Let us pray with St. Irenaeus…
It is not you that shapes God,
it is God who shapes you.
If then you are the work of God,
await the hand of the artist
who does all things in due season.
Offer God your heart,
soft and tractable,
and keep the form in which the artist has fashioned you.
Let your clay be moist,
lest you grow hard
and lose the imprint of God’s fingers. AMEN
1st Reading: Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7
From commentator Roger Karban: Today’s Third-Isaiah reading only makes sense when we understand that our biblical writers believed people thought with their hearts, not their minds. So when the prophet accuses his people of “hardening their hearts to Yahweh,” he’s actually charging them with closing their minds to Yahweh. Since they don’t expect anything from God, they don’t even think about God. Though Third-Isaiah knows Yahweh is on the verge of helping those recently released from the Babylonian Exile, God can only do what people permit God to do. Anticipation of God’s actions plays a big role in experiencing God’s actions. Isn’t that part of what Advent is…waiting in joyful expectation of what God is going to do in our lives?
This reading may make us feel we’ve got to try harder, do more. But the reading ends with a different message. We are to be clay. We are to allow God to work on us. So it is more a message of surrender. Allowing. Letting God in. Gerald May describes the difference between willfulness and willingness. Willfulness is the setting of oneself apart from the fundamental essence of life in an attempt to master, direct, control, or otherwise manipulate existence. Willingness implies a surrendering of one’s self-separateness, an entering-into, an immersion in the deepest processes of life itself. Willingness is saying yes to the mystery of being alive in each moment. Willfulness is saying no, or perhaps more commonly, “Yes, but…”. Both reflect the attitude we have toward the wonder of life itself (Will and Spirit, p. 6). How might an attitude of willingness be helpful as we walk toward Christmas?
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
From Barclay’s Daily Study Bible Series: There are 3 things that stand out in this passage of thanksgiving:
- A promise which came true. Paul preached Christianity to the Corinthians and said Christ could do certain things for them. He proudly claims that all has come true.
- A gift has been given. Paul uses a favorite word of his, charisma, which means a gift freely given to someone. It comes through salvation and through whatever special skills we may need in life to be the most of who we are.
- There is an ultimate end. If we are clothed in Christ, we have nothing to fear.
How might how “willingness” help us live our lives as Paul sees the Corinthians doing? Might it help us live in gratitude like Paul?
Gospel Reading: Mark 13:33-37
From commentator Roger Karban again: Mark’s Jesus directs his call for watchfulness to a community still expecting an imminent Parousia. Yet the command to be alert goes far beyond just looking for Jesus’ Second Coming. The story he tells demonstrates how constantly being on guard is an essential part of our faith. As servants of the risen Jesus, we never know when the “master” is going to break into our lives. If we’re not continually attentive, we’ll miss what, as Jesus’ servants, we’ve been uniquely trained to experience. How do we do this?
When someone we care for travels abroad, we wait with HOPE for their return. So there is an eagerness in our watching. We are looking for good to happen. “Like the seed long since sown in springtime, God’s inward arrival comes through unobtrusively and slowly, but with terrific force, and becomes manifest in all the seeming banality of our lives,” (M. Birmingham, W&W Worksbook, cycle B, p. 53). We often have apocalyptic readings during Advent because Christ came to us as a child, and he came to us in his resurrection. He keeps coming and coming every day into our lives. Do we see it? Do we wait in hope for it?
Waiting is active. Most of us consider waiting as something very passive, a hopeless state determined by events totally out of our hands. The bus is late? We cannot do anything about it, so we have to sit there and just wait. It is not difficult to understand the irritation people feel when somebody says, “Just wait.” Words like that push us into passivity. But there is none of this passivity in Scripture. If we wait in the conviction that a seed has been planted and that something has already begun, it changes the way we wait. Active waiting implies being fully present to the moment with the conviction that something is happening where we are and that we want to be present to it, (Henri Nouwen’s “Waiting for God” Advent Prayer Booklet, p. 2).
1st Reading – Genesis 14: 18 – 20
Melchizedek is mentioned in only three places in scripture: this reading plus Psalm 110:4 and Hebrews 5:6, 10; 6:20-7:22. He is said to be the king of Salem; its name means peace. This place becomes the city of Jerusalem, the center of Israel’s kingdom.
It was customary for a king to be hospitable toward a victorious leader, but there are no ulterior motives here. Instead, there is a beautiful blessing ritual, to which Abram gives thanks. Note that Abram did not take his victory greedily. He only wanted to save his nephew Lot and retrieve the possessions that were taken from him. For the victory and the blessing, he gives thanks to God. How do you give thanks to god for the victories and blessings in your life?
Later Christian writers would evoke this episode in history and consider it a prefigurement of Christ. Jesus would offer the blessing of his life – the effect would be irrevocable and would be the gift of God’s self to the entire world – redemption. (Birmingham, W&W, p. 560-561).
In exchange for the blessing, Abram offers a tenth of everything. In Eucharist, we offer ourselves to Christ just as Christ offered Christself. We are doing as He said to do. What does this mean for you? What do you offer?
2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26
This is the earliest written account (maybe 53-55 AD) of Jesus’ Last Supper and the words that have become our Eucharistic prayer.
From Celebration, June 1998:
Eucharist is about a remembering (anamnesis) that does not simply call to mind the past events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The Eucharist makes present here and now, within the gathered assembly of believers, the reality of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. Each Eucharist is a “living remembrance of Jesus’ act of love.” By our participation (offering our ‘hungry selves’, hearkening to God’s Word, sharing peace, and then eating and drinking) in the Eucharist, believers proclaim and are integrated into that death and are given a taste of the resurrected life to come.
We “proclaim the death of the Lord” . . . What does this mean? In Eucharist Christ comes to us as the one in whom God participates in the emptiness and negativity of life, as the one in whom God accepts us in the most unrestricted way possible, and as the one who in virtue of this acceptance, lays claim to all that we are and can be. The Eucharist is not simply a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus or the fact that he now lives. Rather, it is a celebration of the fact that it is the crucified one who now lives; it is a celebration of the God who came into the brokenness, the ‘unwholeness’ and the unholiness’ of the human situation, and who came to stay. In Jesus, God has come to be with us where we are. To proclaim the death of the Lord is to find in his death a new definition of ourselves – a new understanding of the meaning of success and failure, of the meaning of life and death, of what it means to be a human person. (John Dwyer, The Sacraments, “Chapter Eight: the Eucharist” p.129-130)
The Gospel – Luke 9: 11-17
It is important to place this gospel story within the context of the overall gospel of Luke. Chapter 9 had started with Jesus commissioning the Twelve and sending them out to proclaim the Kingdom of God. After they go out Luke tells us of Herod’s curiosity about Jesus: “I beheaded John. Who then is this about whom I hear such things?” Then the Twelve return. They withdraw in private to Bethsaida, but the crowds follow Jesus, and yet, he welcomed them . . . here then, is where the gospel story begins. It ends with a superabundance of satisfying food.
From “Working with the Word,” http://liturgy.slu.edu:
Too often we narrowly view Eucharist in the context of the Last Supper and its elements of bread and wine. This gospel expands our perception to include the whole event of hungering, and then gathering, blessing, breaking, giving, eating, and being satisfied. Evil diminishes life and enslaves people; God’s kingdom restores life and liberates them from hunger – ‘malnutrition’ and oppression. This story illustrates Jesus’ Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor, the kingdom is yours . . . and the hungry will be satisfied.
It is at Eucharist that we experience most intimately the communion of saints. Communion of saints in Greek is koinōnia hagiōn. Koinōnia is any partnership, fellowship, activity, experience or relationship where people come together. It is togetherness for mutual benefit and goodness (Barclay, The Apostles Creed p. 245). Hagiōn literally means sacred things, hagiōi meaning members of the Church as saints, or sacred people (p. 247). Imagine the sacred things as being that which we share in Eucharist, the body and blood of Jesus. In that sense, we are sharing sacred things as a communion (koinōnia) of sacred people. In the Byzantine liturgy, the priest says, “Holy things for holy people” at the distribution of Holy Communion (Shannon, Catholic Update May 2005, p.4). We become the body of Christ.
In the book With God in Russsia by Walter Ciszek (an autobiography of a Jesuit priest), he recounts being in Poland in a concentration camp and celebrating Mass. It was forbidden to do so, so it had to be done in secret. Fasting before Eucharist from the midnight before was common practice then. Since the inmates were only given 2 meals of gruel a day, giving up the morning meal was a true sacrifice. If guards did not make it possible to celebrate at the scheduled time, they may go even longer without eating. So this priest and those he celebrated Mass with truly held Eucharist in deep, deep faith (Nolan, Hungry, and You Fed Me, p. 273-275). Consider this as you receive Eucharist this week.
1st Reading – Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17
Prophet to his people during their exile in Babylonia, Ezekiel shared their sense of having been failed by their leaders, who, from David onward, had been ideally cast in the role of shepherd of God’s flock, Israel. As history attests, however, that ideal was not always realized and, as a result, the people of God were left unattended, like sheep left to founder on their own without a shepherd. Right before this reading, Ezekiel reprimands failed shepherds in the past. Only God will restore and lead God’s people to wholeness. It is a message of hope (Preaching Resources from 11/20/2005).
From The Word into Life, Cycle A, 122:
Usually we reserve the title, “pastor” for the leader of a religious community. The pastor is to shepherd . . . But perhaps we fail to recognize that every believer is also commissioned, through baptism, to look to the needs of others. We are a priestly people — and priestly people “pastor.” Ezekiel responded to the needs of his despondent exiled community in the early sixth century BC. To encourage them, he presented God as a shepherd. Yahweh would focus attention on the lost, the strayed, the injured, and the sick. Later, in today’s gospel we find Jesus who fulfills this image and also identifies with all those who suffer.
Ezekiel’s vision of a new beginning under leadership may seem to be slightly diminished by the ominous parenthetical phrase included in verse 16: “but the sleek and the strong I will destroy.” Some scholars suggest that this phrase is a gloss, later interpolated into the text and, as such, should be omitted. Certainly, it seems unlikely that God would shepherd the people lovingly with one hand and strike them down with the other. Others may be more correct in pointing out that this surprising phrase may be the result of a copyist’s error. Only a yod (smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet) differentiates the Hebrew text (I will destroy) from the Greek (Septuagint), Syrian and Vulgate translations, which read: “I will strengthen the fat and the strong.”
What other meanings do you ‘get’ from all this? What if the fat and strong were fat and strong because they took too much for themselves? (Celebration, Nov. 1999)
What of the reference to goats? Why are goats generally seen as bad in scripture? Goats were often used for sin and guilt offerings. Most Palestinian goats were black (vs the white sheep). Goats often lead the flock, so they can be associated with political leaders; perhaps Ezekiel was comparing the goats to the failed shepherds (Dictionary of the Bible, p. 315).
2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28
In the Jewish tradition, offering the ‘first-fruits’ of a harvest was a way to bless the entire harvest – a way to consecrate the entire harvest. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, the ‘first-fruits’ of God’s Kingdom, we have the promise and blessing of abundant life in this Kingdom. So death is an enemy that has been overcome!
(Mary Birmingham, Word and Worship for Year A, 581)
When Paul talks about Adam, he talking about all of us when we choose that which is bad for us. It is our ‘false-self’ – our deeply insecure self that does not trust that God has created us to be God’s image. As Adam, we reject living in a loving, trusting relationship with our creator. In other words, ‘being Adam’ is being in sin. It is giving into our endless capacity to destroy ourselves. As ‘Adams and Eves’, we are faced with death – with the fact that someday the world will have no time or place for us. It is only our faith in the God that Christ Jesus brings us that saves us from this terrible predicament. In Jesus we find a God who loves us despite our insecurities and wishes to show us the way beyond this death sentence. (Thoughts from John Dwyer, “A Retreat with Paul,” Part 2)
What does Paul mean by Christ’s delivery of the kingdom to the Father and his subjection to him? What Paul seems to be saying is that all the ways that God has acted toward the world is revealed and upheld in the history of Jesus of Nazareth. After all has been redeemed (set free), we will be able to know God directly. For now Christ is the visible face of the invisible God. Jesus leads us to and involves us with this God of love. When we are brought fully into God’s loving presence we will be enjoying the Beatific Vision; God will be all in all, not only in Christians but in the whole world that Christ restores fully in God’s love. All death will finally and forever be destroyed. That is the Good News of Jesus Christ!(Scripture In Depth,Reginald Fuller,http://liturgy.slu.edu
The Gospel – Matthew 25: 31-46
This is an apocalyptic parable. It is about the ‘end-times’ – the ultimate outcome of history. It attempts to give a view of history and humans from God’s point of view.
It is about the end times as it challenges us in living as a Christian here and now.
From Exploring the Sunday Readings, Nov.2002:
As Jesus explains it, there is only one way to exercise power in this world: for the sake of the powerless. Those with food and drink, should share it. Those who are on the inside should be hospitable to those on the outside. If someone is cold, someone with clothes should keep him or her warm. If someone is sick, those who are well should be attending. If people are oppressed, those who have their liberty should look to their needs. If you want to inherit the kingdom, you can do so right now: Put your hat on and go visit the sick Christ. Set a place at your table for the lonely Christ. Forgive, support, or lift up the burdened Christ. Then, the kingdom begins to grow within us – and among us.
From The Cultural World of Jesus by John Pilch — On Sheep and Goats:
Sheep came to symbolize honor, virility, and strength. Goats were considered lustful and lecherous animals. Unlike rams, goats allow other males access to their females. Also, goats were associated with sin, for example, the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:21-11) Even in Greek culture, the ram was associated with honorable Greek gods like Zeus, Apollo, and Poseidon, while the goat was associated with Greek gods known for shameful and unrestrained behavior like Pan, Bacchus, and Aphrodite. What is the basis for Jesus’ final, definite determination of in-group (sheep) and outgroup (goats)? Hospitality! The kindness and steadfast love that one owed one’s family was to be extended to others, especially those in need.
From Living Liturgy, Year A:
What’s surprising about the judgment (in Matthew 25) is that neither the good nor the wicked knew that what they were doing or not doing was for Christ. It was just true empathy – feeling with the one in need. Another point about Christ’s judgment — growth in discipleship and living the paschal mystery is measured by the extent to which we look upon the other as Christ, loving the other as Christ, doing for the other as Christ. This is how we come to eschatological joy. This is how we “share in the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world.” Think about it: from the first moment of creation, God planned for us to share in this everlasting joy!
The Basilica of St John Lateran was dedicated by Pope Sylvester on November 9, 324. For nearly 1700 years, it has been the place of numerous worshiping communities, church councils, Bishops of Rome (Popes), fires, earthquakes, wars, barbarians, neglect, and reconstructions! It also has a “holy door” which is opened every 25 years to mark the beginning of the celebration of a jubilee year. It was originally known as the Church of Our Savior. Later it was renamed for the large baptistery in honor of St. John the Baptist that is also located there. It is called the “Mother-Church” because it was the first Christian church to be publicly dedicated. Before this, for almost 300 years, the Roman Empire had tried to wipe out Christianity through many severe persecutions. Then, in 324, Emperor Constantine granted Christians the right to worship publicly. After, Constantine’s conversion, the land and palace of the Laterini family owned by his wife, Fausta, was donated to the Bishop of Rome as his residence. This basilica was then built and dedicated. It became the first official Christian church building. Thus, it is a fitting symbol of our freedom as Christians and the abiding presence of God’s Spirit within the Church, God’s People.
We know the church is not the building, but there is something about a holy place that draws us in, helps us feel at home and gives a sense of belonging and unity. What do our church buildings mean to you?
1st Reading – Ezekiel 47:1-2, 8-9, 12
Ezekiel was a priest, prophet, mystic, poet, visionary and – some feel – a bit deranged. He certainly had his times of hallucinations. Yet, he was also attuned to the needs of the people of his time. He tried to help them face their failings and sins; then he tried to shore up their hopes when despair was near. (Celebrations, Nov. 1997, and 2003)
This is the hopeful side of Ezekiel that we see here. Although Ezekiel and his people are in exile, he offers them this vision of the temple, an idealized blueprint for the later rebuilding. Not only will this temple be filled with new life, but the river that flows from will heal the land and even turn salty ‘dead sea’ into fresh, living waters. The ‘sea’ was a symbol of chaos and evil . . . but this river of God’s presence can bring healing to all. (R. Fuller, “Scripture in Depth,” http://liturgy.slu.edu.)
God is a river, not just a stone
God is a wild, raging rapids
And a slow, meandering flow
God is a deep and narrow passage
And a peaceful, sandy shoal
God is the river, swimmer
So let go. ~Peter Mayer
2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 3: 9-11
With no temple or synagogue in which to convene, the early Christians met together in their homes for prayer and Eucharist. Since most homes became too small, ‘house churches’ began to exist. In Corinth, for example, there were at least four different house churches which Paul addressed in his letters (see I Cor. 1: 10-16). Sometimes rivalry sprang up among these churches. Paul‘s letters are often a call for unity, around Jesus Christ, the only foundation. (Celebrations, Nov. 1997)
The temple imagery is pointing primarily to the place of the indwelling Spirit, not a place of worship. Christ is not only present in the reserved sacrament, but is to be vibrantly present through the Spirit in his body, the Church. Here the emphasis is on Jesus as the foundation. A foundation marks out the shape of the building to be erected. It is the task of all who come after Christ to see to it that the church keeps the shape of its original foundation. (“Scripture in Depth, http://liturgy.slu.edu.)
The Gospel — John (2: 13-22)
Here in John’s gospel right after the Wedding Feast at Cana, Jesus
‘cleanses’ the temple at Passover time. Both Malachi (3:14) and Zechariah (14:1-21) picture the time of the Messiah beginning with the Lord “suddenly coming to his temple to purify and to cleanse.” Jesus obviously knew his own Jewish Scriptures; so did the writer of John’s Gospel. So unlike the other gospels (which put this cleansing just before Jesus arrest and death), John puts it right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. (Celebrations, Nov. 2003)
Jesus calls the temple “my Father’s house.” This phrase is used 27 times in John’s gospel. In John 14:2, Jesus uses these words to refer to the kingdom of eternal life: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” What meanings do you attach to this phrase? Later, he then refers to the Temple as the “temple of his body.” How as a Christian do you understand this section?
Why is Jesus so angry in this gospel story? Was it just that the money changers and merchants were so conniving and selfish? Or, was it that he knew that this temple was to be a place where people could give their best in symbolic gifts to the God whose love was total and everlasting? All the noise of buying and selling, all the pretense and self-righteousness distracted people from the real God who was present in their midst. This must have broken Jesus’ heart. NO, he said. Our hearts must be the bottom line, not greed or self-indulgence. Jesus was a man of passion, a man filled with God’s passion and love. His anger is like the very wrath of God that is stirred up by our lack of response and our self-centered ways. But this wrath is meant to change us. At every Mass we have the chance to join Jesus in putting God first in our lives. (J. Foley, S.J. “Spirituality of the Readings,” http://liturgy.slu.edu.)
1st Reading: Isaiah 49:14-15
One can only imagine Israel’s hopelessness. There is nothing harder to bear than to have the one you counted on the most desert you in the midst of despair. Because of what Israel perceived to be God’s non-action in their Babylonian captivity, they felt they had been completely abandoned by their God. But today’s word of the Lord has spoken. Human beings are a part of God – the womb of God – never to be forsaken or abandoned. God always forgives, invites, and tenderly caresses those who are God’s children, God’s own (Birmingham, W&W, p. 403).
Henry David Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” This is not the life God wants for us! God’s loving grace is a free gift for us…poured out in abundant supply. God wants us to know we belong to God, never to be forgotten. Have you ever felt forsaken? Can you think of others out there who do? Bring this to the Lord.
2nd Reading; I Corinthians 4:1-5
You can almost hear in this reading how Paul is trying to defend himself and who he stands for (who, of course, is Jesus Christ). He is humbling himself. He explains that we are meant to be servants and stewards of God, despite not even completely understanding God’s mysteries. He was not concerned about how he might be judged because he felt his conscience was clear. His actions were between him and God.
St Augustine of Hippo said in explaining his role as bishop, “For you I am a bishop, but with you I am a Christian. The first is an office accepted; the second is a gift received. One is danger; the other is safety. If I am happier to be redeemed with you than to be placed over you, then I shall, as the Lord commanded, be more fully your servant.” We have to learn how to sink the roots of servanthood deep into the soil of our character (habits) so that our commitment holds up in the face of life’s inevitable challenges (Phelps, Leading Like Jesus, p. 71)
St. John Neumann reminded us that our conscience is the highest moral indicator. We are to follow our conscience above all else. Human beings have the right to act in freedom according to their conscience. They may not be forced to act contrary to their conscience, especially when it comes to religious issues (CCC, #1782). Faith, prayer, and the word of God enlighten our conscience. “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a [person]. There s/he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his/her depths. By conscience, in a wonderful way, that law is made known which is fulfilled in the love of God and one’s neighbor.” (Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et Spes] ,16).
Gospel Reading: Matthew 6: 24-34
“No one can serve two masters.” Soren Kierkegaard reflected on this idea. He said, “If it is possible that a man can will only one thing then he must will the good,” (A Kierkegaard Anthology, p. 271). This is a singularity of thought. This is living authentically. It is not living with two masters. It is behaving as true to ourselves as we are able. Yet even when we fail, we can turn back again. Kierkegaard continues in hope, “For as the Good is only a single thing, so all ways lead to the Good, even the false ones – when the repentant one follows the same way back…let your heart in truth will only one thing, for therein is the heart’s purity,” (p. 272). Even when we choose wrong, we can follow our way back to the good.
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than than, it is cooperation in violence.” Thomas Merton
Jesus is not insensitive to the needs of the peasants. Like all human beings, they were anxious about the basics of life. Given the subsistence economy in which they lived, the unpredictability of nature, and the voracious taxes they were forced to pay, how could they think of anything but survival? Jesus’ advice is simple yet cleverly delivered. Without pointing his finger or naming names, he selects a masculine Aramaic noun (birds, associating men’s work like sowing, reaping, harvesting) and a feminine Aramaic noun (anemones, or lilies of the field, associating women’s work like spinning yarn, making clothes) and urges men and women not to worry. One must trust in God the heavenly patron who knows our basic needs and will meet them (Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle A, p. 41-42).
Ignatian Spirituality encourages a life of detachment to help us worry less. Whose kingdom am I serving, my own or God’s It takes a lot of courage to recognize the truth that we ourselves are not the fixed center of things but rather that we are beings through whom life flows. But when we do understand and acknowledge this, we discover that our emptiness will lead us more surely to our true purpose than our imagined fullness ever could, because God’s life and grace will flow so much more fully and freely through empty hands (Silf, Inner Compass, p. 110).
1st Reading – Leviticus 19: 1-2, 17-18
Leviticus 19 is a miscellaneous collection of laws; some think it might be a more primitive form of the 10 Commandments. The distinctiveness, the separateness of God from the world now calls his people to also be like this. We need to show this by our behavior. This behavior is summed up in the command to love the neighbor. In the OT this neighbor meant a fellow Israelite. Jesus will widen this concept to include even the enemy. (Reginald Fuller, “Scripture In Depth” http://liturgy.slu.edu/7OrdA022011/theword_indepth.html )
The word holy means ‘set apart’. What does that mean to you? Holiness is a gift that is maximized when we choose good over evil in the various circumstances of our daily lives. Grace, accepted and celebrated in a life of prayer, gives us the strength to be holy. It’s hard to think about ourselves as holy. We often don’t feel worthy to be called that. How different would be world be if we considered ourselves sacred, by the grace of God?
2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 3: 16-23
Have you ever discovered God’s sacred presence in another person? In yourself?
Paul tells us that we are the temple of God and God’s Spirit dwells in us; translated that means that God built the human heart ‘with a hole in it.’ We have a built-in openness for others, if we don’t block it with selfishness. We are to let God’s own self in – to let God stretch our stunted outreach to others so that we will truly give out of love. Love wants what is truly best for the other – as God wants what is best for us. Real love is what we are to offer; real love wants what is healthy, good, life-giving for the other. (Fr. John Foley, S.J. “Spirituality of the Readings” http://liturgy.slu.edu/7OrdA022011/reflections_foley.html )
Pope Francis recently said, “When the church becomes closed in on itself, it gets sick. Think of a closed room – a room locked for a year. When you go in, there is a smell of dampness…The church must go out from herself. Where? Towards the existential outskirts. I prefer a thousand times a church damaged by an accident than a sick church closed in on itself.” How do we do in this as temples of God? Perhaps Bishop Elect Scharfenberger gave a clue in the press conference last week. He expressed his need for the help of others to be his best self. Could this make the difference?
The Gospel – Matthew 5: 38-48
What is your reaction to these demands of Jesus?
How do the first two readings help prepare us for this gospel?
Thoughts from William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, 166-175:
The ‘law of tit for tat’ was in fact the beginning of mercy, a limitation of vengeance. It was meant to stop blood feuds. It was also never a law for an individual to extract vengeance. It was how a judge in a law court must assess punishment and penalty. Even further, this law was never, at least in any even semi-civilized society, carried out literally. Very soon the injury done was assessed at a money value; the value was assigned according to the injury, the pain, the healing needed, the loss of time to work, the indignity. Also, the OT has other sayings concerning enemies that go far more along with Jesus’ ideas: “Do not say, I will do to him as he has done to me.” (Proverbs 24: 29) Yet, Jesus does go further. He actually does away with the very principle of that law; retaliation has no place in the Christian life.
Jesus never asked us to love our enemies in the same way we love our nearest and dearest. The word that is used for love is agape (invincible goodwill) not phila (deep friendship) or storge (family love) or eros (sexual love). With our enemies love is not so much a feeling of the heart as it is a decision of the will. We are called to will ourselves into doing this with God’s grace. It is in fact a victory over that which comes instinctively to the natural person. We are called to have unconquerable goodwill even toward those who hurt us. It is the power to love those whom we do not like and who may not like us. In fact, we can only have this kind of love, agape, when Jesus enables us to conquer our natural tendencies to bitterness and brooding. It does also, however, NOT mean that we allow people to do absolutely as they like. No one would say a parent really loves a child if the parent lets the child do anything he likes despite the dangers. If we regard a person with invincible goodwill, it will often mean that discipline, even punishment, might be in order so that the person will learn what is best for themselves and others. The discipline would never be retributive – it must always be aimed at a cure – at recovery – at remedial care. Lastly, Jesus says that we must pray for those who hurt us. We must take ourselves and those who hurt us to God. The surest way of killing bitterness is to pray for the man we are tempted to hate.
Agape is love which is of and from God, whose very nature is love itself. The apostle John affirms this in 1 John 4:8: “God is love.” God does not merely love; He is love itself. Everything God does flows from His love. But it is important to remember that God’s love is not a sappy, sentimental love such as we often hear portrayed. God loves because that is His nature and the expression of His being. He loves the unlovable and the unlovely (us!), not because we deserve to be loved, but because it is His nature to love us, and He must be true to His nature and character. God’s love is displayed most clearly at the cross, where Christ died for the unworthy creatures who were “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), not because we did anything to deserve it, “but God commends His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The object of God’s agape love never does anything to merit His love. We are the undeserving recipients upon whom He lavishes that love. His love was demonstrated when He sent His Son into the world to “seek and save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10) and to provide eternal life to those He sought and saved. He paid the ultimate sacrifice for those He loves. (Sweet to the Soul on Facebook) This is our example!
1st Reading; Sirach 15: 15-20
Sirach is the longest of the wisdom books with 51 chapters. It is a mixture of proverbs and lengthy essays on major themes grouped together. It was written between 190 and 175 BC. For many centuries it was thought to be only in Greek in the Septuagint. But a partial copy of the Hebrew original was found at the end of the last century hidden in a synagogue storeroom in Cairo, and another when archaeologists excavated Masada in Palestine in 1964. A few fragments also turned up at Qumran in 1947. Despite this evidence, it was never accepted into Jewish canon because it was not from the time of Ezra or before (Reading the Old Testament, Boadt, p. 487). It is in the Catholic Bible but not the Protestant.
Sirach speaks of the choices we make in life and how we must trust in God when we make them. This will help us choose what is good and life-giving for us. We must have an openness to the working of God in our life. In Ignatian spirituality, we must look at the “pushes” and the “pulls”. Do you feel pushed to do something – I should do this, I should do that – out of a sense of crushing and lifeless obligation or a desire to please? Or do you feel pulled, like a gentle invitation in love? God pulls not pushes (The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Fr. James Martin, p. 329).
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 2: 6 – 10
Paul is talking about the meaning of the cross in salvation history. The ‘mystery’ is that the crucified One, precisely as the crucified, is the Lord of glory. Many Corinthians thought otherwise. For them, the Cross was an unfortunate past event, the less said the better. All that mattered to them now was the risen Christ. He was now spirit, and as such, he could convey to them ‘secret wisdom’. Paul is using their terms in an ironic way, sort of turning them upside down to help them see where true wisdom is. By refusing to recognize the Lord of glory in the crucified One, they were in a sense aligning themselves with Pontius Pilate and Herod (the rulers of the day) who also did not recognize the One they were crucifying. Such blindness leads to horrible evil.
Why is God’s wisdom mysterious and hidden? What does this mean for us?
The Gospel: Matthew 5: 17 – 37
Now let’s take this gospel in parts to see what value and meaning we can gather:
First, what did Jesus mean by the law and its importance:
Jesus seems to say that the law is so sacred that not even the smallest detail (something as small as an apostrophe) should be discarded or ignored. Yet, again and again Jesus broke what some Jews called the law: handwashings, healing on the Sabbath, picking grain to eat on the Sabbath etc. In Jesus’ time it was popular to call the ‘scribal law’ the law along with the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Scribes were people who made it their business to reduce the great principles of the Law into thousands upon thousands of rules and regulations. God’s Law was to rest on the Sabbath. They, however, spent hours arguing about whether it was work on the Sabbath to move a lamp from one table to another, if one could bandage a wound with or without salve, or could one lift a child? Their religion was a legalism of petty rules and regulations. Jesus was highly critical of this. What Jesus was upholding here was the real meaning of God’s Law: to mold our lives on the positive commandment to love. Love that is filled with respect, reverence and compassion is the permanent stuff of our relationship to God and to our fellow humans. Our righteousness in this way must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. This law of love to fill our hearts and minds; it must be our sole motivation. We need to be people of gratitude that God has first loved us – and then people who generously give of that love to others. (Wm. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol.1, p.126-131)
Second, Jesus then gives examples of the kind of law and righteousness he means – that the law of love must penetrate to our hearts, our core. The only way to safety and security in society is not to even desire what is wrong. It also shows us just how much we need God’s help in this. We need God to transform us to be able to live up to this standard of love. For example Jesus says that any one angry with a brother is liable to judgment. The word that is used for this anger is an anger over which a person broods and will not let go of –an anger that broods, that will not forget, that seeks revenge. It is an anger that insults and shows contempt. Raka meant an imbecile; a word of one who despises another with an arrogant contempt. This type of anger leads to a hurt that is like a murder; we can ‘kill’ a person’s spirit and take his good name and reputation away from him or her. This makes us liable to fiery Gehenna, a garbage dump where rot burns and pollutes. (Wm. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol.1, p.136-141)
In fact, here is an interesting piece of information from Jesus’ time:
“The fires of Gehenna” had become a metaphor for divine judgment on evil. The inferno was actually the city refuse dump located southwest of Jerusalem. It was a gehinnom that some of Judah’s kings engaged in the heinous practice of burning their children as sacrifices (see 2 Chronicles 28:3; Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35). Condemned by Jeremiah and King Josiah, the valley was used, thereafter, as a site for rubbish. (Celebration, February 14, 1999)
The third point to consider is that when we come before to pray or to bring gifts to the altar to the Lord we must consider not only our relationship with God but also our relationship with others. A breach between a human and God could not be healed until the breach between humans was healed. Jesus emphasizes this: one cannot be right with God until we are right with each other. (Wm. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol.1, p.136-141)
Then Jesus deals with lust – looking at and thinking about another person as an object (not a person) of pleasure, an object to be used. Jesus is not talking about what is normal human instinct, human nature. He is talking about lust, where a person uses his eyes and thoughts to stimulate wrong desire – a desire to use someone even if it destroys their personhood and value. If we allow such desire to grow in us the most innocent people and things can become ‘used’ and abused. Jesus is vehement here using hyperbole (extravagant exaggeration, a very common teaching tool in this culture) to get his point across. When something is deadly, destructive – surgery is needed. In other words, to let such evil grow in us is worse that losing an eye or a hand. For such evil leads us into a garbage heap of burning refuse: Gehenna!
(Wm. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol.1, p. 147-148)
Jesus then warns of the abuse of divorce. Ideally, Jews abhorred divorce. Marriage was seen as holy and as fulfilling God’s positive commandment to be fruitful. But by Jesus’ time the practice itself had fallen far short of this ideal and women were the victims of this abuse. In both the Jewish and especially the Greek culture of the day, women were at the absolute disposal of the males, her father and then her husband. She had no legal rights at all. A woman could be divorced with or without her will. All that had to be done was to hand a degree of divorce to the woman in the presence of two witnesses. The reason was to be for some indecency which could be serious – or just that she put too much salt in the food, or she spoke disrespectfully, or she was troublesome, or unattractive. Because of the ease of divorce at this time, basic family structure was threatened. (Wm. Barclay, the Gospel of Matthew, Vol.1, p.150-153)
Jesus was for loving and caring relationships. This we must keep in mind. He was not for upholding abuse or condoning it. As disciples we must go that extra mile to repair fractured relationships and live according to God’s plan of love and life. Here is a caution to note: While this teaching points out God’s will for unity and love, there are times when a marriage is no longer real – or because someone is incapable of such a relationship – it never was a marriage. While every effort should be made to redeem fractured marriages, some must be acknowledged as beyond repair. In such cases divorce may be not only the lesser of two evils from the point of view of God’s ultimate will which is love, but also a positive step. (M. Birmingham, Word and Worship Workbook, Year A, p. 391.
The last section of this gospel deals with our ‘public’ behavior. “Oath-taking” had greatly deteriorated into misuse in Jesus’ day. Some resorted to frivolous swearing, by constantly ‘taking oaths’: “by my life…” “May such and such happen to me if…” Still others used evasive swearing to avoid the truth. According to this questionable practice, oaths which contained the name of God were considered binding and were rigidly kept; oaths that did not mention God were not considered binding and were easily changed. Jesus advocated simple integrity in speech. (Celebration, February 14, 1999)
As Jesus’ disciples we need to live in such a way that falsehood and infidelity in our families and workplaces is eliminated. The Law of love is the only thing that works.
1st Reading – Isaiah 58:7-10
This is from 2nd Isaiah, written after the Babylonian Exile. Jerusalem had been destroyed, so this is meant to be encouraging. Right before this section, Isaiah spoke of fasting and how it shouldn’t be done in a showy way. This is misdirected; use that energy to help the poor and those less fortunate. Spirituality that is other-centered shines like a beacon in the midst of the darkness (Birmingham, W&W, p. 380). Isn’t it true that when the chips are down, it helps to reach out to others who may be worse off than you? Are we a community that is like a beacon? How could we be better?
2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 1-5
Don’t we sometimes think we are the ones that have it right, that there is only one way to solve a problem – and it’s yours? True human wisdom is pure gift from God (One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit!). Who could ever look for God’s wisdom and power within an instrument of capital punishment and torture? Yet that was exactly what Paul was demanding that followers of Christ do if they wished to know true, divine wisdom. Paul proclaimed the power of the cross (p. 381).
The Gospel – Matthew 5:13-16
When Jesus called his disciples the salt of the earth, it was the highest compliment. Salt was highly valued:
- It stood for purity (its whiteness).
- It was a common preservative. It kept things from going bad (preserves from corruption). Do you know someone who makes it easy for you to be good?
- It gives flavor. A Christian should be full of vigor and life! Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “I might have entered the ministry if certain clergymen I knew had not looked and acted so much like undertakers, (Barclay on the Gospel of Matthew, Vol I, p. 119-121).
Jesus called himself a light to the world, so here he is complimenting the disciples again by referring to them as he would himself. We do not produce our own light but reflect the light of Christ. Lamps in those days were like a bowl filled with oil and the wick floating in it. It was hard to rekindle a lamp, so when it was not on the lampstand, it would be protected under a bushel basket, (p. 122-124). The light’s purpose is to shine. We are meant to shine too!
1st Reading: Isaiah 8: 23- 9: 3
Rather than trusting in God’s light, Israel and Judah (the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom of the Hebrew people) tried to live by their own ‘light’ – their own self-important ways. It brought darkness and destruction to both. The prophet is looking for an ideal king to lead his people. Kings were seen as being ‘adopted’ by God and a sign of God’s presence with his people. King Ahaz of Judah did not live up to his calling. He had made an agreement with Assyria against the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The prophet looked to a new king, Hezekiah, to be a ‘savior king’. These hopes were not realized. Hezekiah eventually became a disappointment, too. (Celebration, Jan.1999)
The great light that Isaiah is speaking of is the revelation of God’s love beyond Israel to even the Gentiles. It is the day when God’s love becomes real for those who are without a religious tendency, to those who are toughened by despair, to those who think hope is nothing but a day dream. But this light does not come by way of some paranormal experience – it can come only by way of ordinary people open to and filled with God’s extraordinary love. This love can come to our world today only if you and I bring it, with God’s help. (Exploring the Sunday Readings, January, 1999)
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:10 – 13, 17
This letter of Paul’s was probably written about 54-55, A.D. It is really not the ‘first letter’ since Paul writes of a previous letter in 1 Cor. 5: 9. Remember in the early church Paul’s letters were treasured and circulated, but not really organized until around 90 AD. So some were lost and others then were put out of order. The ideas and their importance are still valid. (Barclay, The Letter to the Corinthians, 4-6)
Cephas was the Jewish version of Peter’s name. His ‘group’ was probably made up of the more Jewish Christians who still held tightly to Jewish traditions and law. Apollos was an educated man from Alexandria whose learning and Greek influence made him more attractive to the Gentile Christians and those with greater education. Paul reminds them that these differences should not lead to division. That it is Christ Jesus we must look to for the light – the truth –the insights we need. A preacher’s ‘job’ is just to lead us to Jesus. It is in the cross of Christ that we find the absolute assurance of God’s love – there is the fullness of wisdom in no other place. It seemed there were not serious doctrinal differences here in Corinth, but cliques and factions. The word for united is usually used when two hostile parties reach an agreement. In Mark 1:19 and Matthew 4:21 the same word is used to describe the mending of torn fishing nets. Keep this in mind when you read the gospel. (Celebration, January 1999 & 2005)
The Gospel– Matthew 4: 12 – 23
Here we see Jesus setting up his home in Capernaum. His old life at Nazareth was over and done; it was clean cut, a momentous decision. The village was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. This lake was and is a large inland lake that is 680 ft. below sea level. It has quite a warm climate and is surrounded by phenomenally fertile land that was, thus, quite densely populated. It is considered to be one of the loveliest lakes in the world. “Seen from any point of the surrounding heights it is a fine sheet of water – a burnished mirror set in a framework of rounded hills and rugged mountains.” In Jesus’ time it was thick with fishing boats. This is probably not the first time that these men have met Jesus. Some of them may have been disciples of John. They had known and talked with Jesus; they had heard him preach. Now these fishermen were being invited to “throw in their lot with him.” These were ordinary, sort of middle-class men – certainly not poverty stricken – nor were they men to be easily fooled or impressed. And, as fishermen they may have had just the qualities Jesus needed in his disciples: men of patience, perseverance, courage, cleverness, with the ability to ‘fit the bait to the right fish’, to stay out of the way, and to know how to recognize the right moment for action.
(William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol.1 77-79)
Joseph Fitzmyer, a New Testament scholar, notes how strange this metaphor of ‘catching people like fish’ seems to be. The mission of the disciples was to bring them to salvation (fullness of health). Yet, what fishermen do to fish is far from salutary! He points out, though, that the Greek term that Jesus used to say that they would be ‘catchers or netters’ of humanity could literally be translated as “you will be taking them alive.” The strange metaphor then comes to mean that those ‘caught’ or ‘netted’ by Peter and the others would be saved from death and gathered into God’s Kingdom. (Celebrations, Feb. 1998)
Other interesting ‘fish’ facts: A fish was an early symbol of Christianity because the letters of the Greek word for fish are I-C-H-T-H-U-S. These are the same letters that begin the Greek words for “JESUS CHRIST, GOD’S SON, SAVIOR” (IESOUS CHRISTOS THEOU HUIOS SOTER)
The early Christians also hung an anchor on the doors of the houses where they would gather to celebrate Eucharist because it resembled a cross. This secret symbol identified their ‘house churches.’
The leaving of everything to follow Jesus was the way the gospel writers expressed the need of disciples to make Jesus the priority in life. These fishermen were no longer just fishermen any more once they began to follow Jesus. They probably went out during the day with Jesus to the surrounding areas returning to their families at night or after short intervals, even returning to fishing when necessary. Their total response to Jesus is meant to be an example to all of us as to where our priorities should lie. With Christ as the center of their lives, it was now more important to go out to ‘catch’ the suffering sea of humanity that was so in need of God’s love, God’s kingdom and presence in their lives. What they have to offer others in Jesus’ name is not just good news; it is great news! We have the same calling. (Mary Birmingham, Word and Worship Workbook for Year A, 363,364)
1st Reading – Isaiah 49: 3, 5-6
This is from Second Isaiah – written during the Babylonian Exile. This servant was to help free these exiled Jews; it was a most difficult assignment. But then, God expands the scope even more. This servant and his people were to be a light to the nations. God’s concerns are not limited to any one race, or ethic group. God’s power to save wishes to expand “to the ends of the earth.” Everything and everybody is to be brought to wholeness and freedom (that is what salvation means). Celebration, Jan. 2002
As Jesus was called to be this servant, this light, so are we called by our baptism to bring the light of God’s love and to ‘put on the Lord Jesus.’ How do you respond to this reading?
This may seem like a ‘big’ order when too often we can feel more like a morning fog than like the light of Christ. Yet, God chooses us. The more we choose God’s way of love over our usual selfishness and preoccupation, the more the radiance of God shines forth. Prayer connects us to this Source. Exploring the Sunday Readings, Jan 2002
2nd Reading — 1 Corinthians 1:1-3
The next four Sundays we will read from Paul’s letter to the early Christian community in Corinth. This city was a wealthy busy seaport as it had two harbors, one open to Asia and one open to Italy. It was a veritable melting pot of people, cultures and religions. After it was conquered by Rome in 146 BC, it was re-founded as a Roman colony in 44 BC. It had a large Italian population and a sizable Jewish community. It was a place of many shrines to a variety of gods and goddesses. The Corinthian Christians would have been confronted on a daily basis by all of this variety, vivid images, and temptations. Paul was challenged to help them come to know the one God we find in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Celebration, January, 2002
Notice how many times Jesus’ name is said in this short introduction? Right at the beginning of this letter, Paul has Jesus at the forefront. It was a difficult letter dealing with a difficult situation…Paul goes right to the love of Christ to deal with it. Notice Paul calls it the church of God, not the church of Corinth. To Paul, wherever an individual congregation might be, it was a part of the one Church of God. Also notice how he describes a Christian: one that is sanctified in Christ, called to be holy and who calls upon Jesus name. Wm Barclay The Daily Study Bible Series
Who is Sosthenes? A friend of Paul’s and someone who was known in Corinth. It was a common name in those times. Sosthenes is mentioned again in Acts 18:17 but it is unclear if they are the same (In Acts, he is a leader of the synagogue, where here it is not known if he is Jewish or not.). The name means “saving strength”. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible and The Jerome Biblical Commentary
The Gospel – John 1: 29-34
John calls Jesus the ‘Lamb of God’ – it is a title with many meanings.
3 meanings in particular are –
Passover Lamb (Exodus 12: 6-13): The Passover Lamb recalls the time in Exodus when the Israelite slaves were told to sacrifice a lamb and apply its blood to the doorpost and lintels of their homes so that death would not touch them. This Passover led to their freedom.
Suffering Servant Lamb (Isaiah 52: 13 – 53: 12): The fourth Suffering Servant song in Isaiah describes a servant who goes like an innocent, oppressed, condemned Lamb to the slaughter – yet from this death comes new life and goodness.
Victorious Lamb (Rev. 5:6; 7:17; 22:1): The glorious Lamb that we find in Revelation is the lamb that has passed through suffering and death and now becomes the source of life-giving water; all humans can be freed by his blood.
We believe that Jesus is this threefold lamb – this lamb who takes away our sin and insecurity giving us new life and peace – alive with God’s grace and set afire with his love for the sake of the world and in service of his word. Celebration, January, 2002
This is a different picture of Jesus’ baptism. We are hearing it through the eyes of John the Baptist, as he was there and witnessing to this miraculous event. You know yourself that you give more credibility to stories that are told as seen vs. stories that are hearsay. He speaks as though he was forewarned of this baptism. Then John the Baptist calls Jesus the Son of God. It is very clear Jesus is center stage. John the Baptist is playing second fiddle. Is Jesus center stage in your life?
During this time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday it is good to remember his hope and vision for a universal ‘salvation’ for all people. As he chose to live Jesus’ words in a world of difficulties, he, too, has become an example for all of us. Let us recall his words that were delivered on the steps of the LincolnMonument, August 28, 1963:
“I have a dream that one day . . . the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood . . . I have a dream that one day . . . little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers . . . I have a dream that one day every hill and mountain will be made low . . . and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope . . . this is our faith . . .With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discord of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to struggle together . . .”