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




"Thy word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path." Ps 119:105


Welcome to this, the fifty-second of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass. I am off to Lourdes this weekend so will be enjoying Mass with Brentwood Catholic Youth Service on Sunday in St. Joseph's Chapel.

I have undertaken this project, regularly posting background information on the readings at Sunday Mass as part of my own prayer life. I have found it helps me to do a little study before I go to Mass about the readings, what the theme of the week is, how it follows on from the previous week's readings and what is being said.

In sharing this, I hope to help you too get more from the Bible and Sunday Scripture readings. Perhaps it might give you confidence in the value and legitimacy of the Bible, or perhaps it might inspire you to pray the Divine Office or investigate the weekly readings for yourself.

I see this as very clearly part of what the Church teaches about the Bible:
This heaven-sent treasure Holy Church considers as the most precious source of doctrine on faith and morals. No wonder herefore that, as she received it intact from the hands of the Apostles, so she kept it with all care, defended it from every false and perverse interpretation and used it diligently as an instrument for securing the eternal salvation of souls, as almost countless documents in every age strikingly bear witness. ~Divino Afflante Spiritu
When fideism said that we should turn away from science and study and rely on the Bible for exactly what it is, in a literal sense, the Church said "no", we have nothing to fear from a proper understanding of Scripture and thus we were encouraged to delve ever deeper into the treasure chest of sacred Scripture to see what riches we could find there.

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:

Martha and Mary Magdelene, Carravagio, c. 1598


The Hospitality of Our Lord.

Collect:
Show favour; O Lord, to your servants
and mercifully increase the gifts of your grace, that, made fervent in hope, faith, and charity, they may be ever watchful in keeping your commands.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever.

This week's readings are:
  • First Reading: Genesis 18:1-10A.
  • Psalm 14: 2-3, 3-4, 5; Response: v. 1. 
  • Second Reading: Colossians 1:24-28.
  • Gospel: Luke 10: 38-42.
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 Genesis: Genesis (from the Latin Vulgate, in turn borrowed or transliterated from Greek γένεσις, meaning "origin"; Hebrew: בְּרֵאשִׁית‎, Bereʾšyt, "In [the] beginning"), is the first book of the Hebrew Bible (the TaNaKh) and the Christian Old Testament. It is of huge importance to me, as it is the source of much controversy. Today, Atheists erroneously consider that it is a scientific manual with which Christians prescribe the blue-print of creation. Although some literalists still consider that creation happened just as the English translation of the TaNaKh recounts, this idea is broadly discounted; again, I refer you to the teaching of Dei Verbum which asks that scholars pay attention to the literary forms:
"The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another." Dei Verbum 12.
Genesis is typically Jewish in its purpose as a story to explain the origins of the world. That's not to say that Genesis is just made up nonsense; far from it! It contains some of the most important and beautiful truths of our being. This is the Jewish way of thinking about things though: if they want to understand how something works, they tell stories.

One of the major questions that confronts any reader of the Bible, and especially pertinent if you consider it to be the Word of God, has to relate to the factual authenticity of its contents. The book of Genesis offers an account of creation which many mock in today’s scientific community and may seem at best, simplistic to the uninitiated. If the whole of the Bible is inspired, how does one understand the figures and dates of the primeval age alone? What about God’s direct intervention in the affairs of men? For example, the book of Exodus itself proclaims:
“the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders…” (Deut. 26: 5-9) 
Did these miraculous events really occur the way they are documented in the Bible? In his work Reading the Old Testament, Lawrence Boadt suggests that slaves escaping into the Sinai were probably a common occurrence. He gives examples of Egyptian documents which mention attempts to stop such groups (Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament (New York: Paulist Press, 1984) p.163-165). He goes on to note that the important difference with the Exodus escape is the Divine element it held for Israel. He postulates that Egypt may not have even realised this aspect at all!

Another valuable dimension to this is given by the great Biblical Scholar, Dr. Gerhard von Rad. He describes the way that some academics only analyse the historical veracity of the Torah as “historical materialism” in his book Genesis (von Rad, G. Genesis (London: SCM Press, 1961) p.31). Designating this kind of narrative as “saga”, von Rad explains that the expectation that the saga should either contain historical fact, or else it can be described as merely a product of poetic fantasy is an extremely crass misunderstanding of its essence. It is true, however, that this scepticism has been the attitude prevalent since the 19th Century. The saga then offers a product born of a completely different kind of intellectual activity from that of history (historie), although history (Geschichte) is what it is concerned with.

What then are these narratives? How can they be concerned with fact and yet not be tied to fact by their contents? von Rad answers by stating:
“Whatever saga we examine, we find with respect to its simplest and most original purpose that it narrates an actual event that once and for all occurred in the realm of history. It is therefore to be taken quite seriously – it is to be believed. In all that follows, therefore, let us hold fast to this: by no means is a saga merely the product of poetic fantasy; rather it comprises the sum total of the living historical recollection of peoples. In it is mirrored in fact and truth the history of a people. It is the form in which a people thinks of its own history.” 
The Old Testament sagas then, are concerned with Israel itself and the realities the people of Israel found in themselves. In this way they contain a much more real history, a history with much more truth in it than a purely factual historical writing would. They contain the secret contemporary character of apparently past events. This character is more than a list of the achievements, wars, political struggles, victories and defeats experienced by a people. It takes place on another level and speaks of inner guidance working and maturing in life’s mysteries. It is a history with God.

This weekThe first thing that strikes you about this reading is its amazingly clear Trinitarian dimension. God turns up, but He is three people. The text doesn't say God and two angels. Scholars agree that this part of Genesis, written by the Yahwhist or "J", contain some of the most anthropomorphic representations of God to be found in Genesis, yet they also manifest a profoundly true conception of the divine nature and of God's attributes of justice and mercy. The story is also about hospitality, YHWH visits Abraham, Abraham acts the part of the lavish and deferential host in the best tradition of Oriental hospitality, the virtue most prized by the ancient Semite.

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: This psalm is a reflection upon the theme of the 'just man'. Many see here a liturgy of admission to the Temple, the dwelling place of the Lord. Again, we see the theme of hospitality, and dwelling with God in righteousness.

St. Paul's Letter to the Colossians addresses a unique situation in the early Church and its theology is equally unique, concerned with stressing two main themes against errors reported about the Church in Colossae (2:4, 8, 16, 18-22). Paul stresses the supremacy of Christ and the completeness of Christians in Christ. One of the main areas of study with regard to this epistle has been the attempt to identify the opponents who were misleading the community in Colossae. According to the epistle itself, the false teaching is a philosophy and an empty receipt (2:8), a human tradition (2:8); it concerns the elemental spirits of the universe (2:8) and angels (2:18); it demands the observance of food regulations and festivals, new moons, and sabbath (2:14, 16, 20, 21); and it encourages ascetic practices. Since the opponents are charged with "not holding fast to the head," the error must have arisen within the believing community. Jewish and Hellenic influences seem to be interwoven in what can be inferred of the error. A complex syncretism that incorporates features of Judaism, Paganism, Christianity, magic, astrology, and mystery religions forms the cultural background of the letter and consequently it may be impossible to identify the opponents in Colossae with any particular group.

This week: Joy in suffering is an ongoing theme in the New Testament and it is clear that Paul suffered greatly throughout his missionary career (2 Cor 11:23-29). It is through suffering we take on our mission to conform ourselves to Christ. Ministers of the Gospel, however, are especially called to suffer in their work of bringing salvation to others (CCC 307, 618, 1508). Paul aims to bring believers to a deeper understanding of the Gospel and to a deeper commitment to apply it to their daily lives (4:12). Perfection is a goal that requires both effort and endurance (1:29; Phil 3:12-15).
The Gospel According to St. LukeLuke 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.

The biblical scholar Raymond Brown deduces that the Gospel was written for Church communities in Greece and Syria. These were 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 also 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. Raymond 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 assisted 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 weekWe hear the story of Martha and Mary. This presents me with an opportunity to post a picture by Carravagio (top) of whom, regular readers will know, I am a bit of a fan. Pictures at the time were often replete with subtle meaning. Literacy was an issue and so the truths of the faith were often communicated through images. This means paintings are often full of subtle messages and metaphor. Similarly we can learn much from simply studying the posture of the models: here the power of the image lies in Mary's face, caught at the very moment when conversion begins. Martha is the personification of an active life of service in the Gospels, and here she is shown passionately arguing with Mary, who twirls an orange blossom between her fingers as she holds a mirror, symbolising the vanity she is about to give up. With an eloquent gesture, she is enumerating the reasons why her sister should change her life. Look at her hands, the eloquence of her gesture reflects the attention Caravaggio pays to the expressive language of the hands. Martha is portrayed in profile and penumbra, dressed in simple work clothes, whereas Mary is wearing a sumptuous dress with a low neckline décolleté, puffy red sleeves, a yellow sash, and an embroidered blouse.

In the Gospel itself we see the familiar relationship Jesus has with the family of Bethany. This is also true in John's account (Jn 11:1-44), as is the contrasting temperament of the sisters!
What is important in the story is that Martha is told that the one thing necessary is that the Word of God is heeded; in others words, seeking in the Kingdom. This resonates with the earlier answer about the love of God and neighbour as the basic observance necessary for eternal life. What is required is not complicated.

St. Gregory the great taught that the two women signify two dimensions of the spiritual life. Martha signifies the active life as she busily labours to honour Christ through her work. Mary exemplifies the contemplative life as she sits attentively to listen and learn from Christ. While both activities are essential to Christian living, the latter is greater than the former, for in heaven the active life is over and it is the contemplative life that takes over and reaches it's perfection. This is good news for me, because I am definitely Mary to Louise's Martha!

Drawing them all together...
This week, the theme of hospitality is linked with ideas of holiness, generosity and openness. The Lord's visit to Abraham leads to him being open to God's promises. This story, and that of Jesus' visit to the family at Bethany show us God's friendliness, His desire to be with us and share our lives, and thus communicate His saving Word. Each of these hosts had something special to offer, and each was rewarded with a special promise or commendation. Abraham in Mamre, and Mary and Martha in Bethany, in their different ways become servants of the Word. St. Paul extends this concept into the whole of life. He becomes a servant of the body of Christ, His Church, and is prepared to share in the sufferings of Jesus in order to deliver God's message more effectively.

Abraham, Mary, Martha, and Paul perceived the sacramental presence of God, the mystery of Christ among us. If we are able to make ourselves available, if we are able to get our priorities right, and listen, we too will release the transforming power of the Word in our lives. This message must take root in our hearts, and lead to a revolution in our lives and in the way that we treat other people. There is a profound link between our openness to God and our attitude to others. No matter what our circumstances, whether advanced age or poverty or just feeling overwhelmed by the demands of our lives, we need never feel that God does not care. If we are disposed towards love, and open our hearts to God's love, He can use us for His purposes. If we are also alert to God's presence in others, we can become channels of His peace and love, giving people hope in the power of the Kingdom which is already here, yet always leading us on into the future fulfilment. "Martha, Martha, you worry about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one."

Bibliography:

Baker, K., SJ, Inside the Bible, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998).
Barret, C. K., Acts a Shorter Commentary, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2002).
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).
Cotter, D., Genesis, Collegville: Liturgical Press, 2003.
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).
Dunn, James D. G. (Ed) The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul (Cambridge: CUP, 2003).
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, (London: Nelson, 1969).
Hahn, S., The Lamb's Supper (London: DLT, 1999).
Harrington, W. J., John: Spiritual Theologian (Dublin: The Columbia Press, 2007).
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001).
Jeremias, J. The Parables of Jesus, New York: 1963.
Kereszty, R., O. Cist., Jesus Christ—Fundamentals of Christology (New York: Alba, 2010).
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. 9/ June 2013.
Rahner, K., Encyclopedia of Theology, (St. Pauls, New York, 1975).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).
Talbert, C.H., Literary Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts, (Montana: SBLMS, 1974).
von Rad, G., Genesis (London: SCM Press, 1961).
von Rad, G., Wisdom in Israel, (SCM Press, Tottenham, U.K., 1993).


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