Archive for July, 2012

Introduction to the 33 Doctors of the Church*

I have to admit that before I came across the book

The 33 Doctors of the Church by Fr. Christopher Rengers, O.F.M. Capuchin, TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., Rockford, Illinois  61105, Copyright 2000

at the Holy Cross bookstore I was not aware that there were official “doctors of the church.”


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Gospel, John 6:24-35  Following the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus withdrew up on the mountain.  The apostles headed out across the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus later rejoined them, walking across the waters.  The people had not seen Jesus cross, so asked him when he had gotten back to Capernaum.

Where did the people find boats?  Fishing on the Sea of Galilee was done primarily at night when the sea tended to be calmer and the fish closer to the surface of the water.  During the day the boats were used to transport goods and passengers around the lake.  Some of the people who gathered to hear Jesus may have come in boats.  Like taxis waiting at an airport or bus depot in our day, enterprising boat owners on the Sea of Galilee would have seen an opportunity to pick up a few shekels and sailed over to the crowd, figuring that some people would be tired and prefer a ride instead of walking several miles home. 

The word translated as “signs” is “semeion”.  A sign stands for or points to something other than itself.  It is not meant to be the focus of attention.  Jesus intended his healings and works such as the multiplication of loaves and fishes to be signs of God’s presence in Jesus and lead them to listen to the message of Jesus and commit their lives to God through him.  The people were focusing on the sign itself…bread to fill their stomachs…and not on the message which demanded personal commitment.  They are focused on what is in it for them.  “Give us a sign”…“give us this bread” (reminiscent of the woman at the well, “Sir give me this water so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming back here to draw water” John 4:15).  How many peope go to God for favors rather than to commit their lives to doing God’s will?    

The Greek word “ergon”, meaning “work”, is used in this passage in both verb and noun forms more than you would at first think.  It is also translated as “accomplish” and not translated in the phrase “what [work] can you do?”   Jesus is trying to get them to apply their energies to obtaining food for eternal life more than food for their stomachs.  They are still stuck on the food for their stomachs, however, and want Jesus to teach them how to “work the works of God”, probably meaning how to multiply bread and fish rather than how to help bring about the kingdom of God.  The work they need to do is to entrust their lives (the word translated “believe” is a total commitment of self, not simply an intellectual assent) to the one God has sent.

Reading 1, Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15  It is not unusual that a person pass through times of trials with sacrifice and deprivation to get to where they want to go on their life journey.  Sometimes those trials are the result of having chosen to follow unhealthy pathways of life such as people addicted to drugs and alcohol who must go through treatment and withdrawal if they want to be free.  People escaping from persecution and violence must often leave their homes and almost all possessions behind, suffer privation and walk great distances to get to a refugee camp.  The situation of the Israelites escaping from Egypt was similar. They were not exactly in danger of dying from hunger, as they said, since they still had their sheep and cattle.  Some livestock was probably dying from lack of good water and pasture in the dessert, but the animals were their most valuable possession and source of income.  They did not want to slaughter any for food.  This indicates their reluctance to put their trust and their future completely in God’s hands.  Rather than grumble back, God understands and promises to give them manna and quail even before Moses can ask.  Receiving the manna six days a week will relieve the people’s anxiety and heighten their reliance on God to provide for them.  God says that this will be a “test” for the people, but what God is testing is not completely clear.  It may be a test of their finding security in God or accepting deprivation for the time with hope in God’s providential guidance to a better future. 

To this day quail, small birds of the pheasant family, migrate in vast flocks from Europe to Africa in autumn months.  The exact identity of the substance called “manna” is not known.  Among the suggestions are sap from tamarisk trees and a secretion from certain dessert insects. 

Years ago I lead groups on canoe trips in the BWCA or on extended bike trips. Everyone was enthused about each upcoming adventure, but not all had the same resilience when it came to the inevitable challenges and privations of such trips.  Longings for their more comfortable beds back home, for mosquito-free living rooms, for a wider choice of foods from the refrigerator and other such comforts often resulted in grumbling about the more rustic setting of the trip and the physical exertion required to complete the miles.  Those with a more positive attitude focused less on where they had been and more on the adventure of where they were going.

Despite the fact that the Exodus was a path from slavery to freedom, it was a rigorous journey.  It is understandable that, during such times, many looked back to where they had been rather than forward to where they were going and grumbled about the privations and sacrifices of the journey.  At such moments the life back in Egypt may have seemed to be the “good old days” by comparison. 

Reading II, Ephesians 4:17, 20-24  Paul has been writing about unity between people of Jewish and Gentile backgrounds now become brothers and sister through Jesus Christ and members of the same church.  For each of the two groups the call to unity will mean giving up something of their former ways.  For the Jews it will mean giving up their attachment to the Mosaic Law as the key to unity with God.  For the Gentiles it will mean a change to a more demanding life style compared to the looser moral values of the Greek society in which they had grown up.  This call or challenge of Paul to the Gentile Ephesians is apropos to Christians today, given the cultural norms of our modern society.

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Gospel, John 6:1-15  Following a series of gospel selections from Mark, we now switch to the gospel of John with the account of the multiplication of loaves and fishes.  The major difference between this and Mark’s account lies in who provides the food.  In Mark 8:1-8 the apostles themselves have the five loaves and two fish.  Here a little boy comes forward to offer Jesus what he has.  God invites us all to come forward to offer our material goods, time and talents to Jesus for the good of others and let God multiply our personal offering to meet others’ needs. 

In an additional change from Mark’s account, Jesus here goes up the mountain before and after the multiplication of loaves and fishes.  Contrary to modern educational methodology, at the time of Jesus the teacher always sat down.  Stating that Jesus “sat down with his disciples” indicates that he was teaching them.  Jesus will continue to teach his disciples about ministry and love of others through the multiplication of loaves and fishes. 

As so often in the gospels, Jesus is caught in a time bind, wanting to spend time with his disciples yet attending to the needs of the people.  We experience a similar time bind trying to find time for ourselves, time to relax, time for prayer and meditation, time for work, time to take care of jobs around the house, time to be with family, time for friends, and time for service in the community. 

The mountain represents a place of retreat away from the busyness of the world, a place for evaluation and renewal as well as closeness to God.  Jesus spent a great deal of time in prayer, balancing his time spent with people.  We can all learn from his example as we seek the balance we need in life. 

John also gives us the people’s interpretation of the event…that Jesus must be the prophet, the long-awaited Messiah whom God had promised to send them.  Jesus walked a fine line between nourishing the hopes of the people in God’s promise while discouraging their more worldly hopes of what the Messiah would be. 

Reading 1, 2 Kings 4:42-44  Feeding 100 people with 20 loaves seems rather miraculous until you compare it to Jesus’ feeding 5,000 with seven loaves and two fish.  Juxtaposing this, as well as many other Old Testament accounts, with Jesus’ ministry indicates both the fulfillment of the Old Covenant as well as its surpassing perfection in Jesus and the New Covenant.

Elisha was a disciple and successor to the prophet Elijah.  He exercised his ministry as a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel from around 850 to 790 BC.  This event took place during a time of famine in the land.

Reading II, Ephesians 4:1-6  As mentioned in the commentary two weeks ago, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was likely a generic letter to several Christian communities throughout the region for which Ephesus was the major center of commerce.  This passage continues Paul’s focus in Ephesians on the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the New Covenant through Jesus Christ, a theme Paul emphasizes here with the repetition of the word “one”. 

This message is as appropriate for us today as it was for the people of the region of Ephesus those many centuries ago.   Our American society is becoming increasingly multi-racial and multi-cultural.  The more we learn to live as one, the stronger the Church of the future will be.

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Gospel, Mark 6:30-34  Recall last week’s gospel in which the apostles were sent out to preach and heal the sick.  Jesus wants a “debriefing session” with them, but they are constantly being bothered by people coming and going.  One could imagine that such was the pattern whenever Jesus was in certain towns, particularly in Capernaum where his ministry was headquartered.  Mark’s gospel doesn’t tell where this gathering takes place.  It could have been Capernaum, but Luke 9:10 places it in Bethsaida, a bit over three miles to the northeast of Capernaum along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Why there?  Bethsaida was outside Galilee, less identified with Jesus than Capernaum and, therefore, more likely to provide some escape from the crowds.  Also, James and John were initially from Bethsaida and probably had family there where Jesus and the group could stay.

The group sailed off to a “deserted place”, probably somewhere along the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee which was less heavily populated than the western or Galilean side of the lake.  How did the people figure out where they were heading?  Those of you who have a lake cabin can probably identify the boats and pontoons of many a neighbor some distance out in the lake…even easier to spot a sailboat whose sail bears identifying letters and markings.  The sail on Peter’s 26 foot-long boat would have been visible from some distance.  If it was a calm day or if the wind was not favorable, both situations which would require the apostles to row rather than take advantage of the wind, people walking along the lakeside roads could probably have kept up or gotten there first. 

Why were large crowds of people following Jesus?  Didn’t they have work or other things to do?  In past commentaries I have mentioned how, at the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C., his kingdom was divided up among three of his sons.  Herod Antipas, the son who became ruler of Galilee, increased taxes significantly to fund the reconstruction of Sepphoris, the capital city of Galilee, and then the construction of a new capital city on the shore of the sea called Tiberias.  Add on the cost of maintaining his own army and a large administrative bureaucracy.  Prior to the time of Herod Antipas, Galilee had been a region of small family farms.  With the increase in taxes, small farmers may have been able to keep up on good years, but a bad crop or some other disaster could put them so far behind that they could not recover.  It is believed that thousands of small farmers were forced to sell out to wealthy landowners, often from foreign countries.  Such “corporate farms” hired a few farmers back to manage fields and vineyards, but the majority moved to towns and sought employment as day laborers.  Consider how many parables Jesus tells about wealthy owners coming back for their part of the harvest or going to the town square to hire workers for the day.  Unemployment ran high.  Lots of people had no idea how they would provide for their families.  From childhood they had been taught that God would send a Messiah to escort in a new age of prosperity.  Many thought that Jesus might be that Messiah.

Jesus understood their situation and how desperate they were, like “sheep without a shepherd”, running after anyone who gave them even a glimmer of hope. Rather than being upset with them for dashing his plans to spend some time alone with his disciples, Jesus had pity on them, taught them and fed them.

Reading 1, Jeremiah 23:1-6  This reading is selected to match with the statement by Jesus in today’s gospel that people were coming to him like “sheep without a shepherd”.  Jeremiah prophesied during the years leading up to the conquest of Judah by Babylon and deportation of anyone of power or influence to Babylon in 587 B.C.  He had supported the religious and political reforms of King Josiah beginning back in 629 B.C.  With the death of Josiah in 609 B.C., however, his reform movement came to a screeching halt.  Josiah’s successors were weak and refused to listen to Jeremiah’s advice.  The age-old idolatries returned. 

The Messianic king whom God will send will be named “The Lord our justice”, a play on the name of the final king of Judah Zedekiah whose name in Hebrew means “The Lord is justice”.  The one sent by God will be the true shepherd, unlike Zedekiah who didn’t live up to his name. 

Reading II, Ephesians 2:13-18  Most early Christian communities were comprised of a combination of Jews and Gentiles, people of non-Jewish races and religious backgrounds.  Jews generally looked down on Gentiles as spiritually inferior, taking great pride in their call as God’s Chosen People.  Gentiles attracted to the faith and practices of Judaism were permitted to participate in most activities of the local synagogues.  They are commonly referred to as “God fearing”.  They could become full members by accepting circumcision, but that was not an appealing option to many Gentile believers, so most remained “God fearing” second-class members of the synagogue.  Paul championed the cause of these people of Gentile background to have full membership in the new Christian community without the necessity of circumcision and following other dictates of the Mosaic Law.  The uniting of people from diverse backgrounds as one in Jesus was a major theme of Paul’s preaching and teaching.

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Gospel, Mark 6:7-13  Like education majors on student teaching assignments today, Jesus sends the apostles out to get some practical experience in ministry.  This was their first time ministering without Jesus being physically present.  That, along with the instructions Jesus gave and the manner in which he sent them out, made this mission a test through which Jesus wanted to challenge their insecurities.   Jesus challenged them, first of all, to trust in the training he had given them.  Next, he challenged then to trust that God would somehow provide for their needs although they brought along no food, sack, money, or extra clothing.  They are allowed sandals and a walking staff (items not permitted in the instructions in Matthew 10:9-14). 

Jesus sent them out two by two.  He wanted them to know they were part of a team, not Lone Rangers, and experience the security of sharing a common mission in community.  Christian ministry needs emotional and spiritual support to remain vibrant.  He wants his apostles to have security in one another and support one another through common prayer and reflection.  The apostles were to stay in one place and not move around.  He wanted them to be secure  in how God lined things up and not end up looking for the best accommodations and meals in town.

The mission was very successful, but the apostles would fall into the trap of feeling secure in their personal gifts, forgetting that any success was due to God preparing the way for them to minister.  They began comparing their personal success stories and arguing about which had been most successful and was, therefore, most important.  We all fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to one another, taking credit for what is really a gift God shared with us and let us use as God’s instruments. 

The word “apostle” comes from the Greek word “to send forth” which appears in the first sentence of this passage.  In addition to being disciples, students accepting the teaching or discipline of Jesus, we are all sent forth as his delegates in this world.  May we carry out that role always mindful of what we are about and whom we represent.

Reading 1, Amos 7:12-15  Amos was a shepherd and tree trimmer in Tekoa, a village in Judah six miles south of Bethlehem.  Around 750 BC God called him to prophesy in Israel, Judah’s sister nation to the north.  He went to Bethel, the religious center of the northern kingdom, where he prophesied that Israel would soon be conquered and destroyed.  The country was in a time of prosperity under king Jeroboam II (786-746 BC).  When Amos mentions that he does not belong to a “company of prophets” he refers to professional prophets which were commonly employed by rulers of all nations in those days.  Such prophets generally took their cue from what the ruler wanted to hear than from what God wanted to say to the ruler.  None of the prophets whose messages are recounted in the scriptures came from such groups but, rather, received their calls directly from God and preached a message often in contrast to what the rulers and the populace wanted to hear.  Such was the case with Amos, here confronted by Amaziah, the person in charge of all the royal prophets at Bethel.  Amaziah didn’t want Amos making any waves, nothing that would rile the king.  Israel fell to the Assyrians in 712 B.C. and never again became a nation in its own right.

Reading II, Ephesians 1:3-14  Ephesus, a city of over 100,000 inhabitants, was situated on the western coast of Asia Minor where the Cayster River empties into the Aegean Sea.  It was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and the commercial center of the region.  Paul lived there for over two years, supporting his ministry with his trade as a tentmaker.  From Ephesus Paul maintained contact with Christian communities around the Aegean and throughout Asia Minor.  Ephesus was the center of the religious cult of the fertility goddess Diana.  Her temple there, considered one of the wonders of the ancient world, was a center for pilgrimage for people from around the Mediterranean, supporting a thriving business in sales of silver miniatures of the goddess and the temple.  Paul’s ministry in Ephesus apparently caused such a drop in sales that the silversmiths of the city rioted and almost killed Paul.  The city magistrates dismissed their case, but Paul thought it wise to move on to safer localities. 

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians lacks his customary salutations to specific members of the community at the beginning and end of the letter.  Some of the earliest existent copies of the letter do not include the word “Ephesus” in the initial greeting.  This leads many scripture scholars to believe that Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was sent as a generic letter to all Christian communities in the region of Ephesus. 

This section of the letter is a beautiful summary of God’s plan revealed through Jesus Christ and, in particular, how God has called us to a relationship with him and a role within his divine plan.  Given the beautiful poetic manner in which this section of the letter is composed, it is believed that Paul may have been quoting here from hymns and prayers known to his readers.  Paul writes that God “has made known to us the mystery”.  Many people in Greek society of the time were into “mystery religions” in which those fully initiated were made privy to mysterious secrets which were purported to unlock the power of the gods for their personal benefit.

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