21:16), not long after writing and sending 1 Corinthians. At the point of writing, he has left Ephesus (1 Cor 16:8) and is in the Roman province of Macedonia (2:13; 7:5; 9:2). The most likely date is the Autumn of A.D. 56.

Paul writes a second time to the Corinthians in order to strengthen his relationship with supporters in Corinth and prevent them from falling prey to the groundless claims of the "false apostles" (11:13) who were attacking his integrity. Paul asserts and defends his own apostolic authority (10:10; 12:11-12) and seeks to resume his efforts to raise funds for the poor Christians of Jerusalem (chapters 8-9). Chapters 10-13 serve to confront the "false apostles" (11:13) and their Corinthian followers. The letter is emotional and deeply personal in tenure which serves to make it difficult to follow on occasion. It does give us a rare glimpse of both the tenderness and the tenacity of Paul.

This week Baptism makes us "a new creation", transferring us from the bondage of sin and slavery to the blessings of salvation and sonship. Here the connection with the Gospel is very clear. Jesus does not destroy the old order, but heals and perfects it, thus the New Covenant begins a new order in history were creation is steadily renewed, beginning with our souls and continuing into every corner of the cosmos (Romans 8:19-25; Rev 21:1-5). The ministry of the apostles is to reunite the human family with the Father, tearing down the barrier of sin between them by the sacramental and evangelistic actions of the Church. Forgiveness is based on the true removal of guilt (Ps 103:12) by the cleansing power of the Sacraments. This is why Paul describes the believer as a "new creation" in Christ (5:17). Christians bear the royal, priestly and prophetic authority of Christ into the world and thus we are all ambassadors (CCC 859). In the final verse, Paul is not saying that Jesus was made a sinner or personally counted guilty of sin on the Cross, rather, He bore the curse of death that mankind incurred because of sin (Gal 3:13; 1 Pet 2:22-24) even though He Himself knew no sin, i.e. committed no sin (Jn 8:46; 1 Jn 3:5).

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: This is an excerpt from a longer post on reconciliation (here) which looks at the parable in this week's Gospel.

In the New Testament, probably the most striking example of Jesus' teaching on reconciliation is the parable of the Good Father, also known as the Prodigal Son, or the Two Brothers (Luke 15: 11-32). But there are, of course, many other references. I've already mentioned Matthew 5, but there is also the powerful parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt 18: 23-35) where Jesus demonstrates the folly of mercilessness. One forgiven an eternal debt of sin should readily forgive others of much smaller debts. In other words, mercy triumphs; our conduct in this life sets the terms for our judgement in the next (c.f. James 2:13). We are exhorted to make every effort to achieve reconciliation (2 Cor 5:20).

In The Pastoral Constitution on The Church in The Modern World: Gaudiem et Spes (meaning joy & hope), the Magisterium teaches us that in order to enter into dialogue with those who think and act differently to us in social, political and religious matters, we must take time and effort to understand their ways of thinking more deeply, through kindness and love. (n. 28). This does not mean we should be blind to the truth, but that the person, even in error, never loses their dignity, we are not to judge others inner guilt, or to pass judgement on them, but to forgive even those who persecute and calumniate you (ibid).

Pope John Paul II looks at the the issues through his encyclical Dives in Misericordia and the Apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia.

In Reconciliatio et Paenitentia JPII recognises the desire for reconciliation is a fundamental driving force in our society, as long as reconciliation is sincere and consistent. He considers it as strong as the factors of division, exposing a fundamental human paradox. Interestingly, he emphasises that this reconciliation must not be any less profound that the division itself. It can only be effective if it reaches out in a profound way, to the root of the original wound (n. 3).

The Church emphasises the need for us to do penance: a change of heart translated into a physical action: ‘a conversion that passes from the heart to deed and then to the Christian’s whole life.’ (ibid, no. 4). Penance is closely connected with reconciliation, which implies in and of itself overcoming that radical break which is sin. This ‘is achieved only through the interior transformation or conversion which bears fruit in a person’s life through acts of penance’ (ibid).

The Holy Father turns to the parable of the Prodigal Son to further probe what God is saying to us about reconciliation. He explains how the parable shows that reconciliation is principally a gift of our heavenly Father (ibid, n. 5), but the elder brother refuses to see the the father’s goodness. He is too sure of himself and his own good qualities, jealous and haughty, full of bitterness and anger. The elder brother is not converted and is not reconciled with his father and brother (ibid, n. 6). The scary thing is, the elder brother is the character in the parable I identify with the most. And this really is one of the main points of this parable.

We are all the elder brother. Selfishness makes us jealous and hardens our hearts, blinds us and shuts us off from other people and from God. Loving kindness and mercy, like that shown by the good father in the parable, only serve to irritate and enrage us. It expresses the our human frailty and how we are divided from each other by forms of selfishness. It throws light on the difficulty involved in satisfying the desire and longing for one reconciled and united family. It therefore reminds us of the need for a profound transformation of hearts through the rediscovery of the Father’s mercy and through victory over misunderstanding and over hostility among brothers and sisters. From this perspective, it is us who need to be converted in order to be reconciled. We need to pray for a conversion of heart, for this is ultimately a gift from God. (ibid, n. 7).

St. John the apostle teaches us that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” 1 John 1:8-9 and recognising our basic inclination to sin is the essential first step toward reconciliation. (Ibid n. 13). It is significant that Jesus Himself puts these words on the lips and in the heart of the prodigal son: “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you.” (Lk 15: 18-21). There can be no conversion without the acknowledgement of the sin.

Drawing them all together...

Collect:
O God, who through your Word reconcile the human race to to yourself in a wonderful way, grant, we pray, that with prompt devotion and eager faith the Christian people may hasten toward the solemn celebrations to come. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, on God for ever and ever.
This Sunday we reach a decisive moment in our Lenten journey, Laetare Sunday is when we turn to towards Easter with hope and joy, embodied today in the word reconciliation, which offers a unique and special perspective on God's saving plan. Hatred, alienation, hostility, rejection, these are ever-present and apparent realities which remain an intractable element of our human experience. However, it is God's will that we should be reconciled with Him and with one another. Scripture tells a story of hope: time and time again we discover that God is there, always waiting, ready to initiate the process that leads to liberation and healing, the true consequences of reconciliation.

As we know, God's plan is most fully revealed in the person of His Son, and Jesus' teaching on this is the beautiful parable of the good father, or prodigal son as it is better known. In this parable, Jesus provides us with a powerful image of God's love through the image of the patiently waiting, tenderly concerned Father. Jesus tells this story to throw light on His association with sinners. he does not consort with them in violation of His own Law, but bursts through all just and legitimate expectation to make His transforming love available to wretched humanity, and open the way to a change of heart. This is a description of the Father's waiting in history. He saved His People of old, and removed the shane and reproach of Egypt, the sorrow of their slavery and sin, so that they would be free for Him. The Passover in the Promised Land is the their celebration, their joyful acceptance of God's saving initiative.

This is exactly the role of the Eucharist in our lives now. The theological mystery of reconciliation is exposed in all its implications by the Apostle Paul. He tells us with candour how it is God Himself who takes the initiative and always has, reconciling us to Himself in and through His Son Jesus. This is God's work, and it is nothing less than a new creation, a re-forming of the old person in Jesus' recapitulation of all our human experience. God considers this reconciling act so important that He hands the work on to us, so we can become ambassadors for Christ. All we have to do is accept God's invitation and return to him with open hearts.

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.
Dodd, C.H., The Founder of Christianity, (London: Collins, 1978).
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. 5/ March 2013.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, (New York, Touchstone, 1995).
Ratzinger, J., Introduction to Christianity, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004).
Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, (Bloomsbury, London, 2007).

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