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Tag Archive: Sunday Readings

Leprosy: 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

Posted: Sunday, February 15, 2009 (2:02 pm), by John W Gillis


healing-leper One of the themes that emerge from this week’s readings is the importance of communion, that is: the role of the Church in not only embracing all people in brotherhood, but doing so by means of bringing all people to a place of graced renewal, for the end, as Paul says in the second reading, “that they may be saved.” The device that is used to characterize this is the ancient scourge of leprosy.

The first reading, from Leviticus, skips over an extensive middle section of the Biblical text on the details of the disease, including regulations on distinguishing forms of the disease that would render a person ritually unclean (cutting them off from the community) from superficial skin diseases such as eczema. While in uncertain cases, one or more seven-day periods of quarantine were called for to see how the situation developed before a judgment of cleanness or uncleanness could be made, once someone was declared unclean, the law demanded that “he shall dwell apart” (Lev 13:46).

The Old Testament tells us of only two people cleansed of leprosy. Miriam, the sister of Moses, was stricken with leprosy when she enlisted Aaron to rebel with her against the supremacy of Moses (Numbers 12). Moses prayed for her recovery, that she “not be as one dead” (Num 12:12), and she was subject only to a seven day quarantine to repent in shame, and not a permanent exile. The other person cleansed was Naaman the Syrian, commander of the Syrian army, who is cleansed by the prophet Elisha (2Kgs 5.1-14). Naaman is mentioned by Jesus in Lk 4.27 as an example of how God’s gifts have always been available to gentiles.

Based on the way they read the Israelite King Joram’s reaction to the request from the Syrian King Ben-hadad to cure Naaman’s leprosy ("Am I a god with power over life and death, that this man should send someone to me to be cured of leprosy?” 2Kgs 5.7), the rabbis considered the cleansing of leprosy to be as difficult as raising the dead. This explains, at least in part, the expectation that the cleansing of lepers would be a symbolic manifestation of the messianic age. So, when John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he was the “one to come,” Jesus answered him:

"Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” (Lk 7.22)

As important a symbolic place the cleansing of leprosy might occupy in the Gospel (and it is surely no coincidence that Christ sends his disciples out to cleanse lepers in Mat 10:8), only a couple occasions of cleansing are actually related in the New Testament: the leper in today’s readings (the story being retold with somewhat less detail in Luke and in Matthew), and the ten lepers outside the gates in Luke 17.12-19 (only one of which returns to thank Jesus). Interestingly, they each present some kind of challenge to the Messianic mission.

In the cleansing of the ten, it is only a Samaritan (whom Jesus refers to as a foreigner) who returns to give thanks to God, which prefigures the rejection of Jesus as the Christ by the Jews, and the extension of the Messianic promise to foreigners (“Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.” Lk 17:17).

On the other hand, the leper in today’s reading was not particularly well behaved. He was not keeping himself apart as the law instructed, but, audaciously, came up to Jesus. After Jesus “sternly” told him not to tell anyone about his healing, but to go show himself to the priest, the man began telling everyone (and there is no evidence in the story of his going to the priest). This caused Jesus to have to avoid going into the towns – despite Jesus having said two just verses before this story: "Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also; for that is why I came out." Mark 1:38 (RSV). So, while the leper who would not remain apart publicized his healing, Jesus “remained outside in deserted places” (Mk 1:45).

It’s well worth considering how we use our gifts from the Lord, and it’s sobering to consider that we may choose to use them in such as way as to be an obstacle to the work of Christ, even as we focus on our own giftedness. It’s great to be brought back from exile and embraced, but Christ’s work doesn’t end with me.

Comfort Without Complacency

Posted: Sunday, December 7, 2008 (9:52 pm), by John W Gillis


Comfort, comfort my people.

2nd Sunday in Advent, Year B

1 Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; Indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! 4 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; The rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all mankind shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. 9 Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; Cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God! 10 Here comes with power the Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm; Here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. 11 Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, Carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.

8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. 9 The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out. 11 Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought (you) to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire. 13 But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. 14 Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ (the Son of God). 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. 3 A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’ ” 4 John (the) Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. 6 John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey. 7 And this is what he proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the holy Spirit.”

If Advent is a time of hopeful waiting, the readings for the second Sunday give a good indication of what kind of waiting it is. I dare say that it has little in common with the sentiment of cherub-faced children seen peering out of frosted windows in wondrous winter anticipation that is such common stock on the covers of catalogs that fill the mailbox at this time of year. The “comfort” called for (naham ) is that which is often offered to mourners. It is often used as a messianic promise as well, but not with the idea of making people feel better so much as to transform them. In fact, in certain forms, the word is widely translated as “repent.” We could say that this comforting refers to an act of being moved with pity or compassion.

The idea clearly is that the coming of God is for the purpose of saving His people from tangible distress. There’s no escaping that our waiting is a period of trial – at least if we take the Scriptures seriously. We see a sign of this in the lifestyle of John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the long-awaited Comfort, or Consolation, of Israel, as Simeon shows us in Luke’s Gospel (c.f. Lk 2:25).And yet, like Simeon, we too await the Consolation. Even though we live under the Seal of the Promise, we too await the Lord’s patient wish that “all should come to repentance” and consolation.

The picture Peter paints is one that seems to me to be quite thoroughly ignored – the picture of everything being dissolved by fire in the Lord’s return. There is a popular tendency to equate heaven with eternity, and to overlook the material aspect of the promise (a new earth). Scripture is quite clear that the end is a new heavens and a new earth; that “Heaven and earth shall pass away” (Mt 24:35).

And so I wonder exactly what it is that we await. On the one hand, it seems exciting, but then I recall that the Lord saw fit to call his followers to vigilance (Mt 25:13, Mk 13:33; Lk 12:37; etc.), which would hardly seem necessary if the waiting was just wide-eyed expectancy. Nor would it seem necessary if the outcome were a certainty. Advent is nothing if not an invitation to shed any complacency.

Oh, That You Would Rend the Heavens and Come Down!

Posted: Sunday, November 30, 2008 (11:41 pm), by John W Gillis


I had the curious privilege this weekend of proclaiming the liturgical reading for the last Mass of the year on Saturday, as well as the readings for the first Mass of the new liturgical year today. I’m sure that’s not particularly unusual, but given as I only read about three days a month, it was a bit curious to draw these exact two assignments.

In reflecting on them both, it struck me how similar they are – in that even the triumphant scene from Revelation of the vision of the tree of life in the Saturday reading is imbued with such a strong sense of expectant waiting: “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev 22:7). The confidence of this vision, as well as that of the opening of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that serves as today’s second reading, put us on guard against an overly fatalistic reading of the Isaiah passage from this morning’s liturgy:

1st Sunday in Advent, Year B

16b You, LORD, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever. 17 Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage. 16b Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, 2 While you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, 3 such as they had not heard of from of old. No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him. 4 Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways! Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; 5 all of us have become like unclean men, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; We have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind. 6 There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; For you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt. 7 Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I give thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in him you were enriched in every way, with all discourse and all knowledge, 6 as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you, 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus (Christ). 9 God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

33 Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. 35 Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. 36 May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’ “

Yet, for all the confident hope expressed by the end-of-year readings – as well as in paul’s greeting to the Corinthians – both the Isaiah reading and today’s Gospel commend a certain sobriety. “Watch!” Jesus implores us; don’t be lulled into complacency by the times and seasons.

The reason to be on guard against such complacency is made clear by Isaiah. Things had gone badly – very badly – for Isaiah’s people, and he ached for God to “rend the heavens and come down” to rescue His people, as He had done through Moses in ages past. But Isaiah also knew that only a people truly open to God could receive His “awesome deeds,” and he knew that a contrite and penitent spirit alone could be open to God.

The thought that really jumps out at me is “There is no one who calls upon your name.” As I embark upon another Advent, I simultaneously and necessarily also embark upon another one of what used to be called the “Christmas Season,” but is now, mercifully – and more accurately – called the Holiday Season.

Like many Christians, I’ve struggled for years to reconcile the public practice of “Christmas” with my faith. That the American cultural “Holiday” stands in stark contrast to its ostensible origins in the Christian Nativity story and celebration really needs no proof. The commandeering of “Christmas” for the purpose of a societal bacchanalia of materialism is plainly contrary to the humble character of Our Lord’s first coming.

Somewhere along the way, Jesus Christ morphed into Santa Claus – himself a caricature of the ancient Catholic Bishop of Myra, Saint Nicholas, a man renowned for his love for and generosity toward poor women, whom he would anonymously provide dowries for in order to save them from lives of prostitution. Yet, in the transformation, the “bringer of gifts” became one who indulged the rich while overlooking the poor, despite the celebratory thanksgiving song sung by His mother – prayed in unison every evening by the Church in her liturgy for her thousands of years:

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty (Luke 1:52-53).

There was a time, I will admit – coincidental to a time when I was poor myself – that I was pretty well convinced that the “Santa Claus” entity was no less than an expression of the anti-Christ. I had many reasons, at the time, for my opinion, having identified a host of ways that “Santa Claus” or “the Spirit of Christmas” not only failed to adequately express the truths revealed in the Incarnation, but operated from fundamentally opposing and contrary notions of the good, and contributed to the growing problem of unbelief by distorting children’s openness to supernatural, revelatory truth. I have no interest in rehashing those arguments here, but merely want to suggest that many things can become clear to a man about the purpose and nature of institutions when he is too poor to get in the door. Christ truly came to blow such doors asunder.

And as “the Season” kicks off again, amidst reports of store clerks being stampeded to death by astonishingly graceless “holiday” bargain hunters, the ancient words of Isaiah haunt me:

There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; For you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt. Isaiah 64:7 (NAB)

As a society that once had at least some sort of claim on God’s heritage, it strikes me that we are every bit in exile as were the Babylonian captives Isaiah ached to see restored to their place as the tribes of God’s heritage. What would seem more impolite than to actually call upon His Name? Rend the heavens, indeed, Lord. Maranatha! Lord, come quickly!

Watchman for the House of Israel

Posted: Tuesday, September 9, 2008 (11:49 pm), by John W Gillis


There is a common thread of real, and very serious, responsibility for neighbor running across all three of this week’s readings.

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Ezek 33:7-9; Rom 13:8-10; Mt 18:15-20

It’s not that common for the second reading to dovetail this nicely with the first reading and the Gospel reading. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but perhaps it bears repeating (even in somewhat oversimplified form). . .

The lectionary cycle for Sunday readings consists of two independent threads of content: the primary thread being a sequential reading of one of the Gospels, and the secondary thread being a sequential reading of one of the New Testament letters – this second thread being what is proclaimed in the second reading. The first reading is not independent, but is chosen specifically to provide Biblical context (from the Old Testament, as a rule) for the Gospel reading. So the first reading and Gospel reading always dovetail, while the second reading is usually pretty tangential to the others. A tangent, however, always has some point of contact, and sometimes, like today, it seems to complete the circle remarkably.

As I get older, I find it harder and harder to reconcile modernity’s obsessive individualism with the worldview of the Bible. The Ezekiel reading is quite straightforward in assigning the prophet responsibility – not for the fate of his people, but for their knowledge of God’s Word. The watchman will have on his hands the blood of those whom he fails to warn of their danger. This could not have been a particularly comforting message to Ezekiel. Yes, they are responsible for themselves, but so is Ezekiel. It’s hard not to think of Jonah here, and his attempt to flee rather than proclaim God’s Word – which the Lord would have none of. It also recalls, at least obliquely, that marvelous cry of Jeremiah’s pathos from last Sunday’s first reading:

I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more.

But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones;

I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it. (Jer 20:9, NAB)

Looking strictly at the Gospel passage as it stands, it may not be immediately evident how the Ezekiel reading provides Old Testament context for understanding it – the Gospel message almost seems to be about church discipline, and the “proper” means of correcting the wayward. Yet the simple fact that the liturgy directs us to view the passage through the lens of the demands placed on Ezekiel calls for a closer look.

Seen within the context of the entirety of Matthew 18, it becomes a bit clearer how the Gospel passage relates to the Watchman passage. The chapter begins with the disciples asking Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom, which Jesus answers by holding a humble child. But then Jesus warns of the terrors awaiting any who would cause such a child to sin, and then reasserts, in the parable of the lost sheep, how the Father desires not one of the little ones to be lost. This is the preceding context for our passage, and it could not be clearer that the Lord is reiterating the idea from our Ezekiel passage that the blood of sinners can be – and will be – judged to be on the hands of others.

Then our own passage speaks of how to deal with a brother who sins. Seen in the light of the preceding verses’ focus on the responsibility of some for the spiritual well-being of others – as well as on God’s salvific desire for all – the “process” of correcting the brother begins to look like an actual burden upon the Church, for the sake of reconciling the sinner. Where this differs from the instructions to Ezekiel is in the fact that Christ, as is typical, expands upon the requirements laid out in the Old Testament. No longer is it sufficient for the “watchman” to witness God’s Word to the sinner; he must now be persistent, imploring the help of others in the congregation – even the entire Church.

Implicit in this “correction” is the readiness to forgive – to be reconciled. For what else could it mean to “win over your brother” except to bring him to repentance, and how else could he be brought to repentance by “listening to you” except through an offer of forgiveness? A cynic might counter that he could possibly be shamed, exposed, or verbally beaten into repentance, but how would bringing along “one or two others,” after the fact, make them witnesses of some wrong done in the past? They could only serve as witnesses to your offer of reconciliation, and the repentance – or lack thereof – of the guilty party. The Lord is stressing here the power of Christian community to make Christ present to the world, especially Christ’s forgiveness.

That this is indeed what the Lord is pointing to is, I believe, made clear in next set of verses (closing out chapter 18), which show Peter asking how many times he must forgive his brother, and the Lord responding with the parable of the unforgiving servant – someone blessed with the gift of forgiveness who was severely punished when he did not use his opportunity to extend that gift to another in need of it.

So, having seen how the Gospel passage does, in fact, recapitulate the message of the Ezekiel reading – and even magnify it – we turn finally to the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

“Love is the fulfillment of the law,” Paul tells us, because “love does no evil to the neighbor.” But as we have seen, for those who possess God’s Word (and His forgiveness) the law calls for us to share such gifts with those in need of them, and so doing “evil to the neighbor” must be seen not only as committing sins against them, but sinning against them by omission: failing to warn them of danger, and failing to offer them the freedom of forgiveness. Loving others – even as ourselves – requires putting in the effort to make God present to them in humility, even in the face of the ever-present temptation to pull a Jonah.

Upon This Rock: Royal Authority & Stewardship

Posted: Sunday, August 24, 2008 (3:46 pm), by John W Gillis


A few observations on the Gospel reading for this week…

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

19 I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station. 20 On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; 21 I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. 22 I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open. 23 I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family; [NAB]

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! 34 "For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor?" 35 "Or who has given him anything that he may be repaid?" 36 For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. [NAB]

13 When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" 14 They replied, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." 15 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" 16 Simon Peter said in reply, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." 17 Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. 18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." 20 Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah. [NAB]

Knowing & Knowing Of: It’s interesting to note the way Jesus frames the two questions he presents to the disciples: Who do people say the Son of Man is? vs. Who do you say that I am? The people, who are remote, know "the Son of Man," but He is to them a remote figure, whom they know inadequately, in a kind of third-person relationship. Really, they know of Jesus; they don’t know him. But the knowledge of the disciples is personal, and therefore able to be brought to completion. Not long before this, Matthew tells us, Jesus had explained to His disciples: "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted." (Matthew 13:11, NASB). Peter’s confession is the logical conclusion to this string of ideas showing the disciples as the privileged stewards of God’s revelation.

On Peter: Much is made in certain circles of the difference in the Greek between the masculine form of the name now given to Peter (Petros), and the feminine form (petra)of the "rock" upon which Jesus will build His ecclesia. The difference, it is said, is as one between a stone and a large rock mass. The usual rejoinder is that, in the Aramaic which Jesus would actually have been speaking that day to this Galilean fisherman, there is no such distinction, and the word used in both cases would have been kepha. This may be so, but I like to think the inspired character of the text given to us in Greek offers us insight that goes beyond any extrapolation back into the Aramaic.

The obvious Old Testament parallel and type for this passage is the passage from Isaiah 22 that we see in the first reading. The oracle, pronounced against Shebna, the king’s steward ("master of the palace"), makes reference to his being thrust from his office, and replaced by Eliakim, who unlike Shebna would act as God’s servant in his fulfillment of the office. This stewardship was not a singular role that was intrinsic to Shebna personally, but an office that he filled – and that others would fill so long as there was a Davidic king to be served as steward. I think this may be a useful interpretive key to the linguistic differentiation of the two "rock" words in the Greek.

Perhaps Jesus is saying here that He will build His Church not simply "on you, Peter" but "on Peter writ large." In other words, not only on Peter personally (though He certainly did that), but on the office of royal authority that Peter would inaugurate anew and serve as the paradigm for – as the following verse about the giving of the keys of the Kingdom makes clear, referring quite evidently back to Eliakim’s taking on of the stewardship of the Davidic kingdom.

The focus on the stone/rock mass distinction often seems offered as a rather coy means of minimizing the significance of Peter’s foundational role, and more importantly, by extension, of writing off the claims of his successors to a role of chief stewardship (claiming that Peter himself is not the foundational "rock mass" after all, despite the obvious parallelism at play in Jesus’ pronouncement). However, I think the Petrine claims to such an office become even more convincing when this passage is seen in its broader Biblical context, and the scale differentiation in the Greek text actually points forward beyond the personal (which would have made the statement mythological) to the historical unfolding of that Church which not appear in an instant, but will , we are told, be built. As the rest of the passage makes clear, Jesus was conferring real authority – His authority – upon Peter, and Peter could not possibly have exercised that authority personally until the Church prevailed against the "gates of the netherworld" in the resurrection.

The Rock: Even more interesting to me is Jesus’ choice of the name "Rock" for Simon. He could have called Simon anything, but He chose a term that had been widely used in Scripture to refer to God Himself. This says simply amazing things about Peter, or more properly, about the nature of the authority Jesus was conferring on him. It is clear that Jesus intended that those who heard the voice of Peter should consider that they heard the voice of God. If this is not clear enough in the gospel text, it is recapitulated, by inference, in “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this: [NAB] where the Risen Lord, seated in authority, uses language that hearkens back again both to Peter’s commission as foundation of the Church, and to Eliakim, a faithful servant become steward whose name is "God raises up."

And so we see at Pentecost, Peter, the faithful servant become steward of Christ, proclaiming to the world "God raised Him up" “But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.[NAB]Peter testifies with the Pentecostal Spirit of Truth to the Lordship of Jesus “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” [NAB]which is the faithful fulfillment of his commission.

Peter Receives the Keys to the Kingdom (Perugino, 1481)

The Keys to the Kingdom: The association in the liturgy of the Isaiah 22 passage and Mt 16:19 makes clear both how Christ intended the kingdom He was inaugurating to be the fulfillment of the Davidic kingdom, and the kind of authority He was handing Peter as steward. The authority is historical. That is to say, while it is certainly a "spiritual" authority, it is temporal, even if it has eschatological implications. The authority of the Kingdom is not something waiting to be revealed in a mythic or even eschatological future – the Kingdom is now.

While it’s certainly true that the breaking in of the Kingdom is far from complete, this passage alone utterly repudiates the popular American Evangelical theology known as Dispensationalism – a recent variation on millenarianism which denies the present reality of the Kingdom, and expects instead a future 1000-year temporal reign of Jesus from modern Jerusalem, inaugurated in apocalyptic mayhem. It is quite ridiculous to think of Peter exercising Christ’s royal authority in such a scenario, with Christ somehow both reigning on earth as in heaven, and yet still building His Church!

Motherhood and Salvation

Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2008 (11:30 pm), by John W Gillis


I think the Gospel reading for this week – Mt 15:21-28, The Healing of the Canaanite Woman’s Daughter – is pregnant with eschatological meaning.

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Isa 56:1, 6-7
Ro 11:13-15, 29-32
Mt 15:21-28
“O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
And her daughter was healed from that hour.
(Mt 15:28)

The woman, who calls Jesus “Lord” and “Son of David,” asks for mercy on herself, but in doing so is actually referring to her daughter’s ailment. She is, in other words, identifying completely with her daughter’s suffering – she’s making it her own.

Jesus, however, does not respond to her with a logos (word). The disciples, we are told, ask (or implore) Jesus to “send her away,” though the plea doesn’t look much like a question. Did they “ask” Him on her behalf? Or did they just want to be rid of her so she’d stop yelling behind them? Verse 24 would seem to suggest they asked Him to help her. However, Jesus was not sent to the Gentiles . . . the apostles were – but that’s a story to be picked up later.

The woman, at any rate, would not be deterred, and she came and did Jesus homage – again asking “help me,” and so demonstrating again her commitment to her daughter’s healing as her own personal burden. There’s no real surprise to that, of course, but Jesus honors it. Great was her faith, so the Lord tells us, and it was indeed her will that was accomplished – Christ made her will His own. Such is the remarkable power of the prayer of those of “great faith.” Because of this woman’s faith, her daughter was healed of demon possession “from that hour.”

And if the demons had no more power over her, then her mother’s faith surely brought her across the threshold of salvation. Great is the power of intercession: If one will take on the suffering of others, the power of salvation can be manifest.

Why didn’t the disciples implore Jesus to save the child because of the her suffering from the “cruel” demon possession, instead of because of the nagging persistence of the mother? Perhaps that’s too harsh a reading; perhaps, in a sense, we have here a model of intercession, where the mother pleads for her daughter, and the disciples plead on the mother’s behalf.

I think those that would withhold baptism from infants and children fail to grasp the truth being displayed in this passage about the woman’s faith. It does violence to God’s intention and will for us in Christ to make baptism, or even salvation for that matter, a consequence of personal belief. This woman’s faith saved her child because of the unrelenting love and devotion that she had for the girl. It was a grace, pure and simple. But grace, as always, is offered in love.

Grace is, in other words, dependent on love – it is not random. It was, as Jesus said, the woman’s will that was done in the healing of the daughter. This grace has its origin in the mother’s love, or more precisely, in God’s love brought to light within the mother, expressed through her will to love her daughter.

This should not surprise anyone, because the Christ became like us that we might become like Him. And what is it to be like him? What else but to make the grace of salvation present in the world through love and faith.

Isn’t this just what Christ commanded when he told us to love one another as he has loved us? What was his love for us except taking upon himself our burdens as his burden, and through a faithful, persevering, sacrificial love for us, bringing us to God’s salvation? This is shown in yet another way in Paul’s remarkable assertion that “woman will be saved through bearing children.” (1Tim 2:15, RSV)

Those who are scandalized by Mary’s titles of Co-Redemptrix and Co-Mediatrix must fail to see this. Mary may bear those titles in a special and even unique way, as the one chosen from among all the offspring of Eve to bring Salvation Himself into the world through the love and suffering of childbirth and motherhood (for even if her childbirth were free of suffering, as tradition asserts, her motherhood surely was not). But she does not bear them uniquely per se, for we are all called to share in the salvific love of Christ for the world. Salvation is the work of Christ in the world, working through those who, in His Spirit, would be His Body. The titles really identify Mary with the Church, and orient the Church properly toward the world.

It seems some would like to keep well defined and intact a clear line between the thrice holy God and fallen humanity, but that is precisely the line that He became incarnate to erase, glory be to God.

Walking on Water

Posted: Sunday, August 10, 2008 (2:10 am), by John W Gillis


I love the readings for this week. The Gospel reading is one of those stories that even unbelievers are familiar with – Jesus walking on the water. It has become a cultural reference, and the phrase “he walks on water” has come to have an immediately identifiable meaning. The Gospel story, for its part, is taken as evidence of (or at least a claim for) the Divinity of Christ.

But, interestingly, in this Matthean version, unlike the parallel in Mark, Peter also walks on water, if only briefly. This suggests some magnificent things about the Church, much like some of the other miracle stories: about how the Church is invited to participate in the transformative power that God reveals in Christ. But the wind caused Peter to become frightened.

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
1Kgs 19.9a,11-13; Rom 9.1-5; Mt 14.22-33

He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how (strong) the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Matthew 14:29-30 (NAB)

The wind (Gk anemos) is never something good to encounter in the New Testament (the “roaring like a wind” at Pentecost is a different word in the Greek). Whether frightening the disciples at different times on the lake (c.f Mt 8.23-27), driving Paul and his captors toward shipwreck (c.f. Acts 27.14ff), representing the dangers of clever heresy in every wind of doctrine (Eph 4.14, c.f. the reference to John the Baptist not being a reed shaken by the wind in Lk 7.24), or acting as the force that works to topple the houses built on the two foundations of rock and sand (Mt 7.24-27), the wind seems to encompass all those forces in life that press against us in so many directions, and would divert us from our goals – even our walk toward the Lord.

The thing that most fascinates me these days about this story is that Matthew, but not Mark, includes the subtext of Peter also walking on the water. This episode directly follows the miracle of the disciples feeding a “great throng” (Mt 14.14), including 5,000 men, with 5 loaves and 2 fish (Mt 14.15-21, Mk 6.35-44).

As I said, Mark doesn’t mention Peter’s escapade on the sea, and his ending of the pericope seems, at least on the surface, very different from Matthew’s. In Matthew: Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” whereas in Mark: They were (completely) astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary, their hearts were hardened. (Mk 6.51b-52)

This appears contradictory, as if one writer is saying that the disciples really “got it,” while the other writer is saying that they really didn’t. But I think what Mark is saying in his ending is basically the same thing Matthew says in his Peter subtext.

The disciples were not prepared to accept that the power of God is intended to be manifest in the disciples themselves, as lowly and plain and ordinary as they were (and are). We see a similar truth expressed in the Elijah reading: God doesn’t come to the world in the earthquake (or in the wind), He comes in the humble, the lowly, the ordinary, the still small voice. Even in the bread and wine.

In the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus blessed the food and gave it to the disciples, but it was up to them to step out and hand it out to thousands of people – and this happened upon their return from their mission of preaching and healing (Mk 6.7-13). Even so, they would shortly thereafter be perplexed as to how they could get enough food to feed a smaller crowd, when they had even more loaves and fish! (Mt 15.32-39) Likewise, Peter stepped out of the boat and walked toward Jesus, doing something no other sinner had ever done or has done since. But the wind confounded him.

Peter and the disciples had no idea at this point how much Jesus had in store for them – for they themselves to be a blessing for the people. First, they had to learn to ignore the wind, and allow God to be manifest to them, and through them – in the humble and the ordinary.

We live this story still today, and He is with us in the humble and ordinary. It’s not that we couldn’t manifest the very power of God on earth if we were up for it, but we too often become frightened in the wind – even when He bids us “come.”

If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

God’s Treasure

Posted: Sunday, July 27, 2008 (9:07 pm), by John W Gillis


A few years ago, I started teaching a unit called "Biblical Themes" in the parish Confirmation Prep program. I was given six 90-minute sessions to work with, and no curricula whatsoever. Since I was recruited for the task a mere week before classes were to begin, I didn’t have a lot of time to plan out the program, but I relished the idea of having such free reign to come up with six Biblical lessons for the high school kids.

I quickly sketched out a plan of study that I can only describe now as grossly optimistic. It involved touching each week on the Biblical meaning of one of six important concepts: revelation, covenant, sin, faith, righteousness, and salvation. 

About halfway through the third class, I finally made it out of the first lesson. Needless to say, I did some serious adjustment to the plan, and completely re-worked it the next time I taught it, focusing the whole unit on the reality of the Bible as God’s Word.

So I found myself, the second time through, trying to show about 20 high school kids how they can encounter Christ in Scripture, and taking the opportunity to perhaps reiterate the importance of some moral and religious duties. Yet I wondered if I was using the time well. These kids already knew the moral law, after all, and they already knew that God can be found in the Bible.

But, as was apparent during our lessons, they weren’t in the habit of going to the Scriptures to find God. So, I thought: Instead of spending my time telling them what they already know – at least at a basic level – perhaps I should be trying to understand why they’re not pursuing their ready opportunities to encounter God. It dawned on me pretty quickly that their knowledge of God was probably such that it was leading them to conclude that, if they did open the Bible to find God, He’d likely tell them, so to speak, to clean their rooms. What they really needed was to hear the Gospel.

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

1Ki 3:5,7-12; Rom 8:28; Mt 13:44-52

44 "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. 46 When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.
Matthew 13:44-46 (NAB)

At just that time, I was involved in putting together a reflection on two of the mini-parables in this Sunday’s Gospel reading: the Hidden Treasure, and the Pearl of Great Price. In both parables, a man gives up all that he has to possess the treasure he found.

As I found myself thinking about the best way to use Scripture to convey to my high school charges God’s love and yearning for them, I considered extrapolating on John 3:16, but decided it might come off as too cliche. It was early winter, when John the Baptist appears in the liturgical readings, and I got to thinking about how John’s insight "He must increase; I must decrease" (John 3:30) was recapitulated by Paul, in a post-Ascension context, when, in Galatians, he says:

"I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.
Galatians 2:20 (NASB)

It struck me that the Son of God could not have given up more than Himself; that like the man in the parable who gave up his all to possess the hidden treasure, Christ has given up His all to possess the Church. This is the same essential message as John 3:16; it is the heart of the Gospel.

We’re accustomed to hearing this parable in quite different terms – that the treasure is the Kingdom of God that the wise disciple is willing to give up everything to possess (c.f. Mark 10:17-31), but I think Matthew primarily has something else in mind.

The parable of the Hidden Treasure (like that of the Pearl of Great Price) is set in the midst of a series of parables in chapter 13 of Matthew, which all suggest God as the subject and principal actor (the person), and the disciples/church as the acted upon objects (seed, wheat, yeast, fish).

It seems clear to me that the Lord is trying to tell us in these parables, not so much about what our priorities should be – as important as that is to understand – but just how much He thinks of us, and what we’re worth to Him.

My friend, in God’s eye, you are that pearl of great price whom He has given up all He has to possess. Next time you see a high school kid, see if you can find a way to convey that message – it’s the gospel truth.

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
Deuteronomy 7:6 (NRSV)

“Terror All Around!”

Posted: Sunday, June 22, 2008 (6:04 pm), by John W Gillis


12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Jer 20:10-13; Rom 5:12-15; Mt 10:26-33

“Terror All Around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” (Jer 20:10)

It would seem that Jeremiah had come to be known among his “friends” and co-religionists as “Terror All Around.” Perhaps they had grown weary of hearing him repeat the phrase. Nobody likes a whiner, and particularly odious is anyone who dares to suggest that the “good guys” might not be square with God.

Jeremiah, by Michelangelo (c. 1512)There is something at once disarming yet alarming about Jeremiah: Jeremiah is a bona fide failure. He has come down to us in history as one of the very greatest of the greats, and he provides us with perhaps our best interpretive tool for understanding the Hebrew Nabi – a line that culminates in Jesus of Nazareth (sorry, Mohammed), but the fact remains that, in his day and time, Jeremiah was a dismal failure.

That he was rejected by the religious establishment of his day is unsurprising – such often tends to be the role of the prophet. It is a sad fact of religious existence that the insecure and impenitent can and sometimes do take refuge in the certainty and immunity that religious authority invariably claims to provide. I say this not to demean religious authority as such, but merely to state what is already well-known: that religion, especially when it is politically (or financially) potent, is not the exclusive domain of saints, but is also compromised by self-seekers, and even knaves.

That Jeremiah was rejected by the political leadership is even less surprising. This, too, is the usual fate of the prophet. King Josiah notwithstanding, few and far between are the political leaders with the humility and piety to listen to the Word of God without responding in violence. Although the office of the Nabi proper is closed with Jesus, the Word of God is still spoken by those who are honest enough to bear its burden, and courageous enough to bear its consequences.

Jesus says to his disciples: “You will be universally hated on account of my name” (Mk 13:13). Said another way: the “prophet” who has climbed into bed with the generals and politicians is a fraud. This is not to say that Christian faith does not have political consequences – it does indeed – it is to say that the Christian voice raised in the midst of political struggle must be one that takes the gospel as its self-understanding and basis of discernment, not political alliance or “tribal” interests. The truth must be proclaimed to all parties, and hence, we will be (or should be) “hated by all.” (Mt 10:22)

Jeremiah smashing the earthen vessel in Topheth, by James Tissot (c. 1888)The Hebrews of Jeremiah’s time were quite convinced that, because they were genuinely God’s people (as indeed they were) who were worshiping the One True God within the context of creation’s only Divinely ordained religion, that their political and religious institutions would not – could not – fall. The people (not to mention the priests and the princes) were not able to hear the criticism of Jeremiah – the Word of God – being too full of bad religion for that. All of Scripture warns us repeatedly of the errors of assuming that uncritical religion (or politics) can keep us in good stead with God. God’s prophets may end up in cisterns or on crosses, but they represent our only true hope; they represent God, who never ceases to call us into deeper conversion.

And let it be said that there was no shortage of “prophets” to give this view religious legitimization. Indeed, they had the witness of the great prophet Isaiah to point to, oblivious to the perplexing proviso that Isaiah spoke God’s Word to a different time in different circumstances – and faith is not magic; the Word cannot be invoked like an incantation.

There is likewise no shortage in the world today of self-styled prophets, clamoring for the soapbox. Especially in the religious sphere, it’s hard not to trip over “prophetic witness” claims to point out the true path to redemption, or righteousness, or whatever the goal is presumed to be. But anyone conversant with the Old Testament knows that most of the prophets were false. It means nothing to be “prophetic” without being bound by the Word of God – as actually spoken by God. In fact, for those who preach their own understanding in the name of propheticism, it might just be their undoing:

2 “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel, prophesy and say to those who prophesy out of their own minds: `Hear the word of the LORD!’ 3 Thus says the Lord GOD, Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! 4 Your prophets have been like foxes among ruins, O Israel. 5 You have not gone up into the breaches, or built up a wall for the house of Israel, that it might stand in battle in the day of the LORD. 6 They have spoken falsehood and divined a lie; they say, `Says the LORD,’ when the LORD has not sent them, and yet they expect him to fulfill their word. 7 Have you not seen a delusive vision, and uttered a lying divination, whenever you have said, `Says the LORD,’ although I have not spoken?” 8 Therefore thus says the Lord God: “Because you have uttered delusions and seen lies, therefore behold, I am against you, says the Lord GOD. 9 My hand will be against the prophets who see delusive visions and who give lying divinations; they shall not be in the council of my people, nor be enrolled in the register of the house of Israel, nor shall they enter the land of Israel; and you shall know that I am the Lord GOD.
(Ezekiel 13:2-9 RSV)

“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known” (Mt 10:26)

Why do prophets like Jesus and Jeremiah say things like this? If the people had listened to Jeremiah and had trusted YHWH, Jerusalem would have stood. But the people chose to trust the authority of the powerful instead. We should not think that this was an obvious mistake to them – in their own way, they were expressing a confidence in the God of their fathers. But they were filled with fear and pride, not humility and repentance; their eyes were fixed on the enemy at the gate, rather than on God, who transcends human structures – even those Divinely ordained – and sometimes speaks through riff-raff like Jeremiah. Such dialectics still arise, and it takes both courage and spiritual humility to engage them with fidelity to the God who gives voice to both parties.

What Jesus is telling his disciples in this week’s gospel is that we are to tell the truth in the face of whatever potential persecution we might met, whether social, religious, or political (“for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles” Mt 10:17-18). Fear should have no part in our decision-making (“So, do not be afraid”). But this is easier said than done, for our confidence must be in God, but it can be very difficult in practice to tell the difference between God and the religious and/or political structures we identify with (hence the popularity of the tribal deity that goes by the name of “God & Country,” not to mention jihadism).

The bottom line is that it’s hard to trust God. It is always a choice, and there is always an alternative, and the alternative is almost always compelling. When Jesus tells us that the Father values us more than so many sparrows, it seems like a weak argument – and certainly doesn’t convince many to jump out of trees expecting to fly better than sparrows. Radical faith in God is all too easy to paint as religious quackery, but that’s just an excuse to avoid the hard work of discernment. As Jeremiah shows us, being faithful to God is precisely about that discernment; about learning to lay self-interest aside (personal or tribal), and being willing to embrace the challenge God constantly presents us to continue in His Word.

Jeremiah in the Pit, by Marc Chagall (1956)This week’s readings are an invitation to shed our fears, and to put our faith in God, because the “free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:15) is a sure thing. There is no longer any excuse for allowing fear and pride to dull our ears to the prophetic voice of the Spirit calling us as disciples of Christ to speak truth to power, and to let God worry about the enemy at the gate. There are no shortcuts to peace through expediency. Too many Jeremiahs never get pulled out of the cistern, and we need them around to remind us of what we are created to be.

ΑΩ

Turning Aside from the Way Ordained

Posted: Sunday, June 1, 2008 (11:20 pm), by John W Gillis


Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Matt 7:21 (NAB)

9th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Deut 11.18, 26-28, 32
Rom 3.21-25, 28
Matt 7.21-27
(view the readings at the USCCB site)

Very interesting how the two reading cycles converge in today’s liturgy – which they certainly don’t always do. The first reading is not on a cycle, but is usually an Old Testament reading that somehow typifies, or at least contextualizes, the reading in the Gospel cycle. The Gospel reading today is from the end of the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus finishes by making a startling distinction between effective and vain forms of encountering Him. I sometimes hear people refer to this as the difference between giving lip service and real service to God, but I don’t think that goes far enough.

True, in Mt 7.24-27, Jesus clarifies the distinction by differentiating between those who act on His words and those who don’t, but I don’t think this is just about the need to put faith into action. It is about faith being rooted in truth, in God’s will. This seems very clearly illuminated in the first reading.

Just as in the Sermon on the Mount, God has placed before the people His words, and invited them to respond. Paralleling the “act on them”/”not act on them” distinction in the Gospel, we see the options to obey or not obey the commandments, bringing about blessing or curse.

The curse in Dt. 11.28 is identified with three phrases: not obeying the commandments; turning aside from the way ordained; and following other gods not known. There’s no distinction made between the first two terms – disobeying the commandments is turning aside from the way ordained – but the third term is given as a reason: to follow unknown gods. In other words, turning aside from the way ordained is said, by the LORD, to be done for the purpose of following other gods.

I think it’s important not to miss the significance of the assumption this verse is pregnant with: that one does not fail to obey the commandments except to follow other gods – perhaps even that one cannot turn away from the way ordained (The Way) without following other gods. So not only is following the LORD without obeying the commandments excluded a priori, but so is any semblance of agnosticism – at least among those who have heard the commandments, the “words.” This is sensible enough: having encountered the truth, one can accept it or reject it, but one can hardly claim to be unaware of its existence.

I think the NASB, HCSB, NIV and NJB get this verse wrong by translating it: “turn aside from the way… by following other gods.” (To its credit, the NASB does put “[Lit: to follow]” in the margin.) I’m not suggesting that following other gods is not in and of itself a turning aside from the way ordained – it’s a violation of the 1st Commandment – but the wording in these texts envisions sin (turning away) following from idolatry, instead of the other way around. There may be a reciprocal relationship between them, but I think the text is trying to tell us here basically that pride goes before a fall; the desire for falsehood precedes the lie.

Many of the loosey-goosey translations seem to botch this passage at least as badly. I see far too much leaning in them toward the wrong-headed idea that fidelity to God is about worshiping the “right” god, and, conversely and even more so, that worshiping the “wrong” god is what constitutes a sinner – and especially an enemy. This is an overly simplistic reading, and I think both the Matthew reading and the Romans reading witness against it.

Just a few verses earlier in Deuteronomy, we read: “be careful lest your heart be so lured away that you serve other gods and worship them” Deut 11:16 (NAB). The word that the NAB here translates “lured away” is often translated as “deceived.” Idolatry is enticing, but it is by means of embracing falsehood (deception) that one is brought to idolatry. When Jesus says “I never knew you [evildoers]” to those who protest: “we cast out demons in your name,” we see the fruits of religious self-deception at work in those who may be very much in conformity to the exterior norms of a life of faith, and even impressively so, but who are not transformed themselves to a life of fidelity to God’s Word, which amounts to taking the truth as a yoke to bear, without regard to personal cost – that is the knowledge of Christ that unfolds in the life of the disciple. We cannot turn back from that path without “exchanging” gods.

This is essentially what Paul is getting at in the Romans reading as well, though he comes at it from a very different angle. Paul had to deal not only with practitioners of religious self-deception, but with teachers of it. The issue is complex, and deserves much more time than I can give it here, but we are still talking about the difference between approaching the spiritual life as an exercise in religious conformance, and approaching it as a humble – and grateful – subject of the encounter with ultimate truth. We are not made right with God through the practice of religious activities – ritual or charismatic – but through persevering faithfully in the ever-unfolding encounter with truth, as God has revealed it in the person of Jesus Christ.