Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Scandalous Jesus: Readings for the 4th Sunday of Easter

The readings for this Sunday’s Masses are truly “scandalous” in more ways than one. Our English word “scandal” comes ultimately from the Greek skandalon, “a stumbling block.”  A “scandal” is something that causes people to “stumble,” i.e. that offends or injures them in some way.  As we will see, the exclusive claims made for and by Jesus in the readings for this Sunday are scandalous to the “inclusive” and “diverse” culture we live in today, which does not recognize the possibility of a religious truth binding on all humanity.

1.  The first reading is Acts 4:8-12:

Friday, April 24, 2015

National Catholic Bible Conference

Other TSP contributors have been there in the past.  I'll be giving these talks:
* "How to Get through the Bible in an Hour": A one-hour journey through Scripture, showing how God is always inviting us to become part of his family through a covenant.
 * "Building Holy Families: Lessons from Genesis": The Book of Genesis describes the origin of all things, including the family.  We need to get back to our roots.
* "The 'Passion' of Marriage: Foundation of the Family": Did you know the Cross was also a wedding?  That's how the Apostle John saw it.  The Sacrament of Marriage flows from Jesus' self-gift on the Cross.  Once that is understood, our view of marriage is never the same. 

(The add is pretty epic, no?  I hope I get that full orchestration backup while speaking.)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"He opened their minds to understand the scriptures": Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter

Two themes are underscored by this Sunday's lectionary readings. First, Jesus' passion was anticipated by the prophets. Second, Jesus died for a purpose, namely, the forgiveness of sins.

As the lectionary will also make clear, however, recognizing these truths is not simply the result of rationalistic biblical interpretation. It requires faith.

FIRST READING: Acts 3:13-15, 17-19
Peter said to the people:
“The God of Abraham,
the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,
the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus,
whom you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence
when he had decided to release him.
You denied the Holy and Righteous One
and asked that a murderer be released to you.
The author of life you put to death,
but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses.
Now I know, brothers,
that you acted out of ignorance, just as your leaders did;
but God has thus brought to fulfillment
what he had announced beforehand
through the mouth of all the prophets,
that his Christ would suffer.
Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.”
There are many fascinating aspects of Peter's speech. Among other things, he refers to Jesus as the "author of life" (or "prince of life"; archēgon tēs zōēs), a reference that might be seen as highlighting Jesus' divinity (though that could be disputed, hence the interesting discussion).

However, here let us focus on one particular aspect of this passage: Peter insists that Christ's suffering was foretold by the prophets.

Specifically, the language employed by Peter seems to link Jesus to Isaiah's famous "Suffering Servant" passage.

The reference to Jesus as the God's "servant" and as the "Righteous One" evokes Isaiah 53:11, "by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous".[1]  Of course, there is something ironic here: the "author/prince of life" is also a "servant".

That Peter speaks of Jesus' passion and death, of course, also fits well with an allusion to Isaiah's Servant passage, since that figure is described as suffering:
3 He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:3-5)
Finally, Peter explains why his audience ought to repent and believe in Jesus: "that your sins may be wiped away" (Acts 3:19). It is hard not to hear echoes of Isaiah 53 in this. Isaiah explains the Suffering Servant dies in order to bring about the forgiveness of sins:
"he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed" and that he shall "make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities" (Isaiah 53:11). 
The speech of Peter, then, emphasizes that Jesus' death was anticipated by the prophets (namely, Isaiah). Recognition of this, Peter insists, should lead to faith. While the rejection of Jesus was the result of ignorance, looking back it should now be clear that everything that happened to Jesus was a result of God's plan. Comprehending this--realizing that, in fact, Jesus' death was in accordance with the divine plan--should lead to repentance and conversion.

In short, for Peter, conversion is the result of understanding the Christ-event in view of the scriptures. The Gospel, however, will also make it clear that such an understanding is not possible without faith.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Speaking in Dubuque Next Weekend

I'm looking forward to visiting the great state of Illinois this weekend and early next week for a wonderful parish mission at St. Mary's Parish in East Dubuque.  A copy of the parish flyer:

Thursday, April 09, 2015

The Great Reversal: The Second Sunday in Easter or Divine Mercy Sunday

For the second Sunday of Easter, or Divine Mercy Sunday, the Church sets before us a combination of texts that helps to illuminate the nature of ”the great reversal”[1] inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus, beginning with our first reading from Acts 4:32-35.

First Reading: Acts 4:32-35
The community of believers was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.
With great power the apostles bore witness
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great favor was accorded them all.
There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property or houses would sell them,
bring the proceeds of the sale,
and put them at the feet of the apostles,
and they were distributed to each according to need.
In order to best comprehend the inner rationale of this passage, it is important to take a step back and briefly examine the resurrection itself against the various eschatological expectations in second Temple Judaism. While there was not a single view regarding the afterlife in second Temple Judaism, for those who expected the resurrection of the body, for many it was seen as an event that would occur in the age to come. One passage that points in this direction is Daniel 12, where the righteous are resurrected and shine like the stars of heaven.

With the resurrection of Jesus, something unexpected happens: one man is raised before all the rest, inaugurating the age to come by defeating death. What is more, the resurrection of Christ serves to produce in his followers a manner of living that demonstrates a willingness to invest in this dawning new world, and this can be seen in the disciples willingness to give of their own possessions in order to help those in need.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

The Easter Vigil 2015

Brant, Michael and I belong to a school of thought that sees covenant as a central concept in biblical theology, particularly Catholic biblical theology.  Such an approach has strong support in the text of Scripture and in the tradition and liturgy of the Church, and would seem to be a "no-brainer," yet there are those who oppose it and de-emphasize the significance of covenant for interpreting the Scriptures in the Church.  For that reason, it's necessary periodically to justify this approach.

When I teach biblical theology, I focus on a series of covenants which are central to the economy of salvation: the (1) Creation (or Adamic; Genesis 1-3; Hosea 6:7), (2) Noahic (David Noel Freedman preferred "Noachian"; Genesis 9), (3) Abrahamic (Genesis 15, 17, 22); (4) Mosaic (Exodus 24), (5) Davidic (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89); and (6) New (Jeremiah 31:31; Luke 22:20).  It has always struck me, and my students, how well this overview of the divine economy accords with the readings of the lectionary of the Mass, especially the readings of the Easter Vigil.

I'll proceed to point out how all these covenants appear in various forms in the seven Old Testament readings that form the backbone of the Liturgy of the Word for the Vigil.

1. The First Reading:

Was Plato a Prophet of Christ?

I've been trying to work through Plato's Republic in my "spare time" in an effort to be cultured and well-read like everyone says we ought to be—actually, at the suggestion of Alvin Plantinga, who lists the Republic as one of the three books everyone educated person should have read.  In any event, I came across a striking passage some weeks ago from Book II of the Republic, during Socrates dialogue with Glaucon.  The two are discussing the nature of justice, and whether it is really better to be a just rather than an unjust person.  Glaucon adopts the extreme Machiavellian (atheist-materialist) position that it is better to be unjust than just, because the wicked person prospers in this life, while the good person suffers and experiences abuse.  Christian readers will see correlations here with Wisdom of Solomon 2 and the passion narratives of the Gospels:

"On the first day of the week. . .": Readings for the Mass of Easter Day

Here I thought I'd offer some thoughts on the readings for the Mass of Easter Day. (For the Easter Vigil readings, go here for John Bergsma's fine commentary from last year.)

Happy Easter in advance!

FIRST READING: Acts 10:34a, 37-43
Peter proceeded to speak and said:
“You know what has happened all over Judea,
beginning in Galilee after the baptism
that John preached,
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
with the Holy Spirit and power.
He went about doing good
and healing all those oppressed by the devil,
for God was with him.
We are witnesses of all that he did
both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.
They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.
This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible,
not to all the people, but to us,
the witnesses chosen by God in advance,
who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
He commissioned us to preach to the people
and testify that he is the one appointed by God
as judge of the living and the dead.
To him all the prophets bear witness,
that everyone who believes in him
will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.”
In the First Reading, Peter explains that Jesus is the "Christ". The term is the Greek equivalent of "Messiah". Both terms, of course, mean "Anointed One". Here Peter tells us that God "anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power" (Acts 10:38). Here we see that the "Spirit" is inseparable from Jesus' identity as "Christ".

In the Old Testament, we read that kings (as well as priests and prophets) were anointed. The anointing oil seems to have been linked with the coming of the Spirit. I cannot fully develop this here but let me simply highlight one passage where this is clear: the anointing of David. In 1 Samuel 16 we read:
"Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed [David] in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. (1 Sam 16:13)." 
We might also mention Isaiah 61:
"The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me" (Isa 61:1).
What is the Christ? He is the "anointed one", i.e., he is the one who comes in the Spirit. 

Thursday, April 02, 2015

20 Observations from Thomas Aquinas on the Gospel of John's PassionNarrative

In the past, we here at have offered commentary on the Good Friday readings. (Here is last year's fine commentary from John Bergsma).

While the lectionary for Sundays and Holy Days follows a three year cycle, the readings for the Good Friday service remain the same every year. So you can go back and read those commentaries if you'd like--they are just as relevant now as they were when we originally posted them.

Instead of essentially re-doing a past post, I thought this year I'd offer something a little different. (Besides, I don't think I can top John's excellent work.) 

This year I'd like to highlight 20 Things Thomas Aquinas has to say about the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of John--the Gospel reading for the Good Friday service. 

A couple caveats.

First, I'm not going to get into some of the critical issues that could be raised. For example, Thomas assumes--as all the Fathers and Doctors do--that the author of the Fourth Gospel is meant to be understood as the Apostle John, the son of Zebedee. Many contemporary scholars, of course, reject that identification. I don't have time to deal with this issue here. Suffice it to say, there are good reasons to think the author is identifying himself as the Apostle John (for one treatment, listen to Mark Goodacre's podcast on the topic). 

Second, there are many aspects of Thomas' commentary on Jesus passion I have not included. Certainly, some will complain that I have left out some things I should have included and have included some things I should have left out. The only defense--dubious as it is--that I can offer is: "What I have written, I have written."  

The following quotes are all taken from St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John (trans. F. Larcher, O.P. and J. A. Weisheipl, O.P. with M. Levering and D. Keating; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010). 

1. On the two-fold involvement of the Jews and the Romans

Thomas has an interesting take on the structure of the Passion in the Fourth Gospel, which comprises John 18-19. Thomas divides the two chapters by saying that ch. 18 deals with Christ's suffering at the hands of the Jews, while ch. 19 deals with what he had to suffer at the hands of the Gentiles (i.e., Romans). He also emphasizes the role of three major parties in the Passion: the disciples, the high priests, and Pilate. 
"Christ’s passion was effected partly by the Jews, and partly by the Gentiles. Thus, he first describes what Christ suffered from the Jews; secondly, what he suffered from the Gentiles (19:1). He does three things regarding the first: he shows how our Lord was betrayed by a disciple; secondly, how he was brought before the high priests (v. 13); and thirdly, how he was accused before Pilate (v. 28)." (no. 2271)

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Holy Thursday: Mass of the Lord's Supper

The Readings for the Holy Thursday Mass focus on the continuity between the ancient Jewish Passover and the institution of the Eucharist.  As the Passover was the meal that marked the transition from slavery to Egypt to the freedom of the Exodus, so the Eucharist is the meal that marks the transition from slavery to sin to the glorious freedom of the children of God.

1.  Our First Reading is from Ex 12:1-8, 11-14: