Tag Archives: Ordinary time

11 February 2018: Sixth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Lv 13:1-2, 44-46   Ps 32:1-2, 5, 11   1 Cor 10:31-11:1   Mk 1:40-45

Who may join the believing community?

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time, the Lectionary readings invite us to reflect on stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. Today’s readings ask the believing community and RCIA participants to think about separation and healing.

In the first reading from the book of Leviticus, the priestly author describes the ritual process for evaluating serious skin diseases (often mistranslated as “leprosy.”) With little understanding of medical conditions, causes, and correlations, the ancient Jews considered those affected to be ritually unclean. Striving to be holy like God, they sought ritual and moral purity in their lives, separating those who were unclean. When the person’s unclean skin condition cleared up, a priest ritually restored the person to the community. The Lectionary editors chose this reading to provide the religious and social context for today’s gospel.

In the second reading from the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul continues answering the Corinthians’ questions. They ask if they can eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 10:25-30). Today’s reading begins immediately after Paul’s detailed answer. Paul now offers a general teaching, telling the Corinthians that they must look at the big picture to avoid offending others. Paul’s goal is to bring Jesus’ saving message to all (Jews and Greeks). Paul humbles himself to please everyone, and invites the Corinthians to follow his example.

In Mark’s gospel, a man with a serious skin condition seeks Jesus out and is healed.

  • The man’s request. The man comes to Jesus. As we learn from the first reading, the man violates Mosaic law by entering the village and not calling out “Unclean!” In his words (“begging”) and actions (“kneeling”) he shows his faith in Jesus. He says, “If you want to cleanse me, you have the power.” The Greek verb δύναμαι (DOO-nah-mah-ee), meaning “to have power,” is the root of the English word dynamite. This word reminds us that the Baptizer’s promised “one more powerful is coming” (Mk 1:7).
  • Jesus’ response. Jesus responds with compassion: “Of course I want to! Let your healing be done,” and touches the man. The man’s healing is immediate. Jesus, following the law, instructs the man to present himself to a priest so the man could be fully restored to community life.
  • A theology within the story. Through his compassionate, healing gesture of touching the man, Jesus makes himself ritually unclean. In some way, Jesus and the man trade places. Mark tells us that, because of the man’s proclamations, Jesus is unable to enter the town and has to stay outside in the empty places (v 45).

The readings invite RCIA participants and the believing community to consider inclusion and exclusion. To protect the community’s holiness, the Jewish priests had the authority to exclude those whose outward appearance indicated spiritual illness. The man in today’s gospel seeks wholeness. He knows Jesus has the power to heal him, if Jesus wishes. Of course Jesus wants to! What about us? We have the power to exclude those who look or act differently. We also have the power to heal by including those who ask to join us. Whom do we exclude or separate? When have we been included and healed? Who still remains in the empty places, waiting?

—Terence Sherlock

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4 February 2018: Fifth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Jb 7:1-4, 6-7   Ps 147:1-2, 3-4, 5-6   1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23   Mk 1:29-39

Suffering and service

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time, the Lectionary readings invite us to reflect on stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. Today’s readings ask the believing community and RCIA participants to think about the human condition and a disciple’s response.

In the first reading from the book of Job, the author attempts to understand and to explain why innocent people suffer. In the author’s time (seventh-to-fifth century BC), Jewish thought focused on God’s othernessGod is not like humans. The author concludes that God is beyond human understanding. Human suffering has a divine purpose humans can’t know. For Christians, Jesus’ incarnation means God has become human. Jesus answers Job’s question through Jesus’ transformative life, death, and resurrection. Today’s gospel shows that God is knowable, present, and engaged in human life; someone who also suffers, heals, and saves.

In the second reading from the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul considers his right to be supported by the community to which he preaches. Paul’s service of the good news is a repeated choice or commitment, not a one-time decision. He freely chooses to be in slavery “to all” so that he might reach more people (to save them). Paul preaches about what he believes, and, in doing so, hopes to share in the promises of the good news.

In the gospel, Mark concludes Jesus’ first day of ministry: Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, Jesus ministers to the whole town, and his disciples forget why he came:

  • Simon’s mother-in-law. On arriving at Simon’s house, Jesus and the disciples find Simon’s mother-in-law too sick to perform the traditional demands of first-century hospitality. Jesus’ touch heals her. As proof that she is healed, she fulfills her obligation of hospitality by “serving them.” The Greek verb διακονέω (dee-ah-koh-NEH-oh), root of the English word “deacon,” means “to serve” or “to wait on.” Simon’s mother-in-law embodies the ideal disciple as someone in service to others–a point that disciples James and John miss (see Mk 10:43).
  • All who were ill or possessed. As the Baptizer foretold in Mk 1:7-8, Jesus comes with power and authority preaching and healing. Jesus’ power/authority to heal breaks evil’s hold on this world and displaces demons, which makes room for God’s kingdom. The Greek verb θεραπεύω (theh-rah-PYOO-oh), root of the English word “therapy,” means “to serve” or “to heal.” Its use here implies that Jesus did not simply heal, but spent time ministering to each person.
  • Everyone wants you. The reason that Jesus came was to preach God’s kingdom (Mk 1:14-15). Jesus’ healings were just a small part of his ministry. Unfortunately, Peter, Andrew, James, and John (and everyone else) want to promote Jesus’ powerful acts above his message of salvation. Jesus reminds them why he came: to tell everyone that the time is fulfilled, God is near, and to change their hearts and minds.

Today’s readings display how far we have progressed in our understanding of suffering. The believing community and RCIA participants find Job searching for a reason and encounter Jesus proclaiming an answer in words and actions. Job experiences God as a distant power and wisdom; Simon’s mother-in-law and Capernaum’s suffering people experience Jesus’ physical touch and personal attention. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus transforms the meaning of suffering. As disciples, Jesus calls us to continue his individual service and ministry to make God near to everyone. Where do we drive out today’s demons? How do we heal those who suffer? How do we serve to make others whole?

—Terence Sherlock

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28 January 2018: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Dt 18:15-20   Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9   1 Cor 7:32-35   Mk 1:21-28

Teaching and acting with authority and power

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary readings invite us to reflect on stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. Today’s readings ask the believing community and RCIA participants to think about authority and power.

In the first reading from Deuteronomy, Moses promises the Israelites that God will continue to provide them with prophets and prophetic leaders. God fulfills this promise through a prophetic “office:” first, through judges, and later, through formal prophets, invested with God’s authority to speak for God. In later biblical periods, Jews understood this promise in a messianic sense: God would send one final prophet (the “eschatological prophet”) who would inaugurate the end times. Jesus stands in Israel’s prophetic tradition, as well as fulfilling the role of the eschatological prophet, who both teaches and redeems.

In the second reading from the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul answers the community’s questions and corrects their understandings about marriage. Because Paul believes that Christ’s return is imminent, he counsels the Corinthians not to focus on worldly concerns (like marriage). Although he recommends a celibate life, Paul doesn’t deny marriage to those who want to be married. Paul’s point is simply: those without worldly attachments and responsibilities are better able to pursue the Lord’s work (building up and serving the believing community).

In the gospel, Mark describes Jesus’ first day of ministry: he teaches in the synagogue with authority and he exorcises the unclean spirit with power. The Greek word ἐξουσία (ehks-oo-SEE-ah) means both “authority” and “power.” Jesus’ authority/power is a sign that God’s kingdom is present:

  • In authoritative words. The synagogue attendees recognize that Jesus “teaches with authority (ἐξουσία),” unlike the scribes. Jesus proclaimed the nearness of God’s kingdom (Mk 1:15), while the scribes focused on traditional doctrine. Jesus’ words cause “amazement” or “astonishment.” Jesus’ teaching about the good news of salvation demonstrates his authority to save God’s people.
  • In powerful actions. Jesus expels a demon with a single command. The demon knows that Jesus has come to destroy evil’s reign on earth. The bystanders recognize Jesus’ power (ἐξουσία), saying “even the unclean spirits obey him.” Jesus’ action causes “amazement” or “astonishment.” Jesus’ handling of the unclean spirit demonstrates his power over evil.

This week’s readings ask us to examine authority and power. As the first reading tells us, God is authority’s source. In the gospel, we see Jesus standing in the prophetic tradition, teaching and healing. Because Jesus is God, his authority and power bring salvation and clear the way for God’s kingdom. Whose authority and power do we recognize? Are they using their authority and power to save and heal, or do they use it to exclude and harm? Do their words and actions amaze and astonish us?

—Terence Sherlock

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21 January 2018: Third Sunday of Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Jon 3:1-5, 10   Ps 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9   1 Cor 7:29-31   Mk 1:14-20

Discipleship: hear, change, follow

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary readings ask us to reflect on stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. This week’s readings encourage every RCIA participant and everyone in the entire believing community to examine his or her own call to discipleship.

In the first reading the prophet Jonah finally arrives in Nineveh and begins to preach God’s message. God spares Nineveh because its gentile people heard God’s warning (“Nineveh will be destroyed”) and changed their minds (they “believed God”) and actions (they “fasted and put on sackcloth”). The connection between the first reading and today’s gospel is the Greek verb μετανοέω (meh-tah-noh-EH-oh), which means “to convert” or “to turn away from one thing and turn toward something else” (Joh 3:10). Jesus uses this same word in preaching the good news (Mk 1:15).

In the second reading, Paul suggests that the Corinthian ekklesia live “as if not,” that is, with a sense of detachment from this world’s priorities. Paul’s apocalyptic view–that “the world is passing away” and Christ would return soon–colors his advice. Christians who know this life and world is temporary should live differently from those who are unaware of Jesus’ promise to return and to fulfill God’s kingdom.

In today’s gospel, Mark introduces Jesus’ teaching and his call to discipleship.

  • Jesus’ teaching. Jesus’ teaching has three parts:
    1. “The proper time has been fulfilled.” Through the Baptizer’s preparatory preaching (Mk 1:4-8), Jesus’ baptism (Mk 1:10-11), and Jesus’ testing (Mk 1:12-13), Jesus is ready to proclaim the good news and the people are ready to hear it.
    2. “God’s reign (or kingdom) is nearby.” The Greek word translated here as “nearby” means both “near in time” and “near physically.” In Jesus’ physical presence, God’s kingdom is within reach; in Jesus’ preaching about God’s kingdom, God’s kingdom is close to being implemented in time (although not yet fully arrived, not until the parousia).
    3. “Change your hearts/minds and believe in the good news.” The metanoia that Jesus calls for, and which he demonstrates in his words and actions, is the heart of Mark’s gospel: turn away from evil and turn toward God. The believing that Jesus calls for is not a simple intellectual assertion, but trust and personal commitment, often when facing a threatening or uncertain future.
  • Jesus’ call to follow him. After someone hears Jesus’ teaching, that person is ready to be invited to “walk the road” with Jesus. Jesus calls each disciple by name. His invitation requires an immediate response. Simon, Andrew, James, and John literally drop what they are doing and follow. The Greek word translated here as “to follow” also means “to become a disciple.”

 

 

The readings confront RCIA candidates and the believing community with the reality of discipleship: hear God’s message, change our mind/heart, and immediately follow. Metanoia is at the heart of discipleship: we must change before we can follow. Jesus’ invitation begins when we hear what God asks. God’s request turns us around and changes how we see ourselves and the world. How do we respond? Do we drop everything and follow this different and unknown path? Or do we stay in our familiar boat, content to follow a safe and known way?

—Terence Sherlock

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14 January 2018: Second Sunday of Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  1 Sm 3:3b-10, 19   Ps 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10   1 Cor 6:13c-15a, 17-20   Jn 1:35-42

Discipleship: called by name into an abiding relationship

Green_banner_sm This week the liturgical calendar changes to Ordinary time, and the Lectionary readings invite us to reflect on stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. Today’s readings ask the believing community and RCIA participants to examine their call to discipleship and its implications.

In the first reading, the book of Samuel describes Samuel’s call by God to be a prophet. Samuel is living in the tabernacle in Shiloh with Eli the priest. God calls Samuel by name into a special relationship and mission. The Lectionary editors chose this reading to parallel Jesus’ call of his disciples in the gospel.

In the second reading from his first letter to the ekklesia at Corinth, Paul writes to correct the Corinthians misunderstandings. In this passage he addresses the ethical problem of sexual immorality associated with temple prostitution. Through three metaphors, Paul asks three questions:

  1. Your bodies are members of Christ. The idea of Greek citizens as parts of a civic body is a favorite figure in Greek life and philosophy. Paul applies this image to the ekklesia members who are parts of Christ’s body. Paul asks: why would Christians defile Christ and themselves through unions with unbelievers?
  2. Your body is a temple. Paul imagines the ekklesia as a temple, where each member is a living stone in the temple’s construction. God’s Spirit resides in this temple, just as God’s presence resided in the Jerusalem Temple. Paul asks: why would Christians seek God in pagan temples and rites?
  3. You have been bought by Christ. Paul believes all people are slaves to sin. Through Christ’s redeeming action and Christian baptism, Christ buys Christians out of slavery, as the Greeks buy slaves in the market. Paul asks: why would Christians want to enslave themselves again to pagan gods?

In the gospel, the Baptizer has just completed his testimony about Jesus. John now tells the story of Jesus’ disciples, describing two ways to encounter Jesus, and Jesus’ response:

  • Those who seek. Andrew and his unnamed companion (the beloved disciple) begin following Jesus after the Baptizer points him out. Jesus asks them “What are looking for?” The Greek verb ζητέω (dzay-TEH-oh) means “to seek” or “to search after.” Jesus is asking them, “If you want to be my disciple, what do you seek from me?”
  • Those who are brought by others. Simon receives his call to follow Jesus though his brother Andrew. Jesus looks at Simon and calls him by a new name. Simon’s renaming to Peter, like Abram’s renaming to Abraham (Gn 17:5), and Jacob’s renaming to Israel (Gn 32:29), indicates Peter will have a special role in God’s plan.
  • Jesus’ invitation: come and abide. Whether a disciple seeks out Jesus or comes to Jesus through another, Jesus invites the disciple to experience life with Jesus. John uses the Greek verb μένω (MEHN-oh) to describe life with Jesus. μένω means literally “to stay with” and metaphorically “to remain-in-relationship” or “to abide.” John uses μένω to indicate that the disciples not only stay with Jesus, but began to experience an abiding relationship.

Today’s readings prod RCIA candidates and the believing community to examine Jesus’ invitation to discipleship. Like Samuel in the first reading and the disciples in the gospel, God calls each of us by name to fulfill a task only we can complete. But first we must answer Jesus’ question: what do you seek? The question isn’t a test; it’s a call to self-examination. Choosing to walk the same road with Jesus requires not just sacrifice, but self-sacrifice. In Baptism and Confirmation God calls us by a new name. Whose voice do we hear? What or whom do we seek? Are we ready to complete the unique task for which we’ve been called-by-name?

—Terence Sherlock

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19 November 2017: Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Prv 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31   Ps 128:1-2, 3, 4-5   1 Thes 5:1-6   Mt 25:14-30

Kingdom come

Green_banner_sm On this final Sunday of Ordinary time, the readings’ themes focus on the end times and Jesus’ second coming. This week’s readings outline again what God requires of disciples who wish to enter the kingdom.

The first reading, from the book of Wisdom, presents an ideal woman serving her family and community. This woman is also Wisdom personified; a person’s reward for seeking Wisdom is a worthy spouse and children, a great household, and renown in the community. The Lectionary editors chose this reading because it mentions “receiving a reward for labors,” which echoes the gospel’s theme.

The second reading, from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian ekklesia, contains Paul’s response to concerns about the “time and season” of Jesus’ return. Seeking to calm the community he founded, Paul points out that no one knows when the end is coming. As children of the light and of the day, they shouldn’t worry about the coming judgement. Rather, they should rejoice, because the parousia marks their day of salvation. They need only to stay alert and awake.

Matthew’s gospel continues Jesus’ eschatological sermon (Mt 24:1-25:46), which includes the parable of the talents. Matthew has adapted Jesus’ parable to emphasize its end-time themes.

  • The master’s charge. A man who is going on a long journey entrusts three slaves with varying amounts of money. He expects them to manage what they’ve been given.
  • The slaves’ actions. In the master’s absence, the first and second slaves work and trade the master’s money and double its value. The third slave, out of fear, buries the money he had been given, doing nothing.
  • The surprise. When the master returns, he demands an accounting. The master is pleased with the first two slaves’ work and results and invites them “to share in his joy.” Unsurprisingly, the master calls the third slave “useless” because he did nothing with his master’s money. Jesus’ hearers would be surprised that the master not only punishes the third slave, but disowns him (like the bridegroom disowned his teenage cousins in last week’s gospel). The master has the useless slave thrown into the outer darkness, where he is no longer a slave, but a non-person. The “outer darkness” is Matthew’s codeword for “denied entrance to God’s kingdom.” Matthew’s hearers understand that Jesus holds his disciples to a high standard: they must live the gospel to enter God’s kingdom.

The readings invite RCIA participants and the believing community to examine God’s entry requirements for the kingdom. The first reading highlights actions. The second reading focuses on watchfulness. The gospel describes the consequences of discipleship. At the parousia, disciples will be called to account for what they have done with the good news God entrusted to them. Only those who grow the gospel by their words and actions will enter the kingdom. Are we faithful and productive stewards who promote and live Jesus’ message? Or are our choices and actions ruled by our own fear or laziness?

—Terence Sherlock

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12 November 2017: Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Wis 6:12-16   Ps 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8   1 Thes 4:13-18   Mt 25:1-13

The wisdom of watchful waiting

Green_banner_sm As we near the end of Ordinary time and this liturgical year, the Sunday readings become eschatological: they focus on the end times and Jesus’ second coming. This week’s readings ask us how prepared we are to meet Jesus.

In the first reading, the Wisdom author writes to encourage the Jews in Egypt during a time of suffering and oppression (70-50 BC). This Wisdom passage has an eschatological theme: wisdom is unfading (v 12) and those who find wisdom reign as kings forever (v 21). The Lectionary editors chose this reading because of its similarity to themes in today’s gospel of wisdom, waiting, and the messiah’s coming.

In the second reading, Paul clarifies his teaching about the parousia (Christ’s return at the end of time). In this early period (30s-70s AD), the believing community expected Jesus to return within their lifetimes. Some Thessalonica community members have died; their friends and relatives worry that these “fallen-asleep ones” will miss the Lord’s return. Paul reassures them that Jesus’ own resurrection is his promise to all believers of their personal resurrections.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus presents his fifth and final discourse, his eschatological sermon (Mt 24:1-25:46), which includes the parable of the ten virgins. Jesus sets a scene that all his hearers would recognize–a wedding celebration at a bridegroom’s home.

  • First-century wedding culture. The groom and his friends have gone across the village or to a nearby village to bring the bride and her friends back to his home. The returning wedding party wanders through every village street and alley so everyone can see and cheer them as they pass. The ten virgins, the groom’s unmarried teenage relatives, wait for the meandering parade to return, so they can escort them into the groom’s home. Bored by waiting, the teenagers fall asleep.
  • The crisis. When the wedding party finally nears the groom’s home, the waiting guests call out. Awakened, the teenage lamp keepers immediately trim their lamps. The delay has depleted their lamps’ oil. Some teenagers brought extra oil; others did not. The ones without oil beg the ones with extra oil to share. The ones with oil refuse, worried there won’t be enough oil for all the lamps to last until the wedding party actually arrives. The ones without oil rush off to find oil. Meanwhile, the bridegroom returns with the wedding party, and all present go into the feast, locking the door after them.
  • The parable’s surprise. The five unprepared teenagers return with their now-full lamps and bang on the bridegroom’s door to be let in. They hear the bridegroom’s voice through the door saying, “I don’t know you.” In the middle east, family is everything. Jesus’ hearers would ask: Why would the bridegroom disown his relatives and bar them from his wedding feast?

The readings invite RCIA participants and the believing community to think about who will enter God’s kingdom. The first reading highlights our need for wisdom. Paul emphasizes our need for faith. The gospel parable tells us we must be thoughtful and prepared. We are the lamp-holding teenagers waiting for the bridegroom’s return. Do we think that baptism guarantees entry to the kingdom? Do our words and actions mark us as part of Jesus’ family? How are we preparing for the bridegroom’s coming?

—Terence Sherlock

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5 November 2017: Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Mal 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10   Ps 131:1, 2, 3   1 Thes 2:7b-9, 13   Mt 23:1-12

Discipleship: service, not self-serving

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings remind us who we are.

In the first reading, the prophet Malachi criticizes the temple priests for neglecting their sacrifice and excoriates the Jewish people for their lax attitude toward the Mosaic covenant. Malachi calls all to change their ways or suffer future punishment. In the gospel Jesus issues similar warnings to his disciples about the right way and wrong way to act.

In the second reading, Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he has given them the good news freely, without charge and without “burdening” them. On missionary trips, Paul repaired tents to support himself. During the day he would set up a stall in the marketplace and mend leather items; at night he would meet in the Thessalonians’ homes and preach the good news. Paul gives thanks to God for the Thessalonians’ faith in receiving the good news as God’s word, and for continuing to live in faith.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus, who has been sparring with various religious leader factions (see Mt 21-22), now vehemently denounces the scribes and the Pharisees.

Scripture scholars point out that Matthew constructed this speech. Although some criticisms undoubtedly originated with Jesus (for example, see Mk 12:38-40), other criticisms date to a time after Jesus’ earthly ministry. These other criticisms reflect the conflict between Pharisaic Judaism and Matthew’s community when Matthew composed his gospel (80-85 AD). This speech is not purely anti-Pharisaic; Matthew recognizes the same faults are present in his believing community. He is warning his ekklesia to examine their own conduct and attitudes, such as:

  • Saying vs doing. Jesus charges the scribes and Pharisees with failing to practice what they tell others to do. Jesus tells his disciples that what they say and what they do must be the same.
  • Being honored vs being honorable. Jesus charges the scribes and Pharisees with using religious practice to receive honor from people rather than to give honor to God. Jesus tells his disciples that despite their apparent differences (Jewish vs gentile, learned vs untutored, urban vs rural), all are equal–they are siblings of the same Father.
  • Knowing the difference between serving and being self-serving. Jesus tells his disciples that the greatest among them will be the one who serves all. Disciples teach Jesus’ message and meaning of service only when they are serving others.

This week’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to apply Malachi’s complaints and Jesus’ critiques to our own lives. Edwyn Hoskyns, a twentieth century Christian theologian, has written “we are all Pharisees.” Who doesn’t like telling others how to live? Who doesn’t enjoy flattery and honorific titles? Humility is essential to discipleship and ministry. Without humility, we are in constant danger of failing as disciples, becoming the very people Malachi and Jesus condemn. Do we always practice what we preach? Do we recognize our dependence on God and each other? Do we serve others without expecting to be served?

—Terence Sherlock

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29 October 2017: Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Ex 22:20-26   Ps 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51   1 Thes 1:5c-10   Mt 22:34-40

The greatest commandment

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings ask us whom we love and serve.

In the first reading, the book of Exodus defines laws of social conduct. Semitic thought is concrete, and gives concrete directives and examples. Honoring God and creating personal holiness requires specific acts. The Torah often casts these acts in a social context, giving Judaism a bias toward social action. In the gospel, Jesus also emphasizes action: love.

In the second reading, Paul writes to the Thessalonians to encourage them to continue in their faith. When preaching to non-Jews, Paul begins from the faith they have received. Thessalonica was known as a city of cults. Based on Paul’s comment about “turning to God from idols” (1 Th 1:9) we can infer his community was primarily gentile. He praises them as “models for others who believe,” and “whose faith has gone forth.”

In Mathew’s gospel, the religious leaders continue their attacks on Jesus. In today’s conflict story, a Torah scholar tries to entrap Jesus.

  • The question. “Which commandment is the greatest in the law?” The Pharisees counted 613 commands (248 positive commands [“do’s”] and 365 negative commands [“don’ts”]) in the Torah. Torah scholars distinguished between great and small laws, and even the very great and very small commands. The scholar asks Jesus to name “the greatest of the greatest.” No matter what command Jesus cites, the Torah scholars will publicly argue against his choice, shaming him.
  • The answer. Rather than choose one commandment, Jesus quotes two well-known laws. But he connects the commands in a unique way–through the word love. The first command is from the Shema prayer (“Hear, O Israel,” Deut 6:4-5), recited twice daily by every Jew: You shall love the Lord your God. Jesus quotes a second command from Lev 19:18: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus notes that on these two commands of love hang the whole of the Law’s instruction and the Prophets’ teaching.

The greatness of Jesus’ teaching is not simply that he associates these two commands, but in the new dimension he gives to both by connecting them though the command to love. Each command requires the other: Without love of neighbor, love of God remains an empty emotion; without love of God, love of neighbor becomes a self-serving exercise in feeling good only about oneself.

Today’s readings challenge RCIA participants and the believing community to live both commands of love. The Greek word ἀγαπάω (ah-gah-PAH-oh) means “to have a warm regard for and interest in another,” or “to love actively.” This love is not an emotion, but an action; this action must be lived through specific acts, as exemplified in the first reading. God’s command to protect the disenfranchised–the foreigner, the widow, the orphan–forms the basis for compassionate social justice. Jesus’ restatement of the law of love connects love of God with love of the neighbor. We can’t claim to love God unless we also care for the stranger, the oppressed, the ignored, and those without a voice. We believe God loves us. Whom do we love? How do we serve?

—Terence Sherlock

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22 October 2017: Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Is 45:1, 4-6   Ps 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10   1 Thes 1:1-5b   Mt 22:15-21

Images and inscriptions of belonging

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings ask us to examine our attitudes about the things that belong to God.

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah recounts how God acts to free the Jewish people from exile in Babylon. God uses the Persian king Cyrus, who conquered the Babylonians, to return the chosen people to their own land. The Lectionary editors pair this reading with today’s gospel to show how God directs human leaders and events to care those who belong to God.

In the second reading, Paul writes to the Thessalonians to encourage them to continue in their faith and, to answer their questions about the deaths of some believers. Although this letter is the earliest written document in Christian scripture (50-51 AD), it already articulates ideas that became standard Christianity. For example, within the first ten verses, Paul mentions God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and faith, hope, and love.

In Matthew’s gospel, the religious leaders begin their attacks on Jesus. This story is a conflict or controversy story, a common literary form used in New Testament times. It describes the interaction between a teacher and one or more opponents. It has the following structure:

  • The challenge. The Pharisees joined with the Herodians to pose a loaded question to Jesus: “Is it permissible to give the poll-tax to Caesar or not?” If Jesus answers “yes,” he is no friend to the Jewish people who seek independence from Rome; he also implicitly denies that God is the only legitimate ruler of Judea. If Jesus answers “no,” he makes himself an enemy of the state. Either answer (or no answer) will shame Jesus, causing him to lose face with his supporters.
  • The response. Jesus knows his opponents’ malicious intent, and exposes their shameful behavior by calling the Pharisees “play-actors” or hypocrites. He then asks for the poll-tax coin. In first-century Jewish culture, religious leaders (Pharisees) would not have carried Roman coins. By quickly producing a Roman coin, they shame themselves by showing that they are not scrupulously observant. Jesus then asks: “Whose image? Whose inscription?” The image was the head of Tiberius Caesar. The inscriptions said “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” and Pontifex maximus, meaning “high priest.” The human emperor’s overt claims of divinity and high priesthood would offend any observant Jew.
  • A saying. “Give the things of Caesar to Caesar and to God the things of God.” Jesus indicates that Jews (and disciples) can meet both their religious and political responsibilities. But he also subordinates Caesar’s claims to God’s claims. Caesar’s coin–with Caesar’s image on it–belongs to Caesar. But the human person–made in God’s image–belongs to God.

Today’s readings challenge RCIA participants and the believing community to reflect on how God brings about the divine plan. God uses a non-Jew, Cyrus the Persian, to return God’s people from exile. Jesus reminds us that human leaders are about things, while God is about people. Too often political (and religious) leaders take the human personhood that belongs to God as their own right. We have a moral obligation to speak out and act against a Caesar who takes what belongs to God. To whom do we belong?

—Terence Sherlock

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