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Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 20, 2017


Gospel: Matthew 15:21-28

The first part of Mt. 15 is omitted from the lectionary, but the parallel in Mk 7:1-23 will be read on the Twenty-Second Sunday of Year B. In that section, Jesus confronts the traditional interpretations of the law by the Pharisees. He condemns the narrowness of Pharisaic practices (vv 1-20), but in the very next incident (vv 21-28), he appears to equal their narrowness by excluding a non-Jewish woman from the benefit of his ministry.

These two sections may be taken as a follow-up to the multiplication of the loaves. Why were there twelve baskets of fragments left after Jesus had multiplied enough for all to eat their fill (14:20)? It may be significant that Jesus had intended just enough with no surplus, but that the Pharisees in the crowd refused to eat with unwashed hands (15:2), and no one would share the bread with the non-Jews present. Chapter 15 addresses both these situations: the refusal and the deprivation of the bread which symbolizes the fullness of God’s Word.

The spirited dialog between Jesus and the woman betrays something of the mentality of the time and place. More significant, however, than Jesus’ first refusal — which may have been something of a word game — is the reason why Jesus finally does share his bread (the asked-for healing) with her. Her faith was what the faith of the Jewish people ought to have been. She did not merely approach him as a wonder worker or a healer who might cure her daughter. She came to him as Messiah (v 22 “Son of David”) and persisted in her belief even in the face of initial refusal. By faith she became what she could not be by ancestral heritage.

First Reading: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7

This passage begin “Third Isaiah,” which was written by an anonymous author in the tradition of Isaiah after the return from the Babylonian exile (538 B.C.E.). The Jewish people never succeeded in restoring Jerusalem and the kingdom to its former glory. Their dream was to subjugate all other nations of the world under their rule, and the hoped-for Messiah would lead them to military victory to accomplish this. The vision of the prophets, however, was more realistic and it better reflected God’s destiny for all peoples. They proclaimed a moral mission for the Israelites to call all humanity into the fold of God’s worshipers rather than to dominate them. Thus the temple was not to be merely for the Israelites, but for all (v 7) — and this temple was to be the Messiah himself.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8

This psalm expresses the hope that, through the chosen people of God, all peoples might recognize God’s lordship and accept him. Response: “O God, let all the nations praise you!”

First Reading: Romans 11:13-15, 29-32

Paul faces the problem of God’s apparent rejection of the Jewish people, and he answers it by showing that God remains faithful — it is his people who have turned away from him (v 29). Because human free will has the last word, the conversion of Paul’s brother Jews can be no more than a hope (v 14). But it was Israel’s rejection of the apostles’ preaching that drove them to begin proclaiming the Gospel to the Gentiles. And so their sin became the doorway for the salvation of the world. Unknowingly, by their disobedience they fulfilled their prophetic destiny expressed in the Jewish Scriptures.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. Do you find outstanding examples of faith in people who would otherwise be considered “unbelievers”?

2. How do these readings speak of God’s will to save all people?

(Image: Jesus and the Canaanite Woman, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1859-1937)

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 13, 2017


Gospel: Matthew 14:22-33

In the Gospel traditions, the event of Jesus walking on the water occurs in close connection with the multiplication of loaves and fishes (see also Mk 6:34-52 and Jn 6:1-24). This is one of the few instances where John’s Gospel parallels and account in the Synoptics.

In understanding these miracles, it is important to see them not merely as displays of power, but as richly symbolic actions. The multiplication of loaves was done not just to satisfy human hunger, but to identify Jesus with the God who gives and sustains life, echoing God’s providing manna for his people in the desert (Ex 16).

Water symbolizes the untamed forces of evil — the chaos — out of which God the Creator victoriously brought forth the universe (Gn 1:2). Thus Jesus’ victory over water identifies his work as Messiah — to overcome the forces of evil and to bring creation to its fulfillment.

This event is part of Jesus’ intensive training of his disciples, in which he strives to convince them of the nature of his power, and that they are called to share in it. To this end, he invites Peter to come across the water as a sign that the disciple, in union with Jesus, also possesses power over the forces of evil — and the only reason for faltering is lack of faith.

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13

Elijah had been concerned to purify the worship of God from false nature-worship, but now, fleeing for his life and discouraged at his apparent failure, he looks for God. In the past, God had genuinely revealed himself in the powerful forces of nature (see especially Ex 19 — see the Mass for the Vigil of Pentecost). Now, however, God shows himself veiled in the gentle breeze, perceptible only to the attentive listener. His message, however, is anything but gentle (vv 15-17).

This passage is a warning for us to seek God as he is, not as we would like to make him. God is gentle, but he is also violent. God is present within us, yet he is also transcendent. God’s silence requires faith and solitude to be heard and understood, yet he is also found in community with others.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14

This psalm comes from the time the Jews had returned from exile (about 450 BC) and undertook to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. The theme of thanksgiving for forgiveness and restoration (vv 2-4) leads to petition for help to rebuild the kingdom (vv 5-8) and confidence that God will restore his people fully (vv 9-14). Response: “Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.”

Second Reading: Romans 9:1-5

Privilege can cause problems. Although the Israelites were privileged in the flesh so that Christ might come from them, this very privilege prevented them from receiving him — they refused to believe that their own heritage (flesh) could embody divinity. Paul’s own expression of concern for his brother Jews (v 3) echoes Moses’ desire to sacrifice himself for the forgiveness of the Israelites (Ex 32:32).

In these chapters (9-11), Paul struggles to find meaning in the overall resistance of the Jewish people to the message of Christ. The point here is not that Jesus was handed over to crucifixion by the Jewish leaders, but that Paul had continually experienced rejection of his own preaching of the Christian way by Jews wherever he went. Paul here reveals a deep personal hurt at the hardness of his own people against what had become the consuming passion of his life.

The major portion of these reflections in chapters 9-11 is omitted from the liturgical readings, but 10:8-13, emphasizing the unity of all peoples based on the call to faith in Christ, is read on the First Sunday of Lent, Year C.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. What does walking on the water say to you? How does one share in the power of Jesus to overcome the forces symbolized by water?

2. What does the first reading say about where to find God in your own life?


Feast of the Transfiguration

August 6, 2017


This day is the anniversary of the first explosion of the atomic bomb by one nation against another, by the United States over Hiroshima, Japan, August 6, 1945. It would be timely and important to devote Bible study time to probing what this Gospel event — and the whole Gospel message — can say to that event which ushered in the threat of nuclear conflagration that has since hovered over humankind.

Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9

The Gospel reading for this feast is the same as that of the Second Sunday of Lent in the same year.

The transfiguration of Jesus describes in strikingly symbolic terms the awareness of Jesus’ disciples of the true nature of his mission — not to be an earthly hero-messiah, but to be the source of final and eternal salvation to those who believe in him. The victory over the anti-mission temptations of last week’s Gospel is here communicated to the disciples in a vision which looks forward to Jesus’ final enthronement in glory.

The other Synoptic Gospels relate this same event with minor changes in wording (Mk 9:1-7; Lk 9:28-36). These variations indicate the particular emphasis each evangelist gives to the meaning of the event. In Matthew’s narrative here, Jesus is portrayed as the new Moses. Writing for Jewish Christians, Matthew wanted to convince them that the law of Moses had been completed by the law of Christ. Details added by Matthew recall Moses on Mount Sinai: (v 1) six days later — Ex 24:15-16; (v 2) the radiance of Christ’s face — Ex 34:29-35; (v 3) Moses is mentioned before Elijah. Also the voice from the cloud and the command of the Father recall the giving of the law to Moses on the mountain. Following upon the disciples’ awareness of the true meaning and mission of Christ, there is only one obligation: “Listen to him!”

First Reading: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

The visions of the book of Daniel represent nations and historical events of the time of the author (about 165 B.C.E.) as well as previous history (such as the Babylonian exile, 587-538 B.C.E.). The book was written during a time of bitter persecution, and served to strengthen the faith of the Jewish people that God would deliver them. The “apocalyptic” style of the writing, characterized by wildly symbolic visions, was very common at that time, and on into the first century after Jesus. The book of Revelation is a Christian example of the same type of writing.

The “Son of Man” of this vision represents no definite person, but rather personifies the re-establishment of a kingdom under a king, and emphasizes that this would be God’s doing, not a human endeavor. As such, the vision does foreshadow Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus applied the title, Son of man, to himself. (See also the commentary on the first reading for the Solemnity of Christ the King, Year B.)

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 97:1-2, 5-6, 9

This psalm of divine judgment recalls the cloud, light and darkness, and power of the manifestation of God’s presence of Ex 19:16-19, which is also displayed in the transfiguration of Jesus. Response: “The Lord is king, the most high over all the earth.”

Second Reading: 2 Peter 1:16-19

The second letter of Peter claims to have been written by the apostle himself, but most commentators regard it as the latest of the Christian scriptural writings, dating around 100 to 140 C.E. There is considerable evidence to support this, such as the reference to Paul’s writings as “Scripture” (3:16), indicating that they were already part of a tradition handed down from the past. Even if written at a later date by someone who wished to claim Peter’s authority, and even if its “eyewitness” claim is several generations removed, this letter has still been accepted as an inspired writing by the Church from the very early times.

One of the situations the author faced was a denial of the second coming of Christ because of the long delay since his resurrection. He appeals to the apostolic witness of the transfiguration to show that Jesus already possessed the glory to be revealed in his second coming. The author assumes that his readers are already familiar with the account of the transfiguration found in the Gospels.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. Discuss the meaning of the word “passage” as found in Lk 9:31.

2. What was in Peter’s mind in Lk 9:33?

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

July 30, 2017


Gospel: Matthew 13:44-52

These three little parables about the kingdom are closely related in their message, yet each has a distinct point to contribute. In the first parable (v 44), the kingdom is a treasure, and the man is a seeker. Upon recognizing its value, he decides it is worth changing his whole life for. Note the true seeker’s concern is for the treasure itself, not its monetary value. Even to sacrifice everything else is insignificant by comparison with the treasure.

The second parable (vv 45-46) seems to say the same thing, but really is just the opposite. In the first parable, the kingdom was the treasure, the object of the search. In the second, the merchant’s search itself is identified with the kingdom. God finds our response to him so valuable that he is willing to give up all (divinity “humiliated” in the incarnation of his Son) to purchase the pearl of his reign in love over humanity.

The third parable (vv 47-50) contains its own interpretation (vv 49-50), and echoes the parable of the wheat and weeds. It indicates that patience is need between the foundation of the kingdom and its fulfillment. The final outcome is to be left to God’s judgment.

Note that this group of three parables begins with a sense of joy in discovery (v 44) and ends with a contrasting picture of envy on the part of those who do not bother to seek (v 50). The concluding verses (51-52) point to the unity of the old Law with the Gospel: Jesus has truly come to fulfill the past, not to throw it away.

First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12

From its beginnings, Solomon’s reign (961 to 922 B.C.E.) was different from that of his father, David. The period of conquest for territory and unification of one nation out of twelve tribes was over, and Solomon’s task was the peaceful organization and development of a settled people. Here the young king, awed by this responsibility, seeks the Lord’s wisdom, for he recognizes that the people he governs are the Lord’s.

This wisdom, however, is not the divine wisdom of later writings, which seeks a part in God’s wisdom as its own end. Solomon here is asking for nothing more profound than the practical judgment needed to govern the people well. He is not so much aspiring to the heights of the mystery of divinity as assuring the tools he needs to be God’s good king.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 119:57, 72, 76-77, 127-128, 129-130

This psalm is a long alphabetic hymn (the titles before each group of verses are the letters of the Hebrew alphabet) which teaches the value of devotion to the Law of God as the source of wisdom. Response: “Lord, I love your commands.”

Second Reading: Romans 8:28-30

The problem of predestination (“How can a God who loves all choose some and reject others?”) becomes clearer if we understand it in the sense of God’s initiative. He did not create anybody for the purpose of damnation. He has given us all an eternal destiny with him. This is his initiative, not ours. Yet, we are free to choose him or to reject him. The stages of the Christian life (call, baptism, faith, death — v 30) are God’s work, not ours. We simply open ourselves to his work in us.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. Discuss what it costs you to accept God into your life.

2. How do you reconcile the word “predestined” in Romans with freedom of the will?

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

July 23, 2017


Gospel: Matthew 13:24-43

Jesus’ emphasis on the growth of his kingdom in spite of appearances to the contrary responds to the apostles’ apprehensions over the enmity of the Pharisees and the defection of some disciples. Jesus rejects the temptation to make his followers into a sect of the “pure” and “enlightened,” withdrawn from the hostile environment of the world and concerned only for their own welfare and salvation. Instead, he insists that his kingdom must remain fully in the human arena, and that patient effort in imitation of God’s patience will bring about its fulfillment.

The growth of the wheat and weeds together in the field addresses the obvious fact of the presence of wicked people even within God’s kingdom on earth. The early Church came to recognize unfaithful members in its midst, and questioned how this could be possible in the kingdom of God. The answer, derived from these words of Jesus, is to await God’s final judgment in patience.

The parable of the mustard seed alludes to the persistent growth of the kingdom, and the contrast between seemingly insignificant beginnings and the final outcome.

The image of the yeast is clear enough, portraying the growing power of the kingdom as both hidden and irresistible. Note that this passage (and its parallel, Lk 18:20-21) gives the only favorable reference to yeast in the Christian Scriptures. All other passages (Mt 16:6; 1 Cor 5:6-8; Gal 5:9) portray it as a corrupting element.

First Reading: Wisdom 12:13, 16-19

The book of Wisdom comes from one of the small colonies of Jews living in the Greek world about a hundred years before Jesus. Seeing all the immorality around them, they would naturally question why God tolerates it. The answer of this book’s author is threefold: (1) God gives time as the opportunity to overcome self-centeredness and to turn to him; (2) the innocent should not perish with the guilty; and (3) the Jewish people should imitate God’s tolerance. Tolerance, however, does not mean accepting evil as good and yielding to it. It means respecting the dignity of the human person and the image of God found in human freedom, and helping others to use that freedom in accord with God’s plan.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16

Even in deep distress, the psalmist recognizes that no one has greater power and mercy than the Lord, and this thought restores his confidence. Response: “Lord, you are good and forgiving.”

Second Reading: Romans 8:26-27

Paul speaks of how the flesh — the way of self-centeredness — may disturb one who is of the Spirit, but cannot overcome him or her. In the midst of suffering, both the tribulations of our human condition as well as those difficulties that are the result of our following of Christ, the Spirit is with us as the pledge of the future fulfillment (vv 18-25).

Prayer, too, can be a problem in this “spirit-flesh” tension. Even the believer is tempted to pray “according to the flesh” (“we do not know how to pray as we ought”) by trying to manipulate God to serve our own ends. The Spirit of Christ ensures our submission to the Father in union with Christ, and true prayer arises only out of this submission.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. What place is there in the Church for bad members? Does this Gospel make you feel content or uncomfortable? Why? Which is the more appropriate feeling?

2. How does the Spirit pray within you?