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

Archive for the ‘Religion-Bible’ Category

The truth about the “Witness” program

A  job given to the witness in a court trial is to bring out personal knowledge about the accused.  It may sway the jury one way or another.  A typical question may well be “Is the accused individual generally a good or bad person?” Personal knowledge is very important in witness evaluation.

In the Gospel for the Third Sunday in Advent (Luke 3:10-18), John the Baptist is a “witness” so has much to say about Jesus.  We can assume that John was well aware of much that Jesus was teaching and so was able to share it with others.  John was effectively preaching to a crowd .  I suspect that the crowd wanted to be baptized and thus “become” clean.

Different groups basically asked the same question: “What can I do?” John’s basic response was one of sharing with others.  He also pointed out that Tax collectors were told not to collect more than what is due.  Soldiers were told not to practice extortion nor to falsely accuse anyone.

Quite likely the people were moved by what John had said and wanted to be baptized by him so as to be thoroughly cleansed.  Then, John began to “witness” Jesus.  “Baptism” as a cleansing agent is what the people wanted, and John made a specific distinction between his baptism and that of Jesus.

John’s baptizing was with water only.  Jesus would baptize with the “Holy Spirit” and “fire.” No doubt a strange combination. Most likely, “fire” came from a later Tradition which referred it to Pentecost, thus making Jesus’ Baptism a plan of “action” fueled by the Holy Spirit.  (“Spirit” from the Hebrew [ruah] can also be translated as”power.”)

That is to say that for Jesus, the Baptism is basically a plan of action as exemplified by Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost who went out and preached Jesus’ message.  God’s Spirit (“power”) is what made this possible.

What does this mean ?  John was a witness testifying to the reality of Jesus’ teaching.  For example, justice, compassion, forgiveness among other things (summaries found in Matthew chapters 5-7).  Displaying our Baptismal responsibilities is a form of accepting Jesus’ teaching.

The fact is , if we display our Baptismal  responsibilities consistently, then others will notice and become aware that there is truth regarding our “witness” program.  That is to say, live what you believe.

 

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One of the “good guys”

During Jesus’ day, the Scribes were generally antagonistic toward Jesus and his message.  However, in the Gospel for the Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time  (Mark 12:28-34), there is one scribe who appears to be open to Jesus and his cause.

He is open to what Jesus has to say, but wants some clarification about the Law, since the Scribes were strict interpreters of the Law.  One might guess that the Scribe had heard about Jesus and how he dealt with other people.  For example, healing the sick, comforting the afflicted, feeding the hungry, forgiveness of sins, and the list could go on.

All of this good work seems to have come from some sense of the law.  So the Scribe asked Jesus directly, perhaps to get a sense of priority of what Jesus thought important enough to heal in relationship to the Law.  So he asks,  “Which is the greatest of all the commandments?”

Instead of pointing out a list, Jesus goes to “motive.”  He begins by stating the all important Jewish prayer the “SHEMA.” (which means “hear”)  “Hear, O  Israel.  The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”  (Deut. 6:4-5)  That is to say, totally.  For “loving” means “serving.”  Loving God totally is a long tradition for Israel.

After citing the SHEMA prayer, Jesus added “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There are no commandments greater than these.” In effect, keeping these two (love of God and neighbor) was the same as keeping all ten of the commandments.

Curiously enough, the Scribe agreed with Jesus and pointed out that this love of God and service to neighbor “…is much more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mk. 12:23b)  Wow!  That was really saying something about motive and perspective.  It even enabled Jesus to say to the Scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Keeping the Commandments is a key factor in being a “good guy.” If it can be summed up in “loving God and serving neighbor” as a way of keeping the Commandments, then we can also be called
“good guys”  which is what being an effective disciple of Jesus is all about.

All of the above actually comes from the crucial Sinai covenant.  What is so important about the Sinai covenant?  It firmly established the relationship between God and His people because the covenant was mutual.  That is, both God and the people had a responsibility to each other because the Sinai covenant was bi-lateral and conditional.  How so?

During Israel’s exodus from Egypt, Moses goes up to God on Mount Sinai who tells him what he is to say to the Israelites .  “Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples….”  (Exodus 19:5-6)  The people agreed to keep the covenant on those terms, (Cf. Ex. 19:7-8) thus making the covenant bi-lateral and conditional.

Keeping the Commandments has long been a challenge, no doubt because of the temptations not to keep them.  And as long as we keep them, what Jesus said to the Scribe can be said of us, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  Keeping this is mind can actually make each of us a “good guy.”

 

 

 

Can you make “sense”?

If you had the chance of keeping your five senses (touch, taste, hear, see, smell) which one would it be?  Why?  If you would lose sight, would you not miss the magnificent landscapes, sunsets, sunrises, color of leaves, beautiful natural wonders?  What about losing hearing?  No more favorite music.  And the rest of the list could go on.

For me, it would be vision.  Not only would I not be able to see the beauties of nature, but also reading, visiting museums, and the like.  This would be depressing. This is probably why I feel a special sadness for Bartimaeus the blind in the Gospel for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time.  (Mark 10:46-52)

A brief recount of the Gospel.  Jesus is leaving Jericho, and by the roadside, Bartimaeus the blind is begging.  He hears that it is Jesus passing by.  Having heard some things about Jesus, he cries out, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.”  The more others tried to calm him down, the louder was his shout.

Jesus heard him and came and asked what he wanted.  He said, “Master, I want to see.”  Quite likely Jesus looked at him, paused, and said,”Go your way, your faith has saved you.”  Immediately, Bartimaeus’ vision was restored.

Doesn’t it seem strange that there is no touching or praying between Jesus and Bartimaeus as there was in other miracles of healing?  What do you think Jesus was trying to convey?  I suspect that Jesus wanted to point out the importance of faith.  It is Bartimaeus’ faith that was the basis for the miracle.  Why is this so important?

Quite likely, I suspect that faith is the basis for our judgements about people.  For example.  What do I really believe about Jesus?  Do I believe what the Gospels say about Jesus?  What about the Creed that I recite during Sunday Mass?  Do I truly believe what it says about the Holy Trinity?

Also, what do I believe about other people?  Do I believe what the book of Genesis say about all of us (Genesis 1:26-27), namely, that all of humanity is created in the image and likeness of God, no matter ethnic origin, place of birth, color of skin, economic status?  Our faith is telling us that there is equality among us all.

Bartimaeus was healed because he truly believed in Jesus.  Not only did he believe that Jesus could heal him but believed that he would heal him.  This miracle was an act of physical healing.

We can be healed from our spiritual blindness if we believe and do what our faith teaches us about Jesus and our fellow human beings.  Regarding Jesus, do we believe in what our faith tells us by way of the Bible and official church teaching?  Regarding our fellow human beings, do we believe and do what Jesus teaches in the Gospels, namely, treat all others with justice, compassion, understanding, forgiveness.  Is there that feeling of equality in our interaction?

In fact, every time that we see again (spiritual insight) in terms of how we see and treat our fellow human beings, it is a miracle of God’s love.  This is really “making sense” of our spiritual insight.

 

 

 

 

What do you do with your money?

One of the people I feel most sorry for is the man who is asked to sell his belongings and follow Jesus.  (Mark 10:17-30)  He seems to be a good person, wants to be better, but couldn’t say “no” to his wealth.  Apparently, he had a good intention but a questionable motivation.

What do I mean by that?  Reflection on the Gospel reading might give us an answer.  A man runs up to Jesus, and asks him, “Teacher, what must I do to gain eternal life?”  Simple question demands a simple answer.  Jesus responds, “…Keep the commandments.”  So he recites a few of them to reinforce the idea.

The man responds, ” Teacher, I have kept these for a long time.”  Clearly the man is not satisfied with the minimum, so he wants a greater challenge.  Jesus then gives him one.  It is in the response to this choice where the motivation is tested.

Jesus states, “You are lacking one thing.  Go, sell what you have and give to the poor…then come follow me.”  I strongly suspect that the man gave this some serious thought.  One could almost feel the silence.  Then the man’s motivation was prompted by his reaction.  The Gospel tells us:  “The man went away sad, for he had many possessions.”  He just couldn’t say “no” to his belongings.

The same choice is given to us in the sense that we are asked to share our gifts (and talents) with others.  This is our baptismal responsibility as professed disciples of Jesus.  Regarding talents, remember that no one has been cheated.  St. Paul brings this out clearly.  (I Cor. 12:4-11) All of us can do something that few others can.

The Lord does not expect everyone to be a St. Francis of Assissi giving away all one’s possessions.  But he does expect all of us to account for our gifts and talents.  The major question then becomes one of “motivation.” Why do we give or keep our gifts/talents?

We have to ask ourselves,”What do I do with my money after paying the bills?”  Do I buy some trivial items because I think they might be fun or interesting?  Or do I send some money to a missionary group taking care of very poor people in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, or people in these United States?

So much for the money.  But what about my gifts/talents?  Do I bother to share with others or not?  All of us have something to give. For example, singing, playing an instrument, being a good listener, an excellent reader for Mass readings, and the list could go on. Why I do it or not becomes the motivation.  Keep in mind that Jesus asks the difficult, but not the impossible.

The man in the Gospel was asked to do the difficult and not the impossible. But he was not ready. He had a faulty motivation in that he was too tied to his belongings. Because of our Baptism, we are also asked to do the difficult by sharing with others our gifts and talents.   Our question is constant.  What do I do with my money and/or gifts?Only my “motivation” can answer this, be it a “yes” (share it with others) or a “no” (keep it for myself.)

 

 

Dealing with “hyperbole”?

The Gospel for the 26th Sunday in ordinary time (Mark 9:38-48) tells us that Jesus discussed a two-fold message with his disciples, namely, working in Jesus’ name and reward and punishment in the after life.

The first part of the message was “working in Jesus’ name.”  To “work in someone’s name” means that the work was done with the implied authority of that person.

The disciple John raises the problem. “Teacher, someone is driving out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he does not follow us.”  Note the key words in this complaint:  “you” and “us.”

In John’s eyes these words of necessity belong together.  But from Jesus’ point of view, one cancels out the us, because as he says in the Gospel reading, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40)  So he tells the disciples to leave the man alone.

In other words, it is the Holy Spirit who provides the “authority” and not the institution.  Whoever is not against Jesus is, by supposition, for him.

The second part of Jesus’ message to his disciples is “reward and punishment in the afterlife.”  It was becoming clear to the disciples that being a follower of Jesus could well result in suffering, betrayal and death as was true in the case of Jesus himself.  So, Jesus explained to his disciples that what you do in this life will affect what will happen in the after life.

If you do good things in this life, good things will happen to you in the next life.  For example, “…Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”  (Mark 9:41)

Jesus was serious in the sense of good behavior especially for anyone who would be preaching in his name.  Thus when he spoke of bad things his followers might do, he emphasized the point by speaking in hyperbole.  This means that in order to get a point across one emphasizes it by virtue of exaggeration.  What does this mean?

We often do it ourselves.  For instance, when I tell someone, “I told you a million times not to do that.”  In fact, it may have been only two or three time, but by exaggerating the number there is the likelihood the person will be more easily convinced.

The three body parts that Jesus discusses are: hand, foot, and eye.  If the hand or foot is a cause of sin, cut it off.  If the eye is a cause of sin, pluck it out.  These are hyperbolic ways of dealing with sins.  The hand is often an instrument of sin (e.g. stealing).  The feet are means of transport to get you to commit the sin.  And the eye provides the source of temptation.

What is it that the Gospel reading can tell us?  First of all, because of our Baptism, we are disciples of Jesus and have the responsibility to speak and act in his name.  So our words and actions are very important in order for others to make a judgement about us.

Secondly, our speech and behavior in this life will definitely affect us in the next life.  By speaking hyperbolically, Jesus most likely convinced his listeners that hands, feet, and eyes would  be more effective by being of service to others rather than by giving them bad example.  Being of service to others would probably mean being hyperbolic in our own self judgement.  After all, we claim do things in Jesus’ name.

 

Can I “perform” a miracle”?

Sometimes there are people who don’t want to hear.  These are folks who have their minds already made up.  What they actually mean by their negativity is,”Don’t bother me with facts.”  Then there are people who can’t hear because they are really deaf.

In the Gospel for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary time, there is a man who is not only truly deaf but also has a speech impediment.  (Mark 7:31-37)  The people who brought him to Jesus for a cure wanted him to touch the sick person with the laying on of hands.

In the time of Jesus it was important that there be actual touching between the sick individual and the healer.  The idea was that there was power that flowed from the healer to the sick person, which  often resulted in the healing.

Jesus responded by placing his fingers in the man’s ears and placing spittle on his tongue.  Then, he looked to heaven and said “Ephphata,” which in Aramaic means “Be opened.”

A miracle was performed….  So, how did Jesus perform this miracle?  By two actions:  TOUCHING and PRAYER.  A significant way in which we can appreciate this Gospel, is to reflect on how Jesus performed this miracle.  By touching and prayer.

Incidentally, there is another way of “touching” besides physical contact.  And that is spiritual contact, namely, dealings with the emotions and the mind.  An example is one of response when you sense the need of another.

When someone is hungry and/or homeless, is your response one of willingness to help or not?  Your response will be based on the thoughts (which later turn to actions) of your sense of compassion.

Prayer does not to be scripted.  Even though we often follow a script when we pray to God, we don’t do so when talking to a friend.  So why not talk to God as a friend?  Often there are needs and other problems that we have, so a simple discussion between “friends” would be much better than a script.  But keep in mind that God’s answer to prayer may be “yes,’; “no,”; or “not yet.”

Jesus performed a miracle by “touching” and “prayer.”   Maybe by “touching” ourselves or others, in the sense of our value system,(peace, justice, compassion, forgiveness, etc.) we can be of help or not.  “Prayer” will validate the request.  We may quite likely be performing a miracle….  Who knows?

 

 

 

Does bread really nourish?

Have you ever had someone ever tell you, “Who do you think you are?”  This question because the other person may well have thought that your enigmatic explanation made that individual feel ignorant.

In the Gospel for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (John 6:41-51), Jesus is placed in a similar situation.  His statement is,  “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  And the group of Jews surrounding Jesus becomes quite surprised by this statement and asks for an explanation.

What did Jesus mean by such a comment?  Seems to me that there are two important concepts here:  “bread,” and “from heaven.”  The first deals with nourishment, and the second deals with divine origin.

First, bread as nourishment.  Jesus tells the group that their ancestors ate Manna (bread-like edible food) in the desert.  The Israelites were crossing the desert as they were leaving Egypt for the promised land.

During this exodus  the people expressed hunger and called to God, via Moses, to give them food.  Then this Manna came from the heavens and the people were satisfied. (Cf. Exodus 16 for this narrative)  The people were nourished.  Then Jesus told the crowd that  this gesture occurred only once.  That is to say that these folks who received the Manna eventually died.  Consequently, this nourishment was totally physical.

Second, the concept of “from heaven.”  Manna came from the heavens as noted in the text from Exodus.  God sent the bread to nourish his people.  So, the gesture had a divine origin.

Now, what can we learn from the Gospel?  By reflecting on what Jesus said about himself.  Bread is nourishment.  We can become nourished by  receiving the Eucharist.  This is primarily spiritual nourishment and one can receive it more than once.

The Eucharist reminds us of the Last Supper and the use of bread to give life. Every time that we go to Mass, we become spiritually nourished by receiving the Eucharist.  This constancy of reflection and reception is almost a certainty for eternal life.

When Jesus says that he is “from heaven,” our background understanding brings to mind the liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas.  For these seasons keep telling us that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ.  So what we understand when Jesus says that he is “from heaven,” we are in reality understanding his humanity and divinity. Our belief in this is reflected in our behavior toward others.

Nourished by the Eucharist (bread), and belief in the divinity of Jesus (from heaven), gives us pretty much of a guarantee of eternal life as long as we behave ourselves.

 

 

 

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