Tag Archives: Ordinary time

23 September 2018: Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Wis 2:12, 17-20   Ps 54:3-4, 5, 6 and 8   Jas 3:16-4:3   Mk 9:30-37

Discipleship: radical service to non-people

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary readings present stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. This week’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to hear the call to service and its implications.

The first reading from the book of Wisdom describes a just man who is persecuted by the unrighteous because he follows God’s law. Because the just man is patient and gentle, the unrighteous condemn him to death. “If he is a son of God, God will deliver him,” they say. The Lectionary editors chose this reading because of its many parallels to Jesus’ second passion prediction in today’s gospel.

The second reading continues the letter of James. Although this letter is traditionally ascribed to James, who was executed in 62 AD, internal evidence indicates a different author wrote the letter between 90-100 AD. The letter is an exhortation that focuses on moral conduct. In today’s reading the author addresses faults that divide a believing community. He tells his hearers that when “malice and factions exist in a believing community, disorder follows.” Passions (literally “selfish pleasures”) cause strife and fights. The author urges the practice of “wisdom,” which leads to peace in the ekklesia.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus again predicts his passion, death, and resurrection, and continues his teaching on discipleship.

  • Passion prediction. Jesus tells the disciples that “he will be handed over to the hands of people .” The Greek verb παραδίδωμι (pah-rah-DIH-doh-mee) means “to hand over” or “to give over.” Jesus’ uses the passive voice to suggest that God is the one handing Jesus over and that all is unfolding according to God’s plan. Jesus also says he “will rise.” Jesus uses the active voice to indicate he will again take up the divine power that he had set aside in service to God’s plan. The disciples fail to understand Jesus’ meaning.
  • Parable-in-action about discipleship. The disciples are so out of touch with Jesus’ passion prediction and his model of service that they debate about who is Jesus’ greatest disciple. Jesus realizes that his own model of service isn’t enough to get through to them; now he presents a child as a parable-in-action. In the ancient world, children were non-persons: they had no legal rights or social standing; they were totally dependent on others for nurture and protection. Kindness to children produced no material or social gain to adults. When Jesus embraces the child, he acknowledges and accepts the non-person. Disciples must become slaves to the least, the non-people, if they wish to have a place in the kingdom.

Today’s readings again challenge every disciple to reexamine his or her understanding of discipleship. Jesus’ own life of service, including rejection and death, is the model. It’s human nature to focus on discipleship’s end-state (being first in the kingdom), rather than the day-to-day work (being handed over to others). Jesus calls us to follow him, his words and his actions. If we want to be the greatest, we have to embrace non-people every day: those with no social power, with no economic power, who can’t help themselves, who can’t do anything for us. Are we handing ourselves over? Who deserves our service?

—Terence Sherlock

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16 September 2018: Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Is 50:5-9a   Ps 116:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9   Jas 2:14-18   Mk 8:27-35

Discipleship: deny yourself, pick up your cross, repeat daily

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary readings present stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. This week’s readings ask each RCIA participant and each believing community member to look closely at his or her discipleship.

The first reading describes Isaiah’s “suffering servant,” who is a prophet to the Jewish people in exile in Babylon. Although the people reject his message, he continues to deliver God’s message because he knows that God will prove him correct. Christians see in the suffering servant a type or foretelling of Jesus’ life and mission. By extension, every disciple chooses to be a suffering servant who witnesses to Jesus’ ministry and mission. The Lectionary editors chose this reading to parallel Jesus’ prediction of his passion in today’s gospel.

The second reading continues the letter of James. Although this letter is traditionally ascribed to James, who was executed in 62 AD, internal evidence indicates the letter was written between 90-100 AD. The letter is an exhortation that focuses on moral conduct. In today’s reading the author criticizes believing community members who make distinctions between faith and works. Some in the ekklesia (possibly Gnostics) hold that simply believing in Jesus is sufficient for salvation. The author corrects them: faith and works are two sides of the same coin. Proper conduct comes about only when a believer has an authentic commitment to God in faith (Jas 2:18, 26).

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus asks the million-dollar question on which discipleship hinges: Who do you say I am? He addresses his current disciples first, then invites the crowd (everyone, including us) to respond.

  • Peter and the disciples. By naming Jesus messiah or anointed (“christos” in Greek, “Christ” in English), Peter answers Jesus’ question correctly, but incompletely. First century Judaism did not have a common definition of messiah: some expected a military conqueror; others, a political leader; still others, a religious reformer. The Romans and Jewish leaders would see any messiah as a threat to the empire and to Judea’s stability.
  • Jesus’ reaction. Jesus knows that his disciples still don’t understand who he is. He tells them bluntly (no more parables) he is a suffering messiah who will be rejected and executed, but who will rise again. By calling Peter “Satan” (which means “adversary” or “tester”), Jesus shows that human thinking can sometimes be so wrong that it becomes adversarial to God’s plans. God’s thinking turns this world’s values upside down. Jesus calls disciples to turn-around (metanoia) their human thinking.
  • The crowd of potential disciples. By including the crowd, Jesus directs his teaching to both his current disciples and to everyone who wishes to follow him. First, deny yourself. You must act selflessly and put everyone else first. Next, pick up your cross. To follow Jesus is to share completely in his journey. (Mark’s own community knew people who were recently executed by Nero during the Christian purges in Rome in the 60s.) This is what you must do to follow every day.

Today’s readings challenge every disciple to reexamine his or her response. Discipleship requires self-denial and readiness to suffer. This is what following the way of Jesus means. When we tailor our words and actions to win the world’s acceptance, we lose our discipleship. When we skip over the more difficult parts of the gospel (like loving the neighbor), we lose our discipleship. Discipleship is neither safe nor comfortable; if we think denying ourselves is easy, we’ve lost our discipleship. Who do you say Jesus is? How much do you want to follow him?

—Terence Sherlock

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9 September 2018: Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Is 35:4-7a   Ps 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10   Jas 2:1-5   Mk 7:31-37

Be opened to healing

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary readings present stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. This week’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to consider how deafness affects us.

In the first reading the prophet Isaiah foretells God’s mighty acts when the Jewish exiles return from Babylon: “the deaf one’s ears are opened,” and “the mute tongue sings for joy.” The Lectionary editors chose this passage because Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s promises in today’s gospel.

The second reading continues the letter of James. Traditionally this letter was ascribed to James, who was executed in 62 AD. However, internal evidence indicates the letter was written in the late first century (90-100 AD). The letter is an exhortation that focuses on moral conduct. In today’s reading the author warns his community about the danger of partiality: judging people by appearances. He warns the ekklesia about right treatment of the poor, and reminds his hearers that “God chose the poor” to be “heirs of the kingdom.” That is, through baptism we are God’s adopted children and share equally in God’s kingdom, based on God’s love for us.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is traveling through gentile areas outside of his home base of Galilee. While on the road, he cures several people and feeds four thousand people. Today we hear how Jesus cures a deaf man.

  • Mark’s geography. Mark has Jesus travel north through Tyre and Sidon, then east, and finally south to the region of the Decapolis (“ten cities”). The route is theological rather than logical: Jesus tours the whole of the southern Phoenician gentile regions before he begins his journey to Jerusalem (Mk 9). The journey also foreshadows the disciples’ eventual post-Resurrection mission to the gentiles.
  • Healing a deaf man. Earlier in Mark, Jesus healed a possessed man in this district (Mk 5:1-20), so the gentiles already know about Jesus and his healing powers. People bring a deaf man and implore Jesus to heal him. Taking the man away from the crowd, Jesus touches the man’s ears and tongue, and, speaking in his home language of Aramaic, commands: “Ef-fah-THAH!”–“Be opened!” Immediately the man can hear and is able to speak clearly. The early ekklesia recognized the sacramental signs in Jesus’ healing, and incorporated them into the baptism rite (anointing the ears, touching the tongue).
  • The gentiles’ reaction. The overly enthusiastic crowd proclaims, that is, “speaks publicly about something that is divine in origin,” Jesus’ mighty act. Mark implies the gentiles recognize Jesus’ salvific mission, even as his disciples are still deaf to his teachings. The gentiles profess their faith, quoting Isaiah 35:5-6 and actions ascribed to God alone.

Today’s readings challenge RCIA participants and the believing community to sharpen our hearing. Isaiah tells us that God will heal and save those who need healing and saving. The gospel emphasizes that we must ask to be healed and saved. Our world is damaged by human selfishness; we can’t admit that we’ve become deaf to God’s voice. Jesus’ actions and words restore communication and human life to its fullest, healing what is broken between God and humans. Baptism heals our spiritual deafness to God’s word, but the world’s constant blaring can make us deaf again. Do we hear God’s voice calling us, or do we prefer the world’s noise? Do we ask to be healed, or are we waiting for something to happen? Are we open?

—Terence Sherlock

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2 September 2018: Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Dt 4:1-2, 6-8   Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5   Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27   Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Discipleship: a set of rules or a way of life?

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary readings present stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. This week’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to consider how God’s laws and Jesus’ teachings must be the basis for our discipleship.

The first reading is from Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Torah. Moses address the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land, giving advice on how to live once they are settled and exhorting them to stay faithful to God’s covenant. Moses warns the people “not add to what God commands you, or subtract from it.” The Lectionary editors chose this reading because of Jesus’ criticism of “disregarding God’s commandments” in today’s gospel.

The second reading begins a continuous reading from the letter of James. Traditionally this letter was thought to be from James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem ekklesia, who was executed by stoning in 62 AD. However, internal evidence indicates this letter was written in the late first century (90-100 AD). The letter is an exhortation that focuses on moral conduct. In today’s reading the author says that God brings forth Christians by “the word of truth,” implanted at baptism. Christians are made not simply by hearing the word, but by acting on it. Discipleship requires Christians to act for others and to make moral choices for themselves.

After five weeks of readings from John’s gospel, this week the gospel returns to Mark. Today’s conflict story occurs immediately after Mark’s version of Jesus feeding the five thousand and walking on water. The Pharisees and Jerusalem scribes ignore Jesus’ acts of power and instead complain to Jesus that his disciples don’t wash before eating. Here is a summary of the arguments:

  • The traditions of the elders. These “traditions” refer to a body of detailed, unwritten laws which were part of the oral Torah. In the first century, Jewish Law included not only the written Torah (the five scrolls or books of Mosaic law), but also the oral Torah: laws, statutes, and legal interpretations not recorded in the first five biblical books. In Jesus’ time, not all Jews accepted this oral tradition: the scribes and Pharisees accepted the oral Torah as having the same authority as the written Torah, but the Sadducees and Essenes rejected the oral Torah.
  • The difference between God’s commands and human traditions. In his reply to his accusers, Jesus ignores the written vs oral Torah argument, and instead repeats the prophets’ message: God desires works of justice and charity, not empty religious observance. Jesus accuses his opponents of “playing at” following the Torah.
  • A parable about what truly defiles a person. In a culture that was fixated on food laws, Jesus’ saying is counter-intuitive. Jesus’ parable about food (“what goes in the stomach/what comes out of the heart”) radically recasts defilement. A person’s own evil words and actions, coming from the source of his physical, spiritual, and mental life (“heart”), make him ritually unclean before God and the covenant.

Today’s readings challenge RCIA participants and the believing community to ask: “What kind of disciple am I?” God’s law calls us to a covenant with a living person, not simply a set of rules. Today’s three readings call us to right moral conduct. We can’t simply hand off our personal responsibilities for our own words and actions to some “tradition.” Discipleship requires that always and everywhere we do the right thing, despite what customs or laws might say. Jesus warns that devotion to tradition can result in a moral rigidity that keeps us from expressing God’s justice and charity to everyone. Are we Christians only on Sunday, or every day? Are we simply following the rules, or are we following the disciple’s path?

—Terence Sherlock

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26 August 2018: Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Jos 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b   Ps 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21   Eph 5:21-32
or 5:2a, 25-32
  Jn 6:60-69

Discourse conclusion: Do you also wish to go away?

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary readings present stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. This week’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community about their commitment to discipleship.

In the first reading from the book of Joshua, Joshua asks the Israelites to renew their covenant with God: do they wish to serve the God who has delivered them or return to the service of other gods? The people reaffirm the covenant with YHWH: “we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” Joshua’s question stands as a challenge to Jewish believers through the centuries. The Lectionary editors pair this reading with today’s gospel, in which Jesus challenges disciples in every generation, asking “Do you also wish to go away?”

The second reading concludes the letter to the Ephesus ekklesia. The letter’s major theme has been unity of all Christians in one believing community. Today’s reading is from the household codes section. A household code is a literary form found throughout the ancient world. In Greco-Roman household codes, power determines relationships. In a Christian household, love replaces power in all relationships. Some Christian letter writers simply give a Christian veneer to the household codes by adding the words “in the Lord” to the injunctions. In Ephesians, the author goes much further. He elaborates on marriage as a parable of the relation between Christ and the believing community. The Ephesians writer adopts and subverts the standard household code to mutual submission: for example, not only should wives be obedient to husbands, but also husbands should be obedient to wives.

John’s gospel presents the conclusion of Jesus’ “bread of life” discourse. Jesus’ own disciples grumble that his revelations–he is “the living bread coming down from heaven” and the bread he will give is “his flesh for the life of the world”–are unacceptable or offensive. Jesus now questions those who have heard his revelations:

  • Would you rather see me “going up?” Jesus’ question has a double meaning. The Greek verb ἀναβαίνω (ah-nah-BAH-ee-noh) means “to ascend” or “to go up.” The first meaning is connected to Hebrew scripture. Moses and Elijah “ascend” or “are taken up” to God, which proves their authority and honor. Jesus has “come down” from God, and will “ascend” again after his resurrection, proving his authority. The second meaning refers to Jesus’ “going up” or “being lifted up” on the cross. This “going up” will further scandalize his disciples, but will also result in “the life of the world.” Jesus admonishes the disciples for interpreting his message in a human-only way (“the flesh”), ignoring the Spirit’s help. Facts alone do not create a disciple; discipleship also requires a Spirit-filled response to the Father made known in the word of Jesus.
  • Do you also wish to go away? Jesus asks this pointed question of the Twelve, who are struggling with who Jesus is. John also asks this question of his own community sixty years later, who are struggling with how the risen Jesus remains present with them in their conflicted community. Jesus asks today’s disciples, who are struggling with continuing faith in Jesus while living in a broken world, the same question.

Today’s readings challenge RCIA participants and the believing community to ask: “Why am I a disciple?” Jesus’ harsh revelations in the bread of life discourse present a stark choice for his hearers. Their choices reveal who they are. The crowd, hoping at the discourse’s start for more free bread, melts away when Jesus talks about new spiritual bread. His opponents, put off by physicality of Jesus’ own flesh as sacrifice and food, leave in disgust. Many disciples, still expecting a temporal king, reject Jesus’ claim of heavenly origins and return to their old lives. Only his loyal faction, seeing beyond his signs and hearing deeply his words, remain convinced that he is who he says he is, and remain-in-relationship with him. What kind of bread are we looking for? Who can provide that bread?

—Terence Sherlock

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19 August 2018: Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Prv 9:1-6   Ps 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7   Eph 5:15-20   Jn 6:51-58

Discourse part 2: The bread I will give is my flesh for the world’s life

Green_banner_smDuring Ordinary time the Lectionary readings present stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. This week’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to consider the meaning of Jesus’ self-gift for the life of the world.

The first reading from the book of Proverbs personifies Wisdom and Folly as women who invite hearers to competing banquets. Wisdom’s banquet symbolizes joy and closeness to God. Folly’s banquet consists of stolen bread and decietful water that bring death to guests. Jewish hearers recognize in this allegory their need to pursue the Torah’s wisdom to avoid foolishness and to live. Christians hear parallels with today’s gospel, in which Jesus tells disciples that eating his flesh and drinking his blood will give eternal life.

The second reading continues the letter to the Ephesus ekklesia. The letter’s major theme is the unity of all Christians in one believing community. Today’s reading continues the ethical exhortation (or paraenesis). Last week the author presented a program of formative actions: actions for disciples who are “new persons” in Christ. In today’s reading, the author’s eschatological view defines his formative actions. He reminds disciples that the age of evil powers is passing away; they must choose the wise path and live as members of God’s kingdom.

John’s gospel presents the second part of Jesus’ “bread of life” discourse. In a series of questions and responses, Jesus introduced the discourse’s main ideas. This week’s final question shapes the discourse’s second part.

Jesus tells the synagogue assembly: “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Those opposed to Jesus’ revelation begin to fight with each other. They frame their objections as a final question.

  • How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Jesus’ opponents continue to misunderstand the promise Jesus offers, focusing on only the physical implications of his promise. Jesus speaks to the synagogue crowd during the Passover feast, which commemorates God’s gifts of Torah and manna. In Jewish thought, both Torah and manna provide nourishment. “Eating” manna nourishes the body; “eating” (studying and practicing) Torah feeds a Jew’s spiritual life. Up to this point in his discourse, Jesus has described himself as manna/bread from heaven, whose teachings from the Father provide a new and greater spiritual life. Jesus now reveals that in the near future he will give his flesh to give life to the whole world. He will give his flesh in two ways:
    • Through the cross. Jesus will give himself as a physical sacrifice to redeem the world. In Jewish sacrificial practice, the one offering sacrifice separated the victim’s blood from its flesh. When Jesus speaks about his “flesh” and “blood” separately, he indicates his physical death as a sacrifice. The Word became flesh to bring life to the world (Jn 1:3-4).
    • Through the Eucharist. After his physical death and resurrection, Jesus will give himself in a new way so that disciples may remain in a living relationship with Jesus and the Father. This new relationship is Jesus’ continuing presence with his believing community. In addition, his glorified flesh and blood give disciples eternal life and a share in Jesus’ resurrection (Jn 6:54).

Today’s readings challenge RCIA participants and the believing community to look beyond the physical signs of God’s care and to come to a deeper understanding of the incarnation, cross, and resurrection. The first reading warns us to pursue divine Wisdom, because folly leads to spiritual death. In the gospel, Jesus sums up his mission: to bring the entire world to eternal life. His transformative death brings eternal life to the world’s doorstep, but it is Jesus’ Eucharistic gift that brings eternal life and Jesus’ abiding presence to disciples who totally absorb (“eat”) God’s revelation. Do we seek deeper Wisdom in our busy lives? Can we ignore the meaning of the incarnation and cross? What does Eucharist really mean to us?

—Terence Sherlock

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12 August 2018: Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  1 Kgs 19:4-8   Ps 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9   Eph 4:30-5:2   Jn 6:41-51

Discourse part 1: I am the bread coming down from heaven

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary readings present stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. This week’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to think about the physical and spiritual nourishment that God provides.

The first reading from the Book of Kings tells how God fed the prophet Elijah on his journey through the wilderness. Elijah’s journey to Mount Horeb (an alternate name for Sinai) begins as a flight from danger, but takes a surprising turn. In his wilderness exile, Elijah prays for death because he has been unable to turn the Israelites back to God. God feeds Elijah with miraculous bread to sustain him for his long trip to Horeb/Sinai. Christians hear the angelic bread from heaven as a type of eucharist: food for a pilgrim on his way to God’s mountain.

The second reading continues the letter to the Ephesus ekklesia. The letter’s major theme is the unity of all Christians in one believing community. Today’s reading continues the ethical exhortation (or paraenesis). Last week the author described the necessary attitudes of the “new person.” This week he lays out a program of formative actions, stated as imperatives: “do not grieve the Holy Spirit;” “remove all bitterness, fury, anger, and shouting;” “be kind, compassionate, forgiving of one another;” “be imitators of God;” and “walk in love.” By connecting these formative actions to baptism (“being sealed, ” preparing for the “day of redemption”), the author teaches that baptism initiates discipleship, but discipleship requires continuous growth and work. The author’s imperatives are a post-baptismal catechesis–actions for disciples who are “new persons” in Christ.

John’s gospel presents the first part of Jesus’ “bread of life” discourse. Last week the crowd caught up with Jesus at a Capernaum synagogue. In a series of questions and responses, Jesus introduced the discourse’s main ideas. This week another key question shapes the discourse’s first part.

Jesus tells those in the synagogue: “I am the bread of life; the one coming to me never hungers, the one believing in me will never thirst again” (Jn 6:35). Immediately those opposed to Jesus’ revelation (here designated as “the Jews”) begin to grumble, just as the Israelites grumbled against Moses in the wilderness (Ex 16:2). They frame their objection as a question, which has several layers.

  • Is this not Jesus, whose father and mother we know? “The Jews” object that Jesus can’t be “from heaven,” because they know his earthly father and mother. Culturally, they object to Jesus placing himself “above his station,” even equating himself to Moses, who also gave bread from heaven. They judge Jesus is not a qualified messenger, and so reject his claims about who he is, his authority, and his ability to give bread he promises.

    Jesus answers them by revealing his origins: what they do not know.

      • First: The Father is the one sending Jesus (v 39). In the ancient world, a sender authorized his delegate to speak and to act in the sender’s place. The delegate’s authority came from and was the same as the sender. Jesus speaks and acts for the Father.
      • Second: The Father draws believers (v 44). In the mystery of faith, the Father bestows faith on people, allowing them to believe and to be drawn to the Father and the Sent One (Jesus).
      • Third: The Sent One (Jesus) reveals the Father (v 40). Based on the believer’s response, she or he receives everlasting life (a share in the Father’s life).
      • Fourth: Jesus will raise up the believing ones at the end of time (v 44). When believers yield to the “works of God” (see v 28 and last week’s discussion), they receive the gift of eternal life. Being “taught by God” means listening to/hearing the Father, yielding to the Father (doing the works of God), and therefore recognizing Jesus as God’s Sent One.

    Jesus fulfills the prophetic promise “They shall all be taught by God” by revealing the Father to all nations. The Torah only partially reveals the Father ( = produces life); but the true bread from heaven (Jesus) fully reveals the Father. Jesus surpasses the former bread from heaven (the physical food of manna and the spiritual food of Torah).

    Jesus points out that the physical manna gave only physical life; manna did not give eternal life. The Jews’ ancestors and even the great Moses ate the physical food, but all are physically dead. Unlike the physical effect of the physical manna, those eating the true bread from heaven will live forever.

Today’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to consider how God nourishes the believing community. In the past, God fed the Israelites in the wilderness with physical manna and with God’s spiritual word in the Torah. In today’s gospel, Jesus reveals that he is the true bread that feeds us as God’s living Word. Is the Liturgy of the Word something we sit through waiting to encounter Jesus at the Table of the Eucharist? Or do we let ourselves be nourished by the true bread from heaven Jesus shares at the Table of the Word? Do we recognize both as the bread coming down from heaven?

—Terence Sherlock

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5 August 2018: Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Ex 16:2-4, 12-15   Ps 78:3-4, 23-24, 25, 54   Eph 4:17, 20-24   Jn 6:24-35

Bread coming down from heaven: the living Word of God

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary readings present stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. This week’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to think about manna in the wilderness and the bread of life that feeds the whole world.

The first reading, from Exodus, tells of God giving the grumbling Israelites bread and meat in the wilderness. Through this gift of bread, God demonstrates care for the people. In later Jewish thought the “bread from heaven” or “bread of angels” becomes a symbol of God’s word (Torah) and God’s wisdom (Ps 119:103; Pv 9:5; Sir 15:1-3), and a type of the promised messianic feast. In today’s gospel, Jesus reveals himself as the bread of life: he is both food (God’s gift in the wilderness) and wisdom (God’s self-revelation in the Torah).

The second reading continues the letter to the Ephesus ekklesia. The letter’s major theme is the unity of all Christians in one believing community. Today’s reading continues the ethical exhortation (or paraenesis). Last week the author explained how God united Jew and gentile into a single, new person. This week the author describes the necessary attitudes and behaviors of the new person. Christians must “take off” the old or worn-out self and “put on” the new or fresh self. The language of “taking off” and “putting on” comes from the ritual practice of stripping off a catechumen’s old clothing before he or she enters the baptismal water, then clothing the newly-baptized with a new, white garment after baptism.

John’s gospel presents the introduction to Jesus’ “bread of life” discourse. Last week Jesus multiplied bread to feed the crowd in the wilderness. This week the crowd catches up with Jesus, who has returned to Capernaum. A series of questions and answers shapes John’s introduction to the discourse:

  • When did you get here? The crowd asks an irrelevant question showing that, although they experienced Jesus’ sign of feeding in the wilderness the day before, they still don’t understand who he is. Jesus instructs the crowd to work for bread that remains or abides. The Son of Man will give this bread that produces eternal life. Because God sent the Son of Man, God approves (“sets a seal on”) him.
  • What work can we do? The crowd misunderstands the meaning of “to work for bread that remains.” They think they can do some physical action to gain more of Jesus’ physical bread. Jesus corrects their misunderstanding. God freely gives this spiritual bread to the one who believes in Jesus. The “work” or spiritual action to gain this spiritual bread requires a total submission of self to the Word of God in Christ.
  • What sign do you give? Following on the earlier mention of Moses, and Jesus’ claim to be sealed by the Father, the crowd asks for a sign that is greater than Moses’ Passover sign: “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” Jesus uses their scripture citation as the starting point for his discourse. Jesus again corrects the crowd’s misunderstanding: God provided manna, not Moses. God’s gift of manna, physical bread given to the Israelites in the past, is superseded by God’s gift now: Jesus, the true bread from heaven, who gives life to the whole world.
  • Give us this bread always! Again correcting the crowd’s confusion, Jesus reveals he is the true bread from heaven, who both reveals the Father and gives eternal life.

Today’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to consider how God feeds the believing community. In the past, God fed the Israelites starving in the wilderness with physical manna that disappeared. In today’s gospel, Jesus promises that God will feed the whole world with bread from heaven that will abide with us forever. Do we know what and who this bread is? Are we doing the spiritual work to gain this bread? Are we seeking this bread always?

—Terence Sherlock

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29 July 2018: Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  2 Kgs 4:42-44   Ps 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18   Eph 4:1-6   Jn 6:1-15

Bread as sign: what does it mean?

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary readings present stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. This week’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to think about the miracle, meaning, and warning of the bread.

The first reading, from the second book of Kings, tells how the prophet Elisha fed over a hundred people with only twenty barley loaves. This story is part of a cycle of Elisha stories that show God’s power working through the prophet. The Lectionary editors chose this reading for its clear parallels to Jesus’ feeding the five thousand in today’s gospel.

The second reading continues the letter to the Ephesus ekklesia. The letter’s major theme is the unity of all Christians in one believing community. Today’s reading is from the start of the ethical exhortation (or paraenesis) section. The author reminds Christians that the Spirit forms them into a single, harmonious believing community. In contrast to polytheistic Roman world, Jesus’ disciples belong to one Lord and they share one faith, signified in their one baptism. God is Father of all, leads all, and is present in all. The author exhorts the believing community to live the implications of that unity.

John’s gospel presents the sign of Jesus feeding the crowd in the wilderness, which introduces Jesus’ “bread of life” discourse. (We will hear Jesus’ discourse over the next four weeks.) In John’s gospel, a sign is not simply a miracle, but the way Jesus reveals God’s glory. A sign incorporates a gift that God gave to the Israelites, and which Jesus now fulfills and makes complete.

  • The gift to the Israelites. John sets the scene with two pieces of information: first, that “Jesus went up on the mountain” with his disciples; and second, “Passover was near.” Passover commemorates the Exodus, including Moses ascending the Sinai mountain to receive the Torah, and feeding the Israelites in the wilderness with God’s manna. Jesus’ sign will have something to do with manna and Torah.
  • The gift fulfilled and made complete. Jesus’ gratuitous gift of food (and later himself) to crowds in the wilderness fulfills and completes God’s former gift of manna. This feeding becomes prophecy-in-action: it fulfills the messianic promises of a superabundant messianic meal in God’s kingdom, and it foretells the continuing gift of God’s ongoing presence in the believing community through the Eucharist. (We’ll hear more about the Eucharist in the discourse of the coming weeks.)

Today’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to consider not only the sign’s meaning, but also our reaction. The crowd’s reaction to the sign, and Jesus’ response, should be a warning to the believing community and to each disciple. The crowd saw Jesus simply as someone who could give them bread and wanted him to be their temporal food king. But Jesus is not a give-them-what-they-want messiah. As individuals and as an ekklesia, Jesus calls us to witness and to serve as he did. We are always in danger that the crowd’s voice–loud, flattering, power-granting, profitable–will pull us from Jesus’ path. To follow what the crowd says and wants is to give up our discipleship to Jesus and his ekklesia. As we think about the meaning of Jesus’ self-giving gift, we ask: Who feeds us? Why do we take and eat? Whom do we feed?

—Terence Sherlock

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22 July 2018: Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Jer 23:1-6   Ps 23:1-3, 3-4, 5, 6   Eph 2:13-18   Mk 6:30-34

The lost sheep and their compassionate shepherd

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary readings present stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. This week’s readings invite RCIA participants and the believing community to recognize God’s offer of merciful love in our own lives.

In the first reading the prophet Jeremiah criticizes the Jewish leaders (“shepherds”) for their poor care of the Jewish people. The leaders’ behavior and bad decisions will result in war with Babylon and Jewish captivity. Jeremiah foretells that God will return the people and appoint just shepherds, descended from David, to care for them. Christian hearers understand that Jesus fulfills Jeremiah’s prophecy as a just ruler in David’s line. The Lectionary editors chose this reading to match Jesus’ concern for the people in today’s gospel.

The second reading is a continuation of the letter to the Ephesus ekklesia. The letter’s major theme is the unity of all Christians in one believing community. Today’s reading contains the letter’s theological core. The author contrasts those who were far from God (gentile Christians) with the ones closer to God (Jewish Christians). The far ones lacked the near ones’ messianic expectation, lacked the various covenants God made with Israel, and lacked hope of salvation and knowledge of the true God. By his saving and transformative death, Christ transcended all religious barriers between Jews and gentiles. Christ fulfilled and abolished the law–not the moral demands of the law, but the law as the only path to salvation. Christians now keep the law because they have been saved by grace, not to earn salvation.

Mark’s gospel concludes the Twelve’s sending from last week (Mk 6:7-13) with their return; it also sets up next week’s reading (the feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness). Jesus invites the Twelve to rest in the wilderness, but further ministry interrupts his plans:

  • Jesus calls disciples to active ministry and to quiet prayer. The wilderness or “deserted place” represents time for the disciples to be alone with Jesus and reflect on their recent missionary work. To be effective, a disciple must balance service to others (action) with a reflective prayer life (words, silence). When a disciple loses this balance, service can become self-serving, or prayer can become a list of complaints to God.
  • Jesus’ compassion for God’s people. Despite his need for “wilderness time” with his disciples, Jesus is moved to pity when he sees the people as lost sheep (see the first reading). The Greek verb σπλαγχνίζομαι (splang-KNIHd-zoh-mah-ee) means “to have a physical and emotional reaction in a person’s guts.” This Greek verb captures the Hebrew scripture’s idea of “merciful love,” a quality of God alone: With everlasting love I will have compassion on you (Is 54:7-8).
  • Jesus’ teaching is both a compassionate act and prophecy-in-action. Out of compassion for the people’s “lostness,” Jesus begins to teach them–something their failing leaders should be doing. (Next week Jesus will also miraculously feed them in the wilderness.) The Hebrew scripture connects “teaching” and “eating” with acquiring wisdom (Sir 15:3; Sir 24:19-21 Pv 9:5). Jesus’ literal teaching (word) and feeding (action) become prophecy-in-action, both fulfilling the prophets’ promise and foreshadowing the liturgical signs of Word and Eucharist.

Today’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to consider our lostness and how God reaches out to us again and again. Jeremiah promises that God will give the people just and compassionate shepherds. Mark shows Jesus overcome with compassion for the shepherdless sheep, and how he teaches and feeds them with his words. With all the competing demands for our time and attention, we are easily lost. To find ourselves, we need to take a wilderness break. In the silence God’s merciful love can teach and feed us. In the liturgy of the Word God teaches and speaks to us; in the liturgy of the Eucharist God feeds us. Can we make time to encounter God’s compassion?

—Terence Sherlock

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