Friday, August 28, 2015

Obedience from the heart: The twenty second sunday in Ordinary Time

In this twenty second Sunday in ordinary time the Church offers us a series of readings that center on the nature of true obedience. One of the most important questions that one can ask is: what does it mean to obey God? In turning to this week’s readings, we find valuable guidance regarding the obedience that God requires, beginning with our first reading from Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8.
FIRST READING: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8.
Moses said to the people:
“Now, Israel, hear the statutes and decrees
which I am teaching you to observe,
that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land
which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.
In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God,
which I enjoin upon you,
you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.
Observe them carefully,
for thus will you give evidence
of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations,
who will hear of all these statutes and say,
‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’
For what great nation is there
that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us
whenever we call upon him?
Or what great nation has statutes and decrees
that are as just as this whole law
which I am setting before you today?"
In giving Israel his law, God offers his own people the roadmap for obedience and, in particular, the obedience that leads to life (Deut 4:2, Lev 18:5). Moreover, in obeying God, Israel’s virtue serves to demonstrate to the entire world that Israel’s God is the true God, for no other nation has gods so close to it as the LORD.

However, mere external obedience to the law is not sufficient, for Moses states that Israel is to love God with all their heart (Deut 6:4-8) and Moses vividly elaborates on this mandate by calling on Israel to circumcise their hearts in order to love and obey God (Deut 10:10-16). To do so, is life; failure to do so leads to exile.

In Deut 30:1-6, it is clear that the curse of exile is inevitable, and it seems right to infer that this is due to Israel’s inability to circumcise their collective hearts. Instead, upon return from exile it is God who will circumcise Israel’s heart so that they would be enabled to obey him.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

"The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life": Readings for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday we complete the trek through the lectionary's reading of John 6. We begin this Sunday by reading from yet another story linked to the Exodus traditions that form of the backdrop of imagery of the Bread of Life discourse. Specifically, the First Reading is drawn from the story of Joshua.

Notably, Jesus' name is essentially, "Joshua". Thus, in the First Reading we find what the tradition of the Church would see as a "type" of Jesus, a figure in the Old Testament who foreshadows the person of Christ in some significant way. (The language of "type" draws upon imagery used by Paul in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15).

Let us take a moment to carefully examine these readings.

FIRST READING: Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b
Joshua gathered together all the tribes of Israel at Shechem,summoning their elders, their leaders,their judges, and their officers. When they stood in ranks before God,Joshua addressed all the people:“If it does not please you to serve the LORD,decide today whom you will serve,the gods your fathers served beyond the Riveror the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

But the people answered,“Far be it from us to forsake the LORDfor the service of other gods. For it was the LORD, our God,who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt,out of a state of slavery. He performed those great miracles before our very eyesand protected us along our entire journeyand among the peoples through whom we passed. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”
Anyone familiar with the wider context of the story in the First Reading can't help but read it with a knowing smile. Here Joshua insists that the Israelites must decide whom they will serve: the Lord God or the pagans. They can't have it both ways.

The Israelites insist that they want to follow the Lord: "Far be it from us to forsake the Lord. . ."


Of course, anyone familiar with the narrative knows the Israelites "doth protest too much." They have already forsaken the Lord multiple times.

What makes their rejection of God especially heinous is that they have turned to other gods even after witnessing the mighty acts of God: "He performed those great miracles before our very eyes. . ." 

Before moving on, let me highlight something that bears emphasizing. As Chris Tilling has recently shown in his excellent book, Paul's Divine Christology (Eerdmans, 2015), by Jesus' day it was understood that monotheism for Israel was not merely about conceptualizing God in the proper way (i.e., he is the only God). Monotheism entailed a relational dimension--one only worships this God, namely, the God of Israel.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Feast of Wisdom: The 20th Week of OT

As I approach this weekend's Readings, I remember “Babette’s Feast,” a beautiful movie about a french cook in Denmark who wins the lottery and spends her entire earnings to throw a lavish feast for the two old spinsters she works for and all their friends.  It's well worth watching if you haven't seen it already!  Babette is a French Catholic, her employers are some sort of "free church" Danish Protestants. 

The feast that Babette throws for twelve guests at the end of the movie is an obvious and intentional Eucharistic allegory.  Like the Eucharist itself, the feast is not fully appreciated, and only one guest realizes how good it really is.   The readings for this Sunday (20th of Ordinary Time), which are all closely united by the themes that also run through that movie: eating, wisdom, and thankfulness.

1.  Our first reading is taken from Proverbs 9:1-6:

Thursday, August 06, 2015

"I am the Bread of Life": Readings for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday, we continue our trek through John 6. There are five weeks devoted to this chapter in which we first hear of Jesus' multiplication of the loaves and fish before moving into the famous Bread of Life discourse.

Is the Bread of Life discourse about the eucharist? The language of eating Jesus' flesh and drinking his blood has long been interpreted as a reference to the Christian sacrament.

At the same time, not all interpreters have been convinced. Interestingly, the Council of Trent, recognizing that not all of the early church fathers agreed on the meaning of this passage, decided against using it as a proof for the Catholic understanding of the sacrament.

Just recently, a new book has been released that argues against a sacramental reading of Jesus' teaching in John 6: Meredith J.C. Warren, My Flesh is Meat Indeed: A Nonsacramental Reading of John 6:51-58 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015).

Here we cannot address every aspect of the debate. Indeed, the reading from John 6 continues into the next couple of Sundays, so some of the key passages involved in the discussion (e.g., John 6:63) won't be read until next Sunday.

In this commentary, then, I'd like to look specifically at the passages in view and highlight the relationship of the Gospel to the First Reading.

FIRST READING: 1 Kings 19:4-8
Elijah went a day’s journey into the desert,until he came to a broom tree and sat beneath it.
He prayed for death saying:“This is enough, O LORD!
Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
He lay down and fell asleep under the broom tree,but then an angel touched him and ordered him to get up and eat.
Elijah looked and there at his head was a hearth cakeand a jug of water.
After he ate and drank, he lay down again,but the angel of the LORD came back a second time,touched him, and ordered,“Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”
He got up, ate, and drank;then strengthened by that food,he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.
In this Sunday's first reading we hear the story of Elijah's journey into the wilderness. The Gospel, of course, will highlight the story of Israel receiving the manna in the wilderness, the story highlighted in last Sunday's First Reading. So what connection is there between Jesus' teaching that he is the new manna, and this story from 1 Kings?

Let us first back up here and look at the larger context of the Gospel account. The Bread of Life Discourse comes on the heels of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. Although some have argued against seeing this story as a miracle account, the plain sense of the text would militate against such skepticism, which inevitably must establish their meaning by reading something into the story.[1] A few considerations:
  • The author of the Fourth Gospel understood that the story related a miracle is clear from the fact that he refers to it as a sēmeion (cf. John 6:14), “sign”, a term he uses for miracles (cf. John 2:11; 4:54). 
  • The Fourth Gospel explicitly states that the fragments left over which filled twelve baskets came “from” the original five loaves (John 6:13: ek tōn pente artōn tōn krithinōn).[2]