Archive for the ‘Fr. Denny’s Sunday Scripture Studies’ Category

Gospel, John 18:33-37  Although Jesus began his public ministry proclaiming that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17) and referred frequently to the Kingdom in conversation and parables, he was careful to never directly claim kingship.  His enemies believed Jesus was making such a claim indirectly in his preaching, but they lacked the clear evidence needed to convict him.  Many others thought Jesus to be the Messiah King whom they believed God would send to usher in an era of prosperity and prominence for the Jewish nation.  When the mother of James and John comes to ask that they receive special positions in the new government, she refers to it as “your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21), not “the kingdom”.  The only instances where Jesus uses the possessive “my kingdom” are during the Last Supper in Luke 22:30 and here in this discourse with Pilate. 

In the first three gospel accounts, Jesus is asked by the Jewish Sanhedrin if he is the Messiah.  In Matthew 26:64 Jesus responds: “You have said so.”  In Mark 14:62 Jesus answers directly, “I am.”  In Luke Jesus replies, “If I say so you will not believe.”  From this they believed Jesus was claiming to be a king who would claim a worldly kingdom.  Only in Luke 23:2 do they mention this claim when bringing Jesus before Pilate.  In the other accounts they don’t bring specific charges but merely state that they have found him deserving of death, a penalty which they were not legally allowed to impose, only the Roman governor.  On meeting Jesus Pilate gets right to the point asking him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  As an astute politician, Pilate had certainly been appraised of the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, especially after Jesus had just four days previous entered Jerusalem to the shouts of hundreds of people acclaiming him to be the Messiah King.  Others had certainly told Pilate about Jesus and his teaching about God’s kingdom.  He had undoubtedly given thought to whether this was a purely religious issue or if it had political ramifications which would demand his attention.  In the ensuing conversation, it quickly becomes clear to Pilate that Jesus posed no political threat.  “I find no guilt in him,” he informs the Jewish leaders.

In Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion”, four languages are spoken at different times.  Hebrew, the official language of Jewish people, and Aramaic, a variation more common in Galilee, are the two languages most frequently spoken in the movie.  Greek, the language of common people in most parts of the Roman Empire, was used in conversations between Pilate and his soldiers and among other non-Jewish people.  On the point of Jesus’ kingship in Pilate’s conversation with him, however, Pilate addresses Jesus in Latin which, at the time, was spoken only by the elite, the educated and royal class of the Roman world.  Jesus responds in perfect Latin, thus indicating to Pilate Jesus’ nobility.  That was the movie, of course.  What languages were actually used or what Pilate really believed about Jesus…other than believing in his heart that Jesus was innocent…is a mystery of which we have no way of knowing.  The important question is: what leads you to recognize Jesus as King and to place yourself under the authority of Christ the King?

Reading 1, Daniel 7:13-14  As mentioned last week, the book of Daniel recounts the story and visions of Daniel, a Jew deported to Babylon in 605 B.C. who served in the court of the king.  Daniel received a number of visions and was given a gift from God to interpret divine messages.  The Babylonian king trusted so much in Daniel’s ability to interpret dreams and give counsel that he placed Daniel in charge of all of his advisors.  The text of this passage is part of a vision Daniel received during the rule of King Belshazzar.  It was Belshazzar who had used the sacred cups and plates taken from the Jerusalem temple for a party, during which he saw the famous “handwriting on the wall” which Daniel interpreted to foretell the fall of the Babylonian kingdom to Persia in 539 BC (Daniel 5).  This particular vision begins with Daniel seeing the four beasts representing four major world kingdoms which would successively rule large territories encompassing the Jewish state and people.  All these kingdoms will be replaced by “one like a Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven” who “will receive [not take for himself by force] dominion, glory and kingship” in an everlasting kingdom. 

The four beasts are generally interpreted to refer to the kingdoms of Babylon, Media, Persia, and Macedonia.  Babylon was located in the region of modern Iraq.  Media was a major world power NW of modern Iran and an ally of Babylon.  Both were conquered by Persia, modern Iran, under King Cyrus in the later part of the 6th century BC.  Macedonia was the home territory of Alexander the Great who in the 4th century BC conquered the entire region from Greece to India.  At his death, his kingdom was divided among three of his generals, one of whose dynasty, the Seleucids, ruled Jewish territory until the Maccabean revolt which gained Jewish independence in the 2nd century BC.  As mentioned last week, the book of Daniel was actually rewritten a number of times.  The final form of the book was probably written in the time following the Maccabean victory.  Was Daniel’s vision completed, then, with the Maccabees or was the vision also meant for some moment off into the future?  While readers in the 2nd century BC would have interpreted the visions for their own time, Christians have considered the visions applicable as well to Jesus and an everlasting kingdom beyond the scope of worldly powers, as 1 Peter 5:11 says, “To him de dominion forever.  Amen.”

Reading II, Revelation 1:5-8  This passage is part of the initial greeting by the author of Revelation to “the seven churches in Asia” (Revelation 1:4), a region we call Asia Minor or modern day Turkey.  While seven specific communities are later named (Ephesus, Smyna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea), the number seven, symbol of perfection for Jewish people, likely refers to the entire church in all localities.  The imagery here is clearly influenced by the vision of Daniel in today’s first reading.  Alpha and Omega, repeated in Revelation 21:6 and 22:13, are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.  The phrase “the first and the last” is likewise used to refer to God in Revelations 1:17, 2:8, and Isaiah 41:4 and 44:6.  Today we say “from A to Z” to represent the complete sweep of all possibilities.  Here it refers to the infinite and eternal God.

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Gospel, Mark 13:24-32  Jesus uses imagery familiar to Jewish people regarding a future time of tribulation culminating in victory for God’s people.  This time is often referred to in the scriptures as the “Day of the Lord”.  Of this time Isaiah 13:9-10 states “the stars and constellations of the heavens send forth no light, the sun is dark when it rises, and the light of the moon does not shine”.  Ezekiel 32:7 speaks out against Pharaoh of Egypt: “I will cover the heavens and all their stars will I darken.  The sun I will cover with clouds and the moon shall not give its light”.  Joel 2:10 refers to the Day of the Lord: “The sun and the moon are darkened and the stars withhold their brightness.”  The book of Malachi repeats in 3:23 and 24 the verses of the Old Testament: “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the Day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day.” 

Some Christians are very focused on determining when the Day of the Lord, the time of Jesus’ Second Coming, will take place.  Some have believed they had determined the precise moment, their calculations based on their particular way of interpreting scripture and world events.  There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of such calculations of the Day of the Lord by various Christians over the centuries.  The Catholic Church professes faith in a Second Coming of Jesus, a dogma included in the Nicene Creed which we pray at Mass every weekend.  We do not seek to determine the timing of that Second Coming, however, believing that it is a mystery not even Jesus (“nor the Son”) was given to know.  We do best to focus less on determining the exact time than on being prepared at all times…prepared to stand strong with Jesus no matter what problems or catastrophes beset us.     

Reading 1, Daniel 12:1-3  The book of Daniel recounts visions of Daniel, a Jew deported to Babylonia in 605 B.C. along with Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael, all of whom served in the court of the king.  Prior to the general exile in 587 B.C. when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, there were a few limited deportations of skilled educated people whom the Babylonians thought could be of service to them.  The prophet Ezekiel had also been brought to Babylonia in one of these early deportations in 597 BC.  The king of Babylon placed Daniel in charge of all his advisors, an honor which would arouse considerable jealousy among the king’s advisors who were native Babylonians.

Some sections of the book of Daniel appear to have been written originally in Aramaic, others in Hebrew, and still others in Greek.  Aside from determining the original language, this combination indicates that the book was reworked a number of times over the centuries, probably to reflect faith concerns of each period.  The book is “apocalyptic”, a genre of literature pointing ahead to the Day of the Lord and consummation of history.  It was written to strengthen and comfort the faithful in a time of adversity.  Many of the images from Daniel are also found in the book of Revelations in the New Testament.

The name Daniel means “God is my judge”.  This could refer to God as a judge who determines one’s innocence or righteousness.  It can also refer to God as a protector.  Those who came to the forefront to lead the Jewish people in times of crisis prior to the establishment of the monarchy were called judges.  The name Michael means “Who is like God?” Michael also appears in the New Testament in Jude 1:9 and Revelations 12:7.

Reading II, Hebrews 10:11-14, 18  This text continues the discussion of Jesus as High Priest in comparison to those who held the office at the temple of Jerusalem.  He offered the perfect sacrifice capable of taking away sins.  Participating in his one-time sacrifice celebrated in the Eucharist brings forgiveness of sin and renders unnecessary the sin offerings and sacrifices of Jewish temple ritual.  Using the terms common to Jews who had become followers of Christ in this manner, the author of Hebrews is not encouraging activity in Jewish worship but rather providing his readers with a bridge to move from such rituals to those present in the Christian community.

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Gospel, Mark 12:38-44  A scribe was a person who could read and write, but the training and skills required of a good professional scribe were far more extensive than those basic abilities.  The scribe was not only educated to communicate in his own language but in the languages and alphabets of neighboring countries as well.  In addition to Hebrew, a Jewish scribe would probably be familiar with Egyptian, Sumerian and Greek.  Scribes were employed in the service of government, business and religion.  They helped with correspondence, kept records, wrote and translated documents.  They were familiar not only with languages but with other nations’ history and culture.  They often served kings as counselors, couriers and diplomats and were often given high administrative positions.

The Old Testament was compiled by scribes. Old Testament wisdom literature, in particular, was developed in schools of scribes.  While their sacred writings were important to Jewish people, their religious practice was centered more on the prayers and sacrifices offered at the temple in Jerusalem.  With the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians in 587 BC and the dispersion of Jewish people to many foreign lands, the sacred writings became increasing important as the means by which the Jewish faith could continue to survive.  Jewish people began to be known as “people of the book”.  Efforts were made to expand the ability to read and understand the scriptures to all Jewish men, not just a select group of professionals.  The roots of the synagogue movement date from the time of the Babylonian exile.  Jewish men were taught to read and write.  They gathered to read and discuss the word of God.  Schools were developed to teach Jewish boys to read and write and interpret the scriptures.  When they could demonstrate their abilities in these areas, they were considered sons of the faith, a passage celebrated in the Bar Mitzvah service.  A class of scribes we know as rabbis developed.  They were the theologians of Jewish society, experts in the Word of God and teachers of reading, writing and scriptural interpretation.  Schools of rabbis developed particular ways of interpreting the scriptures.  In time their collected interpretations acquired an authority almost equal to the Law of Moses. 

Scribes in the New Testament era tended to be associated with the Pharisee school of interpretation.  After the destruction of the second and last temple of Jerusalem in 68 A.D., Jewish priesthood disappeared since there were no longer any sacrifices.  The scribes (rabbis) became the uncontested leaders of Judaism and continue to be so today.

The text accuses the scribes of “devouring” the houses of widows.  William Barclay’s commentary says that scribes were to have a trade from which they made their income and could take no pay for their teaching.  That didn’t stop them from receiving gifts…sort of like a waitress who got no salary but lived off her tips.  Scribes commonly showered their attention on individuals of wealth with lengthy blessings and assurances of high places in heaven.  Widows were a particularly easy target.  Religious figures in every age, from priests to TV evangelists, should not use their position as a means for gaining personal prominence, prestige, or treasure.  We are to be servants and use our position to serve.

However before we condemn the scribes for taking donations from widows, we should note that Jesus’ ministry was financed on the inheritance of widows (Luke 8:1-3).  What separated Jesus’ ministry financing from that of the scribes?  I assume it was clear that Jesus’ supporters were financing his ministry and not a luxurious lifestyle.

We come to the poor widow’s donation of two small coins.  Upwards of 100,000 pilgrims passed through the temple of Jerusalem during the week of Passover.  For some, this was the visit of a lifetime, an event represented by the generosity of their donation.  Some came from as far away as Spain or Persia bringing significant contributions from their entire family or Jewish community.  The annual operation of the temple in which thousands of priest were involved in the course of the year depended on these Passover contributions which probably totaled the equivalent of millions of dollars.  As many institutions and organizations today give special recognition to major contributors by putting their names on buildings or lists of “President’s Circle” donors, so the priests in charge of the temple gave special recognition to major donors.  Priests with trumpets were positioned by the collection boxes and blew their trumpets when a sizeable contribution was placed in the coffers.  Today the phrase “to blow one’s own horn” refers to a person who boasts of their own achievements.  To be sure, the poor widow’s contribution of two coins received no fanfare or notice from anyone…except Jesus. 

Reading 1, 1 Kings 17:10-16  Zarephath was located near the Mediterranean about eight miles south of Sidon, well out of Jewish territory.  The people there worshipped Baal.  Baal was the god of rain and fertility for growing crops and raising animals.  Baal was by far the most popular, although not the supreme god, in the Canaanite pantheon of gods.  The popularity of Baal appealed to many Jewish people as well, including King Ahab and his queen Jezebel, who were untrue to God by worshipping other gods and putting more faith in Baal than in the God of Israel. 

During this period in the reign of King Ahab, the eastern Mediterranean region was suffering from a severe drought.  The king’s affinity for other gods was causing significant religious conflict in Judah and its capital city of Jerusalem.  Elijah retreated from there, preferring the peace and quiet of the wilderness across the Jordan River where ravens brought him food for two years.  God then sent him up into the region of Sidon, the main territory of the worshippers of Baal.  When Elijah asked the widow for food and drink, he didn’t tell her he was Jewish, but she figures it out, probably from his clothes and speech, and refers to “YOUR God”, thus indicating she is probably a worshiper of Baal like everyone else in the area.  Did she, as a follower of Baal, believe the promise Elijah gave her from the God of Israel?  Whether or not she believed, she was raised to be hospitable to strangers, in virtue of which she gave the last of her food to Elijah.  She very possibly reflected on the superiority of the God of Israel who provided for her through Elijah while Baal who, as a god of rain and fertility for crops, was obviously not coming through for his people.

Reading II, Hebrews 9:24-28  When we speak of the Sacrifice of the Mass, we must be mindful that Jesus died once for all in the perfect sacrifice.  No further sacrifice is needed.  In the Mass we remember that one-time sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and Jesus, through the words and actions of the priest, extends that sacrifice into the present moment.  The Mass is not a mere remembrance or representation of the Last Supper but rather its continuation, no more locked in coordinates of space and time than Jesus himself.

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Gospel, Mark 10:46-52  Jews traveling between Galilee in the north and Judea in the south skirted the intervening territory of Samaria by following the Jordan valley to the east.  The Jordan valley is called a “rift valley”, an area where two tectonic plates have been moving away from one another for thousands of years creating a great depression from the Sea of Galilee (640 feet below sea level) in the north to the Dead Sea (1290 feet below sea level) in the south.  Six miles north of the Dead Sea and about five miles west of the river lies the city of Jericho, an oasis with a significant outpouring of water, making it a lush green gem in the midst of the parched desert terrain.  Jericho was the only city of any size along the entire route north to Galilee and west to Jerusalem.  Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) was the chief tax collector at Jericho, becoming prosperous from taxes paid by the many wealthy people who maintained residences there.  Bartimaeus, in today’s gospel, made a living from the many visitors and travelers passing through Jericho.  As any blind street beggar would do, Bartimaeus had a regular spot along the main road leaving Jericho for Jerusalem.  The 17-mile journey wound through a desolate territory of craggy rock outcroppings where robbers often waited to attack a solitary traveler (see the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:29-37).  People rarely traveled the route alone but, instead, gathered near the entrance of Jericho in the early morning to make the trip with the security of a large group.  This scene takes place near that gathering point in that early morning hour. 

It is notable that Bartimaeus is mentioned by name rather than merely “a blind beggar”.  This may indicate that he was known to the early Christian communities for having become an outstanding disciple of Jesus.  There may also be significance in the meaning of his name.  On this point, however, there is a difference of opinion as to exactly what “Bartimaeus” means.  The word “bar” is Hebrew for “son”.  The second part has been interpreted as “unclean”, thus “son of uncleanness” referring to Jesus making him clean.  The more likely interpretation is that the name derives from the Greek word “timao” meaning a “prize” or “something of value”.  People commonly considered blindness, as well as other physical sufferings, to be punishment for God for their sins.  As such, they would not have seen much value in the blind beggar.  Jesus would have seen value in Bartimaeus that other people overlooked…truly a “son of value”…and Jesus gave him value as he followed him as a disciple. 

Bartimaeus had undoubtedly heard about Jesus from snippets of conversations as people passed by.  He may have fantasized about Jesus passing his way and what he would do.  Hearing that Jesus was actually passing by that very moment, Bartimaeus was not going to lose his opportunity.

Bartimaeus cast his cloak aside.  Certain groups in society were identifiable by the clothes they wore.  It may simply have been that beggars, for lack of resources, wore shabby cast-away clothing.  Casting the cloak aside is a symbol of putting aside one’s old way of life for a new one.

What Bartimaeus wants is obvious.  Why does Jesus ask him rather than just go ahead with the healing?  Jesus honors Bartimaeus by inviting him to state what he wants, something Jesus did for nearly everyone who sought his healing power.

Jesus tells Bartimaeus to “go your way”.  He give Bartimaeus freedom to choose his own way, and Bartimaeus chose the way of Jesus.  Before being called “Christians” followers of Jesus were known as people of the Way.  May we, like Bartimaeus, make Jesus’ way our way.

Reading 1, Jeremiah 31:7-9  Jeremiah was born in a village near Jerusalem around 650 BC.  He received his prophetic call as a young man during the reforms of King Josiah whom he supported.  Josiah’s successors, however, lacked zeal for the faith and got caught up the old idolatries and political intrigues which placed their small nation on a collision course with Babylon, one of the world powers of the day.  Babylonia eventually overran Judah and destroyed the temple of Jerusalem in 587 BC, forcing all people of influence into captivity in Babylon.  Because he had encouraged the king to be true to his commitment to Babylon and was at the time of the conquest imprisoned in Jerusalem, Jeremiah was not taken into exile but set free.  Tradition indicates, however, that, on his way to find a place with Jewish settlements in Egypt, Jeremiah was killed by fellow Jews who blamed Jeremiah’s preaching for their downfall.  The latter part of the book of Jeremiah transitions from the need for reform to post-exilic promise of a new covenant and return to their land.  This reading is taken from those words of consolation and promise.

Not all Jewish people were taken to Babylonia.  A great number escaped to resettle in lands throughout the Mediterranean region.  This spreading out to many lands is referred to as the “diaspora”.  In 539 BC, 48 years after the destruction of Jerusalem, Babylonia was defeated by Persia whose king Cyrus issued an edict permitting the Jewish people to return to their own land.  When Jerusalem and its temple were eventually rebuilt, it became a destination for pilgrimage for the majority of Jewish people who remained in the lands where they had settled.  By the time of Jesus it was common for 100,000 visitors to come “home” to Jerusalem for Passover and other major celebrations. 

Reading II, Hebrews 5:1-6  The High Priest offered gifts and sacrifices for all the people, particularly on the Day of Atonement.  The word translated as “deal patiently” is used in classical Greek writings to designate finding the golden mean between excess and lack of passion, thus the perfection of compassion.  This is the only place the word appears in the Bible.

Melchizedek was both king and priest of Salem (later Jerusalem) during the time of Abraham.  The text quoted in this reading is taken from Psalm 110:4 and referred to David who was a leader of both prayer and government I the same city.  Jesus becomes the perfection of this “order” of Melchizedek as both priest and king of the Kingdom of God.

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Gospel, Mark 10:35-45 Jesus had recently caught the apostles arguing over which of them was most important (Mark 9:33-37).  They were jockeying for positions of authority in the kingdom they expected him to establish here on earth.  Jesus’ teaching at that time did little to advance their understanding of the real nature of the kingdom or dampen their ambitions.  In Matthew 20:20-21 it is the mother of James and John who takes her boys in tow and puts the question to Jesus.  Here James and John bring their request to Jesus by themselves.  It is a brazen move, and we can imagine that the brothers had talked about it a great deal as they strategized how to get the key positions of authority which the other ten apostles also coveted.  Their boldness may have come from considering themselves Jesus’ favorites, two of the three (along with Peter) on the inside track selected to accompany Jesus on those occasions when the others were told to stay behind.  Their opening statement, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask”, betrays their confidence…or overconfidence…in their relationship with Jesus, like children making a request from a doting parent.  How odd it seems to us to ask that God promise to do our will unconditionally when it should be the other way around…we should be seeking to do God’s will unconditionally. 

Jesus tells them that they don’t know what they are asking for.  They don’t really understand Jesus’ true identity, the nature of his mission, or the reality that will be his kingdom.  They quickly declare “Yes!” to being able to share Jesus’ cup (“sharing one’s cup” is an Old Testament way of stating a sharing in the destiny assigned a person by God) and baptism (which will be one of suffering and death). 

We shouldn’t get down on the two for their attempt.  The other ten were after the same thing, just less blatant about making their wishes known, thus explaining their reaction of indignation at James and John.  Jesus tries to prepare them for his kingdom by indicating that they must have a different mindset than worldly rulers who lord it over people rather than serving them.

A fun note for left-handers like myself:  The Greek word for left hand used here as James and John request places of honor at Jesus’ right and left hand is “euonomos” which translates literally as “well-named”.  Greeks considered the left hand as the lucky side, a rare positive attitude regarding left-handedness in comparison to the words used for left-handers in most other languages: sinister (Latin), bad (Korean), weak (Swahili), clumsy (Portuguese), etc.

Reading 1, Isaiah 53:10-11  This text is part of the fourth passage in Isaiah (42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50;4-9a, 52:13-52:12) depicting the figure of the Suffering Servant of God.  Did Jesus think of himself as the embodiment of the Servant?  He didn’t say so directly, but he did speak of his mission of suffering: “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected…and be killed” (Mark 8:31).  Note also the similarity of the words spoken by the Father at Jesus’ baptism, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11), and the first verse of the first Servant passage, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased” (Isaiah 42:1).  Note also the similarity between the first verse of this reading (53:10b) and the last verse of our gospel (Mark 10:45).  Christians, from early on, identified Jesus as the Suffering Servant. The traditional Jewish interpretation of this passage referring to the nation of Israel rather than to any single person developed in the 2nd century AD and was possibly a polemic against the Christian interpretation of it referring to Jesus. 

What could it mean that “the Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity”?  To “please” does not here infer “enjoyment” but rather the Lord’s willful decision for the fulfillment of his plan which would somehow prosper specifically because of the total self-abnegation of the servant.  I think it is a bit clearer in the Jewish translation of this text: “It pleased the LORD to crush him by disease, to see if his soul would offer itself in restitution, that he might see his seed, prolong his days, and that the purpose of the Lord might prosper by his hand.” It is clearly a statement of atonement.   

Yom Kippur is also called the “Day of Atonement”.   Jewish Talmudic scholars were divided over the nature of atonement, whether or not a person can atone for the sins of another or only his or her own sins.  The Isaiah text would seem to back the first interpretation.  The servant’s self-sacrificing readiness to bear misery relieved and delivered those guilty of sin from retribution.  By allowing his own life to be consumed as a guilt offering, he might lead the guilty to forsake sin, inspiring heartfelt repentance by recognizing the grave consequences of their sins either as they affect themselves or their affect on the lives of others.

Reading II, Hebrews 4:14-16  Jewish law set up cities of refuge to which a person guilty of committing unintentional homicide could flee and find asylum.  According to Numbers 35:28, “there he must stay until the death of the high priest”.  As the High Priest brought atonement for all of Israel through the rituals of Yom Kippur, the death of the High Priest brought atonement for the inadvertent manslayer.  This passage gives extra meaning to this text in which Jesus is referred to as a “great high priest”.  It also gives us insight into how the prestige and authority of being high priest had become self-serving resulting in use of the office for one’s own benefit rather than serving the people.

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Gospel, Mark 10:17-30  Although this account is found in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke…”synoptic” means with the same eye, indicating that these first three gospels are similar in their content), the person approaching Jesus is presented differently in each gospel.  Matthew 19:16 says “someone approached” Jesus.  Luke 18:18 states “an official asked him this question”.  Only Mark says that a man “ran up” and “knelt down before” Jesus as he was setting out on a journey.  While the manner of presenting the question could be interpreted as merely an intellectual query in the other two gospels, the man’s manner of coming to Jesus in Mark’s gospel indicates an inner struggle truly seeking the way to live one’s life.  The man is truly hungry to know what he should do.   Jesus looks at him and “loved him”.  Although we can assume that Jesus loved everyone, the gospels only mention three people specifically loved by Jesus: Lazarus, who was raised from the dead and whose sisters referred to him as “the one you love” (John 11:3); the “disciple” referred to as “the one whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 21:20); and here in reference to this man.  Clearly Jesus saw a very good person before him, someone he would like to have as a disciple.  It must have been sad for both of them when the man went away. 

This man is the only person in the bible whom Jesus tells to go and sell everything and give the money away to the poor.  Jesus never challenged Peter in the same way.  Through all his time with Jesus, Peter retained his house, his boat and other possessions.  Why this man and not Peter or anyone else?  The difference between Jesus’ first statement about keeping the commandments and the further statement to sell everything and give to the poor illustrates the difference between God’s general word for everyone to follow and God’s specific word for an individual.  The main obstacle for this man to experience peace and complete God’s will was his attachment to material things.  His going away sad indicated that the security he felt from material riches was effectively more important to him than having peace in his heart regarding eternal salvation.  The obstacle for Peter was not the security of material possessions but rather his love for fishing as indicated in Jesus’ question to him in John 21:15, “Do you love me more than these?”  God has a general word for all of us.  Strive to discern his specific word for you in light of whatever obstacles you may be allowing to get in the way. 

The apostles are surprised at Jesus’ statement regarding the difficulty for rich people to enter heaven.  Even though they knew there were exceptions to the rule, the disciples, along with most people of the time, considered wealth as an indication of being particularly blessed and loved by God (a theme dealt with in the book of Job).  Jesus compares the chances of a rich person entering heaven to that of a camel passing through the eye of a needle.  This makes more sense knowing that the small door to get into and out of Jerusalem when the large city gates had been closed for the night was known as the “eye of the needle”.  A man might enter the city for security overnight, but the doorway was too small for a man to enter standing up or with baggage or weapons.  Such things had to remain outside the city gates until the next morning.  Likewise, the young man would have to leave behind all the material goods that gave him security if he were to be free to “enter in” to being a follower of Jesus. 

Reading 1, Wisdom 7:7-11  In his attachment to material riches, the man in today’s gospel lacked wisdom.  Prudence, being sensible as to the appropriate thing to do or say, is associated with wisdom, the ability to make good decisions.  Prudence accompanied wisdom in enabling a person  to clearly recognize and choose the will of God.  These qualities are here valued as more precious than power, wealth, physical beauty and health, and even seeing the beauty of the natural world…things so sought after in our world today as they have been for centuries.  By making prudence and wisdom his priority, however, the author of wisdom was richly blessed in many ways.  Acting with prudence and wisdom before God carried with it no promise of material wealth as some promoters of what is called the “gospel of prosperity” might claim.  Jesus never achieved material wealth.  According to tradition, neither did any of the apostles.  Nevertheless, putting God first and honestly seeking God’s will, a person will have the blessings of using material things more wisely, being less dependent upon them, and being freer to share them with others in need. 

Reading II, Hebrews 4:12-13  Among their armaments, Roman soldiers employed a double-edged sword called a “gladius” from which was derived the word “gladiator”.  Longer than a dagger and shorter than the more cumbersome long sword, the gladius was maneuverable and suited to close hand-to-hand combat.  The Romans did not invent the gladius.  We find references to it in Psalm 149:6 and Proverbs 5:4, indicating that such a sword was used by other armies before the time of Roman domination.  It was probably the sword’s advantage in close combat for which the author of Hebrews used it as an analogy for the Word of God.  Paul is often pictured with a two-edged sword.  This association may derive partly from an assumption in past times that Paul was the author of the letter to the Hebrews.  Most scripture scholars credit the work to some other unknown author.  Still, Paul made such great use of the written word in his evangelization to the Gentiles.  He wielded well the sword of the Word of God.

Today the double-edged sword refers to something that can be both a personal benefit and a liability at the same time, possibly coming at some significant personal cost or risk.  The soldier had to wield the double-edged sword with care that the edge pointing back at him not do him harm.  Although this meaning was probably not on the mind of the author of Hebrews, it can be applied to the Word of God in the following way: do not think of the word of God as only something to challenge others.  The soul and spirit of the person who uses God’s word to guide others will also be penetrated by that word, exposed to that word, and challenged to live that word before applying it to the lives of others.  Before preaching to others, a preacher must let the word of God speak to and challenge him.

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 Gospel, Mark 7:31-37  Tyre and Sidon were cities on the Mediterranean coast and capitals of districts bordered by the Mediterranean on the west, the upper Jordan River on the east, and Galilee to the south.  Jesus and his disciples had followed the Jordan valley north of the Sea of Galilee into the regions of Tyre and Sidon, perhaps a time of vacation or retreat, where they had an encounter with a rather persistent Syrophoenician woman who had prevailed upon Jesus to heal her daughter (Mark 7:24-30).  Jesus and his troupe now return to the Sea of Galilee, but rather than following the western shore to Capernaum, they cross the Jordan River out of Galilee and follow the eastern shore through Bethsaida and on into the district of the Decapolis, a confederation of “ten cities” and their outlying areas. 

Jesus had been in that district previously, having cast an evil spirit out of a man and into a herd of pigs which then ran over a cliff and died (Mark 5:1-20).  Witnesses to Jesus’ power at that time begged him to leave their territory, afraid perhaps that the non-pork eating Jew Jesus was about to wipe out the entire pig population.  The fellow from whom the spirit had been cast out, however, “went off and began to proclaim in the Decapolis what Jesus had done for him” (Mark 5:20).  It may well have been his witness that encouraged people in this passage to bring the deaf-mute man to Jesus.

Why did Jesus heal in such a strange manner, sticking his fingers in the man’s ears, putting his spit on the man’s tongue, looking heavenward, groaning and shouting?  You would probably not go back to a doctor who used such healing techniques.  Such may well have been, however, the way healers of that day did things. The man to be healed probably considered it good technique.  Jesus had power to heal by his word alone, but faith in Jesus’ ability to heal was essential for that healing to take effect.  Recall how Jesus could not heal many people in his hometown of Nazareth due to their lack of faith.  The actions Jesus performed were apparently necessary for the deaf-mute to believe Jesus could really heal him. 

Note the retention of the Aramaic word “ephphatha” in the gospel text along with the translation of the gospel into Greek and subsequently into other languages.  There are three other instances in the gospels where the Aramaic spoken by Jesus is retained, the others being “Abba”, “Talitha koum” and “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani”.  We don’t know why these phrases were retained in Aramaic, but their inclusion lends a certain force to the narrative of the actual accounts. 

Reading 1, Isaiah 35:4-7a  Isaiah received his prophetic call while at prayer in the temple of Jerusalem in 742 BC and prophesied in the southern kingdom of Judah during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah.  These were challenging years during which the northern kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria (722 BC).  Those Jews who escaped the Assyrians headed south into Judah where they sought refuge in towns and cities.  It is believed that in a matter of a couple years the population of Jerusalem more than doubled.  Although the two countries of Israel and Judah hadn’t always gotten along and had gone to battle against each other from time to time, they were sister countries in that the population of both countries was nearly 100% Jewish.  With the collapse of Israel, the crowding of her cities, the drain on supplies and resources, and the presence of the Assyrians just a handful of miles north of Jerusalem, Judah faced significant challenges.  In those troubled times, Isaiah challenged his king and countrymen to follow a path more pleasing to God if they were going to have the blessing of his protection.  In later chapters, the prophecies from Isaiah look the current challenges to a loss of God’s blessing but then a time of restoration.  This passage is from the prophecies regarding the time of restoration.  Jerusalem was, in fact, surrounded a few times by foreign armies, but it would be another 135 years until the nation of Judah would fall and her people be exiled to Babylon. 

Reading II, James 2:1-5  The letter of James focuses on the practicalities of not simply professing but living the faith.  James is concerned about how we are to relate to one another as Christian individuals and as a community.  We are not to show partiality for or against anyone, particularly not based on worldly standards of importance.

Isn’t it natural, however, to give special attention to people of influence, wealth and position?  If the pope or President Obama or Bill Gates were to be in attendance at Mass, we would certainly give them special attention.  Based on this reading from James, we should be aware of anyone new or visiting at Mass and show them the same respect as people of equal importance and worthy of the same attention as visiting civil dignitaries.

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Gospel, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23  A hug or kiss expresses affection.  A handshake is a sign of friendship or agreement.  In myriad ways we give external expression to what we hold within our minds and hearts.  Each culture develops common practices or customs of how we express ourselves in relationship to God and one another.  Consider the many ways we express ourselves in prayer.  We genuflect or bow to express allegiance and subservience to God.  We kneel as an extended sign of the same.  We stand out of respect for the word of God in the gospel.  We raise our hands in praise or extend them in petition.  As long as such physical actions match what we hold in our hearts, they are good and appropriate.  When ritualized and repeated numerous times, however, any of these actions can become mere habit or custom, a mere external motion unaccompanied by internal attitudes.  They can even be distorted into a prideful show of one’s religiosity accompanied by a judgmental attitude toward others not as observant of such practices.  In this Jesus found cause to contend with the Pharisees who performed acts for others to see and admire their religiosity.  They, in turn, challenged Jesus for not requiring his disciples to observe customary actions such as washing of hands…their awareness that Jesus’ disciples had not washed their hands indicates how closely they were observing him for anything to use against him. 

Why were the Pharisees so focused on external expressions of the Jewish faith?  They lived at a time of first Greek and then Roman dominance of Jewish territory, a dominance accompanied by attempts to turn young people away from the faith and culture of their ancestors to the Greco-Roman culture.  The Pharisees were concerned about losing the hearts and minds of young Jewish people and their parents.  The solution, they reasoned, was to emphasize the externals of their faith as an example for others to follow.  That’s why Jesus could accurately comment that “all their works are performed to be seen” and why they widened their prayer shawls and attached huge tassels and prayed out in public (Matthew 25:3, 5).  It is also why they looked down on other Jews who weren’t as observant about the religious practices and who, in their way of thinking, were failing to give good example to others. 

While it is good to give good example, focusing on modeling faith practices as the Pharisees did can inadvertently lead to overemphasizing externals and neglecting the more important internal attitudes such things practices should represent.  As such many Pharisees suffered a disconnect which Jesus notes in this gospel text with the quote from Isaiah 29:13.

In Psalm 51:10 David asks God to “create a clean heart for me and renew in me a steadfast spirit”.  We do well to make that our prayer as well…commitment and faith expression that begins from a steadfast heart. 

Reading 1, Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8  Other nations worshipped idols which people had fabricated and placed in their temples and in their homes.  In that and only that sense, their gods were close to them.   Israel’s God was not close in the sense of being a physical entity they could see and touch, but no other nation had “gods so close to it as the Lord” who was not limited to a niche in a temple but rather accessible to people anywhere and at all times.

We do not know what impression Israel’s laws made on other nations of their day.  Comparisons to the codes of law of other countries in the ancient Near East indicate that Jewish Law uniquely included laws providing for more humane treatment for all peoples…Jews and foreigners, free people and slaves.  Observance of the law for Jewish people was not tied to winning God’s approval but in giving evidence to the nations of the wisdom, intelligence and justice of God and the code of law given by God through which they could live in good order with God and one another. 

Reading II, James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27  In the few verses previous to this reading, James commented on a belief that everything that happens in life, including temptation, is predetermined by God.  James counters that belief by teaching that all that comes from God is good and, likewise, all good comes from God.  We understand that God allows evil but does not cause it to happen.  God gives each of us a free will with which we can choose good and reject evil.

James continues with a theme repeated several times in his letter: hearing the word and believing in the head is not sufficient.  We must be “doers of the word and not hearers only”, giving proof by our love and care of others through our actions and not merely by kind words and best wishes.

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Gospel, John 6:51-58  With this passage, a continuation of our gospel readings from the past two Sundays, Jesus ends his teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum on his being the Bread of Life come down from heaven.  The dynamics of teaching in a synagogue differed considerably from that of modern-day preaching during a church service.  While in some denominations the people may shout out an affirmation of “Alleluia!” or “Amen!”, people would consider it out of place to challenge the preacher openly during his sermon (it only happened to me once in 32 years).  What followed the scriptural reading in the synagogues of Jesus’ time was more of an open discussion on the proper interpretation of what had been read.  The one who did the reading gave his interpretation first.  Then everyone else could join in.  At times this resulted in heated debates and angry reactions such as when the people in Nazareth wrestled Jesus out of their synagogue with the intention of throwing him off a cliff (Luke 4:28-29 ).

The exchange at Capernaum had been very lively.  With each challenge, Jesus spoke with more explicit language about himself as the Bread of Life and the need for people to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  After an animal was sacrificed to God in the Temple of Jerusalem, it was given to the family to share in a sacred meal.  To somehow understand how Jesus could be the sacrifice and the people partakers of his flesh was difficult enough, but the thought of drinking blood was completely contrary to Jewish sensitivities.  Blood belonged to God alone.  People were not allowed to even touch blood and became ritually impure by doing so.  As subsequent verses will indicate, many of Jesus’ disciples left because they could not accept this teaching.  In one of his reflections, my spiritual director Fr. Gerald Keefe wrote that, given the Jewish centuries-long struggle to teach One God in the face of temptations from other cultures to idolatry and polytheism, it had to be a great gift of faith that so many disciples stayed with Jesus and came to believe in him as divine. 

Keep in mind that John’s gospel was probably written more than 60 years after this event.  The readers from that era would have understood this teaching with reference to the Eucharist.  Since this teaching is not found in the other gospels, we can surmise that it was included in the gospel of John in response to issues being raised at that time regarding the true nature of the Eucharistic presence of Jesus.  Those who challenged Jesus and the disciples who eventually left over this teaching represented latter-day Christians having difficulty accepting the Eucharist as the true body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Reading 1, Proverbs 9:1-6  Intelligence involves knowledge and understanding.  It is a gift which is nourished and expanded through study.  More important than intelligence, however, is wisdom which can be considered “applied intelligence” in making right decisions.  Without wisdom, intelligence can be directed in selfish and even destructive avenues.  Many books of the Hebrew scriptures are classified as “wisdom literature”, largely comprised of short sayings to be memorized and applied in the process of making decisions.  The wise person could read and absorb those sayings eating of the food and drinking of the wine of wisdom. 

Wisdom has built her house of seven columns.  Don’t just think of buildings here…the scriptures were written in columns on scrolls.  The book of Proverbs may have been written in seven columns…seven, of course, being the number of perfection…as though to say to the astute reader, “Come in through these seven columns and you will be fed with the banquet of wisdom prepared for those who will read and learn.”

Reading II, Ephesians 5:15-20  Jewish wisdom literature is replete with statements comparing foolish and wise ways of living.  Jesus drew on that when he likened a person who listens to his words and puts them into practice to a wise person who built his house on rock.  Conversely, the one who does not listen and put Jesus’ words into practice is like the foolish man who built his house on sand (Matthew 7:24-27).  Here Paul uses the foolish-wise combination to encourage watchfulness and virtuous living. 

Does the music we listen to influence how we live?  News about the recent killings at the Sikh temple in Milwaukee indicate that the gunman was a member of a rock band whose white-supremacy music spewed out a message of hate towards non-whites and that they played at concerts where all the other bands and those attending shared that same attitude.  Whether or not the music turned people’s minds and souls to such hatred, it undoubtedly fed such hatreds.  St. Paul encouraged his readers to express their faith singing and playing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  Music can move the soul and give a person avenues of expressing and deepening faith in Jesus Christ.

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Gospel, John 6:41-51  While the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke include the account from the Last Supper as Jesus gives his disciples his body and blood under the forms of bread and wine, John’s gospel does not.  John 13-17 uniquely includes the washing of feet and an extended prayer by Jesus for the unity and strength of his church.   In this text from John 6 Jesus speaks of himself as the “Bread of Life” with the promise that whoever eats this bread will live forever, a clear reference to the Eucharistic presence of Jesus.  Why does John present the teaching in this manner rather than quoting Jesus’ statements at the Last Supper as did the other three evangelists?   

It is generally believed that John’s gospel was written some time after the other three.  His readers were very familiar with the words of inauguration repeated at the Eucharistic assembly every week.  There was no need for John to repeat the words.  He wanted to focus his teaching, instead, on a few related issues, one of which continues to be a challenge and the other a question of debate yet today. 

The challenge is the call to serve others and work for the unity of believers (John 13-17), a challenge incumbent upon all who receive Jesus in communion, thereby reaffirming their commitment to love God and neighbor as Jesus has directed.  It is so easy to for communion to become a privatized experience of unity with God with little or no sense of association or responsibility to the rest of the Body.  Communion is not merely a gift or grace bestowed upon us.  In receiving communion we, for our part, renew our commitment to love and serve others in Jesus’ name.  The New Covenant is ratified once again.

The question, probably debated at the time John wrote the gospel as it is still debated by Christians today, has to do with the reality of the Eucharist we receive.  Do the bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Christ as we teach in the Catholic Church?  Is it merely a symbol of the unity of the people as the Body of Christ, as some other  Christian denominations believe, through which people merely express their unity by sharing bread and wine?  A good indicator of what a church believes can be surmised from what they do with breads left over after the service.  Are they guarded in a special place as we Catholics place them in a tabernacle?  Are they eaten as normal food or put back in storage with breads not used in the service?  The Catholic Church interprets Jesus’ statements in John 6 in a Eucharistic context and the bread and wine as truly his flesh and blood given to us to eat and drink, not merely as a symbol.  For that reason the bread become the Body of Christ is retained in the tabernacle for adoration and distribution to the faithful.

Reading 1, 1 Kings 19:4-8   Having single-handedly faced and vanquished 450 prophets of Baal by the power of God (1 Kings 18), Elijah for some reason loses his confidence in God’s saving power on receiving a message that Queen Jezebel wants to kill him.  Elijah goes on the run, first to Beersheba (today a city of over 150,000 population at an oasis in the Negev Desert of southern Judea) where he leaves his servant.  Full of anxiety, he then flees deeper into the desert by himself.  Although we might wonder about this change in Elijah, we need only reflect on how we ourselves can fluctuate between being very strong and wimpy in our faith and discipleship.

The food provided for the journey revitalizes Elijah for the journey.  Note that the angel of God did not tell Elijah to go to the mountain nor had Elijah mentioned Horeb (Sinai) as his destination.  God knew that Elijah needed to return to the place where Moses had received strength and guidance from God.  Even great prophets need time to retreat, reflect, and recharge their batteries.

Elijah rested in the shade of a broom tree.  I read that there are a variety of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs called broom trees.  Most grow in dry climates and are adapted to fires which kill the above-ground parts of the plant but create conditions for re-growth from the roots.  If broom trees were known to Jewish people for that characteristic, it would be very symbolic that Elijah, burned out from his recent encounters and threats, would be recharged in the shade of a broom tree.

Reading II, Ephesians 4:30-5:2  With a wry face and the words “Good grief!” Charlie Brown and friends expressed frustration countless times with their own failure and that of others to live up to expectations.  Paul tells Christians from the region of Ephesus: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God!”  Just in case they didn’t know what grieves the Holy Spirit, he provided a quick list as well as a list of what causes the Holy Spirit to rejoice over us.  Ultimately, the model of what would make God rejoice is Jesus “in whom,” as the Father proudly states in Matthew 4:17, “ I am well pleased.”  We are to be “imitators” of Christ.  Paul must have noted how people tend to imitate those they admire…parents, celebrities, and heroes or all sorts…for he told his readers many times (1 Cor. 4:6 / 1 Cor. 11:1 / Eph. 5:1 / Phil. 3:17 / 1 Thes. 1:6 / 2 Thes. 3:7 / 2 Thes. 3:9) with enough confidence in his imitation of Christ as to offer himself as an example to follow.  This theme was the basis of one of the great works of spiritual reflection, “The Imitation of Christ”, by Thomas a Kempis (available on line in English at www.leaderu.com/cyber/books/imitation/imitation.html ) first published anonymously (so appropriately pointing the reader to Jesus and not to the author) in 1416. 

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