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

Archive for September, 2015


Who am I?

When was the last time that you thought you saw a famous person?  Was it a movie star who probably won an Oscar a few years ago.  How about a semi famous athlete?  The person looks familiar, but you are not sure who the person is.  What the problem really boils down to is the question of identity.

In the Gospel for the twenty fourth Sunday on Ordinary Time  [Mark 8:27-35], Jesus is asking his fiends about HIS OWN identity.  Who do they think he is?  Following the normal line of questions, Jesus begins by asking his disciples who do the people in general think he is?

The disciples say that some think he (Jesus) is John the Baptist.  Other folks say that he is the prophet Elijah redivivus.  And yet a third group claims that he is one of the prophets.  Then Jesus raises the question to the disciples themselves.  And this question, I think, is the focal point of the entire dialogue.  “But, who do YOU say that I am?”  The response would be very telling.

Peter, as the chief spokesman of the group, responded “You are the Messiah [Christ].”  “Messiah” transliterates as “the one sent.”  The Messianic belief was that the Messiah would come to liberate the Jews from Roman power.  But when Jesus spoke about the Messiah as being one who would suffer, the disciples’ misunderstanding seemed to be a bit more than just a few raised eyebrows.

Peter, again as spokesperson for the disciples, thought that Jesus had the Messianic promise a little bit skewed, so he took Jesus aside and began to berate him.  Jesus, on the other hand, wound up berating Peter instead.  “You think not like God, but as humans do.”   What did he mean? Basically, that humans program the outcome of a situation according to the way that they want (positive outcome).  However, God’s way allows for the two options (positive and negative outcomes) to be in tension and resolved by choice.

That is to say that Peter’s position meant that the expectations of the Messiah were to be that of conquistador, while the position of Jesus was that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise again.  What is of issue here is that the disciples somehow did not grasp the true purpose of the Messiah.  Jesus spelled out his point of view which amounted to the “death–resurrection” pattern which would continue to be a recurring theme in the rest of his teachings.

There was, however, a lacking awareness of the fundamental difference between “know” and “understand.”  To “know” Jesus was principally a mental function.  However, to “understand” Jesus meant, to grasp as one could, the fullness of who Jesus was, which included both his life and his message.  In other words, Jesus wanted his disciples to “understand” him which meant following his example of doing justice, being compassionate and forgiving.

What does this Gospel ask of us?  Above all, that we UNDERSTAND Jesus, which means that we accept and follow his lifestyle of justice, compassion, and forgiveness.  This would also include that we see and accept suffering as part of the Christian life, because we believe that after suffering and death there will always be a resurrection.

In addition, the disciple of Jesus must accept SUFFERING and death as part of the Christian experience.  Jesus states this quite clearly in the final words of today’s gospel:  “Whoever wants to come with me must renounce oneself, take up the cross, and follow me.”  In a famous criss-cross pattern, Jesus continues: “Whoever saves his life [selfishly], shall lose it.  But whoever loses one’s life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will gain it.”  By firmly accepting this truth, we get to UNDERSTAND Jesus because we not only accept who he is, but also what he does.



How clean is clean?

Radio and TV media have been almost incessant in reminding us of the dangers of communicable diseases.  Ebola in Africa was a case in point.  I understand now that when you go visit a sick relative or friend in the hospital, quite often you are asked to “gown up,” that is to say you wear a mask and gown in order to protect you from catching or communicating germs.

In the Gospel for the twenty second Sunday in Ordinary time [Mark 7: 1-23], Jesus becomes aware of how some Pharisees and Scribes have become very obsessive about cleanliness.  They even complain about the fact that some of Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands before eating.  It was part of the Jewish ritual to do so.

Curiously enough, Jesus did not deny the accusation but he was most likely aware of the motivation behind the complaint since the Pharisees made such a big deal out of the non-washing.  What do you suppose was going on?

I would suggest that the “big deal” (the complaint) was most likely a way of focusing on the supposition  that by centering on the “external” would be a good way of veering away from the “internal.”  The “external” was the washing of the hands.  It was something that one could do alone.  The “internal” were the thoughts and feelings that often effected others.

However, and I think this was Jesus’ point, the “internal” was not a matter of focus for the Pharisees and Scribes.  Why?  Because feelings most likely resulted in actions.  The heart was considered the fount of feelings.  So if one felt angry, jealous, envious, or anything hostile, those feelings would frequently be transmitted into actions.  While washing hands was “external,” expressed hostile feelings were “internal.”  That is to say, those negative feelings (internal) affected the neighbor.  In fact, the Pharisees tended to be good about the external. hence their loud complaint about some of Jesus’ disciples.

Not washing hands was “external” and thus done alone.  Feeling angry or jealous was “internal” and, when expressed, affected neighbor.  So Jesus surfaced this point by telling the people around him:  “…Listen to me all of you, and understand.  There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”  [Mark 7:14-15]

What did Jesus mean by that?  In effect, he was putting the proper perspective on TRUE defilement.  It is not unwashed hands, but hostile thoughts (which often come to fruition) about others that cause true defilement.  You can wash your dirty hands, but that process includes you alone.  But feeling jealous, envious,  or angry usually affects others.  This is true defilement.

Maybe what we should ask ourselves is:  “What kind of a spiritual bath can I take to make me clean?” Well, what about the Sacrament of Reconciliation?





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