Exploring the Readings at Mass—Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)



Welcome to my reflection on this week's Sunday readings at Mass, where I look at the Scripture we will hear at Mass on Sunday in its historical, social and theological context to see what wisdom can be gleaned.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I sincerely hope that this reflection will inspire you, answer some questions you may have, help you to see how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps begin to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted, 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.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

The Generous Love of Our Lord

The Widow's Mite by João Zeferino da Costa: oil on canvas, 1876

The readings are:
First, a little 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.


1 Kings is the first part of the Deuteronomist's chronicle of the rueful story of Israel's decline from the height of magnificence under Solomon to the depths of ruin in the Exile. Everything that Solomon constructs in the beginning, the Babylonians destroy in the end. The books are the fourth part of what tradition calls the Former Prophets (Josh, Judges, 1-2 Sam, 1-2 Kgs). In fact the division between Sam and Kgs is arbitrary and varies in ancient manuscripts. There is a simple three stage chronology to the two books: 1). The reign of Solomon (1 Kgs 1-11); 2). The kingdom divided into Judah and Israel (1 Kgs 12 to 2 Kgs 17); and 3). the kingdom of Judah (2 Kgs 18-25). It's not just a monotonous chronicle however, the Deuteronomist redactors chose what to emphasise. For example, they devoted fourteen chapters in the middle of their text (1 Kgs 16:23 to 2 Kgs 8:24) to the dynasty of Omri in Israel (884-841 B.C.) while dedicating only a few lines to each of the forty-year reigns of Jehoash (835-796 B.C.) and Manasseh (687-642 B.C.) in Judah (2 Kgs 12:1-22' 21:1-18). This is not because they were particularly interested in the Omirides however, the text is carefully arranged so as to make the missions of Elijah and Elisha the centrepiece of the whole work (1 Kgs 17 to 2 Kgs 13:21). Prophecy is in fact the key for unlocking the treasure-house of God's purposes in history; this is not a social or political history, so much as a theological one.

Kings brings us to a climax in our search for an answer to the question dominating the whole Deuteronomic History: "Why did God allow the Assyrians to destroy Israel and then the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple?" We can grasp the response of the sacred authors by focusing on three themes that form the primary undercurrents of Kings:

1. The mission of kingship
2. The importance of the Temple; and
3. The role of prophecy.

This week we learn about Elijah and the drought he decrees (17:1) as a punishment for the idolatry of Ahab. The drought also constitutes a direct challenge to Baal, god of storms and fertility. By proclaiming a drought, Elijah issues a challenge to the worshippers of Baal that will reach its climax in the contest on Mount Carmel (18:21-40). With this challenge begins the prophetic career of Elijah (whose name means YHWH is my God). The significance of this episode happening in Sidon is that despite that it was the territory of Baal the God of Israel has the power to cause a drought there: yet He protects those He favours with miraculous food similar to manna (cf. "cakes baked with oil" Num 11:8). The theme of "word" reveals that Elijah does indeed speak a divine word of power, and that obedience to Him wins YHWH's favour: Elijah approves the widow's word (v 13) but adds his own qualification, which he claims to validate with divine assurance (v 14). When the widow acts in conformity with Elijah's word (v 15), the divine assurance is fulfilled "according to the word of YHWH which He spoke by Elijah" (v 16).


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.

The 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: We continue to hear about the way in which Jesus exercises an ongoing priestly ministry in heaven. Last week we heard how this priesthood is described in Hebrews as being of the order of Melchizedek. This week's reading begins with the difference between the Mosaic tabernacle; an earthly tent and thus part of this creation, and the true sanctuary which is heaven itself (v 24). Jesus' sacrifice differs from the continuous cycle of of high priests offering sacrifices and going in and out of the Holy of Holies year after year. The heavenly sanctuary has always existed but the heavenly sacrifice, now eternally present there, entered into the eternal order at a determined point of time. Hebrews speaks of the "end of the age" (v 26) and this refers to the final stretch of the Old Covenant era, which the author perceives is "ready to vanish away" (8:13). Jesus, being fully man (2:14Rom 6:9 CCC 1013) died once and cannot die again and again, however, since the moment of his death transcends time, to celebrate it in time is not to create another Passion and death; it is to worship Him in that very Passion here and now in the concrete manner of his devising. This week's reading closes with a reference to the prophecy contained in Isaiah 53:12 which describes the rejection and death of the Messiah who makes Himself a sin offering for the transgressions of His people (Is 53:10). The oracle resonates with several of the same themes that echo throughout Hebrews.

The Gospel According to St. Mark
The first thing that strikes you about Mark’s Gospel account is the pace at which the story develops. Mark’s work contrasts Matthew’s sure pedagogy and Luke’s composed account which keeps an eye on literary effect and chronological continuity. Mark simply proclaims the Good News that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come down to save mankind from death and sin by means of his death and resurrection. In this Gospel it seems possible to overhear, through the informality of writing, the voice of the storyteller himself. In this sense, Mark allows us to reach behind the Gospels to a time in history when the gospel story was circulating among the churches in fragmentary and oral form. 

Henry Wansborough O.S.B., in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, argues that a study of Mark’s gospel in particular may lead us to a clearer understanding of the personality of Jesus himself. It was Wrede, in his ground-breaking work Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien. Zugleich ein Beitrag zum Verständnis des Markusevangeliums who first proposed Mark as a theologian concerned with a two-fold mission. Wrede developed a theory that suggested that a secret about the Messiah was an important factor in Mark: although Jesus is the Messiah, he hides this and instructs his disciples to do likewise, only demons recognise his identity. Brown attacks Wrede’s position on this, although he agrees with Wrede’s conclusion that Mark is clearly a theological work, he suggests that it is possible that the christology goes back as far as to Jesus Himself. Brown goes on to state that in his opinion Wrede exaggerated Marcan secrecy that in any case, may have its roots in Jesus’ historical rejection of some messianic aspirations that circulated at the time. Kermode also picked up on Wrede’s discovery in his book The Genesis of Secrecy stressing Marcan obscurity, and suggesting that the Gospel, like the parables, remains a mystery amid moments of radiance, excluding readers from the kingdom. Brown suggests that Kermode has “isolated Mark’s writing from its ultimate Christian theology” and points out that although it is true that the prominent motifs in Mark are disobedience, failure, misunderstanding and darkness, God’s power breaks through at the Gospel’s darkest moment, Jesus’ death on the cross and an outsider like the Roman centurion is not excluded, but rather gains understanding of the truth about Jesus. 

Mark then, writes with a two-fold mission. First and foremost seems to be a pastoral aim geared towards building his reader’s faith. Daniel Harrington confirms this in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, explaining that Mark’s writing shows the members of his community how their belief in the salvific significance of the cross related to the traditions about Jesus’ life. Secondly, Mark seems to have been presenting a biographical record of Christ’s life in order that early Christian’s might understand the reality of Jesus’ life and avoid a slip into Gnosticism, where Jesus was considered a myth rather than a reality. This juxtaposed with the writings of Paul, who concentrated his emphasis on the death and resurrection of Christ, saying little about the details of his life, though he undoubtedly exhorted his disciple Timothy to “Remember Jesus Christ”(2 Timothy 2:8). It is interesting to note, however, that even when Mark does engage in polemic, it appears to be polemic with a pastoral aim. The rough form of Greek used by Mark is one internal evidence often cited to prove the Gospel’s Roman origin. There are present numerous loan words derived from Latin as well as some expressions of Latin grammar. This type of Greek was commonly spoken among the lower classes in Rome. Luiz Ruscillio in his work The Synoptic Gospels, also notes these linguistic peculiarities. Clement of Alexandria cites Rome as the place where Mark wrote the gospel (E.H. 6.14.6) and Brown notes that this is a “thesis supported by a large number of scholars”. Ruscillio also notes several other evidences: the connection between Peter and Mark suggested by Papias of Hierapolis; in 2 Tim 4:11 Paul tells Timothy to bring Mark with him to Rome, he is later described as Paul’s fellow prisoner (Philmn 24) and Peter sends greetings from Rome (Babylon) at the end of his first letter (1 Pet 5:13) “…also from my son Mark.”42. Harrington adds to this the evidence of the growing sense of impending persecution that pervades the Gospel; drawing a parallel to the threat of persecution the Christian community lived under in Rome at around 60 B.C.43.

This week: we hear about Scribes and a widow, two incidents which form a diptych in which characters are contrasted. The ostentatious and hypocritical scribes are the opposite of what Jesus wants His disciples to be like. It does not however, criticise all Scribes, just those "wishing to walk about in robes", i.e. those putting themselves on public display especially in religious contexts. Their robes were garments designed to increase their prestige and honour, not necessarily prayer shawls as in Mt 23:5. The widow theme is carried over from this section to the next, the well known story of the Widow's Mite. The poor woman's generosity and dedication also serves to introduce the Passion narrative in which Jesus will display the same qualities. The widow gives the tow copper coins (lepta) which were the smallest coins in circulation. Despite her minuscule donation she gives more to the Temple treasury than the rich people: this paradox highlights the fact that she made a real sacrifice: she offered God her whole livelihood with pure intentions and a generous spirit (2 Cor 9:7).

Drawing them all together...

If you are a regular reader, and have just read through the "this week" sections above and the readings, you may have already surmised that this week follows closely on last week's condensed summary of the Law and our own faith. This took us on a journey in which we explored the spiritual capacity to love God and neighbour. This week we are forcefully presented with the notion of generously and freely giving. All our readings this week are about this concept, framed by the two accounts from each Testament of the widows who in their different ways give trustingly and lovingly, even though they have nothing. Approval of their actions is evident in the reactions of Elijah and Jesus. The prophet urges the brave widow of Sidon to be daring in her generosity; "Do not be afraid, go and do as you have said..." and Jesus marvels that "this poor widow has put more in than all who have contributed to the treasury...she has put in all she possessed." Such brave attitudes and generous actions are seen to be at the very heart if true religion—and to elicit the powerful blessings of the Lord. Indeed, it is seen as the reflection of something divine and is bound up with our response to the knowledge of God, indeed the knowledge of the love of God.

God is seen as Creator and Provider, and the Psalm tells us of His nature: it is He who keeps faith forever, is close to the poor and the lonely, healing, restoring, setting free. His generosity flows in and through creation, and is the hallmark of His self-revelation in Jesus: "for God so loved the world that He gave His only Son..." we are told in the Gospel of John. Jesus Himself comes among us in the supreme act of generosity: "though He was in the form of God, Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped at..." writes St. Paul to the Philippians. His life and work is characterised by the generosity if His redemptive love, "sacrificing Himself...to take on the faults of many," we are told in Hebrews. Thus. because we have received so much, we are in a position to reflect the power of this love, and to show its wonderful generous nature in our attitudes and dealings with others. Openness of heart and mind should be the hallmark of the follower of Christ; the battle against pride and prejudice, a preparedness to listen and forgive, a thoughtful sympathy and compassion, and imaginative perception of the needs of others, a willingness to share and to give of the blessings we have received. The outward show and allegiance of religion means nothing without this inner core of redemptive love which is received and transmitted in turn. This is how we proclaim the Kingdom: "The Lord will reign forever, Zion's God from age to age."

Bibliography:

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.
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. 1/ November 2012.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, New York, Touchstone, 1995.

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