Archive for November, 2011

Gospel, Mark 1:1-8  John was, according to Luke:1, raised in a village in the hill country of Judea near Jerusalem by a devout mother (Elizabeth) and a priest-father (Zechariah) who were given to know that God would call their son to the special mission of preparing the way of the Lord.  By Jewish custom a father personally prepared his son to be the spiritual leader of his future family, teaching his to be a man of prayer familiar with the sacred scriptures.  We can imagine that, as the only child and son of a Jewish priest aware that God had reserved a very special mission for his son, John received an in-depth understanding of the scriptures and discernment of God’s will.  Eventually he left home and went to live in the Desert of Judea. 

Qumran was a community situated in the Desert of Judea near the Dead Sea.  The exact identity of the Qumran community is not known, but a leading theory based on archaeological evidence is that Qumran was a lay monastic community of people seeking a purer spiritual life there in the desert away from the influence of the world, particularly devoted to the study of scripture and frequent ritual baptism as a sign of repentance and purification.  Most of the caves in which the Dead Sea scrolls were found were located in close proximity to Qumran.  Although adding credibility to the theory of the community’s identity, this is, in itself, not proof.  The scrolls were placed in the caves to safeguard them from the advancing Roman army during the Jewish war for independence (c. 66-70 A.D.).  The community went south to Masada where all died, none returning to retrieve the scrolls from the caves where they remained for 19 centuries until being discovered in 1947.  Recent studies of the scrolls, however, indicate that they came from several regions of the Holy Land and were written by a variety of scribes over a period of more than 100 years.  This may indicate that many of the scrolls may have belonged, not to the Qumran community, but to Jews fleeing south from all over Judea.  If the theory of Qumran being a lay monastic community is accurate, it could have been the location where John lived in the desert during the years prior to the beginning of his public ministry. 

With reference to John’s outfit of camel’s hair and leather belt, see 2 Kings 1:8.  Such was the outfit of Elijah handed down to Elisha.  By wearing it, John identified himself as a prophet in the same line.  About his diet…I called a nutritionist at the University of Minnesota to find out if John’s diet was healthy.  I was surprised to learn that locusts and wild honey would probably make a more balanced and healthier diet than most of us eat…and John didn’t waste much time on food preparation. 

You may note and wonder why so much attention is given to John the Baptist in the four gospels.  With references to the baptism of John by Paul at Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:24-25) and at Ephesus (Acts 18:25 and 19:3-4), it is probable that, even into the era when the gospels were being written, there were many people who had dedicated their life to God through John but had not come to believe in Jesus.  Rather than put down the ministry of John, the gospels praise his ministry while indicating that John himself was preparing for Jesus.  Adherents didn’t have to put John aside to go to Jesus…they could follow where John himself had pointed.

Reading 1, Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11  Verse 3, “a voice cries out in the wilderness…” is quoted in Matthew 3:3 in reference to John the Baptist preparing the way of Jesus.  We joke that, here in Minnesota, we have two seasons: winter and road construction.  In Old Testament times, many an army built roads, often referred to as the “king’s highway”, which increased commerce (with accompanying income from taxes and road tolls) and enabled the army to travel more rapidly to troubled areas.  In Jesus’ time, the Roman armies were the experts, building roads connecting all parts of the empire.  Think of our modern road system here in the United States…how many valleys have been bridged, how many mountains “leveled” with tunnels, how many narrow ways widened and rough ways made smooth?  We are called to be part of God’s road construction crew, preparing the way for others to draw near to God.

Reading II, 2 Peter 3:8-14  Peter gives attention in his letter to refuting those who deny that Christ will return.  He assures his audience that the “delay” is merely God being patient and that Jesus will come unexpectedly as a thief (2 Peter 3:3-16).  It is easier to remain alert and “on top of one’s game” when the event for which one is prepared is imminent.  With delay, interest flags and a person can get distracted with lots of things.  That is one reason the imminent return of Jesus receives so much attention from some evangelicals.  As Catholic Christians, we believe that Jesus will return at the end of time, but we focus more as Peter encourages…giving our primary attention to oneness with God now through lives of holiness and devotion, always ready for that final coming or for the individual’s passage from this world to the next.

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The bulletin for November 27, 2011 has been published and can be found here: http://churchofstdominic.org/cluster/bulletin

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Gospel, Mark 13:33-37  The three verses preceding this passage (Mark 13:30-32) give us the context for which Jesus tells us to be watchful: “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away, but of the day and the hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.”  The timing of the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus, also known as the “parousia”, was of major concern to many Christians of the first century who believed that the events would take place within their lifetime (see 1-2 Thessalonians).  It is understandable that people would focus on the question of “when” Jesus would return.  Two problems arose from being so focused.  One, Christians for whom the issue of Jesus’ imminent return was the key reason they had joined the Church, or for whom such a belief was central to accepting the rest of the Christian message, were growing lax or wavering in their faith.  Two, some Christians were so focused on the future events that they were neglecting to live the faith in the present. 

The scriptures texts, both in the letters and the gospels, focus on living the faith in the present day as a preparation for future.  All of Jesus’ discourses about the end are aimed at getting Christians prepared, living in view of what is to come, as stated in this gospel passage: “Be watchful!  Be alert!  You do not know when the time will come.”  In the corresponding passage from Matthew’s gospel we read (24:42): “Stay awake!  For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.”  This text is just part of a broader commentary on this issue that runs through the two chapters of Matthew 24-25 (an expansion of the same focus presented in Mark 13).  Toward the beginning of this section, while Jesus was at prayer on the Mount of Olives looking across the Kidron Valley to Jerusalem and the temple, his disciples approach him with the “when” question, “When will this happen, and what sign will there be of your coming and of the end of the age?”  Jesus does not answer their question but, rather, directs them to be ready for the future by being prepared and alert in the present.  Jesus’ final instructions coming at the end of Matthew’s gospel (28:18-20) were definitely a call to get busy in the present…“Go, make disciples, baptize them, teach them.”

We Christians of this modern age continue to profess faith in the second coming of Jesus in our creedal statements.  With the passing of several centuries, the weight or focus we give to that belief is certainly different from that of those first century Christians.  Jesus’ message is, however, the same and enduring.  We are to live our lives for God, being alert and prepared and active in the present time with an eye to the future glory to which we are called.

Reading 1, Isaiah 63:16b-17,19b; 64:2-7  I can almost picture the prophet, like a good lawyer, presenting the case for the people before God in a manner mindful of Tevya talking with God in the “Fiddler on the Roof”, so personal and familiar.  Like someone returning an item to the store because it was faulty, the prophet tries to take the burden off the people and ask God to take responsibility as the maker of such poor quality material.  “Why do you even allow us to wander and harden our hearts?  Wouldn’t it have been better to make us so we couldn’t do so?  But, you know, you made us this way.  So, we need some powerful sign to catch our attention and get us back on track.  Not that we deserve such a favor…the little good we do is just that…so little.  But then, you did make us.  We’re just the clay…you are the potter.  You are our Father.”  Note how much this reading has been edited.  This prayer was probably composed near the end of the Babylonian exile.  The years of exile had made the people more humble, more attentive to God and desirous of making a new start with God.

Reading II, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9  Paul encourages the Corinthians to remain firm in their beliefs as they wait for Jesus’ return, here called “the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”.  Paul makes reference to the return of Jesus in his letters to Titus (2:13), Philippians (1:6 and 3:20), Thessalonians (1 Thes 2:19 and 2 Thes 2:1), and Timothy (2 Tim 4:1).  Paul doesn’t give any teaching on the topic.  By lack of further attention, we would assume that the teaching on the return of Jesus was generally accepted and needed no defending in his letters.  Peter, however, gives considerable attention to refuting scoffers and assuring his audience that the “delay” is merely God being patient and that Jesus will come unexpectedly as a thief (2 Peter 3:3-16).  The author of the book of Revelation likewise encouraged Christians of his day undergoing persecution and challenged in their beliefs to remain fast in the Lord and stay prepared.  Three times in the final chapter the Lord says, “I am coming soon!” (22:7,12,20) to which John adds, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

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The bulletin for November 20, 2011 has been published and can be found here: http://churchofstdominic.org/cluster/bulletin

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Gospel, Matthew 25:31-46  All the nations are assembled, not just Christians and Jews.  The eternal destination of each soul will be determined as all are divided into two groups, those heaven-bound and those bound for eternal punishment.  What are the parameters by which the eternal destiny of each soul will be determined?  The parameters mentioned here are all related to love and care…or the lack of it…for other people.  There is no mention here of religious belief or affiliation.  How are we to understand this when placed next to the familiar passage from John 3:18: “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned.”  Doesn’t that seem to give a different guideline for final judgment?  What about John’s statement in his first letter (1 John 3:15): “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer and no murderer has eternal life”, which certainly emphasizes the importance of loving other people.    

The Matthew text follows the passage in which the man who did not put his talent to use for God is cast out into the darkness.  Previously, Matthew had presented a number of scenarios in which Jesus was confronted by Pharisees and other Jewish groups.  Jesus’ main issue with his opponents was their focus on observing details of the law while neglecting the love and care of others.  In this judgment scene, Jesus turns the focus away from orthodoxy (right teachings) to orthopraxis (right living).  Does he do so to the exclusion of beliefs? 

There was a lot of confusion in the early church regarding what is essential to receive the gift of eternal life.  Paul emphasized the importance of faith and wrote that the righteousness of God comes “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:22).  Nevertheless, when it came down to the triad of faith, hope and love, he wrote tot eh Corinthians that the “greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).  Not everyone understood Paul, a fact which Peter points out in his second letter (2 Peter 3:14-16) in which he refers to Paul’s letters: “In them there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction”.  Apparently, what some people understood when Paul spoke about faith was not what Paul intended.  It may well have been the cultural and linguistic difference between Greek, which could context faith as an intellectual assent, and Hebrew, which considered faith as the full assent of the individual in heart, mind, soul and strength.  The letter of James (James 2:14-26) gave significant attention to the false dichotomy between faith and actions, indicating that “faith without works is dead”.

As with many other questions for which we seek answers in the scriptures, we do best to look beyond isolated texts to see statements in context and in combination with other passages.  The Catholic Church considered the topic of who can receive eternal life during the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s.  Our Church’s official teaching is stated in paragraphs 14 through 16 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium).  People have a responsibility of seeking the truth about God and God’s will and then responding by living God’s will to the best of their ability.

Reading 1, Ezekiel 34:11-12,15-17  This passage is best understood in context with the entire 34th chapter of Ezekiel which begins with a prophecy against the “shepherds of Israel”, those entrusted with the care of the Jewish people, who were using their position to look after their own interests rather than those of the flock entrusted to them.  Ezekiel wrote (v. 2) that they “have been pasturing themselves.  Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep?”  They are the “sleek and strong” that the shepherd will judge and destroy while giving proper attention to the rest of the flock.  Continuing on from this section, Ezekiel says that God will appoint a messianic Davidic king (v. 23) to rule over the restored Israel.  The book of Ezekiel was treasured by Jewish people from the time of the restoration following Persia’s victory over Babylonia through the time of Jesus’ ministry.  Identifying the longed-for Messiah as a shepherd, we can better understand the impact of Jesus’ words when he spoke of himself as the “good shepherd” (John 10:11-18), an indirect claim, understood as such by his opponents, to being the Messiah.

Reading II, 1 Corinthians 15:20-26,28  The “first fruits” of the harvest were offered to God, implying the consecration of the entire harvest to God.  Jesus’ resurrection, likewise, is the “first-fruits” of Jesus offering the entire Body of Christ, of which all his true disciples are members, to God in resurrection.  Paul presents this teaching as a response to some who were claiming there is no resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:12-19).  The Greek word meaning “to place under” or “subject” is repeated three time each in verses 27(not included in this reading) and 28.  The sense is that God the Father entrusted all to God the Son who, when all of history is accomplished, will entrust all back to the Father like the perfect steward.  This gets confusing when we try to reflect on the specific roles and distinction of the three persons in the full unity of the Trinity…a mystery we’ll come to understand in the next life.  Suffice it to say that this text should not be interpreted to indicate that the Son is inferior to the Father or that Jesus was not God.

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The bulletin for November 13, 2011 has been published and can be found here: http://churchofstdominic.org/cluster/bulletin

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Gospel, Matthew 25:14-30  Don’t think that the man who received only one talent was given a paltry sum.  Conversion ratios varied but, According to Josephus, a Jewish historian in the years after the ministry of Jesus, these were the common weights and ratios used in Judea and Syria at that time:

Denarius  A Roman coin of 3.8 grams of silver, it was the laborer’s daily wage (Matthew 20:1-16) and the coin used to pay the head tax (Matthew 22:15-21). 

Shekel  Worth four denarii, the shekel was a Jewish coin that was mentioned often in the Old Testament but not once in the New Testament. 

Mina  An amount equal to 60 shekels.

Talent  An amount equal to 60 mina, making a talent equal to 14,400 days wages or 46 years wages (given one day off per week for the Sabbath).  One talent was enough to finance a rather sizeable project in wages and commodity costs of the day. 

Given our English word “talent”, which actually comes from this very bible text, we can readily convert the message of this text from money to be invested to gifts given us by God.  The point is that all we are and have comes directly or indirectly from God.  We may think and speak of our talents, our gifts and abilities, our money and possessions.  Nevertheless, they ultimately are not ours in a sense of ownership but only as investments God has made in us, entrusting them to us for our careful stewardship.  The gifts we have received, in particular that of our faith, are given not to be buried but to be put to use.  The expression “use it or lose it” certainly applied to the one who buried his talent.  In our faith and application of our talents as God’s stewards, the saying applies to us as well.

Reading 1, Proverbs 31:10-13,19-20,30-31  The author or, better said, compiler of Proverbs began by stating the purpose of the work: “that people may appreciate wisdom and discipline, understand words of intelligence, receive training in wise conduct (in what is right, just and honest), that resourcefulness be imparted to the simple and knowledge and discretion to the young man, a wise man advance in learning, and an intelligent man gain sound guidance.”  The study of wisdom, the artful discussion of the details of God’s word, the education in the ways of wisdom were the work of Jewish males carried out in synagogues, town squares and in their homes.  Women did not play a part in these discussions.  All the students in synagogue schools were boys, no girls. 

The compiler of Proverbs chose to end his work with two sections focused on the wisdom of women.  31:1-9 are words of advice from a mother to her son who was a king.  31:10-31 tell of the ideal wife and mother whose life, not just her words, shows how to live wisely.  Girls learned from their mothers and grandmothers.  The influence of a wife on her husband, even in a male-dominated culture, should not be underestimated…much less the influence of a mother on both daughters and sons.  Ending his work with these reflections on the wisdom of women reflects on the wisdom of the compiler who, in doing so, reminds the reader to learn wisdom, not just in the male-dominated debates in synagogues and classes at school, but from the living examples of wives, moms and grandmas right there at home.

Reading II, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6  Paul’s had been in Thessalonica only three weeks (see Acts17:1-9) before some of the Jews, reacting violently to his message of Jesus as Messiah, formed a mob to get him.  Not finding him, they hauled the people with whom he had been staying before the city magistrate with charges that they were claiming Jesus as king in place of Caesar (a tactic they undoubtedly learned from those who had brought Jesus before Pilate).  Although short-lived, Paul’s ministry there had been effective in winning a number of people for Jesus including “a great number of Greeks who were worshippers (non-Jewish people attracted to Jewish teaching and way of life were permitted to participate in Jewish prayer and synagogue services) and not a few of the prominent women” (the community later sent Paul money a number of times to support his ministry).  The Christians hustled Paul and Silas out of Thessalonika to Beroea, but when those who had caused problems in Thessalonica heard that Paul was winning more converts in Beroea, they went there and again stirred up crowds against him so that Paul had to flee to Athens.  Paul undoubtedly used this bit of history to impress upon the Christians from Thessalonica that, like the sudden arrival of the mobs, the Day of the Lord , which Paul believed to be imminent, could come quickly without warning.  Be alert and sober.

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