Saturday, September 20, 2014

Bible Trivia for the Day

At 66 chapters, Isaiah is the longest prophet, followed by Jeremiah with 52, and Ezekiel with 48, right?

Wrong.  In Hebrew word count, Jeremiah clocks in at almost 30,000 words, followed by Ezekiel's ~26,000 and Isaiah's ~23,000.  Isaiah is the shortest major prophet.

At 28 chapters, Matthew and Acts are the longest book of the New Testament, followed by Luke with 24, right? 

Wrong.  Luke is longest with ~16,800 Greek words, followed by Acts at ~15,800 and Matthew with ~15,600.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Does God Reward His Workers? The 25th Sunday in OT


The Gospel Reading for this Lord’s Day raises the issue of the fairness of God.  Jesus, being a good teacher, wants his students to think.  He teaches in parables that—on the one hand—do indeed communicate truth and answer questions, but—on the other—do raise new, puzzling questions that require the student (discipulus means student, after all) to think. 

1.  Our First Reading emphasizes the distance between God’s perspective and ours:

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Speaking Saturday at the Summit on Today's Marriage and Family Life

For those of you in Southern California, I will be speaking at a great event this weekend: The Wine has Run Out. . . Do Whatever He Tells You: A Summit on Today's Marriage and Family Life. 

The event is being held at St. Lorenzo Ruiz Parish in Walnut, CA. My talk will be on Saturday, 9/13.

I'm thrilled at how many people have signed up for this big event. Hope to see you there!

Here's some more information:
Summit on Today’s Marriage and Family Life on Sept. 12-14. 
A free Praise Concert will open the summit on Friday night from 5pm to 11pm. 
The Summit Proper on Saturday, from 7am to 10pm, will be highlighted by talks and open forums with Bishop Emeritus Ted Bacani from the Philippines as keynote speaker. A group wedding at 3:30 pm culminates the weekend followed by closing ceremonies from 5pm to 6pm. 
Tickets for Saturday’s activities are priced at only $25 each, meals and snacks included. For tickets and information, please call the St. Lorenzo Ruiz Parish Office at (909) 595-9545 or Honchee Natividad at (909) 576-4991

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"For God So Loved the World": Readings for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross

This Sunday we celebrate the wonderful Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Appropriately, the readings highlight the healing and redemptive work of Christ crucified. Though much could be said about them, here are some brief thoughts, including why the lectionary has us read the strange story of the bronze serpent fashioned by Moses in the wilderness in connection with this celebration. 

Please give us your feedback in the comment box below. 

FIRST READING: Numbers 21:4b-9
With their patience worn out by the journey,the people complained against God and Moses,“Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert,where there is no food or water?We are disgusted with this wretched food!” 
In punishment the LORD sent among the people saraph serpents,which bit the people so that many of them died.Then the people came to Moses and said,“We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you.Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us.”So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses,“Make a saraph and mount it on a pole,and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.”Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole,and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.
The story in Numbers 21 is rich in meaning. Here let me highlight a few elements.

Plagues on Israel. The story alludes to the Exodus, which, of course, was accomplished through the Passover, the last of the ten plagues that fell upon the Egyptians. Notably, here the tables have been somewhat turned - the plagues are now falling on Israel. Here we have a warning against spiritual pride - even the chosen people, Israel, can become Egyptians. 

In the liturgy we should contemplate the times God has delivered us in our lives and yet we have proven to be unfaithful to him in response.

The fiery serpents. The term "seraph" serpents is often translated in other English Bibles, "fiery serpents" (e.g., RSV). In the original Hebrew, the reference to the idea of "fiery" or "burning" probably related to the sensation those who suffered their bites experienced.

A graven image that saves. To heal the people, God instructs Moses to make a graven image, specifically, an image of a serpent. This is the origin of the famous medical image of a serpent on a pole.

Here we see that graven images are not in and of themselves evil. Here a brief word is in order about the Ten Commandments. Of course, Jews and Protestants number the Ten Commandments differently from Catholics, identifying as the second commandment as the prohibition of graven images. Catholics, with some Anglicans and Lutherans, follow Augustine's enumeration, which lists the prohibition against idols as part of the first commandment.

By the way, the Augustinian enumeration thus sees the commandments against coveting one's neighbor's wife and coveting one's neighbors goods as two separate commandments, not as a single one as others do. This way of numbering the commandments can also be supported by looking at the list of the commandments given in Deuteronomy. There the prohibition against worshipping other gods is closely linked with idolatry (Deut. 5:7-10). Moreover, the Hebrew uses different terms for coveting ones neighbor's wife [hamad] and his goods ['awa], suggesting these two commandments could be distinguished from one another.

In short, for Catholics, statues are not evil things--worshipping them as gods is. 

Of course, one could also point out that God also commanded Moses to place two statues on the most prominent item in the sanctuary--two golden angels sit atop the ark of the covenant, the holiest vessel in Israel's worship.

In short, far from condemning graven images as of themselves evil, Numbers 21 points to what we might describe as the "sacramental" power of sacred images; the sign of the bronze serpent is an instrument of salvation in the story!

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Psalm 78:1b-c-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38 
R. (see 7b) Do not forget the works of the Lord!
Hearken, my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable,
I will utter mysteries from of old.
R. Do not forget the works of the Lord!
While he slew them they sought him
and inquired after God again,
Remembering that God was their rock
and the Most High God, their redeemer.
R. Do not forget the works of the Lord!
But they flattered him with their mouths
and lied to him with their tongues,
Though their hearts were not steadfast toward him,
nor were they faithful to his covenant.
R. Do not forget the works of the Lord!
But he, being merciful, forgave their sin
and destroyed them not;
Often he turned back his anger
and let none of his wrath be roused.
R. Do not forget the works of the Lord!
Psalm 78 recalls God's dealings with Israel in the wilderness ("mysteries from of old"). The line in verse 34 is especially significant: "While he slew them they sought him and inquired after God again."

In other words, the psalmist seems to be relating what through the minds of the people of Israel who were killed in the wilderness after rebelling against the Lord: they "sought him".

The fathers thus read this psalm as revealing how God's wrath is actually a mercy. God smites but not out of hatred but out of love. Death was dealt by God as means of bringing his people to repentance! In other words, God punishes not because he stops loving his people but precisely because he cannot stop loving them. Here's a sampling from the fathers (including two quotes from John Chrysostom, whose feast day is Saturday):

And of those also who fell in the desert, let them hear what is related in the seventy-eighth Psalm, which bears the superscription of Asaph; for he says, “When He slew them, then they sought Him.” (Ps 78:34) He does not say that some sought Him after others had been slain, but he says that the destruction of those who were killed was of such a nature that, when put to death, they sought God.—Origen, De princ., 2.5.3 
 Those [afflictions] draw down mercy, they draw down kindness: while these on the other hand lift up even to an insane pride, and lead also to slothfulness, and dispose a man to fancy great things concerning himself; they puff up. Therefore the prophet also said, “It is good for me, Lord, that Thou hast afflicted me, that I may learn Thy statutes.” (Ps. 119:71.) When Hezekiah had received blessings and been freed from calamities, his heart was lifted up on high; when he fell sick, then was he humbled, then he became near to God. “When He slew them,” it says, “then they sought Him diligently, and turned, and were early in coming to God.” (Ps. 78:34.) And again, “When the beloved waxed gross and fat, then he kicked.” (Deut. 32:15.) For “the Lord is known when He executeth judgments.” (Ps. 9:16.)—John Chrysostom, Homily XXXIII (on Heb. 13:16)  
For at that time the very nature of our tribulation restrained us, however unwillingly, and disposed us to sobriety; and led us to become more religious; but now when the bridle is removed, and the cloud has passed away, there is fear lest we should fall back again into sloth, or become relaxed by this respite; and lest one should have reason to say of us too, “When He slew them, then they sought Him, and returned, and enquired early after God.”—John Chrysostom, De stat. 17.2
SECOND READING: Philippians 2:6-11
Brothers and sisters:
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Traditionally this passage has been referred to by scholars as a "Christ-hymn" because many have argued that Paul is here drawing on some kind of early Christian hymn. Whether that is the case or not (whether it was a hymn or not seems increasingly unlikely) is not an argument we can venture into here. While much (MUCH!) could be said about this passage, again, let me highlight just a couple of key ideas that seem present here. 

1. Christ's divinity and pre-existence. It seems difficult to deny that Paul is here affirming both the pre-existence and divinity of Jesus. Prior to becoming man Christ is said to have been "in the form of God". Later, Paul affirms that Christ was "in the form of man", i.e., human. That Paul believed Jesus was a man and didn't simply "appear" as a human is clear from other passages (e.g., Rom. 1:3). In short, while many will debate the precise nuance of Paul's meaning, I think the early Church's reading makes the most sense out of the passage: Jesus, who is divine, became human. 

2. Self-emptying. As Methodist scholar Michael Gorman has beautifully demonstrated, there is a  progressive descent envisioned in the first part of the passage: Jesus "emptied" himself in becoming human and then, as man, further humbled himself by dying on a cross. 

Here we have to mention that the full impact of Paul's discussion is often lost on us in the twentieth century, where the image of the cross has largely been sanitized. For people in Paul's world, crucifixion was nothing less than an abomination. For more on the horror of crucifixion, go see this post. To put it briefly, Christ humbled himself by becoming man, but the crucifixion is also seen as a kind of unimaginable humiliation. 

There is a bit of debate about how to translate the line "though he was in the form of God". It could be translated, "because he was in the form of God"--in other words, what Christ does in his humanity (i.e., suffering on the cross), mirrors what he does in his divine life. On this reading, what Christ shows the world on the cross is nothing less than the life-giving love of the Triune God. Jesus' self-giving on the cross is done "because he was in the form of God"--i.e., self-giving is what God does! 

It should be mentioned that there is even more controversy about how to properly translate 2:6: "[he] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped (harpagmos)." The term is a hapax legomenon, that is, a term that only appears once in the New Testament. Perhaps the best translation is "something at his disposal but not exploited for personal gain".[1]

3. Old Testament allusions. Some scholars see in the imagery an allusion to Adam who fell because he sought to be "equal to God". A case for allusions to the Suffering Servant figure of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 has also been made by scholars. Since Paul elsewhere makes use of both Adamic imagery (e.g., Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15) and Suffering Servant imagery (the reference is likely in Rom. 4:25), it at least seems plausible that such echoes are intended here. (I cannot examine the arguments in detail here.)

4. Glorified through suffering. The take-away of the passage is this: Christ was glorified because he humbled himself. If we wish to be glorified with Christ we must, therefore, embrace our crosses and follow after him. 

GOSPEL: John 3:13-17
Jesus said to Nicodemus:
“No one has gone up to heaven
except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” 
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
Perhaps no biblical passage is more familiar than John 3:16. While its meaning is obviously pretty straightforward, let me make three observations.

1. Lifted up like the serpent.  We can note that the famous statement about Jesus' death is specifically linked to the Old Testament account of the plague of fiery serpents of our first reading. The language of being "lifted up", however, has a double meaning--yes, Moses raised up the image of the serpent, but Christ will be "lifted up" on the cross, from death, and into heaven (cf. John 8:28; 12:32). 

We might also observe that in Numbers, the punishment for sin--the fiery serpents--becomes the means of healing via the image made by Moses. Likewise, as death is recognized as a punishment for sin, Christ reveals that the punishment is also in some way related to redemption--the very penalty given as a result of sin becomes the means by which we are saved from perishing. 

2. Eternal life. That Jesus promises "eternal life" is significant. Of course, it is not simply the "duration" of the new life that Christ brings that is important. "Eternal life" also speaks to the nature of the life that Christ shares with believers, i.e., a share in his divine life. 

3. The condemned does not condemn. Notice that the passage ends by emphasizing that Christ did not come into the world to "condemn it" but to "save" it. The point is ironic: Christ did not come to condemn the world--even though it deserved to be condemned! Yet Christ who did not deserve to be condemned was executed as a criminal! 

But in the end, while it seems like divine justice has failed, Jesus triumphs because the love of God is victorious--it saves those who should have been judged... like you and me. And God does this through the cross. Suffering may seem like a sign of God's absence, but God reveals that suffering is redemptive. Suffering is linked to repentance (Ps 78:34). Let us take up our cross and follow after Christ! 


NOTES
[1] See Roy W. Hoover, “The Harpagmos Enigma: A Philological Solution,” HTR 64 (1971): 95–119; Gerald F. Hawthorne, “In the Form of God,” in Where Christology Began: Essays on Philippians 2 (R. P. Martin and B. J. Dodd, eds.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 96–110.

Finally, a Bible for hipsters

This is hilarious. Go here to read Michael Bird's explanation of the parody.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Confronting Sin in the Church: The 23rd Sunday of OT



I don’t like personal conflict.  I try to avoid it as much as possible.  Probably most Americans do.  I’m not sure what it’s like in other cultures, although I’ve heard of others where open social confrontation is more common.

This Sunday’s Readings deal with situations in which Christians have a duty to confront one another.  They don’t make for comfortable reading in a culture that puts a high value on keeping the peace and minding one’s own business.

The First Reading is the great “Watchman” passage from the prophet Ezekiel:


Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Cost of Discipleship: 22nd Sunday of OT

It's been a tough week for Michael and I at our respective Universities, trying to keep up with the start of classes and a press of academic and administrative duties.  So this week I'm posting an unaltered re-run of a commentary on the Readings from three years ago:

If last Sunday’s Readings were a soft-ball pitch, a nice high arc to knock out of the park, this Sunday’s Readings are a wicked curve ball for the Catholic preacher.  Nonetheless, while these readings aren’t the “feel good” homiletical experience of last week’s, the truths are just as important and just as “Catholic.”

We begin with a troublesome passage from the prophet Jeremiah:

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Peter and the Popes: The 21st Sunday of OT

 
In terms of Catholic “preachability,” this Sunday’s Readings are a soft-ball pitch, a long high arc that every homilist ought to be able to knock out of the park.  The lectionary readings have been set up for a clear explanation of the nature of the Papacy and its basis in Scripture.

The context of the Old Testament reading should be explained.  During the lifetime of the prophet Isaiah, the royal steward of the palace, a certain Shebna, was arrogating himself by adopting royal privileges.  In particular, he was having a tomb cut for himself in the area reserved for the royal sons of David.  Like Denethor in the Return of the King (not an accidental parallel, by the way—Tolkien was a thorough Catholic), he was forgetting his place as steward and confusing his role with that of the king.  As a result, the LORD sends an oracle to Shebna via Isaiah, to the effect that Shebna will be replaced in his position by a more righteous man, a certain Eliakim son of Hilkiah:

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

New York Times on "obscene" indifference to Christian genocide

Ronald Lauder, a Jewish activist, has a powerful editorial in the New York Times:
WHY is the world silent while Christians are being slaughtered in the Middle East and Africa? In Europe and in the United States, we have witnessed demonstrations over the tragic deaths of Palestinians who have been used as human shields by Hamas, the terrorist organization that controls Gaza. The United Nations has held inquiries and focuses its anger on Israel for defending itself against that same terrorist organization. But the barbarous slaughter of thousands upon thousands of Christians is met with relative indifference.

The Middle East and parts of central Africa are losing entire Christian communities that have lived in peace for centuries. The terrorist group Boko Haram has kidnapped and killed hundreds of Christians this year — ravaging the predominantly Christian town of Gwoza, in Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, two weeks ago. Half a million Christian Arabs have been driven out of Syria during the three-plus years of civil war there. Christians have been persecuted and killed in countries from Lebanon to Sudan.

Historians may look back at this period and wonder if people had lost their bearings. Few reporters have traveled to Iraq to bear witness to the Nazi-like wave of terror that is rolling across that country. The United Nations has been mostly mum. World leaders seem to be consumed with other matters in this strange summer of 2014. There are no flotillas traveling to Syria or Iraq. And the beautiful celebrities and aging rock stars — why doesn’t the slaughter of Christians seem to activate their social antennas?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Our Paper at the Special SBL Session on Paul

I'm not referring to the "apocalyptic" session everyone is talking about. Yes, I will be sure to attend that important session.

Actually, this post is about another special Paul session that N.T. Wright will also be involved with . . . a session in which he will be responding to a paper I have co-written with my college at JP Catholic University, John Kincaid. Pamela Eisenbaum and Ward Blanton will also be responding.

I should mention that I'm also quite excited about some of the other papers being presented, especially the one by David Burnett.
S23-236 
Pauline Epistles 
Joint Session With: Pauline Epistles, Paul and Judaism, Disputed Paulines, Pauline Soteriology, Second Corinthians: Pauline Theology in the Making, Systematic Transformation and Interweaving of Scripture in 1 Corinthians 
11/23/20141:00 PM to 3:30 PMRoom: Sapphire Ballroom M (Level 4 (Sapphire)) - Hilton Bayfront (HB) 
Michael Patrick Barber, John Paul the Great Catholic University and John Kincaid, John Paul the Great Catholic University
Cultic Theosis in Paul and Second Temple Judaism: A Fresh Reading of the Corinthian Correspondence (18 min)
David A. Burnett, Criswell College
"So Shall Your Seed Be": Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions(18 min)
Pamela Eisenbaum, Iliff School of Theology, Respondent (8 min)
Ward Blanton, University of Kent at Canterbury, Respondent (8 min)
N. T. Wright, University of St. Andrews, Respondent (8 min)
Break (5 min)
Matthew E. Gordley, Regent University School of Divinity
Psalms of Solomon and Pauline Studies (18 min)
Hans Svebakken, Loyola University of Chicago
Roman 7:7-25 and a Pauline Allegory of the Soul (18 min)
Pamela Eisenbaum, Iliff School of Theology, Respondent (8 min)
Ward Blanton, University of Kent at Canterbury, Respondent (8 min)
N. T. Wright, University of St. Andrews, Respondent (8 min)
Discussion (25 min)
Here is the abstract for our paper:
Since the rise of the Käsemann school the centrality of apocalyptic eschatology in Paul has been widely maintained across the spectrum of contemporary Pauline scholarship, ranging from such diverse scholars as Stuhlmacher and Campbell. In addition to this, there has been the more recent emergence of the place of theosis for comprehending Pauline soteriology, as initially suggested by Hays and later demonstrated by Gorman, Blackwell, and Litwa (e.g., 2 Cor 3:18; 5:21; Col 2:9–10). In this paper we will suggest that these two strands are directly linked by means of second temple Jewish hopes for an eschatological temple and cult, and actualized in Paul. As is becoming increasingly clear (e.g., Tuschling), apocalyptic eschatology was inextricably tied to cultic worship (e.g., 1QHa 19:10-13, 1Q28b 3:25–26). Indeed, building on the work of Deismann, Aune has suggested that apocalyptic eschatology was understood to be realized within the cult in early Christianity (e.g., John 4:23). We will suggest that Paul is no exception. In order to demonstrate this, we shall turn our attention to the Corinthian correspondence, where these themes serve as a leitmotif in Paul’s discussion. Beginning in 1 Corinthians 2:6, Paul speaks of this age passing away yet this gives way to the discussion of a new temple in chapter 3. Paul then elucidates the life of this new temple in the following ways: keeping the feast in chapter 5, linking becoming one spirit with Christ and temple imagery in ch. 6, and, finally, the cultic explanation of participation in Christ in terms of the eucharist in chs. 10-11 and baptism in ch. 12. These cultic emphases continue in 2 Corinthians with the explicit temple language in ch. 6 and almsgiving as liturgical offering in ch. 9.
Hope to see you there. I'm especially looking forward to the 25 minute discussion at the end. This should be fun!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"May God have pity on us": Readings for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Responsorial Psalm sums up a key lesson that runs like a golden thread throughout this Sunday's lectionary readings:
May God have pity on us and bless us;may he let his face shine upon us.So may your way be known upon earth;among all nations, your salvation. (Ps 67:2-3)
The psalm asks the Lord to show his compassion on all nations and to bring them his salvation. 

From the perspective of ancient Israel, this would have seemed bizarre. The gentiles were the enemies of God and his people in books such as Joshua. They persecuted Israel. They killed Israel's sons and daughters. They had vile practices? 

Could they really be invited to the banquet of salvation? 

Romans? You mean the guys who decimated their enemies? The ones known for leaving baby girls to die of exposure to the elements? 

You mean Assyrians? The guys who savagely raped and pillaged their way through the land of promise?

You mean Canaanites? The ones known for sacrificing their children to gods?

While the prospect of the salvation of the gentiles obviously doesn't strike us Christians today as much as a surprise, we must remember the essential truth this Sunday's readings wants to affirm: all people are invited to the feast. No one is beyond the mercy of God. 

Let me put it in slightly more contemporary terms. No one is excluded from God's kingdom. . . not even those Islamic radicals we are reading about in the news who are raping and killing young women and children. 

Yeah. . . It was that shocking. 

The message of this Sunday's readings is, yes, God wants all of these people--all nations!--back in the covenant family. 

Make no mistake, repentance is not optional. Still, the lesson is no less astonishing: God's grace can transform anyone. 

And we are, like the psalmist, to pray that it does. 

With that, let me offer some brief reflections on the readings.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Discovery of 1st century Jewish coins with "redemption" inscription

Photo from the IAA of the coins discovered
[Source]
Interesting. . .
During excavations along the main highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologists discovered a ceramic moneybox containing 114 bronze coins. Each of the coins features a chalice and the Hebrew inscription “To the Redemption of Zion” on one side and, on the other side, a motif of palm branches and citron fruits with the Hebrew inscription “Year Four”—a reference to the fourth year of the Great Revolt against the Romans (69/70 C.E.). The revolt ended with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. 
“The hoard, which appears to have been buried several months prior to the fall of Jerusalem, provides us with a glimpse into the lives of Jews living on the outskirts of Jerusalem at the end of the rebellion,” said excavation directors Pablo Betzer and Eyal Marco in a press release issued by the IAA. “Evidently someone here feared the end was approaching and hid his property, perhaps in the hope of collecting it later when calm was restored to the region.” 
The hoard was excavated from a building constructed in the first century B.C.E. The building was subsequently destroyed in 69 or 70 C.E. during the conclusion of the Great Revolt. [Source]
You can read the press release from the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

h/t Scot McKnight

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Still Small Voice of God: 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 


There is so much turmoil in the national and international news these days, it makes it difficult to maintain a sense of peace.  Instability in Ukraine, Israel, and Iraq seem capable of spiraling out of control, leading to regional or international war.  Christians are targeted for elimination in Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere.  Closer to home, we witness worrying erosion of religious liberty in developed countries, such that being known as an advocate of traditional Christian sexual morality could cause one to lose one’s job and suffer character assassination.  A legal path is opening up to force the closure of all Christian public institutions (schools, hospitals) that refuse to endorse the new sexual ethic.  If this were not enough, all of us face the turmoil of our private lives: struggles to overcome sin in ourselves and our families; illnesses and surgeries; financial struggles; temptations against faith; discouragement and dryness in prayer.  It can feel overwhelming for the individual believer who wakes up each morning to face what seems to be an overwhelming avalanche of challenges on a personal and public level.  

The Readings for this Sunday Mass address the struggle of the believer to stay in relationship with God in the face of overwhelming distractions and threats.  In the midst of wind, waves, earthquakes, the voice of God still speaks to us.

1.  The First Reading is 1 Kgs 19:9a, 11-13a:

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Come, Receive Grain and Eat": The Feeding of the Five Thousand, the Eucharist, and the Hope of Israel (18th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

This Sunday's readings highlight the way the Kingdom of God is present sacramentally. Specifically, hopes for the restoration of Israel are linked to a miracle of Jesus, the feeding of the five thousand, which is presented in eucharistic terms.

I'll be speaking on this topic this weekend at the Catholic Family Conference in Wichita, Kansas. Hope to see some of you there!

FIRST READING: Isa 55:1-3
Thus says the LORD: All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk! Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy? Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare. Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life. I will renew with you the everlasting covenant, the benefits assured to David.
Here I'd like to highlight three major ideas which all are relevant to the Gospel reading.

The Messianic Banquet. Many scholars have recognized that the imagery here is likely alluding to hopes for an eschatological banquet.[1] This banquet, which is linked to the messianic age and the restoration of Israel, is most explicitly described in Isaiah 25:6-8:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. 8 He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken.
Other passages relating eschatological banquet hopes include biblical passages such as Isaiah 30:29 and Ezekiel 39:17-20 as well as texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls (1Q28a 2) and other Second Temple Jewish works (1 Enoch 62:14).

In a famous article on the messianic banquet, John Priest concludes,
The theme of a messianic/eschatological banquet was well known in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic thought. Although it is found in its developed form in only a surprisingly few texts, its pervasiveness is attested by allusions to it which can be given without explanation or comment.[2]
A Covenant Messianic Banquet. What is especially interesting about Isaiah 55:1-3 is that it links messianic banquet imagery to the language of covenant renewal. The combination of "covenant" and "banquet" motifs evokes the story of the covenant ratification ceremony at Sinai. There, of course, Israel enters into a "covenant" with God through a ceremony which climaxes with a kind of "heavenly banquet"--a meal with God on the holy mountain.
And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord. And he rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. 6 And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. 7 Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” 8 And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Exod 24:4-11)
In fact, many scholars think messianic banquet traditions--which often involve hopes for a New Exodus, i.e., the return of Israel from exile--draw from this account.[3] In other words, just as the first Exodus climaxed with a meal with God on a mountain, the New Exodus will also involve a sacred feast. 

The Davidic Covenant Renewal. The covenant that is specifically said to be "renewed" is the Davidic covenant. Many read the promise in Isaiah 55 as the "democratization" of the Davidic covenant--i.e., what was promised to David is now transferred to all the people of Israel. This is often viewed in terms of a rejection of the Davidic monarchy itself. This seems unlikely given the larger book of Isaiah, which asserts the coming of such a figure in other places (e.g., Isa 9:6-7; 11:1-10). Thus, as Heim writes, ". . . the offer of David's original 'everlasting covenant' to the whole people is perhaps not so much a transferral, but an extension."[4] 

Of course, this is what is in view in the New Testament. Christ, the Son of God, extends his covenant to his people, enabling them to likewise be "sons of God" in him. 

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Ps 145:8-9, 15-16, 17-18
R/ (cf. 16) The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs. The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness.The LORD is good to alland compassionate toward all his works. R/ The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs. The eyes of all look hopefully to you,and you give them their food in due season;you open your handand satisfy the desire of every living thing. R/ The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs. The LORD is just in all his waysand holy in all his works. The LORD is near to all who call upon him,to all who call upon him in truth. R/ The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.
In light of the Davidic imagery in the First Reading, Psalm 145 is a particularly appropriate selection for the Responsorial Psalm. The superscription (title) of the psalm associates it with David. In fact, in a verse not read in the lectionary we read: "Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endures throughout all generations." Given the fact that the final form of the Psalter dates to a period long after the time of the Davidic kingdom, it is easy to see how this line could evoke hopes for the restoration of the Davidic kingdom, which is elsewhere identified as the "Kingdom of the Lord" (cf. 2 Chr 13:8).

Obviously, the line: "you give them their food in due season" coheres well with the First Reading as well.

SECOND READING: Rom 8:35, 37-39
Brothers and sisters:
What will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine,
or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?
No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly
through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor principalities,
nor present things, nor future things,
nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
nor any other creature will be able to separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Whereas the First Reading looks forward to the day of the eschatological banquet, i.e., the day of God's ultimate victory over evil, the Second Reading explains how this has occurred in Christ.

It bears mentioning here that some Protestant readers use this passage to support the idea of "eternal security", that is, the belief that once a person is saved that salvation can never be lost ("once-saved-always-saved"). A close reading of this text, though, reveals that no such idea is present. Paul says no trial or thing can separate us from Christ but he does not say that sin won't separate us from him.

In fact, "eternal security" is clearly at odds with Jesus' teaching in John 15, where Jesus identifies himself as a "vine" and believers as "branches". Specifically, Jesus explains that branches that bear no fruit will be cut off from the vine and "thrown into the fire and burned" (John 15:6). 1 John 5:15-17 likewise makes it clear that there is such a thing as "mortal sin". Finally, we might also mention that Paul himself hardly sounds like he affirms eternal security in 2 Corinthians:
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. 4 I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God. (1 Cor 4:3-5)
GOSPEL: Matt 14:13-21
When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist,he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.
The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns.
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd,his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.
When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said,“This is a deserted place and it is already late;dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villagesand buy food for themselves.”
Jesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away;give them some food yourselves.”
But they said to him,“Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”
Then he said, “Bring them here to me, ”and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven,he said the blessing, broke the loaves,and gave them to the disciples,who in turn gave them to the crowds.
They all ate and were satisfied,and they picked up the fragments left over—twelve wicker baskets full.
Those who ate were about five thousand men,not counting women and children.
An Allusion to the Miracle of the Manna. Scholars recognize that the story of Jesus’ feeding miracle seems to evoke Exodus traditions, in particular, the episode of God feeding the Israelites in the wilderness with the manna and quail.  Peter-Ben Smit, explains “. . . the intertextual connections of the feedings and the Exodus traditions are so strong that they should be assumed to be of significance. A narration of a miraculous abundance of bread in a lonely place in the context of a prophetic movement is hard not to associate with the Exodus.”[5] Indeed, the allusion to the manna story in the account of the feeding of the multitudes is widely recognized.[6]

Note the elements common to both stories: language of “wilderness” (ἔρημός; cf. Exod 16:1, 3, 10, 14; Matt 14:13, 15; Mark 6:32. 35; Luke 9:12); the description of the need for food (cf. Exod 16:2-3; Matt 14:15; Mark 6:35; Luke 9:12); the giving of miraculous “bread” (ἄρτους; cf. Exod 16:3, 4, 8, 12, 15, 22; Matt 14:17-18; Mark 6:38; Luke 9:13)[7] is provided with another item (cf. the quail in Exodus 16; the fish in the Gospels); the food is gathered up into receptacles (cf. Exod 16:17; cf. Matt 14:20; Mark 6:43; Luke 9:17). In addition, as in the Gospel story, we find that no matter how much or how little manna the people gathered they never ran out (cf. Exod 16:18). The major difference here is that in the wilderness there was no manna left over as in the narrative of the feeding of the five thousand.

Indeed, by evoking Exodus Jesus likely signifies eschatological hopes, which were frequently linked with New Exodus imagery.[8] Josephus reports that a number of “imposters” (go/hv; cf. Ant. 20.97; 20.160) arose who apparently made claims that they would bring about the eschatological victory of Israel. He tells us that many were led astray by them because of their promises of “marvels and signs” (Ant. 20.168; cf. B. J. 2.258-60; 6.286-87)―terminology Josephus elsewhere associates with the Exodus (cf. Ant. 2.327).[9]

In fact, the term "signs" is used primarily to describe those miracles Moses performed to authenticate his prophetic identity before the people of Israel. These figures would often perform signs reminiscent of Moses and Joshua. For example, Josephus tells us about a man named Theudas, who gathered the people to the Jordan River, promising to make it part (Ant. 20.97-99). There was also a figure known as “the Egyptian,”―remember, Moses was raised in the house of Pharaoh!―who stood on the Mt. of Olives promising to bring down the walls of the city and then led followers out to the desert with promise of the performance of signs and wonders (Ant. 20.167-68), e.g., like Joshua. Such actions evoking such traditions were clearly meant to signal eschatological hopes―e.g., the “New Exodus”.

By performing a sign reminiscent of Israel’s desert wanderings Jesus thus likely signals his intention to fulfill eschatological hopes. Here we might add one further detail: Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to have the crowds sit in groups―a detail only present in Mark and Luke (Mark 6:39//Luke 9:15). This element also seems to evoke Exodus traditions. Moses had arranged the people into groups of a thousand, five hundred, one hundred and ten in Exodus 18:25 and Numbers 31:14. Indeed, that the Qumranites were also concerned with such groupings, associating it them with the organization of Israel in the eschatological age (cf. 1QS 2:21-22; CD 13:1; 1QM 4:1–5:17; 1QSa 1:14–15, 28–29), further supports the idea that the reference in the Gospels relates to New Exodus imagery.

The Fish and the Manna. But what of the fish? Is there any significance to their presence in the story?

The appearance of the fish may also be seen as an allusion to the story of the manna. Fish are closely linked with the gift of the quail in Numbers 11. The account begins with people complaining about not having the fish they ate in Egypt (cf. Num 11:5). In Numbers 11:22, Moses tells the Lord,
“The people among whom I number six hundred thousand on foot; and thou hast said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month!’ Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, to suffice them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to suffice them?”
In response to this, the Lord, “…brought quails from the sea” (Num 11:31). In connection with this it is worth noting that Wisdom 19:12 describes the Lord providing the quail, which “came up from the sea” (ἐκ θαλάσσης).[10] The quails then are described almost as sea creatures, i.e., fish.[11] The giving of fish to the Israelites is also associated with the wilderness traditions in Sipre Num. 11:22, where they are said to have come from Miriam’s well.

One other note about the fish. Scholars have recognized that, as in other places where table-fellowship figures prominent in Jesus’ ministry, the miracle of the feeding of the multitude seems to evoke imagery of the eschatological banquet.[12] As mentioned above, some scholars have noted that the eschatological banquet itself may be modeled on the covenant meal celebrated at Mt. Sinai after the Exodus (cf. Exod 24:9-11). Indeed, there is other evidence that traditions relating to the eschatological banquet were tied to Exodus hopes. We have already noted that the organization of the people into groups in Mark and Luke evoke the wilderness traditions. Strikingly, these groupings were specifically used by the Dead Sea Community to describe the messianic banquet (cf. 1QSa 2:11–22). Furthermore, other texts relate that the people of God will receive manna in the eschatological age (cf. 2 Bar. 29:8[13]; Eccl. Rab. 1:9[14]; Tg. on Song of Songs 4:5[15]).

The emphasis on the abundance of food provided by Jesus (e.g., twelve baskets of leftovers), evokes texts closely associated with the tradition of the messianic banquet in which the eschatological age is linked with the Lord’s provision of an abundance of food (Isa 23:18; 62:8; Jer 31:10-14; Ezek 36:29; Joel 2:19; 2 Baruch 29:3-30:1).[16]

Given the presence of fish in the miracle it is interesting to note that that later sources preserve traditions describe the meal of the eschatological banquet as consisting of the sea monster Leviathan
(cf. 2 Bar. 29.3-8; cf. 4 Ezra 6.49-52; b. B Bat. 74b-75a). In light of this it is possible that Jesus’ act of providing not only loaves but fish alludes to these traditions.[17]

In fact, Marcus who points out that the prophecy in 2 Baruch not only envisions the eating of the Leviathan but also the manna (2 Bar. 29.3–8). He goes on to point out, “This passage has several other noteworthy parallels to our story: the revelation of the Messiah, the marvelous fruitfulness of the ground… and the statement near the end that ‘those who are hungry will enjoy themselves.”[18]

Jesus as the Davidic Messiah. As is well known, Matthew's Gospel emphasizes Jesus' role as the Davidic Messiah. With this in mind it is probably worth noting that Ezekiel describes the eschatological Davidic king as the one who would "feed" God's people.
And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.(Ezek 34:23). 
Jesus is the true Davidic Messiah, the Shepherd King, who feeds his people.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand as a Eucharistic Miracle. Davies and Allison find 9 parallels which occur in order in Matthew 14, the feeding of the five thousand, and the account of the Last Supper in Matthew 26[19] They conclude: “It seems to us evident that Matthew intended 14.13–21 to be closely related to the institution of the Eucharist.”[20]

Of course, it was in the Eucharist that Jesus established the meal of the new covenant, using language that draws directly on the covenant ratification ceremony described in Exodus 24, mentioned above ("blood of the new covenant"). As we have seen, this ceremony is understood by many as the source of messianic banquet traditions.

By linking the Eucharist to the feeding of the five thousand--a miracle drawing on messianic banquet traditions--Matthew links the Lord's Supper to meal associated with the restoration of Israel. The restoration of Israel is thus realized sacramentally in the Lord's Supper.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: "The Kingdom of God has been coming since the Last Supper and, in the Eucharist, it is in our midst" (no. 2816). 

NOTES
[1] See, e.g., James L. Crenshaw, Defending God: Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 242, no. 21.

[2] John Priest, “On Note on the Messianic Banquet,” in The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity (J. H. Charlesworth, ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992)), 237 [222-38]. In addition, see James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (vol. 1 in Christianity in the Making; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 394.

[3] See, e.g., Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39: A New Translation with Commentary (AB 19; New York/London: Doubleday, 2000), 357-60.

[4] Knut M. Heim, "The (God-)Forsaken King of Psalm 89: A Historical and Intertextual Enquiry," in King and Messiah in Israel and the Ancient Near East: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar (ed. J. Day; London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 309.

[5] See Smit, Fellowship and Food in the Kingdom (WUNT 2/234; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2008): 69–71.

[6] See Green, The Gospel of Luke, 363; Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 191-96; Collins, Mark, 322; Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 402-5; Joel Marcus, Mark 1:417; France, Gospel of Mark, 262; Nolland, Luke 1―9:20, 442; Ludger Schenke, Die wunderbare Brotvermehrung: Die neutestamentlichen in Erzählungen und ihre Bedeutung (Würzburg: Echter, 1983), 104–107. Such allusions were also caught be ancient interpreters (cf. Cyril of Alendarida, Comm. On Luke 48).

[7] The connection between the manna and the bread is, of course, underscored in the Johannine account (cf. John 6:25-34).

[8] The term has now become part of the academic vocabulary. See Pitre, Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of the Exile, 139, who writes that in the prophetic literature, “the future return from exile is ividly depicted in terms of a New Exodus”. He cites numerous examples (Hos 2:14-23; Isa 40:1-11; Isa 52:1-12; Jer 3:15-24; 16:14-15; 23:5-8; 30-31). Likewise, see Andrew C. Brunson, Psalm 118 in the Gospel of John: An Intertextual Study on the New Exodus (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 154: “The widespread and general hope of deliverance and restoration can be divided into three distinct yet interlinked categories which account for all of the expectations: the return from exile; the defeat of Israel’s enemies; and the return of Yahweh to live and reign among his people. I will refer to this complex of restoration hope as the New Exodus, a phrase which although not specifically found in the ancient texts yet adequately describes the eschatological program presented by the Prophets and also ties these longings to the paradigmatic deliverance in Israel’s past.”

[9] In fact, the term shmeĩa is used primarily to describe those miracles Moses performed to authenticate his prophetic identity before the people of Israel. See the discussion in Rebecca Gray, Prophetic Figures in Late Scond Temple Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 125-130.

[10] See Farrer, A Study in St. Mark, 291; Richardson, “The Feeding of the Five Thousand,” 145; Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 591 n 69.

[11] This is pointed out by Marcus, Mark, 1:411; Nolland, Luke, 1:442.

[12] See, e.g., Nineham, Mark, 178: “Here perhaps we come near the original significance of the incident; it may have been intended by Jesus as an anticipation, more or less sacramental in character, of the Messianic Banquet, designed to communication his conviction that he was the one men would soon see presiding over the Messianic Banquet, and also perhaps to consecrate those who shared the food as partakers in the coming messianic feast, as to given them a guarantee that they who had shared his table in the time of his obscurity would share it in the time of his glory.” See also, e.g., Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 402–3; Collins, Mark, 322–23; Fenton, Gospel of Matthew, 242; Healy, Gospel of Mark, 128; etc.

[13]“And it will happen at that time that the treasury of manna will come down again from on high, and they will eat of it in those years because these are they who will have arrived at the consummation of time.”

[14] “As the former redeemer caused manna to descend, as it is stated, Behold, I will cause to rain bread from heaven for you (Ex. XVI, 4), so will the latter Redeemer cause manna to descend, as it is stated. May he be as a rich cornfield [tsp is read as ttp ‘pieces of bread] (Ps. LXXII, 16).” Cited from A. Cohen, trans., Midrash Rabbah: Ecclesiastes (vol. 8 of 10; London/New York: The Soncino Press, 1983), 33.

[15] “Your two deliverers, who will deliver you, the Messiah son of David and the Messiah son of Ephraim, are like Moses and Aaron, the sons of Jochebed, who are compared to two fawns, twins of a gazelle. In virtue of their meritorious deeds they were feeding the people of the House of Israel for forty years in the wilderness with manna, plump fowl, and water from Miriam’s well.” Cited from Philip S. Alexander, The Targum of Canticles: Translated, with a Critical Introduction, Apparatus, and Notes (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 135.

[16] Boring, Mark, 187: “That so much food was not only left over, but left behind is another indication of eschatological extravagance. The disciples gathering the fragments is a counter-picture of the Mosaic manna, which could not be preserved (Exod 16:4–5; 13–21...), and portrays the messianic times, when hunger will be replaced not merely by adequacy but by extravagance (cf., e.g., 2 Bar. 29.5).”

[17] Marcus (Mark, 1:410) who points out that the prophecy in 2 Baruch not only envisions the eating of the Leviathan but also the manna (2 Bar 29.3–8). He goes on to point out, “This passage has several other noteworthy parallels to our story: the revelation of the Messiah, the marvelous fruitfulness of the ground… and the statement near the end that ‘those who are hungry will enjoy themselves.” In addition, see Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 591 n 69; Davies and Allison, Matthew, 481.

[18] Mark, 1:410.

[19] (1) “And when it was evening” (14:14; 26:20); (2) “reclined” (14:19; 26:20); (3) “having taken” (14:19; 26:26); (4) “the bread” (14:19; 26:26); (5) “he blessed” (14:19; 26:26); (6) “having broken” / “he broke” (14:19; 26:26); (7) “he gave to the disciples” / “having given to the disciples, he gave to them (14:19; 26:26); (8) “they ate” / “eat” (14:20 26:27); (9) “all” (14:20; 26:27).

[20] Davies and Allison, Matthew, 3:481.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Getting Wisdom: 17th Sunday of OT

 
When I was a kid, the phrase “Get wise!” was a provocative taunt—essentially, a way to start a fight.  It meant something like: “I invite you to act like a smart aleck, so I will have an excuse to assault you physically.”  My elementary school career was a bit rough.


But what does it really mean to “Get wise” or “Gain wisdom”?  The Readings for this Sunday’s Mass teach us about this issue.

During this part of Ordinary Time in Year A, the Church is pursuing a lectio continua (continuous reading, i.e. reading in order) of both Romans and Matthew.  (This excellent website by Fr. Just provides an overview of the pattern of the Lectionary. ) The First Readings are taken from key passages of the Old Testament, chosen (more or less) to complement the Gospel reading.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Hypocrites in the Church: The 16th Sunday of OT


Our Readings for this upcoming Lord’s Day involve a meditation on both God’s mercy and his justice, and the complex way both virtues of God are expressed in his government of human affairs in general and his people in particular.  We see that God’s apparent tolerance of evil in the short-term is an expression of his mercy and desire that all should repent; yet ultimately God can and will establish justice. 

1.  Reading 1 Wis 12:13, 16-19:

Thursday, July 10, 2014

"The Seed, the Good Soil, and Understanding the Word": Readings for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday the readings focus on the imagery of seed-planting. Read in light of the fathers and doctors in particular, the readings teach us powerful lessons about what it takes to be fruitful: (1) God's grace; (2) perseverance in hope; (3) careful and prayerful attention to the Word.

Here's a brief overview. . .

FIRST READING: Isaiah 55:10-11
Thus says the LORD:Just as from the heavensthe rain and snow come downand do not return theretill they have watered the earth,making it fertile and fruitful,giving seed to the one who sowsand bread to the one who eats,so shall my word bethat goes forth from my mouth;my word shall not return to me void,but shall do my will,achieving the end for which I sent it.
The point of the first reading is very simple: God's word accomplishes its purpose. Here we can make three observations:

1. The redemption of Israel and the conversion of the Gentiles. In context, the reading is specifically referring to God's promise to redeem Israel and, in so doing, bring all humanity to recognize him as the Lord. Immediately before the lines read in the first reading, Isaiah 55 declares:
"Behold, you shall call nations that you know not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you" (Isa 55:5).
Indeed, hope for the inclusion of the Gentiles is found throughout the book of Isaiah. In the next chapter, the Lord makes it clear that the nations will one day join Israel in worshipping him:
”And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, every one who keeps the sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant— 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." (Isa. 56:6-7)
Isaiah thus describes Israel in terms of a Servant whose vocation is to bring all humanity into covenant relationship with the Lord: "I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations" (Isa. 42:6).

In accomplishing this goal Israel, the descendants of Abraham, are to fulfill God's promise to the great patriarch: "by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 22:18).

The first reading, then, involves Isaiah announcing that God's word will accomplish its purpose, namely, he will redeem Israel and in so doing convert the hearts of people from all nations.