Sunday Scripture: Twenty-First 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-seventh of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass. 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:



The Scope of Messianic Salvation.

Collect:

O God, who cause the minds of the faithful
to unite in a single purpose,
grant your people to love what you command and to desire what you promise,
that, amid the uncertainties of this world,
our hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is found.
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: Isaiah 66:18-21.
  • Psalm 116; Response: Mark 16:15. 
  • Second Reading: Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13.
  • Gospel: Luke 13: 22-30.
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.

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 weekIn our introduction to the Scriptures this week Isaiah speaks to the exiles returning from Babylon and looks beyond the broken dreams of Judah's lost kingdom. It is in the restored Jerusalem that he sees an image of a glorious future when all the nations of the world will stream to the Mountain of the Lord, the sign of His loving care and salvation for all. The "sign" centres on the survival of Jerusalem, to become the object of the new exodus for Diaspora Jews and, notably, for Gentiles too. The end of the reading is astoundingly radical: Gentiles take their place in the priesthood. The purpose of the mission of the "survivors" is to spread the knowledge of the true God, with the corresponding admiration of His power and majesty.

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 the shortest of them all and continues the message of expansion. All the nations and peoples are invited to praise the Lord because of His love and faithfulness. Reiterating the mission of the first reading, we are commissioned to go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News of God's love and faithfulness.

St. Paul's Letter to the Hebrews claims to be a “word of exhortation” (13:22) and lacks the formal features common to a letter of the time; an introduction by the sender to the recipients and an opening word of thanksgiving. Rather, it reads somewhat like a homily, its literary rhythm alternating back and forth between doctrinal exposition and moral exhortation in the same way any oral preaching tends to.Hebrews follows a carefully planned literary structure expressed with a rhetorical finesse unmatched in other writings of the New Testament. The work is equally unique in its subject matter, drawing on a extensive and sophisticated use of the Old Testament in comparison with the New, with particular emphasis on priestly and sacrificial issues. No New Testament writing reflects more deeply on the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and none gives more attention or puts more emphasis on covenant theology.

This week: The Second Reading this week starts with a citation from Proverbs 3:11-12 which teaches that divine discipline is inspired by divine love. Correctly interpreting this allows us to discern between the trials of life (such as persecution Heb 10:32-36) and signs of God's anger hammering down on every fault and failing. In fact, God is a loving and wise Father whose only desire is to make His children better. It is because He loves us so much that He sends difficulties to train us in righteousness and to raise us to spiritual adulthood. In point of fact, we are being forged in the image of God the Son, who "learned obedience through what He suffered" (5:8, CCC 2825).
Although our reading translates as "suffering", the word in Greek here is Paideia which expresses the whole process of education, training, and discipline by which young people are helped to shape themselves in in those qualities of mind and body which characterise the real adult; strong, sober, and able to cope with the problems that life will bring his way. Paideia then, is painful when it is being experienced (and so, by analogy, are the trials of the readers), but there is consolation in the thought that endurance of these hardships will lead to an enjoyment of the peaceful fruit of righteousness; that is, the celestial tranquility and security of the man who is disciplined. Who has suffered.
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 weekThe question Jesus is asked was a contemporary one and the expected answer would have been that all of Israel would have a place in the future kingdom; even the ordinary people, though 'ignorant of the Law' (Jn 7:49) would not be excluded. The only people who would in fact be debarred, were sinners, e.g. tax collectors and suchlike. The narrow door teaches us that salvation depends on God's grace first, and then on our cooperation and obedience (Eph 2:8-10; Phil 2:12-13). Jesus stresses the difficulties of the spiritual life, where few will enter God's glory while the door remains open (Mt 22:14). By verse 25 we are no longer dealing with a narrow door, it is shut, and the image is now that of the Messianic banquet. A comparison with Mt 25:10f reveals that the master here is in fact Jesus Himself. The Jews had not accepted Him, they had not entered into the Kingdom while they had the chance; now it is too late, the door is firmly closed. Their chagrin will be all the worse when they see their own great ancestors present at the Banquet, along with the Gentiles.

Drawing them all together...
In the Gospel this week, Jesus could be misconstrued as communicating an elitist message: "many will try to enter but will not succeed". But if we thought that was what He was saying, we might be confused by the generosity of God's open invitation in the First Reading and the Psalm. I think that Hebrews give us the key to unlock what Jesus is saying.

In his Gospel, Luke builds on the injunctions found in 13:3-5 and stresses that the Christian way demands total allegiance to Jesus and provides travel companions from all over the globe as well as places at the eschatological banquet. Casually eating and drinking with Jesus is not enough, one must share in His life as symbolised by His table fellowship with the lowly.

Surely this is an important contemporary message for all of us who are content to attend Mass, go to Communion, but never let the Gospel inform our lives? The Scripture this week is telling us we are invited but that simply 'playing the game' is not enough. We must have a change of heart and strive to always live as Jesus has shown us. This is not simply some sort of deal to get us into heaven. It is a practical training for how to live our lives and build better communities (as Hebrews shows us).

God speaks to us in history and the Jewish people's experience of rejection, loss and sorrow was part of His mysterious divine plan that the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of "For the Lord trains the ones that He loves and He punishes all those that He acknowledges as His sons." This understanding of suffering constitutes a monumental turn around in our understanding of life. Such experience of suffering leads to peace and goodness. God's ways are not human ones, and are full of His own wisdom and weight: enter now by the narrow door, He tells us. We cannot take privilege and election for granted, but must in humility make ourselves disciples, prophets of His saving love. We do this by imitating Him, by living according to His Law of Love, and doing what we can to spread His kingdom which is for all the peoples of the world. He has come to bring us pardon, and to give us all a place on His Holy Mountain.


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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