Thursday, June 18, 2015

"Who then is this whom even the wind and sea obey?": Readings for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

In the Gospel reading for this Sunday Jesus silences the storm, prompting the disciples to wonder about his true identity.

For ancient Jews, God was the one with power over the wind and the sea. Here Jesus demonstrates that his disciples' fears were an expression of their lack of trust in him.

Indeed, the book of Job, which is read in our First Reading expresses similar concerns; the problem of suffering raises the question, "Does the God of the universe really know what he is doing?"

The lectionary readings for this Sunday tackle this very question. Let's have a look at them.

FIRST READING: Job 38:1, 8-11
The Lord addressed Job out of the storm and said:
Who shut within doors the sea,
when it burst forth from the womb;
when I made the clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling bands?
When I set limits for it
and fastened the bar of its door,
and said: Thus far shall you come but no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stilled!
The First Reading is taken from the Old Testament book of Job. Suffice it to say,  this chapter represents a key moment in the book. After Job and his friends have gone back and forth about the meaning of Job's suffering (e.g., is it evidence of his sin?) and the question of how a good God could allow such misery to befall him, the Lord finally appears and speaks.

Indeed, it's a dramatic moment. Up until now the human speakers have been offering their opinions on God's nature and on his ways. Now God speaks for himself.

In fact, earlier in the book Job confesses his yearning to speak to God directly:

3 Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his seat! 4 I would lay my case before himand fill my mouth with arguments. 5 I would learn what he would answer me,and understand what he would say to me. 6 Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?No; he would give heed to me. 7 There an upright man could reason with him,and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge. (Job 23:3–7)
Amazingly, Job's wish is fulfilled. Job finally gets to have that conversation with God. 

So what does God do? In sum, in Job 38, God speaks of his omnipotence and, implicitly, of his wisdom. He has power over all creation and has given it order. He has fixed the boundaries for the raging sea.

But here's the key point: even after God appears to Job, Job still does not get an answer as to why the Lord permitted all of the suffering in his life. 

Earlier, Job claimed that if he had the chance he could somehow make a case against God. After seeing the Lord, however, Job acknowledges that he can find no fault with God.
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. (Job 42:3b-c)
Job learns a truth that is beautifully articulated by God in the book of Isaiah:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:8-9)
Understanding divine provine providence is beyond the powers of human reason. 

In chapters 38-39, God gets Job to understand this by asking him rhetorical questions about the the created order. Take, for example, Job 38:16-18:
16 “Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
18 Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.
Of course, no human has walked in the recesses of the oceans or can comprehend the expanse of the earth. 

Why does God ask such questions? Thomas Aquinas paraphrases the Lord in his Commentary on Job:
From all these things you can understand that your reason fall short of the comprehension of divine things, and so it is clear that you are no suited to dispute with God.
Why has all of this befallen Job? Is it his sin? No--that's made clear. So then what's the reason for his suffering? 

At the end of the day, the full story is never revealed to him. Faith must embrace mystery. The reader is left to conclude that Job is a model of faith. The reader is meant to learn that we too must trust in the Lord even when we cannot fully understand his ways; even when it means enduring suffering. 

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Psalm 107:23-24, 25-26, 28-29, 30-31
R. (1b) Give thanks to the Lord, his love is everlasting.
R. Alleluia.

They who sailed the sea in ships,
trading on the deep waters,
These saw the works of the LORD
and his wonders in the abyss.
R. Give thanks to the Lord, his love is everlasting.
R. Alleluia.

His command raised up a storm wind
which tossed its waves on high.
They mounted up to heaven; they sank to the depths;
their hearts melted away in their plight.
R. Give thanks to the Lord, his love is everlasting.
R. Alleluia.

They cried to the LORD in their distress;
from their straits he rescued them,
He hushed the storm to a gentle breeze,
and the billows of the sea were stilled.
R. Give thanks to the Lord, his love is everlasting.
R. Alleluia.

They rejoiced that they were calmed,
and he brought them to their desired haven.
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his kindness
and his wondrous deeds to the children of men.
R. Give thanks to the Lord, his love is everlasting.
R. Alleluia.
The Responsorial Psalm picks up a theme which we already encountered in the First Reading, namely, God's omnipotent power over the forces of nature. 

Specifically, God is here described as the one who has the power over the wind and sea. We shall have more to say about this later when we treat the Gospel reading. 

Here, however, we should simply note the point of this reflection: Let them give thanks to the Lord for his kindness and his wondrous deeds to the children of men. 

SECOND READING: 2 Corinthians 5:14-17

Brothers and sisters:
The love of Christ impels us,
once we have come to the conviction that one died for all;
therefore, all have died.
He indeed died for all,
so that those who live might no longer live for themselves
but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
Consequently, from now on we regard no one according to the flesh;
even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh,
yet now we know him so no longer.
So whoever is in Christ is a new creation:
the old things have passed away;
behold, new things have come.
In this section of 2 Corinthians, Paul describes the result of Christ's work: believers are made new, i.e., a new creation.

Much could be said about this reading, but here let me make one observation. Paul contrasts that which is "of the flesh" with the new creation. The former describes the old creation, the latter the "new things" that been inaugurated by the resurrection of Christ.

The old things--which Paul elsewhere associates with our sinful passions--have passed away. Christ thus frees us from sin and enables us--impels us, to use Paul's language--to put them away once and for all and be remade in him. We cannot do this on our own, but by God's grace we are empowered to become a new creation.

In Ordinary Time, the Second Reading is not necessarily correlated with the First Reading and the Gospel. The Second Reading in the lectionary for the Sundays in Ordinary Time usually involves a continuous reading of a New Testament book from week to week (last Sunday we read the passages immediately before this passage and next Sunday we will from a passage in 2 Corinthians 8).

Nonetheless, in this case there is a fortuitous connection between the themes of the First and Second Reading. For if God is described as the creator of the cosmos in the First Reading, he we learn how he brings about a new creation--through Christ's death and by his resurrection.

GOSPEL: Mark 4:35-41
On that day, as evening drew on, Jesus said to his disciples:
“Let us cross to the other side.”
Leaving the crowd, they took Jesus with them in the boat just as he was.
And other boats were with him.
A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat,
so that it was already filling up.
Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion.
They woke him and said to him,
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
He woke up,
rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!”
The wind ceased and there was great calm.
Then he asked them, “Why are you terrified?
Do you not yet have faith?”
They were filled with great awe and said to one another,
“Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?”
As we have already seen in the First Reading and the Responsorial Psalm, for ancient Jews, God was the one with power over the wind and the sea. Jesus' act of stilling the storm, therefore, would seem to highlight his divine identity. 

Interestingly, this reading is affirmed by a New Testament commentary written by contemporary Jewish scholars, namely, The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by A.J. Levine and Marc Brettler. There we are told that Jesus' act of rebuking the wind and the sea 
"takes up an ancient Near Eastern and Israelite evocation of the god who conquers the sea (e.g., Ps 65.7; 89.9; 107.29).[1]  
(Note here the reference to the text of our Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 107.)

It is sometimes claimed that Jesus is only presented as divine in the Gospel of John. People who make that claim haven't carefully read the Synoptic Gospels. Here--as even non-Christian scholars acknowledge--Jesus is identified as a divine figure. 

The stilling of the storm also, of course, bears similarities with the scene from Job. As Job felt he had a case against God, the apostles appear frustrated with Jesus, mistaking his act of sleeping in the boat as an indication that he doesn't care for them.

Nothing could be further from the truth--he stills the storm. Yet Jesus reprimands them: "Do you not yet have faith?" 

Patristic writers applied the story to the lives of ordinary believers. Origen writes, 
"For as many are in the little ship of faith are sailing with the Lord; as many as are in the bark of holy church will voyage with the Lord across this wave-tossed life; though the Lord himself may sleep in holy quiet, he is but watching your patience and endurance: looking forward to the repentance, and to the conversion of those who have sinned. Come then to him eagerly, in prayer."--On Matthew, Homily 6[2] 
Let us ask the Lord for the gift of faith so that we may trust in him even when it seems he is sleeping while we are in the midst of a storm. Let us ask him to help us recognize that his presence among us means we need never be terrified.

[1] A.J. Levine and Marc Brettler, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 69.
[2] Cited in Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament II, Mark (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 64.

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