Sunday By Sunday
FAITH Magazine March-April 2004
Our regular guide to the Word of God in the Sunday Liturgy
2ND SUNDAY OF LENT C
07.03.04 Lk 9, 28-36
Mountains were places associated with divinity. Mysterious and isolated, often wreathed in cloud, majestic and permanent, the high places evoked in ancient religions those aspects and attributes they wanted to claim for their gods. But faith in the one God, the God of holiness, caused Israel to react against the squalid fertility rites of pagan worship on the mountains, which corrupted and diminished the transcendence of God. “Ÿes, the people of Judah have done what displeases me, Yahweh declares. They have set up their horrors in the Temple that bears my name, to defile it, and have built the high places of Topheth” ( Jer 7, 30 ).
Jesus claims the high places for true divinity. He seeks to pray to the Father, to be on the mountain alone with God, offering perfect humanity back to the source of all. Jesus is preparing for the Cross, for what must be in Jerusalem. He is gaining strength in his humanity, and giving strength through the power of his divinity. Peter, James and John are led up Mount Tabor to see Jesus as he really is, that they might not be broken by the scandal of the cross, but know him as the Messiah, rightfully acknowledged by Moses and Elijah.
“When we told you about the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, we were not slavishly repeating cleverly invented myths; no, we had seen his majesty with our own eyes. He was honoured and glorified by God the Father, when a voice came to him from the transcendent Glory, ‘this is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour’. We ourselves heard this voice from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain” ( 2Pet 1, 16-18 ). Peter’s betrayal of the Lord brought disaster. Who knows if it was not the memory of Tabor that inspired him to repent?
3RD SUNDAY OF LENT C
14.03.04 Lk 13, 1-9
The Jewish law of retribution saw illness and misfortune as a sign of God’s curse against an individual or group of people. Jesus corrects this by emphasizing that what displeases God is not the person, as if God had favourites and was partial, but hardness of heart in a person. The unrepentant refuse submission to God, especially God made known in Jesus Christ. If there was little excuse in former generations, now there is none. God is right there before their eyes: “unless you repent you will all perish”. (Lk 13, 5). Jesus turns the focus from past misfortune to present repentance.
Hardness of heart and unrepentence yield a barren and dusty harvest for the Kingdom of God. The image of Israel as a vineyard beloved of the Lord was a common theme in Prophetic writing, and would have been familiar to those who heard Jesus’ preaching ( cf. Is 5, 1ff ). Yet the vineyard in these writings constantly produced bitter fruit and sour grapes, returning rottenness for loving care and attention. The God of holiness, who tends his people with abundant kindness, reaps only infidelity and injustice from Israel. Fig trees show abundant growth and foliage. But, in Israel’s case, this only hides lack of fruit.
For Jews, the life was in the blood. Life always belonged to God, and therefore blood could be both life-giving, as in the Covenant God made through Moses ( Ex 24, 6-8 ), or a principle of defilement, as in polluted sacrifices. Herod perpetrated the horror of all horrors before God by mixing blood spilt in anger with the blood of sacrifices, thus rendering those submitted to such a sacrilege abominable in the sight of God ( Lk 13, 1f ). This was clearly deliberate on Herod’s part as a humiliating punishment for those who threatened him, but Jesus would not be drawn into Herod’s macabre games. Life now lies in repentance.
4TH SUNDAY OF LENT C
21.03.04 Lk 15, 1-3.11-32
All thirty-two verses of the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel revolve around the three apparently ‘throw-away’ verses at the beginning. Cultural and religious conventions of the time are turned on their head, as Jesus seeks religious dialogue not with the Pharisaical elite, but with the lowest of the low – tax collectors and sinners. This is because it is these outcasts alone who seek him out, and not their spiritual masters. But the scribes and Pharisees are not excluded from dialogue. It was precisely to challenge and include the religious authorities that Our Lord “spoke this parable to them” ( Lk 15, 3 ).
The Prodigal Son is the masterpiece of all the parables spoken by Our Lord. Its atmosphere is a family row over inheritance, replete with tensions and jealousies, love and hate. No doubt the audience would be drawn into a tale whose circumstances may well reflect occurrences in their own communities and lives. But the attitudes displayed by the protagonists in the parable are anything but conventional – they are out of this world. The tender compassion of the Father outshines even the sincere and whole-hearted repentance of the Prodigal. Only the attitude of the Elder brother remains ‘this-worldly’ and unexceptional.
The challenge to the Elder brother, and thus to the Pharisees whom he represents, is to match the exceptional reactions displayed by Father and Younger Son by coming into the banquet with a generous and forgiving heart. The Pharisees are asked to sit down with sinners to hear the words of life that fall from the lips of the Master. They are both alike to inherit the Kingdom of God through repentance. Jesus does not say what the ultimate decision of the Elder brother was. It is up to the Pharisees, and each one of us, to complete the tale.
5TH SUNDAY OF LENT C
28.03.04.1 Jn 8, 1-11
Many modern commentators have thought this passage fits ill with the style and composition of John’s gospel. It could be Lucan. But, whatever the truth of this matter, the text was accepted by the Church in the canon of John’s gospel as inspired, and there are no grounds for regarding it as unhistorical. The incident it describes tells us a great deal about Jesus, in particular about his personal relations with others. The action operates on two levels – Jesus in confrontation with the malice of his opponents, and Jesus in relationship with a woman whose life hangs in the balance.
Why did Jesus bend down to write on the ground, and what was he writing? For a carpenter from Nazareth, it is amazing enough that he is literate and able to write. But why this reaction in a moment of highest tension? Perhaps Jesus pauses to give the Pharisees space to reflect on their own malice and withdraw their hypocritical accusation. But they persist because they think they have got him between anvil and hammer, and so Our Lord reluctantly points out their malice. The elders recognize the new situation before their younger, hotheaded acolytes, and move silently away.
Jesus forgives us our sins – it is the devil who accuses us. Condemnation is the mark of the father of lies, who was a murderer from the start ( Jn 8, 44 ). Jesus’ forgiveness and love for the woman caught in adultery is sweet and tender. It is also based on a proper and balanced view of the situation at hand. “Go away, and don’t sin any more” (Jn 8, 11) are words that show how love and truth walk hand in hand. Our Lord is neither sentimental nor harsh. He invites the woman to loving that only he can give – welling up to eternal life.
PALM SUNDAY C
04.04.04 Lk 19, 20 –40
“If these keep silence the stones will cry out” ( Lk 19, 40 ). The disciples are caught up in the joy of heralding the Messiah, who has performed such great miracles before God in the sight of men throughout his public ministry ( cf. Lk 19, 37). The Pharisees are appalled, because they think such things blasphemous. But Jesus, in his turn, is indignant with them for their intransigence in resisting the grace of God. For three years Jesus has been preparing for his triumphal entry, and all that will be accomplished then. He has set his face like flint toward Jerusalem, and he will not be deflected ( cf. Lk 9, 51 ).
Jesus’ words above also have a deeper, cosmic significance. He who rides upon a donkey is the One through whom all creation was made and is sustained in being. He is Lord of the Cosmos and Lord of History – the Heir of all the ages and the Master key who unlocks the meaning of the universe: “In the beginning was the Word: and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (Jn 1, 1f ). St John saw the meaning and power behind the pre-existence of Jesus. All he does on earth has a resonance in heaven, beyond the pettiness of sinners.
Stones, earth, sea and sky give him praise by their very existence. They are inanimate objects, but part of a Master plan in the universe that builds through billions of years toward the coming, firstly, of man, and, secondly, of God made man in Jesus. If man, made in the image and likeness of God and uniquely endowed with freewill, refuses to give praise to God revealed in Jesus with hands and voice uplifted, as man’s nature demands for its proper fulfillment, then he will be shown up even by stones on the ground for his unnatural silence.
EASTER SUNDAY C
11.04.04 Lk 24, 1-12
“This story of theirs seemed pure nonsense, and they did not believe them” (Lk 24, 11). Part of the awe and wonder that the gospel accounts of the resurrection generate lies in their complete ordinariness and understatement. The resurrection is the most important event in human history – it shatters worldly thinking and forces the human mind and heart to acknowledge the majestic impact of divine action in human history. Resurrection means that our sins are truly forgiven, our worthiness to inherit the divine nature wholly assured, and our need to convert and change utterly imperative. The Empty Tomb gives us no option.
Given such demanding radicality, most people deny the full bodily resurrection, even some Christians. It is unbearable to have no choice at all in the face of such monolithic and impregnable certainty. The impact of divine reality breaks human hearts even as it mends them. It banishes any nuanced understanding of the resurrection, whose real purpose is to deny the truth that Jesus rose from the dead in the flesh, and was as human after this event as he was before it, though in some hidden way transformed in his humanity and made fit for heaven.
Why then do the gospel accounts appear so lacklutre? The extract above from Luke records a dismissive and unbelieving attitude to the women’s story. Does the evangelist fail to realize the impact of what he is saying? Rather the opposite. Luke is merely being a scrupulous historian, faithfully reporting his sources. Even the women’s names are made known to us (Lk 24, 10). Only in the light of subsequent resurrection appearances and the inspiration of Pentecost does the full impact of the resurrection dawn upon the fledgling Church. Complete victory founded complete certainty. Thus the Faith was born, thus it is sustained.
SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER C
18.04.04 Jn 20, 19-31
“Eight days later...” ( Jn 20, 26 ). Chronology in John’s gospel is acutely observed, especially in the resurrection narratives ( cf. Jn 20, 19 ). Sunday, or the day of the resurrection, becomes the pivotal day dominating the entire week. Thomas doubts for a week, but by the Sunday after Easter, he encounters the Lord in a special and unique way so that his doubts may be dispelled and his faith in the Risen Lord made active ( Jn 20, 26-29 ). John sets the scene for claiming Sunday as the Sabbath of the New Covenant, a day of extraordinary gifts and the meeting of the entire community around their eucharistic Lord.
“You believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20, 29 ). Belief in the resurrection is connected by John to belief in the abiding presence of the Lord in the Eucharist at the heart of the Church. Generations of believers have found solace and comfort in the account of doubting Thomas, with its assurance of even greater graces to those coming after this holy apostle, who would believe in the abiding presence of the Risen Lord in the Eucharist and trust in him. The Lord loves his Church and cares for her unceasingly.
Thomas failed in faith, but to those in the Church of the Johannine community and the Church universal afterwards, he has become a potent symbol of the power of faith restored. Trials come our way, scandals rock our faith, and our own sinfulness impoverishes our loving. But the love of the Lord abides forever and is never withdrawn from us. There is always room for forgiveness, courage extended to those bowed down, strength available to those who feel like giving up. Our faith is a living faith because it knows the unsurpassed joy of coming home to the Risen Lord.
3RD SUNDAY OF EASTER C
25.04.04 Jn 21, 1-19
“There were so many fish that they could not haul it in” ( Jn 21, 6 ). The sheer abundance of fish recalls the generosity of Cana ( Jn 2, 6 ), the miracle of the loaves ( Jn 6, 11ff ), the living water ( Jn 4, 14; 7, 37 ), the life which the Good Shepherd gives ( Jn 10, 10 ), and the richness of the Spirit bestowed on Jesus ( Jn 3, 34 ). Deep generosity of heart and gentleness that floods the recipient with overwhelming joy characterize the behaviour of Jesus towards his apostles, so dispirited after a futile night’s fishing ( Jn 21, 3 ). They know him by his touch more surely than by their sight. John particularly has no doubts, so great was his love for the Lord ( Jn 21, 7 ).
Simon Peter often leads more through impetuosity than measured judgment. His decision to go fishing owes more to his understandable inability to come to grip with the momentous things that have just come to pass in Jerusalem than to any great plan or design. He is falling back on that which he knows best. But there is no going back in the Lord. Peter’s own choices lead him down a barren path and no fish are caught ( Jn 21, 3-5 ). When the Lord intervenes in his life, then the nets are scarcely big enough to contain all the fish he lands ( Jn 21, 11 ).
For all his faults, Simon Peter is still the commanding voice among the disciples. Three increasingly agitated affirmations undo the three vehement denials by which Peter abandoned the Lord before the Passion ( Jn 21, 15-17; Jn 18, 15-18.25-27 ). John acknowledges the primacy of Peter in reporting this incident. He juxtaposes the words spoken to Peter with those addressed to him, showing that there are both active and contemplative vocations in the Church ( Jn 21, 20-23 ). Neither of these are mutually exclusive, but rather tend to the furthering of the work of the Lord. Where Peter follows, John waits on the Lord. Both acknowledge one Lord, one Faith and one Church.