A scholarly attempt at an interpretation of Sunday's liturgical readings.

Archive for February, 2014

Getting the message straight

Periodically, while listening to someone interesting saying something odd, we often think that the message gets lost because of the “different language.”  I suspect that the “different language” could be either symbolic imagery or self asserted importance–or both.  In order to understand the message we must first understand the nature of the “different language.”

An example of this could be Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Gospels for the last three Sundays (5th, 6th, and 7th Sundays in Ordinary Time:  Matt. 5:13-16; Matt. 5:17-37; and Matt. 5: 38-48).  It seems that Jesus’ listeners to his Sermon on the Mount had to confront, and ultimately resolve,  both symbolic imagery and self asserted importance before they got the message straight,

One significant image was the “mountain.”  In biblical thinking, the “mountain” is often considered  the meeting point between heaven and earth.  Consider that God bound  himself with Israel in a covenant of mutual responsibility on MOUNT Sinai (Ex. 19).  “I will be your God and you will be my people IF you keep my commandments.”  So, when a “mountain” became the geographical context for a word from God to his people,  you know something special is about to happen.

Jesus’ “self asserted importance” comes across in two statements: (1)-“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.  I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17)  (2)-“…You have heard that it was said….But I say to you….” (Matt. 5:38a; 5:39a)

First of all, what does Jesus mean by” fulfillment?”  I think it is safe to say that “fulfillment” means that sinfulness is not only external, but internal as well.  Couple of examples: “You shall not commit adultery.” (external); “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (internal) .  Also:  “You shall not kill…” (external);  “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement….” (internal)

Secondly, it appears that Jesus claims this “self asserted importance” when he states:  “You have heard it said that…But I say to you…”  We may assume that many people knew that Jesus was special, from the time of his baptism, by way of his miracles, and onwards.   This “specialness”  enabled him to establish his relationship with the law–in particular when he pointed out that “fulfillment” was the foundation of his role in that relationship.

Presumably, what he was attempting to accomplish was the conviction that keeping the law would bring about  SHALOM (peace.)  That is to  say that the Hebrew word for “peace” does not mean the absence of conflict, but rather the presence of a good relationship with God.  It is that relationship that makes possible forgiveness, understanding, compasssion, and justice.  We first receive that relationship when we are baptized, and it is constantly reaffirmed by our good deeds and the reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  The literary device, known as “hyperbole” (truth by exaggeration, for example, “I told you a million times not to do that…) is sometimes used in the Sermon on the Mount.  For example:  “If your eye or hand is a cause of sin for you, cut it off.”

Consequently, our “fulfillment” of the law (keeping the commandments) is much like that of  Jesus’ keeping the law.  We “fulfill” the law by realizing that sinfulness can be internal as well as external, and that a way of dealing effectively with sinfulnesss is to have a good relationship with God from which emanates our promotion of the welfare of our neighbors.  That way, there should be no doubt that we “got the message straight.”

Climb every mountain

In the movie Sound of Music, the Julie Andrew’s character (Maria von Trapp) was on a mountain top discerning her vocation, namely, continue living in the convent as a nun or get married.  In a subsequent conversation with the mother superior she made her decision, no doubt decided while on the mountain top.  The song “Climb every mountain” played in the background indicating that the mountain top was a good place for decision making.  (I may not have the facts straight, but this is how I remember the movie, seen many years ago)

The reason I mention the above is to note that “mountain” imagery plays a very important role in biblical thinking.  For instance, Mount Sinai becomes the place where YHWH and Israel become bonded together via a conditional covenant, where God says, in effect, “I will be your God and you shall be my people IF you keep my commandments.”  (Exodus 19)   Then, of course, we have the mount of the Transfiguration where Peter, James, and John saw the divinity of Jesus.  Also, there is the situation of Mount Calvary where Jesus died and subsequently rose from the dead as an act of salvation for all,

Why is the “mountain” significant?  Because it is considered the meeting point between  heaven and earth.  Something important transpires there, for example, a life changing decision.

The Gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time is Matthew 5:13-16, which is actually part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt.5-7).  Because the entire message is given from a mountain, we have to be very attentive to what is said.  The key phrase to Jesus’ message is found in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill.”  The fulfillment was in the internalization of the law.  That is to say that thoughts as well as actions could be culpable.

In addition to the symbolism of the mountain, we also note the expression of the images of “salt” and “light.” ” Salt” not only adds flavor to food, but also functions as a preservative. “Light” cannot exist simultaneously with darkness.  Light is often referred to as either knowledge or goodness, while darkness suggested ignorance and evil.

The phrases “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world” strongly suggest that, as applied to christians,  one is to “bring flavor” to the work of others, and “lead others our of darkness.”  That is to say, being a disciple of Jesus is to have the missionary spirit and  perform deeds of justice, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding.  You give “salt” by providing a good example for others to follow.  That is how one “gives savor.”   Your “light shines before all others” by leading them out of the darkness of ignorance and evil.  In other words, what you say and what you do will effect others–for good or for evil.  This depends on my decision on how to act.

The major challenge for me personally, is to decide for myself “Where is my mountain?”  That is to say,  where do heaven (Jesus’ examples) and earth (my own value system) come together for me?  Upon what meeting point do I base my decision to act?  The answer, it seems to me, is to “climb every mountain” that presents itself as the challenge, and then make the decision to act.

What child is this

When we celebrated the feast of the Epiphany (“manifestation”), we were celebrating the fact that Jesus manifested himself to the Gentiles, as represented by the Magi.  And on the feast of the Presentation, we celebtrate the fact that Jesus manifested himself  to the Jews. (Luke 2:22-40)

How was this done?  Luke the evangelist not only appears to have appropriated Old Testament references, but also seems to have  presented a theological framework for Jesus’ ministry.  Old Testament background is seen not only in the following of the Mosaic Law in the Presentation itself, but also references to the prophet Isaiah (in Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis prayer) and the likely references to Samuel’s call in the Temple (I Samuel 1-2).

A  partial theological framework for Jesus’ ministry can be seen in this Gospel reading.  The framework would include:  The name of Jesus; Obedience to the Law; Simeon; Anna.

First, the name Jesus.  The name itself means “savior.”  The name was given by the angel Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation, therefore we can assume that the principal task of the child was the “save” the world.  Another point to keep in mind is that during Advent (time of preparation for the coming of Jesus), a frequently used word was “Immanuel” (God with us), reminding us of the Incarnation–Jesus was Immanuel.

Second, Obedience to the Law.  For Jesus, the Law was meant to be of service to people.  The Law was a guide not an end in itself.  This is seen especially in cultural ritual. Jesus had no trouble keeping the Law on this score.   But when the Law became absolutized, and people had to suffer for it, Jesus challenged the situation.  We see the famous example of Jesus breaking the Sabbath Law by healing a person’s withered hand.  (Matt. 12:9-14)  The well being of the person is more important than the Sabbath Law.  In fact, in Mark’s version of the Gospel, Jesus’ philosophy is well stated:  “…The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”  (Mk. 2:27)  The law of God was more important than human law.

Third, the upright and devout Simeon.  There are at least two elements that stand out when discussing Simeon.  His connection with the Holy Spirit and his message to Mary, Jesus’ mother.  The Gospel text is very clear when it says that “…the Holy Spirit rested on him,”  (Lk. 2:25) and told him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  That is to say that the Holy Spirit was very active in the life of Simeon.  Simeon told Mary that Jesus was to be the cause of the rise and fall of many in Israel.  That is to say that some would accept Jesus and some would not.

Fourth, the elderly widow Anna.  One may say that she was an early evangelizer in that she proclaimed Jesus “… to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel.” (Lk. 2:38)

The above becomes a theological framework in the sense that Jesus knows that his lifelong ministry is to make his name of Jesus (“savior”) a reality in this world.  That the Law of God is more important than human law because it touches on the dignity of the other person which means justice, compassion, forgiveness.  The role  of the Holy Spirit is crucial in that it helps us confront challenges to belief   practices.  The baptism of Jesus occurred in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  (Matt. 3:16)  Mary made it clear to all disciples that suffering was part of discipleship.  The task of proclaiming Jesus to others was left to Jesus’ disciples.

What can we learn from the Gospel reading?  …a few things.

First, our task of discipleship is to carry on the ministry of Jesus which is to carry on his work which helps bring about salvation.  The name “Christian” which we received at our Baptism gives us the responibility to continue this ministry.

Second, Jesus had told us that people are more important than the law and our perspective should reflect that reality when there is doubt.  Justice, compassion, forgiveness will help bring about clarity.

Third, frequent reminders that the Holy Spirit should always be operative in us.  And reminders that suffering is part of discipleship.  Asking the why of suffering helps us to deal with it.

Fourth, our task of  “presenting Jesus to the world” will be our greatest challenge because    our personal example will demonstrate to others how serious ly we are Jesus’ disciples.

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