Friday, July 06, 2012

Hard-Hearted and Stiff-Necked: Readings for the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time

This Sunday’s readings draw a comparison between three groups: (1) stiff-necked Israelites in the time of the prophets, (2) the townsfolk of Nazareth in the days of Jesus, and (3) you and I sitting in the pew.  The message to us is: repent, and believe the Good News.

1. Our first reading comes from near the beginning of the book of Ezekiel, when that great prophet was receiving his initial call from God:

Reading 1 Ez 2:2-5
As the LORD spoke to me, the spirit entered into me
and set me on my feet,
and I heard the one who was speaking say to me:
Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites,
rebels who have rebelled against me;
they and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day.
Hard of face and obstinate of heart
are they to whom I am sending you.
But you shall say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD!
And whether they heed or resist--for they are a rebellious house--
they shall know that a prophet has been among them.

If you read the entire context from which this passage comes, you will find a number of parallels between Moses and Ezekiel and their prophetic commissions.  In Ezek 1, Ezekiel sees the famous cherubim “chariot” of God, which is probably the reality of God’s presence depicted by the ark of the covenant, to which only Moses had regular access.  There is lightning, darkness, clouds and wind—storm phenomena similar to what Moses experienced on Sinai.  Then God speaks to Ezekiel from his throne above the cherubim, just as he used to speak to Moses from above the wings of the cherubim on the ark.  Ezekiel is a “New Moses.”

Both Moses and Ezekiel are sent to hard-hearted folk.  However, in Moses’ day this meant Pharaoh and the Egyptians; for Ezekiel, it is the Israelites themselves who are as hard-hearted as Pharaoh of old.  So there is a kind of irony running through Ezekiel 1-3: things have gotten worse over a thousand years of salvation history.  Now Ezekiel’s countrymen are just as bad as the Pharaoh of the exodus.

One of the paradoxes of history is that God’s messengers are too often rejected by his own people, and find acceptance among those to whom they were not sent.  Why?  Pride.  Those who know they’ve been “chosen” don’t want to hear a rebuke.

2. The Responsorial Psalm forms a good complement to the first reading.  This psalm was probably composed during the Jewish exile to Babylon (c. 597–537 BC) or perhaps in the early post-exilic period, when life continued to be hard for the people of Judah:

Responsorial Psalm Ps 123:1-2, 2, 3-4
R. (2cd) Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy.
To you I lift up my eyes
who are enthroned in heaven --
As the eyes of servants
are on the hands of their masters.
R. Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy.
As the eyes of a maid
are on the hands of her mistress,
So are our eyes on the LORD, our God,
till he have pity on us.
R. Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy.
Have pity on us, O LORD, have pity on us,
for we are more than sated with contempt;
our souls are more than sated
with the mockery of the arrogant,
with the contempt of the proud.
R. Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy.

It’s likely that this psalm expresses the feelings of the Judeans who ended up being defeated, captured, and exiled to Babylon, just as Ezekiel had predicted.  Living as foreigners in a strange land, they were treated with contempt by their conquerors: “we are more than sated with contempt … with the mockery of the arrogant … the contempt of the proud.”  In the exile, God’s people learned humility, which in the bigger picture is a net gain.  With the words of this psalm, we repent of our personal and corporate pride that keeps us from hearing God’s word.

3.  In this time of the Church year, the second reading is moving in sequence through some of Paul’s epistles.  Although this selection from 2 Corinthians wasn’t necessarily chosen to fit the Gospel and the first reading, there is a happy coincidence of theme:

Reading 2 2 Cor 12:7-10
Brothers and sisters:
That I, Paul, might not become too elated,
because of the abundance of the revelations,
a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan,
to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me,
but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness."
I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses,
in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.
Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults,
hardships, persecutions, and constraints,
for the sake of Christ;
for when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul reveals why God sometimes allows “bad things” in our lives—sickness, unemployment, poverty, failure, etc.—even though we pray that they be removed.  God does this to teach us to depend on him, to let his life live through us.  Otherwise, content with what we can do with our natural powers, we never learn to live a truly supernatural life.

Not all prayers are answered in the affirmative, not even all prayers of great saints, like the Apostle Paul himself.  He prayed, and God said, No.  That’s a healthy reminder when we think our own prayers go unheard, or that they are not answered because we aren’t holy enough yet. 

The “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints” St. Paul mentions are a succinct synopsis of the curses of the Old Covenant (cf. Lev 26; Deut 28:15-28) that were eventually experienced by Judah (see the psalm) because they wouldn’t listen to the prophets like Ezekiel (see the first reading).  So why is Paul still experiencing “covenant curses,” as it were, event though he has entered into the New Covenant?  Life in the New Covenant does not necessarily avoid or remove the troubles in this world that result from sin, but the grace of God in the New Covenant radically changes their meaning and effect for those in Christ.  No longer are these hardships punishments, but opportunities to live a radically different life, allowing the “power of Christ to dwell in us,” and actually becoming more intimate with God.  

4. Our Gospel is Mark 6:1-6:

Jesus departed from there and came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples.
When the sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue,
and many who heard him were astonished.
They said, "Where did this man get all this?
What kind of wisdom has been given him?
What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!
Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary,
and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?
And are not his sisters here with us?"
And they took offense at him.
Jesus said to them,
"A prophet is not without honor except in his native place
and among his own kin and in his own house."
So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there,
apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.
He was amazed at their lack of faith.

The townspeople of Nazareth are hard-hearted and unbelieving, like the Judeans of Ezekiel’s day.  At stake is pride—they don’t want to admit that a humble home-town boy has anything to teach them.  Their lack of faith impedes Christ’s work.  Is this because God is not omnipotent?  No, but he has chosen to make his healing power contingent on our faith.  Faith is the means by which we accept the gift of God.  God may give, but we have to accept.  The people of Nazareth would not accept the gift of God among them.

The people of Nazareth missed the experience of the power of God, because they were overly familiar with Jesus and expected very little of him.  The same can be true of us: over familiarity with Jesus, with the teaching of Scripture, with the Eucharist and the sacraments, can lead to a ho-hum attitude in which we no longer expect God’s power to “show up” in our lives.  If we are experiencing “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints” right now, let’s give thanks to God for them, because it is through these things that God often wakes us up out of the stupor we’ve fallen into.  A life of radical holiness is possible for us, today, now, starting with the very Mass when these Scriptures are read.  What’s holding us back is that we don’t believe Jesus can do it for us.

Excursus: The “Brothers” of the Lord

According to Mark, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3)  This brings up the question of whether there were other children of the Blessed Virgin.  Protestants use the text of today’s mass to disprove the perpetual virginity of Our Lady.  However, the first two of Our Lord’s “brothers” in Mark 6:3—namely, James and Joses—are expressly said to be the children of a different Mary who was present at the cross in Mark 15:40.  This other Mary, I believe, was the BVM’s sister-in-law, married to St. Joseph’s brother Cleophas (=”Clophas”).  The relevant texts are lined up in the chart below:

Women at the Resurrection


Woman #1
Woman #2
Woman #3
Woman #4
 W. #5
Matthew 27:56

mother of James and Joseph
(the “other” Mary in Mt. 27:61, 28:1)
Mary Magdalene
mother of Zebedee’s sons

Mark 15:40

mother of James the younger and Joses
(“mother of Joses” in Mk 15:47;
 “mother of James” in Mk 16:1)
Mary Magdalene

Luke 24:10

mother of James
Mary Magdalene
John 19:25
Jesus’ mother

wife of Clopas
BVM’s “sister”
Mary Magdalene

Incidently, who was “James the younger” (Mk 15:40)?  Possibly the second James consistently listed among the disciples?

“… Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus … “ (Matt. 10:3)

“…Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean … (Mark 3:18);
“and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot” (Luke 6:15)

“Alphaeus,” “Clopas,” and “Cleopas” (Lk 24:18) could be Greek variants of the same Hebrew/Aramaic name yplx (ch-l-ph-i).


De Maria said...

Great article!

The "excursus" about Our Lady's kin is very interesting also. If we think about it, the foundation of the Church was a "family affair".

James, Judas and Simon are the sons of the other Mary "James and Joses and Judas and Simon".

Salome is the daughter of the other Mary, thus one of Jesus' sisters and she is also the mother of Zebedee's children. Zebedee's children are James the greater and John. The Sons of Thunder, remember? Zebedee must have been quite a man to receive such a name from Jesus. Anyway, the are kin to Jesus by virtue of Salome their mother. This explains why St. John is he to whom Jesus left His own mother.

So, out of the 12 Apostles, we have James the greater, John, James the less, Judas Thaddeus and Simon Zelotes who might be related to Him. 5 out of the 12.

But what about Peter and Andrew? The first time they are mentioned in Scripture, the wording is ambiguous:

Matthew 4:18
And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers.

Yeah, they are brothers, but are they also His "brethren"?

The other question is, why does it appear that neither St. John the Baptist nor any of the other "brethren" seem to have any prior knowledge of Jesus?


De Maria

Tom Schuessler said...

John: Thanks for this, and all of your excellent work. Is there any literature on your point that Paul's sufferings were like the first covenant punishments? Tom Schuessler

John Bergsma said...

Dear Tom: I think there is, but I'll have to ask around. I think it's clearer in the list of hardships in Rom 8 that he is summarizing the covenant curses of Lev/Deut, and here in 2 Cor he is abbreviating further.