It is a strange thing, but the need for production of a document like Vatican II’s Dei Verbum [“The Word of God”] would never have occurred to the Church prior to 1500. Catholicism understood the idea of God’s “word” as divinely inspired truths imparted to select individuals to inspire and inform believers, on matters of history, doctrine, guidance, and authority. The Christian Church included the Hebrew Scripture [or Old Testament] as inspired by God because of its orientation toward the coming of the Messiah and “Christian founder.” What we know today as the “New Testament” demanded much more of the early Church’s labor and discussion, but by the fourth century or thereabouts the canon or collection of God’s New Testament revelation of Jesus was settled. In terms of defining God’s word for faith and worship, the precise library of sacred revelation had been set for all time in the Church.
Contrary to instinct, defining the New Testament canon was much harder for Christians than assessing the boundaries of the Hebrew/Jewish canon. The Jewish canon had already been established a few centuries before Christ, and the first Christians, who were themselves Jews, embraced the Hebrew Scripture in its entirety, forty-five books. If you read books about the Bible, you will see the Old Testament collection referred to as “The Septuagint,” a reference to belief that seventy holy Jews met to make this determination of what was truly a “revelation of God’s truth.” In contrast, by the end of the first century A.D. the Christian Church needed to sort out and pass judgment on which books written by the baptized were inspired by God and thus necessary for reading and church guidance. In other words, which books would make up the New Testament canon, to go along with the Old Testament, the Septuagint?
As it turned out, the Church based its lengthy discernment on the practices of the local churches—i.e., which books were read most frequently in the Eucharistic celebrations. Historically, St. Paul’s Letters seem to have been written first—1 Thessalonians has been dated as early as 50 A.D. The first Gospel or narrative of Jesus’ life was composed just before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by an individual named Mark. The final and official compilation of the books of the Christian New Testament dates to around 400 A.D. The Church stated that the twenty-seven designated books contain everything that is necessary to know of God’s message of salvation.
For the next millennium there was consensus, generally speaking, that the Bible and the Church were intimately joined—one rarely, if ever, pondered over the Bible as a stand-alone source separate from the Church, or vice-versa, the Church as a stand-alone body separate from the Bible. When the New Testament Canon was finalized by the fifth century, the future St. Jerome [347-420 A.D.], easily the most gifted, colorful, and cantankerous man of his time, gathered the loose copies and fragments of both testaments—in a variety of ancient pieces, mostly Hebrew and Greek—and translated the entire corpus into fifth century Latin, a more modern translation that quickly became the official text for Western Catholic Church services and study [until 1970!] Jerome’s translation is called the Vulgate, from the Latin for “vulgar” or street language. Jerome’s sponsor, Pope Damasus, wished that the Bible be translated in a way that any Roman citizen might read it, a remarkable accomplishment for the time.
The chronic Achilles Heel in the intimate relationship of Church and Bible was the inability to critique one without critiquing the other. It did not occur to most Catholics that there might be cracks between what the Bible said, and how the Church would interpret the Bible for its own purposes, both for good intentions and self-delusions of power.
Two factors to bear in mind about most of the Church’s history. First, the tools for objective study of the Bible—theological, historical, linguistic, literary, archaeological, philosophical, scientific, and ecumenical, to cite some-- did not exist wholesale until about 1800, a date we associate with the Enlightenment and the modern era. Second, the Church was highly disinclined to do a thorough self-examination of its life and ministry for fear of having to admit it had overreached its authority. This fear was in full view during Vatican II [1962-1965] and even to this day.
FIRST STIRRINGS ON THE HORIZON
The tiny saplings of what would become Vatican II’s Dei Verbum  are evident as early as 1200 A.D. Francis of Assisi had gathered a little band of about a dozen brothers, attracted to his spirit of joy and his desire to live precisely as Jesus had lived according to the Gospels. For Francis, the literal Gospel described a Jesus who had nowhere to lay his head, who owned nothing, and who delivered hope in God and actual physical care to outcasts, including people with leprosy. Francis, whose brilliance often gets short shrift in Catholic catechetics, realized that he needed ecclesiastical blessing and permission to avoid difficulties with Roman authorities; the medieval age was rife with local movements of every sort motivated by personal mystical experiences, many of them far afield from Catholic guardrails of practice and common sense.
In their exchanges, Pope Innocent [r. 1198-1216] instructed Francis to join an existing order, such as the Benedictines or the Augustinians, communities which, supervised by the Church, lived safe rules, long tested, that protected the integrity of the Church and the orders’ members themselves from doctrinal error and subsequent punishments for excesses.
Francis, for his part, explained his belief that it was possible—even preferable—for a committed soul to live the very words of the Gospel as a religious way of life. Francis’s rule would be drawn directly from the Vulgate text of St. Jerome. Innocent was initially reluctant to grant the request; he feared that attempts to live Christ’s perfection under solemn vows would be impossible, and those who broke solemn vows could be imprisoned or even put to death for apostacy or heresy. There was a pastoral concern for Francis and his band on the part of Pope Innocent, as the pontiff, for all his papal power, desired a renewal of simplicity and holiness at the parochial level of the Medieval Church.
Francis put into play one of the most significant questions for future Catholic life: if the Gospels—the Bible—were not given by God as the source of personal conduct and meditational prayer, then what was the role of the Bible? Historians today would look back and use the term “cherry picking” to describe the Church’s relationship to the Bible. In other words, the Church at times selected a variety of Bible texts—often out of context—to support its policies and teachings on such matters as the persecution of the Jews and the unlimited power of the papacy.
Innocent did, in the end, approve the Gospel rule for Francis, but the pope died prematurely at the age of 52 and thus did not see one of his biggest fears come to fruition, i.e., that an extremist wing of the Franciscans, the “Spirituals,” would deny the power of the papacy to soften the believed Biblical mandate to live absolute and voluntary poverty. See my review of The Spiritual Franciscans posted to Amazon in 2005 for more discussion on this controversy.
FULL MORTAL COMBAT
The issue of the authority of the Bible discussed by Francis and Innocent did not go gently into the night, as over the next three hundred years the papacy became less exemplary and more controversial. Vatican II’s Dei Verbum is the distant descendant of the era known as the Protestant Reformation. In 1518, a major fundraising effort was underway in the Roman Catholic Church toward the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Preachers were dispatched throughout Europe to issue letters of release from the post-life punishments of Purgatory in exchange for monetary gifts toward the construction project. A ditty of the time provides a crude, if accurate description, of the transaction. “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.” You have heard of the 1500’s controversy, “the sale of indulgences.” What was at stake was precisely the relationship of God’s saving will, as expressed in the Scriptures, to many of the practices of the Catholic Church. The sale of indulgences was the first universal blast of a volcano that had been gathering pressure for some years. The Franciscan controversy noted above is just one example.
When Martin Luther [1483-1546], an Augustinian monk and scripture scholar, encountered the preaching of indulgences in his own German locale, he issued his famous retort taken from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter One: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: for Jew first, and then Greek. For in it is revealed the righteousness of God from faith to faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous by faith will live.” God grants eternal life; it cannot be purchased regardless of papal authorizations to the contrary.
Luther was laying down the theological gridwork of the Reformation—salvation is bestowed directly from God through the agency of God’s revealed Word, the Bible, the Dei Verbum if you will. Luther was not calling for an end to the Catholic Church, but rather,  the elimination of the “inventions” of such practices as indulgences and several of the sacraments for which no Scriptural basis could be obviously found—indulgences, confession and priestly celibacy, to cite three; and  an emphasis upon God’s saving will as the agent of redemption through the Christian’s personal engagement with the holy word. The phrase sola scriptura [“by scripture alone is man saved”] captured the landscape. Luther himself translated the Latin Vulgate Bible into German, and the newly invented printing press put the Bible into the hands of every devout Christian for prayer and inspiration without the mediation of the clergy or an authoritative church. This biblical “independence” was a new factor in European life.
That said, it does not take a profound scholar to see that while Luther’s turn to the Bible as the reforming instrument of Christianity was certainly an enrichment of the Church, he did not—could not—answer several new questions. It is hard to claim an independence for the Bible, sola scriptura, when the Bible—and particularly the New Testament—is the product of the Church. It was baptized Christians who wrote the very texts and then determined which ones embodied God’s saving message for all time. Consequently, the Reformation era opened the door to discussion of the very meaning of Revelation--how it was delivered, and how it is to be interpreted. The Bible texts themselves show that the term sola scriptura can be taken too far. In the Hebrew Scripture, God addressed Abraham as the father of a great nation. In the Christian Testament, the Apostles are sent forth to announce the Good News to the entire world. So where is this balance between the dramatic personal visitation of God’s saving wisdom to each human being and the imperative to enter God’s saving community to find life [through circumcision, or later, through baptism]?
This was the ultimate target of Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, which in twenty-seven paragraphs attempted to pull together a timely explanation of the meaning of “Revelation,” its expression in the sacred books of the Bible and the life of the baptized Church. It is worth noting that Dei Verbum was the most hotly contested document of the Council, as the Church Fathers divided between the enormous body of new Biblical scholarship produced after Luther and the absolute authority of the Church to manage the Scripture and its interpretation. Vatican II was the third Council to tackle the issue of Biblical revelation and authority. Trent [1545-1563] and Vatican I [1869-1870] devoted enormous energies to the role of Scripture, and some of the most famous papal instructions of all time were issued in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well about bible scholarship.
In the next installment, I will focus on the amazing progress of biblical study between the Reformation and Dei Verbum, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when our insights into the holy texts were turned upside down.
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For a brief but excellent introduction to the document Dei Verbum, see The Word of God at Vatican II: Exploring Dei Verbum  by Father Ronald D. Witherup.
The Gospel of John has perplexed students of the Bible for many years because of its striking differences from the other three Gospels [Mark, Matthew, Luke]. For this reason, St. John’s Gospel was the last of the four to be accepted by the Church into the developing canon of books we know today as the New Testament. For those who are unfamiliar with this Gospel as a stand-alone text, I do recommend Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John [1998, 2005] by Father Francis Moloney as an excellent overview of this powerful text.
Scholars today appreciate that each of the four evangelists wrote his Gospel as a historical theologian, meaning that each writer was gifted by the Holy Spirit with a unique insight or inspiration into the identity and meaning of Jesus of Nazareth. This theological perspective accounts for the arrangement, description, and inclusion of both the material aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry as well as how those events were understood by the first faithful witnesses. It is the differences between the Gospels as well as their common ground which allows each author to bring home the identity and meaning of Jesus in a unique whole.
Most Catholics do not read the Gospels as individual, self-contained units of meaning. We carry in our heads the Chinese menu approach to the Gospels—something from column A, a healthy serving from column C, a touch from column D, etc. In Biblical terms, we carry a patch quilt self-satisfying picture of Jesus made up of snatches of our favorite childhood memories. As a result, it is nigh impossible for us, as adults, to shape our belief and morality around Jesus because we know nothing of what he truly stood for. Each of the Gospels poses a distinct and everlasting answer to the question of “Who do men say that I am?” All prayer, all worship, every life decision pivots upon our understanding of the full four-Gospel revelation of Jesus, at least to the degree that our efforts take us.
Every Gospel is unique and distinctive—but beyond that, the Gospel of John is, well, really different. Again, modern scholarship places its time of composition later than the other three, perhaps around 100 A.D. By this time, the Church was nearly a century old and the understandings of the nature and meaning of Jesus began to diverge into multiple misunderstandings. In a way this problem would continue until the first Church Council, Nicaea, in 325 A.D. It was this council which produced the Creed we profess every Sunday, where we profess that Jesus is truly God and truly man. But that Creed would have been impossible without the Gospel of John. In the history of Christian worship, the Church has chosen John’s portrait of the Christ as the center of its three most sacred days, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Resurrection of Easter—because they best identify the meaning of the Cross and the Resurrection as well as the nature of Christ’s Church, then and now. So let us walk through the Triduum through the eyes of John.
Holy Thursday [Liturgy John 13: 1-15]
The Last Supper [Chapters 13-17] begins the second half of John’s Gospel, known as the Book of Glory. It announces that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.” [John 13:1] Consequently the following narrative from John 13 till the end of the Gospel is the summary statement of who Jesus is and what the Church is. Dating back to the era of the Church fathers, Christianity has consistently taught that God’s Revelation ends with the death of the last apostle, i.e., John.
John is the only Gospel author to describe the Last Supper as occurring on the night before the Passover; the reason for this will become clear from the text of Good Friday. Moreover, John’s is the only Gospel which does not include Jesus’ blessing of the bread and cup. An obvious reason is that the Church had been celebrating Eucharist for decades before John put pen to paper and the tradition had been more than adequately reported in the previous three Gospels--and in Paul’s 1 Corinthians, which happens to be the second reading of the Holy Thursday Mass.
In place of a description of the origin of the Eucharist, John instead addresses the common bond of love that must exist among his disciples, those who would repeat this sacred action. This concern for unity is echoed in the three Epistles under John’s name, where we find for example in 1 John 3: 18, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” Jesus, in John’s Gospel, gathers his disciples to bequeath his last will and testament, so to speak, and he begins with a powerful visual gesture of the ideal disciple who lives in the mold of Christ: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” A kingdom marked by humble fraternity is truly Christ’s, the kingdom of light. When Judas slinks out the door to betray Jesus, John remarks, “And it was night.” [John 13: 30] The kingdom of light and truth is contrasted to the dark world of sin and disbelief.
The final supper discourse continues for a full four more chapters—not read at the Holy Thursday Mass but very worthy of personal reading either at home or during adoration of the Eucharist after the evening Mass of Holy Thursday. These chapters constitute Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples and conclude in Chapter 17 with his prayer of consecration over them.
Good Friday [Liturgy: John Chapter 18 and Chapter 19]
The Good Friday Passion narrative begins with a quick, purposeful departure of Jesus, followed by his disciples, from the dinner to an unidentified garden across the Kidron Valley. There is no “agony in the garden” in John’s narrative, for in this Gospel Jesus is totally in charge of what will happen as he brings all things to their fulfillment. “Jesus, knowing everything that was going to happen to him….” [John 18: 4] When Judas arrives with soldiers dispatched by the chief priests and pharisees—two distinctly different populations of Jews—they are forced to the ground by the power of Jesus’ verbal identification, “I am.” The “I am” is a self-identification taken from God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush, “’I am who I am’ has sent you…” [Exodus 3:14] Clearly, John is emphasizing Jesus’ divinity throughout the day’s events; even in the skirmish in the garden one gets the sense that it is Jesus who allows its outcome.
John lengthens the Jewish trial by adding an initial hearing before the chief priest emeritus, Annas, just as he elongates Jesus’ trial before Pilate several hours later with multiple hearings. There is considerable judicial dialogue here in both cases, certainly more than in the other three Gospels. John highlights the reality here that neither Jew nor Gentile [Pilate] has a compelling case against him, but more than that, we see the truth of Jesus’ words to Pilate that ‘my kingdom is not of this world.” [John 18:36] Neither the religious nor the secular powers of the time can hold a candle to the blazing truth of God’s son.
John 17: 28-29 introduces the lengthy and profound dialogue between Jesus and Pilate. The leaders of the Sanhedrin brought Jesus to the Roman Praetorium, with John commenting that “they themselves did not enter the praetorium, in order not to be defiled so that they could eat the Passover [that night].” As noted above, John is the only evangelist who describes Jesus’ passion and death as taking place before the Passover. Nor is there anything like the long dialogue between Jesus and Pilate in any of the other Gospels.
Consider the dating of this Gospel: it was written around 100 A.D., well after Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman general Titus was interpreted by Christians as God’s judgment upon Israel for its rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. By the time the Johannine Gospel was circulating, the Jews were scattered throughout the Mediterranean, having suffered the loss of their religious and psychological home. The Christian Church, by the time of this Gospel, had spread throughout much of the Roman Empire and centered itself in Rome, the site of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul. Consequently, the Church found itself in the somewhat new position of orienting its relationship with the empire then in its prime.
The dialogue between Jesus and Pilate parallels the Church’s understanding of itself in the larger Gentile world of Rome. The two quotes most remembered come from Jesus [“My kingdom is not of this world”] and Pilate [“What is truth?”] Christians reading John’s words in their own time would have been reminded that they were, by virtue of baptism, citizens of another land, the kingdom of God. Pilate, in the face of Jesus’ declaration, is reduced to throwing his hands in the air as if to say, “my world has no answer to yours.”
After the elongated drama at the Praetorium, Jesus is crucified, with two other men, at “The Place of the Skull.” There are a number of distinct episodes found only in John: the displeasure of the chief priests with the inscription on the cross [“Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews”]; the soldiers shooting dice but leaving his seamless tunic intact [Psalm 22: 19, “They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture”], the identification of the women—including his mother Mary and Mary Magdalene—at the foot of the cross, and the entrusting of his mother to “the disciple whom he loved.” If this sequence sounds for all the world like Jesus gathering a new family/community beneath his cross, read on.
Despite his predicament, Jesus remains in command. There is none of the darkness upon the earth that the other evangelists report. The glory of God is shining forth. After drinking the wine—the new wine of God’s kingdom—Jesus announces, “It is finished. And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.” [John 19:30] He handed over the spirit—words deliberated crafted by John to describe this moment as the first true Pentecost of the new kingdom. To reinforce this, only John describes the lancing of Jesus’ side by a soldier, “and immediately blood and water flowed out” [John 19:34]. Water and blood—the first great sacramental signs of the Church, of Baptism and Eucharist—spill out upon the new community gathered at his feet. There is another powerful sign here as well. Midafternoon of the day of Passover the temple priests were butchering hundreds upon hundreds of lambs for families and pilgrims to roast that evening. The piercing of the Lamb of God on the cross by an unnamed soldier marks the era of the new, final Passover of God. Such is the spiritual genius of John. And as a curious footnote, Nicodemus, who earlier in this Gospel had approached Jesus to talk with him in the darkness of night, comes forward now in the daylight with precious oils to anoint his body. [John 19: 39]
Easter [Liturgies: John 20 and John 21 on Easter and throughout Easter Week]
Scripture scholars employ what is called the “law of embarrassment” in studying the Gospels. Simply put, embarrassing incidents recorded in the Gospel have a higher possibility of historical basis. The denial of Jesus by Peter, for example, is recorded in all four Gospels [an example also of another working principle, “multiple attestation.”] It is hard to imagine anyone creating such a shameful account about the apostle Jesus called “the Rock.” In John’s Resurrection narratives there are several such incidents which, at the very least, indicate that in reality it took the new community of faith a fair amount of time [weeks? months? years?] to believe in the fact of the Resurrection, let alone its implications.
For starters, the very opening line of John’s Resurrection narrative is a surprise—a woman is the first to behold the empty tomb. It is Mary Magdalene who announces to the disciples that the body is missing. Interestingly, Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” [John 20: 3-6] both run to the site; the unnamed disciple [traditionally believed to be the Apostle John] arrives first, but defers to Peter, who enters the tomb first. There is an interesting sub-dynamic in this Gospel of establishing Peter’s pride of place, particularly in John 21, which suggests that in the early church there may have been subdivisions of allegiance. See Father Raymond Brown’s 1978 classic, The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times. Peter observed that the burial cloths are neatly folded and separated—a clear contrast to the earlier Johannine story of the raising of Lazarus, who stumbled out of his tomb still bound with burial cloths. Jesus has not simply been resuscitated like Lazarus, but the full implications are not understood.
Mary Magdalene continues to hold the center stage, however. Sitting at the empty tomb weeping, she encounters two angels, who evidently were not there when the two disciples had visited earlier. Mary concedes to them that she knows nothing more than that the body of Jesus is missing. Then Jesus appears to her, though Mary mistakes him for the gardener. This is a confusing text, and again it suggests that Jesus was not “recognized” in the early post-Resurrection era. There is an interesting parallel to this Johannine episode. St. Luke’s Gospel [Luke 24: 13-35] has a similar encounter in which the two disciples on the road to Emmaus do not recognize Jesus on Easter Sunday afternoon, and they do not recognize him until he breaks bread. In John’s Gospel Mary Magdalene does not recognize him until he calls her by name.
A curious thing then happens. Jesus instructs Mary to “stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” [John 20: 17] This is clearly a loaded statement which implies, at the very least, that Jesus in his resurrected being cannot remain in human contact with his new community forever as he is destined to sit at the right hand of the Father for all eternity, though this enshrinement has not yet happened because Jesus has unfinished business. At the Last Supper, Jesus had explained this to the disciples but promised to send his Paraclete, his Spirit of Truth. Jesus tells Mary Magdalene in the garden to relay the message to his disciples that he is going to his Father. For the first time in this Gospel a human being recognizes the true risen nature of Jesus, for she later announces to the disciples “I have seen the Lord,” a term with divine meaning in the Johannine Gospel. She could have said, “I have seen our Jesus as God.”
If the disciples truly grasped what Mary had told them, it was not evident as the disciples were still hiding behind locked doors when Jesus appeared to them late in the day and stood in their midst, locked doors or not. John’s Gospel was written at a time when a major heresy or error was troubling the Church, i.e., “Docetism.” This error held that Jesus was not human but rather a divine phantom. John brilliantly balances the divine elements of Jesus’ new being—passing through a locked door—with the human when he invites the disciples to view the wounds in his hands and side—and later, invites Thomas to put his finger in the nail wounds! As the gradual faith and realization of the Resurrection dawns upon the disciples, Jesus breathes upon them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
In John’s Gospel, the essence of the Church is established in the Holy Thursday-Good Friday-Easter time span. Jesus, in his second Pentecost moment, conveys the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, men he had instructed and prepared during the Last Supper. He has ascended to glory at his Father’s right hand, for he invites the disciples to touch him, unlike earlier in the day when he cautioned Mary Magdalene not to hold on to him. He has established the Church as a redeeming community empowered to forgive sin. As one of my professors joked, Jesus had a very busy Easter.
And of course, there is doubting Thomas, who missed this solemn resurrection appearance with his brethren. Thomas is an enormously important figure in John’s Gospel and in the very constitution of the Church. For Thomas is the Christian template for all those baptized in the future, who must depend not upon eyewitness experience of Jesus like the ten disciples in the upper room, but upon the faith-filled eyewitness accounts of others. John quotes Jesus as saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” John concludes the corpus of his Gospel with his explanation of the evangelization process: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.”
The formal end of John’s Gospel is recognized as Chapter 20. Chapter 21 is believed to have been added later, and it suggests  that the disciples took some time to recognize Jesus and the meaning of his Resurrection;  that Peter was personally identified by Jesus as the one to “lead his flock; and  it was necessary to defuse a rumor that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” would not see death until the second coming of Jesus. [See Father Brown, above.] The Church has always included Chapter 21 as part of the New Testament Canon.
At 4 PM Eastern Standard Time this coming Saturday, November 26, the Roman Catholic Church opens the new Church Year with the Vigil Mass of the First Sunday of Advent [or, in monasteries and abbeys, with First Vespers or Evening Prayer to begin the next day’s—Sunday’s--solemnity of the First Sunday of Advent. The beginning of the new Church year this weekend immerses us in the Gospel of St. Matthew, the “official Gospel” for the Liturgical year of 2023. With a few exceptions, all the Saturday night/Sunday Masses for the next year will feature the proclamation of the Gospel of Matthew. Which raises the question: who is Saint Matthew, what is his “message,’ and how is he different from the other three Gospels of the Church?
Over the last decade I have made it a habit to purchase a new English text and commentary on the “Gospel of the Year” as defined in the Roman Missal and calendar. The Church rotates between Matthew [Year A], Mark [Year B], and Luke [Year C, which we are finishing this week before Saturday]. St. John’s Gospel, which has a unique layout different from the other three, is used for special feasts such as Holy Thursday and Good Friday.] This year I selected R.T. France’s The Gospel of Matthew from the series “The New International Commentary on the New Testament,” a series with a long association with Eerdmans Publishers. My selection by R.T. France is rated in the top 1% of all books marketed by Amazon, and #75 of all published biblical commentaries as of this writing.
My St. Matthew Commentary from Dr. France runs to 1223 pages—and I say this not to impress you or frighten you off from Bible study—but simply to illustrate how much there is to know about Jesus and to destroy any illusion that we all know him intimately. I jumped the gun a bit and started my St. Matthew commentary last week. My wife Margaret, who holds an Ivy League doctorate, is a voracious reader and no intellectual slouch, looked at the book on my lap and exclaimed, “You’re not going to read the whole thing, are you?” To which I sarcastically replied, “Well, not before supper.” I explained that I was reading and reflecting upon a few pages of commentary a day—by my math, about five pages a day should get me through the year. It takes me an hour or thereabouts to do that, depending on my meditation on the text. In three years, I will research and find another text on Matthew, either a newer one with more recent scholarship or an ancient one from the Church Fathers. When can one say you have learned everything to know about Jesus, which is the healthy attitude of your local Protestant church which holds “Sunday Bible School” and Wednesday night study religiously and without end.
What do we know about the origins of the Gospel of St. Matthew?
For much of the Church’s history it was believed that Matthew’s Gospel was the first Gospel, both chronologically and theologically. In fact, it was long called “The Gospel of the Church.” In many older churches you can still see stained glass windows portraying St. Matthew pouring over his desk with an angel whispering into his ear. Matthew was long identified with the tax collector Levi in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and thus an eyewitness to the words and deeds of Jesus.
However, around 1800, Protestant scholars in the modern era began to study the scriptures using historical method; in 1943 Pope Pius XII approved of Catholic biblical scholars working with their Protestant confreres and using their methodologies. By the mid-twentieth century the general hypothesis held that only one Gospel was written before 70 A.D., the year the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. That Gospel was Mark, the shortest. Generally, it is agreed that the Gospels after Mark, including Matthew’s, used several sources;  the material in Mark’s Gospel itself;  a “Q source” of independent sayings and narratives of Jesus available to Matthew and Luke, but not to Mark; and  the Holy Spirit’s unique inspiration of each Gospel writer which—taken together--form the official Church canon or collection of what can be known of Jesus Christ, and what we are required to believe.
The dating of this Gospel is generally given in the 80’s A.D., very close to the composition of St. Luke’s Gospel. St. John’s Gospel is dated even later, closer to 100 A.D. St. Mark, as noted above, was probably written before the fall of Jerusalem, based on careful analysis of the text, possibly around 65 A.D. The earliest book of the New Testament, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, goes back as far as 50 A.D. The late dating of St. Matthew’s Gospel makes it unlikely that the author is the same person as the Levi in the Gospel.
It is likely that this Gospel was written in Syria or Palestine, locations where Christians and Jews lived in proximity.
What inspired St. Matthew to write this Gospel?
Given that Jesus himself lived and died as a Jew, that his apostles were Jews, that the earliest apostolic sermons were addressed to fellow Jews to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, and that the earliest Christians understood themselves to be faithful Jews who worshipped in the Temple and celebrated Eucharist, St. Matthew felt compelled to compose a sweeping description of God’s plan for the Jews—and ultimately for all humanity--in the light of the life and death of Jesus. The evangelist describes Jesus as the “New Moses” who has “not come to destroy the Law but to bring it to completion.” Consequently St. Matthew’s story of the Christ is the unfolding of the full Hebrew Scripture fulfillment in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. There are close to one hundred allusions to the Old Testament or specific mentions of “in fulfillment of the Scriptures” in Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus is portrayed in this Gospel as “the new Moses,” a theme which continues throughout the text. Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy of Jesus which begins with Abraham and proceeds to Joseph, the husband of Mary. Matthew’s Christmas narrative is a smorgasbord of Hebrew imagery centered around Moses and Jesus. Possibly the most dramatic portrayal of Jesus in the Mosaic role is St. Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount,” the bridge between the legal tradition of the Old Law and the New Law of the coming reign of the Father. Jesus did not eliminate the Ten Commandments, but he put forward of new ethic of God’s deliverance, the Eight Beatitudes, followed by three chapters depicting a new way of life in God’s era of salvation.
The moral teaching of Jesus in this Gospel is a radical departure from an ethic of simple observance. No living person can ever claim that “I loved enough” or “forgave enough” or “cared enough” in the lifestyle Jesus puts forward in this Gospel. As the late theologian Hans Kung observed, “Christianity is the only religion in the world that calls its members to be perfect as God is perfect.”
A proclamation such as this from Jesus, even given in perfect love, is an indictment of the religious and political status quo. Many of Jesus’ Jewish listeners—and certainly all the Jewish Temple leadership—heard this preaching as dangerously subversive. [In my private moments, I think many Catholics would find St. Matthew dangerously subversive—if they troubled themselves to study him.] St. Matthew’s Gospel reflects a time when Christians—particularly Jewish converts to Jesus—were feeling betrayal at being shunned and even persecuted by Jews who did not accept Jesus. Devout Jews, on the other hand, saw Christianity as blasphemous—the idea that the omnipotent God whose name they would not even utter out of devotion was put to death in hideous disfigurement on the cross was a bridge too far for many. We know from the Acts of the Apostles of the martyrdoms of the deacon Stephen and James, Bishop of Jerusalem within a generation of Jesus’ death.
This situation led through the centuries and even today to a sad antisemitism based upon certain texts in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Christians felt free to persecute Jews for the crime of deicide or “killing God.” Only Matthew quotes the infamous cries of a Jewish mob before Pontius Pilate: “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children.” [Matthew 27:25] In 1964 Vatican II formally rejected a literal interpretation of Matthew’s text in Chapter 27.
It is to your advantage not to go it alone.
When you read the Gospel of Matthew—or any text from the Bible—you are reading literature between two and three thousand years old, originating from a distant culture, translated countless times through history, and, in the case of Catholicism, interpreted without interruption since the days of Pentecost. Pope Francis has drawn new insights from the Scriptures, for example, in his major encyclicals.
To best encounter the inner meaning of Scripture, read with assistance. In the best of all worlds, take a refresher course on the Gospels if it is offered in your parish or diocese by a priest, deacon, or teacher certified by your local bishop. If you live near a Catholic college or university, call the religious education or theology office to see what the school offers for interested lay Catholics. [If they say “nothing,” write to the president of the college. Catholic schools are supposed to serve as leaven in their communities.]
A word about Bible study groups—they are as useful as the theological qualifications of the person leading them and the program employed. As one of my professors used to say, avoid any group that is “a pooling of ignorance.”
If you are looking for an on-line study guide to Saint Matthew’s Gospel, check with your parish’s religious education or faith formation officer for advice. The internet is strewn with litter, and it is very easy to get snared in a website or YouTube project which is little more than fantasy or heresy. One of my diocesan students was almost cheated out of $400 by a catechetical impostor on-line. There are so many pop-ups pseudo-Catholic education sites that the American bishops have given up attempting to monitor them.
Of course, you will want a Bible. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops lists those approved for Catholic private and public use. I recommend the New American Bible as this is the text used by the U.S. Bishops’ site and public worship, particularly at Mass. I recommend you buy a paperback edition, so that you can liberally use your pen [or in my case, markers] to make notes. Don’t use the family heirloom, LOL.
However, if you buy a good commentary to help you, the Gospel text should be included. I got burned just once in my life. I bought a pricey text to study St. Mark’s Gospel, and while it contained a great deal of explanatory material, I had to use a separate Bible along with it. The good news here is that there are several good Catholic publishers who produce Bible study guides, including Paulist Press and Liturgical Press.
I will suggest three commentaries from my own library but check with your parish to see if it has other suggestions for reading the Gospel of Matthew. For beginners, there is The Gospel According to Matthew  by Barbara Reid. For the intermediate reader, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew  by Daniel Harrington, SJ. For the professional reader, The Gospel of Matthew (The New International Commentary on the New Testament)  by R.T. France cited above is captivating; I am tackling it this year…or it is tackling me! Those of you who have had success with other commentaries on St. Matthew, please message me and I will add them to the list.
I should add here that good theology books, like quality anything, are not cheap. When you visit publishers’ sites to find quality works, you might gulp at the listed price. But consider three things:  If you purchase from the publisher a pricey work like R.T. France’s The Gospel of Matthew, which I am reading now, you will keep it for many years on your working bookshelf. That’s what I always remind my wife.  You can often find a better price at other sites such as Amazon, which will network you to used book dealers around the country, usually at significant savings. France’s commentary, currently $73.00, is available on Amazon Prime for $49.00 with the free overnight shipping as of this morning.  If you are employed by the church, see if you can get a continuation allowance for your purchases; or, talk to your tax consultant about using your purchases as a deduction.
We have a great year ahead of us, probing one of the most majestic pieces of inspired literature. May the Holy Spirit be with you.
The Catholic world lost one of its greatest Bible scholars this week when Father John P. Meier [1942-2022] died on October 18. He taught at St. Joseph Seminary, Dunwoodie, NY for the Archdiocese of New York for twelve years, at Catholic University in DC for fourteen years, and the balance of his career [twenty years] at Notre Dame, where he was a beloved figure by his students and colleagues. He was ordained a Catholic priest for the Archdiocese of New York at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, in 1967, and was made an Honorary Prelate of the Papal Household (Monsignor) by Pope John Paul II in 1994. He published eight major books and seventy peer reviewed journal studies.
But Father Meier is best known for his remarkable five-volume tour de force, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. In a lecture a few years ago at Notre Dame, Meier recalled that the idea for A Marginal Jew [henceforth MJ] came to him and a friend in the 1980’s, and he envisioned this work as a single-volume book. In fact, he recalled with some humor that his publisher, Doubleday, assuming the contract was for a single volume, never specified a number, and MJ progressed from a single volume to five major tomes. His obituaries note with sadness that he died in the middle of the sixth and final volume; we can only hope that an excellent disciple of Father Meier can complete the final work, on the Passion of Jesus, as I understand it.
It is worth noting here that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI honored Meier for his work; Benedict included Meier as a source in his own writings. This papal respect is even more remarkable given that MJ was an audacious project, the contemporary flagship of the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” movement, which had its roots in nineteenth century Germany and, with Meier at the fore, is now in its third major iteration. The “historical quest” is an effort to reconstruct what can be known through historical methodology about Jesus. Millions, perhaps billions of us, profess to “love Jesus.” Meier is asking, “who is this Jesus you claim to love?” We typically compose an image and a persona of the Christ to our own advantage, based upon some elementary schooling and an occasional inspiring person we meet along the highway of life. But where is our concrete point of reference to the words and deeds of Jesus?
History is a science. When a theologian brings science to the study of Scripture texts and their contexts, and uncovers the complexity of its mysteries—or, more to the point, tips over too many of my self-fashioned sacred cows, as it is bound to do—then I run back to my trump card that it is more important to have faith than proof! True enough, but as every great saint/theologian has taught,  faith requires an object, and  faith involves trust in the content of that object. In the first instance, I need to know as much about the object of my faith as I can, in this case the Revelation of God through the reality of the living Jesus Christ. Faith without learning is irrational. The routine of any monastery is a balance of prayer and Lectio Divina [‘divine reading” or “divine study]. In the second instance, one must be growing in constant knowledge of “God’s portfolio,” to continuously make that profession of faith.
Meier understood his role as a historical theologian of Scripture as a resource to the other branches of theology, such as sacramental or moral theology, and to the Catholic community at large in its collective understanding of Jesus. When Meier’s first volume was released in 1991, he summarized his method in a most unconventional way:
“To explain to my academic colleagues what I propose to do in this book, I often use the fantasy of the ‘unpapal conclave.’ Suppose that a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, and an agnostic—all honest historians cognizant of 1st century religious movements—were locked up in the bowels of the Harvard Divinity School library, put on a spartan diet, and not allowed to emerge until they had hammered out a consensus document on who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he intended in his own time and place. An essential requirement of this document would be that it is based on purely historical sources and documents.” [MJ 1, pp. 1-2] He goes on to cite the richness of the project, the value of a common ground of understanding of Jesus that would serve as a starting point for ecumenical dialogue, for example.
It is critical to point out here that Meier never claims to be rewriting the Catholic Creed. He never denied his most basic identity as a Catholic, a priest, and a professional educator/theologian/writer for Catholic institutions and readers. His goal throughout the 3000-some pages of the MJ series to date is to clarify, by historical method, the world in which Jesus lived and the meaning of his words and deeds in the context of a Roman-occupied Israel, in which Judaism itself was divided into at least four identifiable quadrants--Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, and Essenes. [Some speculate that John the Baptist had Essene roots, and one of Jesus’ disciples is known as Simon the Zealot.]
The title “Marginal Jew” has intrigued many reviewers. Meier admits in his first volume that he developed this title as the best description of Jesus’ religious identity—a faithful Jew throughout his lifetime who, at the same time, “marginalized himself” by his distinctive preaching and teaching on the fullness of the Old Testament promises, summarized in his announcement of the coming of the Kingdom of God—a kingdom already in their midst in Jesus’ signs and wonders, with its fulfillment in the glorious future at a time known only to the Father. Meier elaborates on Jesus’ “marginalization;”  he walked away from his career as a carpenter and assumed an identity as a powerful preacher, which was met with contempt and scorn by his former townsfolk and even his family;  Jesus’ teachings on issues such as divorce, fasting, celibacy, etc. did not jibe with contemporary Jewish interpretations of the Law;  Jesus’ forceful message and style alienated him from nearly all quadrants of the Jewish population, to the degree that no one spoke for him during his trial and crucifixion. In this sense, Meier writes, Jesus marginalized himself.
That said, MJ is a remarkable testimony to the fact that Jesus was born, lived, and died a Jew. I have often wondered how it is possible to follow Jesus—or, for that matter, to teach and catechize about him—without a grounding in Judaism, from the days of Abraham to the present day. We subconsciously assume that Jesus was a fellow Roman Catholic during his lifetime, which means we view him through a prism that distorts the radical nature of his message. The Romans—with popular support—thought Jesus dangerous enough to condemn him to the worst form of public execution. To ignore Jesus in his Jewish setting is to domesticate him to a point where we can live comfortably in a religious status quo existence that gets us nowhere.
Generally, I write reviews for Amazon of books I read, but I was never able to review the two volumes of MJ that I did read when they appeared within the thousand-word limit imposed by Amazon, and so I can hardly do justice to the content of these works here in this posting. I have a special affection for the first volume, for I read it during my early years of recovery from alcoholism in the early 1990’s and I was utterly captivated and rejuvenated by so many features of Meier’s writing—on historical methodology, on the pagan and Jewish sources of information about Jesus [including the Dead Sea Scrolls], and the delicate task of extricating what one might call “raw history” from the Gospels, which were written primarily as “faith attestations.”
Under the guidance of the Spirit, each evangelist—Mark, Matthew, Luke, John—wrote a “theological history” or a “faith history” based upon both the belief of the earliest Christians and an oral tradition of the flesh and blood Jesus of Nazareth. Scripture—particularly the Gospels—depends upon a marriage of faith and history. The very doctrine of the Incarnation—God becoming man—depends upon our belief that Jesus was indeed a real human in history, not a mythic figure, a legend, or some angelic figure. Thus, while the evangelists wrote their Gospels to express the meaning of Jesus, i.e., what we need to believe about him, they could not ignore the history of Jesus, for it is through the Savior’s words and deeds that we discover his meaning.
Meier’s forty-year project was a quest to provide the most reliable historical baseline to date, data that stands the test of time not simply for Christians, but for all people of good will seeking to answer the question, “Who do men say that I am?” To appreciate the discipline and genius of Meier, there is no substitute for taking one of his five volumes into your hands and following his research. To read all five [and hopefully a sixth] volume of Meier is probably beyond the reach of most of us, given the sheer investment of time that, at least in my case, is becoming more precious with each progressing birthday.
All the same, it is worth considering a plunge into at least the first volume of MJ, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: The Roots of the Problem and the Person . Yes, this may be the most challenging Scripture study you will read in your life but consider the object of your study—He who has called us into his Kingdom in this world and the next. MJ may rejuvenate your thirst for Scripture study in general, and consequently your spiritual thirst to know the fullness of Him who is the center of our personal universe. Reading MJ is not only an academic challenge; it is a humbling realization of how truly little we know about the Gospels and the meaning of Jesus, shamefully little when it comes right down to it. On the other hand, reading MJ for the first time is something like looking at those new pictures from the Webb satellite—a deeper look into a universe we had no idea was so magnificent.
I will outline here the chapters of the first volume to give you a feel for the nature of Meier’s work:
The Real Jesus and the Historical Jesus
Sources: The Canonical Books of the New Testament
Sources: Other Pagan and Jewish Writing
Sources: The Agrapha and the Apocryphal Gospels
Criteria: How Do We Decide What Comes From Jesus?
In the Beginning…The Origins of Jesus of Nazareth
In the Interim…Part I: Language, Education, and Socioeconomic Status [of Jesus]
In the Interim…Part II: Family, Marital Status, and Status as a Layman
“In the Fifteenth Year”: A Chronology of Jesus’ Life
Volume 2, A Marginal Jew: Mentor, Message, and Miracles  is worth the price of admission just for its 233-page treatment of Jesus and John the Baptist. I might add here that Amazon readers who reviewed the book admit that they skip the lengthy and detailed footnotes. That is a mistake. Some of the author’s best writing can be found here.
Meier would be the first to admit that he has not had the last word on the quest for the historical Jesus. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 by a shepherd boy opened an entirely new vista of historical Judaism at the time of Jesus, and who is to say that continued research will not yield greater finds and insights into the Judaism of Jesus’ day. But as the saying goes, we stand on the shoulders of giants, and Meier’s research will serve as a benchmark, not only for scholars, but for all students of the Bible in the quest for Jesus.
This coming weekend [April 9-10] marks the feast of “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion,” which includes the traditional blessing and procession of palms and the proclamation of the Lord’s Passion and Death. Prior to the Vatican II reform, this feast was known popularly as Palm Sunday, though my 1956 missal refers to it as Second Passion Sunday or Palm Sunday. “Passiontide” encompassed the last two weeks of Lent when we old timers can recall that all the statues and crosses were veiled in purple.
Again, the missal of my youth observed Palm Sunday with the reading of the Passion according to St. Matthew, a Gospel which enjoyed a preeminence in the Church equaled only by St. John’s Gospel, whose Passion narrative was and continues to be the text of choice for the solemnity of Good Friday. Any altar server of the 1950’s will recall that the Passion according to St. Mark was read in Latin on the Tuesday of Holy Week, and that of St. Luke on the Wednesday of Holy Week, an elongation of the Masses of those days that made us late for school and/or breakfast.
The reform of the Mass, which produced the Missal we use today, also reformed the Lectionary of Readings for Mass, initiating the A-B-C Cycle with which you are familiar. In this new format, the Passion narratives of the three synoptic Gospels are rotated through Year A [Matthew]; Year B [Mark] and Year C [Luke]. St. John’s account of the Passion remains the annual Gospel for the Solemnity of Good Friday.
As we are in the C Cycle in 2022, the Passion according to St. Luke will be proclaimed in Roman Catholic churches around the world. [Alas, I am not familiar with the format and liturgical specifics of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches.] I suspect that when we attend the Palm/Passion Mass each year, we go in with a kind of smugness that “we know the story” and our primary responsibility is to produce sorrow for our sins. While this is certainly the end game, consider that we would only need one Gospel and one Passion Narrative to move our souls. Why, in the Church’s ancient wisdom, did it specifically sanction four accounts as the corpus of our knowledge of Jesus and his message? Approving four narratives—each with a variety of differences from the others—took a considerable amount of courage from the Church Fathers, and the wisdom of their Spirit-filled choices continues to create marvel in the Church to this day.
All four of the Gospels take their origin from a basic oral script of the reality and meaning of the historical Jesus. St. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2: 22-24 is believed to be derived from the earliest description of Jesus in Christian preaching: “Jesus the Nazorean was a man commended to you by God with mighty deeds, wonders, and signs, which God worked through him in your midst, as you yourselves know. This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed, using lawless men to crucify him. But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it.” If this is indeed close to the earliest apostolic preaching, then obviously much work remained to be done, not least of which was to confirm the very divinity of Christ, a task which was not finally and formally resolved until the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., which roughly coincides with the full Church acceptance of the four Gospels as the definitive truth of Jesus Christ.
But each of the four Gospels is a “Christology” unto itself, a particular thematic understanding of the nature and mission of Jesus. One of the best ways to study a particular evangelist’s theological outlook is to examine closely the differences between the Gospels. These differences can be subtle but always significant. Where St. Mark quotes Jesus as saying one must “take up your cross and follow me,” St. Luke rephrases the text to “take up your cross daily and follow me.” This one-word addition speaks volumes to Biblical scholars. Mark wrote his Gospel prior to the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. when the end times and Second Coming were believed to be imminent. Death by persecution was a very real prospect. Luke wrote his Gospel some years later with the insight that Christianity might indeed last for the ages, and consequently that the baptized would need daily attention over many years to successfully follow Christ.
Scholars agree that in writing his account of Jesus’ death, Luke worked from Mark’s shorter draft, adding to the narrative exclusive segments which express the evangelist’s unique understanding of the cross, his inspiration from the Holy Spirit.
Luke describes the passion as Jesus’ ultimate battle against the powers of evil. Luke’s passage [Luke 22: 35-38] is unique; spoken at the end of the Last Supper and on the way to the Garden of Olives, Jesus urges his disciples to arm themselves; “And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.” Jesus is describing the battle for men’s hearts. Just moments earlier, at the table he warned Peter that Satan was striving for his [Peter’s] allegiance. The disciples take Jesus’ call to arms much too literally and certainly too superficially. “Lord, look, here are two swords.” It is literally and morally a pitiful response against the true powers of evil, not to mention the sizeable guard that would soon overtake them. Jesus replies, “It is enough,” to be understood as “enough of this kind of talk.”
Luke describes Jesus as in total command of all that would happen to him. Recall the very purpose of Luke’s Gospel, in his dedication of the book to Theophilus in Luke 1:1-4. If, as we believe, Theophilus was a powerful and inquisitive man of good will, it was imperative that Luke present to him the narrative of Jesus’ appalling suffering and death as preordained in the plan of God and fully embraced by God’s Son. Luke is the only evangelist to record the miracle of the restoration of the servant’s severed ear, cut off by Peter during Jesus’ arrest. The miracle indicated that had he wished, Jesus could have escaped his captors. But rather, he embraced willingly and freely his suffering and death that God’s glory might be made eternally evident in the Resurrection.
St. John would later pick up on Luke’s theme; in his Gospel Jesus observes to his captors in the Garden that at his command legions of angels could come to his defense and save him from arrest if he sought to summon them.
Luke embraced his suffering with composure.
Mark’s account describes Jesus as going through considerable anguish from his multiple prayers in the Garden to his last moments on the cross--“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” By contrast, as Reid/Matthews record in Luke 10-24, “the Lukan Jesus comports himself with restraint. He makes no direct confession of emotional anguish. He prays only once for the cup to be taken away…after assuming the more formal posture of kneeling, rather than lying prostrate.” [p. 587]
As it turns out, scholars have come to see Luke’s description of Jesus “in the mold of a philosopher, facing his death in the manner of Socrates.” [p.587] Luke’s description of Jesus above the fray created problems in the early centuries, feeding the popular misconception that Jesus was not truly human. Again, modern scholars have come to accept that Luke 22: 43-44 is a later addition to the text; this is the famous “bloody sweat” passage, which is not consistent with the thrust of the entire Lukan Passion narrative.
Luke is the only evangelist to involve King Herod in Jesus’ trial.
Why the Lukan Gospel includes an appearance of Jesus before King Herod as part of his judicial processing is open to multiple conjectures. Reid/Matthews see the Herodian interlude as an example of “the narcissism and callous indifference that rulers who hold power of life and death over captives often display. Though the fact that Jesus has been interrogated by Pilate on charges of insurrection suggests that his life hangs in the balance, Herod shows no concern for Jesus’s precarity…Herod hopes for Jesus to perform a sign—a magician’s trick or some comparable amusement—to satisfy his curiosity.” [pp. 596-97] Given Herod’s lack of faith, Jesus does nothing. Reid/Matthews sees this text in the context of powerlessness—where government structures are corrupt, the poor and the powerless suffer.
There is another issue to consider here. Luke is writing a “universal Gospel.” His emphasis is upon Jesus as the savior of humankind, not just the Messiah of Israel. His target audience includes laypeople like Theophilus, presumably a Roman. It would do his purpose no good to heap all the blame for Jesus’s death on the Romans. Bringing Herod into the picture as a co-sentencer suggests to the reader that Jesus’s own people had abandoned him and found him worthy of death.
It is worth noting here that at the moment of Jesus’s death, a Roman centurion makes his faith in Jesus’s righteousness and innocence. [Luke 23:47]
Luke is the only evangelist to include Jesus’s forgiveness statements.
Anyone who ever attended a “Seven Last Words” service is familiar with these two passages found only in Luke’s Gospel. As Jesus is being nailed to the cross, he prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And later, in response to the thief’s imploring, Jesus tells him, “This day you will be with me in paradise.” The Paulist Biblical Commentary presents a very insightful commentary on these two forgiveness clauses. In the first instance, Jesus prays that his Father [not Jesus] will forgive his persecutors. The PBC states; “It is pastorally helpful in that it shows Jesus praying that the Father forgive his offenders [an attitude more imitable than direct forgiveness of enemies carrying out an unjust execution.”] [p. 1098] Reid/Matthews make a similar point when they address the issue of abuse victims and their perpetrators.
But several hours later, when the “good thief” seeks forgiveness, Jesus himself assures him that he will have it. What has changed? Jesus has completed his work and the new age of grace has begun. Again, from the PBC, “The reign of Christ the King begins in the ‘today’ of the resurrection. This fulfills the prophesy of Jesus’s statement during the inquest before the Sanhedrin: ‘From now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.’” [pp. 1098-1099]
Luke is the only evangelist to recount Jesus and the Weeping Women of Jerusalem on the way to Calvary.
The curious thing about Jesus’s intervention here is that these mourners are residents of Jerusalem, which is the key to understanding the passage. The city was filled with people for the Passover, but Jesus addresses this specific population. Recall that Luke is writing some years after the Fall of Jerusalem, an event he sees as the consequence of the failure of the holy city to recognize Jesus. Again, from the PBC, “In effect, Jesus is saying to the women, if the Romans readily perform this unjust crucifixion now, when things are relatively orderly and peaceful [when the wood is green], what will happen in the days of war that will surely come [when the wood is dry]—as actually happened in the years leading up to the destruction of 70 C.E.” [p. 1098]
I have barely scratched the surface of Luke’s Passion narrative, but I think I have made the case that the early Church intended for us to read each Gospel carefully, remembering that Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John each bring a distinctive vision and narrative of the meaning of Jesus to the life of the Church. If you read your bible—and especially if you teach the Bible—do not throw the four Gospels into a blender! They are meant to be savored individually like fine wine.
Last Sunday’s Gospel [March 26-27] of the “Prodigal Son” in Luke 15 is the third parable in Chapter 15, a series of scenarios involving the dynamic of losing and finding. The famous Prodigal Son forgiveness narrative we heard proclaimed at Mass last weekend follows the parable of the man losing a sheep and leaving his herd to find the lost one; and then the woman who lost one of her ten coins and who “lights a lamp and sweeps the house, searching carefully until she finds it.” Barbara Reid and Shelly Matthews in Luke 10-24 clustered these three Lukan parables under a chapter heading, “Losing, Finding, Rejoicing.” These two scholars use another set of pithy chapter headings for the parables in Luke 14, “Who is Coming to Dinner?” and in Luke 16, “Rich Men and Their Money.”
For readers who are interested in the nature and purpose of parables, I am pleased to see that the venerable scholar Gerhard Lofink has written The Forty Parables of Jesus, released in July 2021. Luke is the king of the parable genre, though he did not invent it. The parables are believed to be an independent source—written and/or oral—that was accessible to Luke and Matthew but not to Mark, the first author. John, author of the last Gospel, does not employ the form. Luke records more parables than Matthew, including eighteen unique parables that include the Good Samaritan, the Lost Sheep, and this week’s Prodigal Son.
Parables are one of the most intriguing literary forms in the Gospels. It is important that we do not reflect upon them simply for moral nuggets, though there are certainly moral overtones in many of them. But the common denominator of all parables is mystery; we fool ourselves if we believe we have exhausted “the meaning” of any parable—whether they are the short ones or the long ones. One analogy for a parable is a magnificent work of art which take us to new planes of logic and existence. In a few weeks I hope to visit the Basilica of The Holy Family in Barcelona, Spain, as well as St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice [on a May European study sabbatical through the auspices of the “University of Royal Caribbean.”] Can words alone express the visceral and spiritual experience of being, let alone worshipping, in these aesthetic environs? Or the writings of Homer and Shakespeare?
So it is with parables. It is important to quickly dispose of the minimalist definition of a parable, i.e., that it is a moral maxim on a par with Aesop’s Fables or Poor Richard’s Almanac. It is true that there are moral impulses to be cherished, but as often happens, we are in such a rush to extract the ethical point that we overlook the full mystery of the piece. One of my favorite parables—it never fails to spark a decent meditation—is this one: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed which a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the biggest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air can come and shelter in its branches.” [Matthew 13: 31-32] One can address this tiny parable in its parts—the kingdom of heaven, a mustard seed, an unknown planter, a remarkable growth spurt from seed to shrub to tree, the birds taking shelter in its branches. How—and when—is the kingdom of God like this? To what level of spiritual consciousness is Jesus taking us? In what way does this little vignette foretell the final glory of the Kingdom at the end of time?
In the case of parables, the mystery of the telling takes us to the heart of the Kingdom of God and points to the end of time. There is a particular kind of openness necessary to enter a parable beyond its face value. Luke 15, and specifically the parable of the Prodigal Son, is delivered after Jesus has “set his face for Jerusalem” for one last prophetic encounter with the enemies of God’s kingdom on earth. As he progresses toward his death, he puts forward the mysterious nature of the Kingdom for which he is about to die in a string of captivating stories. Given the placement of parables in Luke’s timetable, Jesus is attempting to explain the Kingdom of God for which he will soon die. If his listeners cannot at least open themselves to a logic or imagination beyond the strictly rational, they will be utterly scandalized and demoralized by the rapidly approaching terror of Calvary.
Which brings us to the dynamics of last Sunday’s Gospel. The “default sermon” of most churches and preachers is the forgiveness line. The young son seeks it, the father more than generously bestows it, and the other son is angry and alienated. And we in the pews are exhorted to be merciful like the father, who in this analysis is a surrogate for God the Father.
But does this exalt the mystery of the parable? Is it even a correct rendering of the parable? Luke states that the younger son asks for his share of the property, that in the law and custom of the time would have amounted to one-third of the full value of the estate, in land and livestock, allowing the father and other son to retain their two-thirds holdings. The Paulist Biblical Commentary faults the son for “tackiness” as much as anything, asking for his inheritance before the old man is cold. But the father divides the land between them without comment.
Next, the younger son left—having converted his share into liquid holdings—and goes to a distant country where “he squandered his property in dissolute living.” I checked a sizable number of commentaries on-line and at my bookcase, and none elaborates on the word “dissolute;” The assumption seems to be that he spent his money on sin, but the Scripture does not specify that. There are many ways to spend money that one might call dissolute—ill-advised stock investing, flying first class from Orlando to Tampa, Trump University—that do not attain the level of moral turpitude, just bad judgment. Today fathers give sons a financial boost early in life—as the father in the story does--to attend Harvard or Notre Dame. If the son fritters away his educational opportunity, that is a grave mistake, but again, not outright evil.
We do not know how the youth got into a financial fix, and he had nothing to do with causing the regional famine. As a foreigner he took the initiative to hire himself out to a citizen to feed himself by feeding pigs. He made a cool, rational determination that he would not starve if he worked for his father’s estate in the same capacity, and the Gospel quotes him as satisfied to return as a farmhand with no sonship claim on the healthy operation of his father’s estate. A kid grows up. Nothing to see here.
It came as a bit of a shock to me to discover that on occasion I do interpret life through the eyes of a feminist theologian, for in reflection on this parable I came to see the younger son as a “throwaway person.” In the story’s narrative, the younger son serves a purpose and then virtually disappears to the wings so that the listener can shift attention to the main protagonists who possess both the power and the major moral dilemmas in the piece. Even as an imaginary figure, it is sad to think of this youth’s miscalculation proclaimed from thousands of pulpits as a sin against heaven requiring an extraordinary outpouring of mercy from a father who, for centuries, has taken on the role of the God the Father figure in the parable’s retelling. But, as my friend Lee Corso would say, “not so fast, my friend.”
The younger son disappears in 15:22 and the story turns to the two senior members of this family, the father and the older son. This elder offspring is a psychological enigma. There is nothing that would have stopped this older son from cashing in his inheritance and striking out on his own except, perhaps, his insecurity. Clearly, he is not happy in his father’s house. “All these years I have been working like a slave for you…” is how the elder son describes his “cheerful” home life. Luke is not careless about his words. “Slave” is an extraordinarily strong adjective in the context of father and son. It is also intriguing to hear the older son’s imaginings about his younger brother’s life off the farm. It is the older son who introduces the term “prostitutes” late in the narrative; one wonders if we are seeing a “cold celibate” for whom love of any sort is a distant hope at best. [For best supporting actor, my vote goes to the slave who briefs the laboring older son: “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has him back safe and sound.” Turn the knife.]
Then there is the father, and the pastoral “default” in sermons and religious education classes is to identify him as a divine template. I must agree, though, with theologian Ann-Jill Levine who “sees the owner, the woman, and the father [in the three sequential “lost and found” parables] as having been responsible for losing their sheep, coin, and son, thus compromising the reading of the protagonists in the parables as metaphors for God.” [Luke 10-24, p. 446]
There is no indication in Luke’s text that the father attempted to dissuade his young son from the latter’s course of action. Jewish custom would have supported the father if he demurred such a request. Was he an overly indulgent father? And if he was, did his indulgence go out only to a younger, favored son? The older son noted that “you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” The literary contrast between the fatted calf and a young goat is striking.
The language of the parable strongly suggests that the father was always hoping and watching for the return of the young son. “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion….” For all of that, he seemed indifferent or unaware of his older son’s anger and pain. And despite his valiant eleventh-hour effort to unite his family, there is the nagging sense that something has not been right in this family’s dynamic. Luke does not tell us if this “intervention” has legs—will the younger son continue to be the celebrated one, will he again discover his taste for wanderlust? Will the elder son discover his own capacity to forgive, not just his brother, but more importantly his father, who seems to have taken the faithful son for granted? Will the father grow in wisdom in his vocation of fatherhood?
As in all parables, there is a future oriented sense of mystery. Given Luke’s placement of the story of the Prodigal Son, during Jesus’ final journey to die for the Kingdom of God, it may be that this parable gives us a glimpse of what the Kingdom will deliver us from—the chronic alienation of humanity, even in blood families. It is an interesting point that when Luke records Jesus’ genealogy in Luke 3: 13-28, he carries his lineage back to Adam, the father of Cain and Abel. [Matthew’s genealogy begins with Abraham.] Jesus, in Lukan theology, is a universal savior sent to save us from universal sin. As if to reinforce this point, Luke describes the post-Pentecost Church in Jerusalem in Acts 4 in this fashion: “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.”
Back in the Advent Season I read the Wisdom Commentary treatment of “The Infancy Narrative” of the birth of Jesus. Wisdom’s Luke 1-9, like all the biblical commentaries in the Wisdom series, is the product of a team of women professional Biblical scholars, in this case Sister Barbara Reid, O.P., whose doctoral degree was awarded by my alma mater, The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., and Dr. Shelly Matthews, who holds a Th.D. from Harvard Divinity School. Both are actively teaching and researching as of this writing. They represent the growing number of professional women theological scholars in today’s Church; there are over 300 alone cited in the commentary Luke 1-9.
Scripture study, with a few exceptions, has been a man’s field in Western Christianity since its modern revival in the late 1700’s. In the United States, as a rule, no woman was even accepted for graduate studies in Catholic theology until after World War II. See two fine essays from a 2012 series from US Catholic, “How the Door Was Opened for Catholic Women Theologians” and “What Women Theologians Have Done for the Church.” In the introduction to Luke 1-9, the authors write that “in bringing feminist lenses to this approach [to modern Biblical study], the aim is not to impose modern expectations on ancient cultures but to unmask the ways that ideologically problematic mind-sets that produced the ancient texts are still promulgated through the text.” [p. xxxi] Put another way, Scripture study must include analysis and critique of male dominance at the time of composition and reassess male supremacy’s distortions of Revelation in the Scripture, Old and New Testaments.
It is hardly a secret that women did not fare well in many Hebrew texts: Deuteronomy 22: 23-24; Deuteronomy 22:13-21: Judges 11: 34-40; and the infamous story of Lot’s poor daughters in Genesis 19: 7ff. “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” Irony of ironies, Lot was attempting to forestall homosexual rape of his two male houseguests by offering up his daughters, who presumably had no say in the decision.
Twentieth century feminine scholarship on sexism in the Bible follows upon the heels of the Vatican’s teaching regarding antisemitic overtones of several New Testament texts which have been employed—and sadly still employed by some religious/political extremists—to justify hatred of the Jews on the grounds that they are “Christ-killers.” Most infamous is the trial scene from Matthew 27:25, “And all the people answering said, "His blood be on us, and on our children." For a full explanation of the Church’s corrective of New Testament texts, see this essay from America Magazine, “The Bible, the Passion, and the Jews,” February 16, 2004. God’s revelation is pure; its accurate deciphering is a sacred duty of the Church.
In this spirit present day biblical scholarship examines the treatment of women in the Bible, and in our post here, the role of Mary on this observance of the Feast of the Annunciation. Luke’s Gospel is the only New Testament text to describe Mary’s interaction with the Angel Gabriel. In Matthew 1: 18-25 we get a masculinized Annunciation, as the angel appears to Joseph and delivers a full explanation only to him. Mark and John have no accounts of Christ’s birth, beginning their Gospels in Jesus’ adulthood.
In Luke’s account, the Angel’s first revelation comes to Zechariah, married to Elizabeth, and then to Mary, the future mother of Jesus. [Luke 1: 5-38]. Despite their righteousness and blameless living, Zechariah and Elizabeth are childless. Luke states that Elizabeth was barren; in biblical times the inability to conceive fell to the woman’s provenance, though modern science has discredited this one-sided medical analysis. Gabriel’s visits to Zechariah and Mary follow the same formula: a greeting, an announcement of how God’s will be fulfilled in each, a question from the recipient of the message, and an answer and closing summary by the Angel.
In the first instance, the Angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah as he offers sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple. “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah seems to overlook the immensity of the honor and the importance of what he is hearing, for after this momentous proclamation from Gabriel, the senior priest points out the biological impossibility of conceiving a son due to the couple’s advanced age and previous childlessness. Gabriel is not pleased with Zechariah’s skepticism. “And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” Luke notes that Elizabeth, upon hearing of Gabriel’s message second hand [a miracle in itself considering her husband’s speechlessness] is overjoyed and expresses no reservations. Quite the contrary. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
Even serious scholarship has its humorous moments, and I note here the observation of biblical scholar Brittany E. Wilson, who comments: “Zechariah’s silence opens up space for both Elizabeth and Mary to speak” in Luke’s narrative. [p. 11] Whether Wilson intended to be funny or not, it is true that after Zechariah’s speech is restored at the circumcision and naming of his son, the future John the Baptist, we hear next to nothing from Elizabeth or Mary hereafter in this Gospel.
As the narrative progresses, Gabriel next appears to “a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the House of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” The authors of Luke 1-9 make a critical point here: “Many Christians see in this scene a Mary who is a docile, sweet, compliant servant, totally submissive to God’s will, and therefore a model for women to emulate. [Dr. Reid] stands among many feminist scholars who have argued, instead, that Mary is a strong woman who has a direct encounter with God, who does not hesitate to question, and who does not need the mediation to accomplish God’s purposes.” [p. 15] The authors go on to contend that Luke has depicted Mary as a prophet in the Biblical sense of the term.
Luke’s Annunciation narrative is as theologically complex as any text in the Bible. He is providing the Church—already half a century old when he wrote in around 80 A.D.—with its first systematic way of thinking about the Incarnation, God become man. It was important for him to describe Mary as a virgin, to eliminate any possible doubt that her child was fathered by anyone else besides God. Any doubt on this point effectively negates the basic Christian tenet that “God became man.” At the same time, Luke must respect the autonomy and free will of Mary, given that God has granted free will to all humans. To suggest that Mary was “programmed” diminishes the dignity of human free will in the critical moment when a human freely accepts the intervention of God into her life. It is the undoing of the first misuse of free will, Adam in the garden.
We have heard the Annunciation narrative countless times in our churches over the years, Gabriel’s joyful address to Mary. What is curious is why Gabriel took no umbrage when Mary replied, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ Zechariah had asked Gabriel in effect, “How can this be? We are old and my wife is barren.” For his hesitation, he was struck dumb. In Mary’s case, however, the stakes are incredibly higher. Her question allows Luke to assure the reader that her child is truly God’s son. But it also gives Luke/Gabriel an entrée to deliver another eternal truth: Mary’s child would be conceived of the Holy Spirit—the same Spirit who overshadowed Jesus at his baptism and which overshadowed the infant church on Pentecost. Luke’s Gospel and its continuation, The Acts of the Apostles, explains the nature of the Church and from whence it draws its saving power, i.e., through the living Holy Spirit.
Reid/Matthews, in their commentary, point out that most English translation bibles have softened, so to speak, Luke’s terminology for Mary’s obeisance. Many major translations render Mary’s response to Gabriel as “I am the handmaid of the Lord.” Others use the phrase “servant of the Lord” or “maidservant.” None of these correctly renders the Greek doulos as “slave,” in the hard sense of that term. The authors correctly point to a Lucan textual inconsistency: did Mary have to become a literal slave to accept a prophetic mission in which she proclaims liberation from powers that dominate, as she does so eloquently in the Magnificat [Luke 1: 46-55] [p. 33] What I sense in their commentary is a concern to preach and teach the life of Mary in a fashion that does not in any way imply unhealthy subservience to male domination or unjust societal structure which oppress women.
If anything, Luke’s depiction of Mary in what we call “the Infancy Narrative” is that of a very strong woman, and it is a misuse of this Gospel to interpret it as a catechism on “the proper place of a woman” in a pejorative and demeaning fashion. Although I am getting ahead of things, I need to quickly address Luke’s description of Mary after the visit of the shepherds [many of whom were women] in Bethlehem. Luke writes that Mary “pondered these things in her heart.” The Greek word suneterei, usually translated in English bibles as ponder, has multiple meanings, including these: “to preserve against harm or ruin, to protect, defend” and “to keep in mind, to be concerned about.” Reid/Matthews write: “Mary’s action is not the least passive. Like the shepherds who keep watch, Mary guards all that has occurred, putting things together, connecting, and interpreting. Like a feminist theologian, she continually interprets what God is doing in her life and that of her family and her people.” [p.82]
I have barely scratched the surface of Luke 1-9’s remarkable commentary on Mary. What is clear is that the new generations of women theologians are opening or rediscovering rich avenues of appreciation in every branch of Catholic theology, including Mariology
I am embarrassed to be late with today’s post, as I wanted to talk about the event described in last Sunday’s Gospel [Second Sunday of Lent, March 12-13], the “Transfiguration of Jesus” on the mountaintop, particularly with an eye toward the interpretations offered by the feminist theologians in Luke 1-9. However, Reid and Matthews are in general agreement with their male counterparts on the richness and interpretations of this text, which is strategically placed in Chapter 9. The Transfiguration or “changing” of Jesus on the mountaintop in the presence of the three disciples is one of the special narratives that appears in some form in the three synoptic Gospels [and possibly in the Epistle 2 Peter 1: 16-18]. When a text or event is mentioned uniformly across the Gospels and the other New Testament writings, it is said to meet a high score of historical probability under the principle of “multiple attestation.”
However, the best we can say with historical certainty is that a mystical event took place. The Gospels describe the Transfiguration in different ways and with different people, in different narrative sequences, and with different impacts. Reid/Matthews categorize how scholars have tried to account for what might have happened, and I will quote them in ascending order of probability.
Third, and least probable, “Some others think it was not a supernatural experience but an experience of a mountaintop sunrise illuminating Jesus or a night storm with lightning and thunder that that the disciples interpret as a divine manifestation.” [p. 287] This is not as offbeat as it seems. Jesus revealed his power over nature when he calmed a storm and saved the fearful disciples. John’s Gospel [John 12: 28-29] has this account in a different setting shortly before the Last Supper: Jesus exclaims before the crowds, “Father, glorify Your name!” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it had thundered. Others said that an angel had spoken to Him. In response, Jesus said, “This voice was not for My benefit, but yours.…” John may be citing the historical tradition in a different place for somewhat different purposes, but there are significant differences, too, in the Johannine account.
The second possibility—and this was taught to me in the early 1970’s—is that this Gospel text from Luke actually describes an event after the Resurrection, when Jesus had risen from the dead and the disciples were in a considerable state of confusion and even despair. [p. 287] Consider the sad state of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus on Easter Sunday, which only Luke describes, where Jesus is changed and not recognized till the bread is broken at dinner. And then there is this to consider: if the three disciples actually beheld the changing of Jesus, the presence of Moses and Elijah, the enveloping cloud, and the very voice of God affirming his beloved Son, during the active ministry of Jesus, how does this square with the disastrous performance of these three men—notably Peter—at the events following the Last Supper of a few months later, when all the disciples abandoned Jesus? But hold the thought until we have looked at the first one.
The first option is actually the “default sermon” of many preachers, and I heard it many times as a youth. In fact, Luke’s narrative of the Transfiguration was read every Second Sunday of Lent at least as far back as 1570 when Pope Pius V reformed the Roman Missal after the Council of Trent. Pastorally speaking, when the faithful of the Church were encouraged to observe a strict fast and abstinence, this reading from Luke 9 served as something of a morale boost, a taste of the glory that was to come if we remained faithful to carrying our cross. [Alas, in my church this weekend the diocese was observing “safe havens from pornography.” At my Mass, that was filtered down in the sermon to “Nowadays we have the internet. People sin on the internet. If you sin on the internet, you need to go to confession.” I am not lying.]
The traditional Lenten placement of Luke’s Transfiguration narrative is probably not too far from what Luke had in mind. Chapter 9 of his Gospel is very pivotal in his full narrative. Consider everything that transpires in this chapter:
Luke 9: 1-17 The Mission of the Twelve
Luke 9: 7 Herod is “perplexed” about Jesus, recalls fate of John the Baptist
Luke 9:10 “Apostles” return full of joy over their first missionary venture
Luke 9: 12-17 Jesus feeds the five thousand miraculously
Luke 9: 18-27 Peter’s Confession and the Nature of Discipleship
Luke 9: 18-21 Peter confesses “You are the Messiah of God”
Luke 9: 21-22 Jesus predicts his suffering and death in Jerusalem
Luke 9: 23-27 Jesus states that his chosen must take up their cross daily if they are to save their lives as his faithful ones.
Luke 9: 28-36 The Transfiguration of Jesus
Luke 9: 37-50 The Misunderstanding of the Disciples
Disciples fail at exorcism attempt, argue about who is greatest among them.
Luke 9: 51-62 Jesus’ Departure for Jerusalem. He “sets his face” for Jerusalem and final showdown with Jewish authorities.
If you study this outline long enough, you may conclude the event of the Transfiguration could be removed and the narrative of Chapter 9 would still have a logical flow, perhaps even a more coherent one. For Luke has encapsulated the rocky road of Jesus’ mission and the formation of his followers. Having sent his newly named “apostles” [messengers] on their first missionary journey, they return flushed with victory. They have worked signs, but they have not yet asked anyone to take up a cross and die. They do not yet grasp the full cost of discipleship. While they are on the road winning superficial victories, Jesus learns that he is now under Herod’s scrutiny and may face a similar fate to the Baptist’s imprisonment and beheading.
Jesus must now begin the harder work of explaining “the cost of discipleship,” and it will be high. Peter confesses that Jesus is “the Messiah of God,” but without the connection to the Prophet Isaiah and “The Suffering Servant” motif. It is after Peter’s confession that Jesus predicts his own death, as if to explain to Peter that the cross is the destiny of both the Messiah and his followers. Interestingly, Luke is the first evangelist to use the adjective daily in the context of the cross, as in “take up your cross daily” and follow me.” Writing around 80 A.D. when the Church was taking on a universal setting, Luke had to render the call of Jesus as an acute challenge to those who were not undergoing immediate persecution; Mark’s earlier Gospel had simply exhorted disciples to take up the cross, period.
It is in this context that Luke inserts the Transfiguration. I encourage you to reflect upon it again even if you attended Mass this past weekend. Some things to note: Jesus ascends the mountain to pray, not to orchestrate a mystical event. Jesus prays at several major moments of decision in Luke’s Gospel. He is at prayer in the Jordan River when the Holy Spirit descends upon him; he prays deeply in the Garden of Olives before his arrest and crucifixion. The disciples, by contrast, sleep. The word “sleep” in the Scripture sometimes carries the connotation of “asleep at the switch;” this was certainly true of the Apostles on Holy Thursday night, for example.
Luke emphasizes sight: the appearance of Jesus’ face is changed, his clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear “in glory” and talk to Jesus “about his departure,” i.e., his plan to leave for Jerusalem and his final confrontation with his enemies in the Temple. Luke makes a point to tell his readers that the three disciples “saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.” But seeing is not necessarily understanding. For as Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were discussing the necessity of the final journey to Jerusalem and its urgency, Peter proposes the construction of three “dwellings” presumably to preserve the joyous intensity of the moment. But there is work to be done, a mission to be fulfilled, and the endorsement of the Father to be conferred. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” This is the second time that the Father has embraced his Son so dramatically; the first was Jesus’ Baptism.
It is disconcerting that after such a powerful experience, the disciples and his followers become embroiled in embarrassing missteps. The crowds want more miracles. The disciples are jockeying for position. They jealously call out another man expelling demons in Jesus’ name, perhaps stealing something of their own thunder. They do not hear a second warning from Jesus that he must go up to Jerusalem “and be delivered into human hands.” We are reminded of last weekend’s Gospel where Jesus rebukes the devil three times. Luke’s text adds the ominous indication that after this desert encounter, the devil left him “for a time.” Now the devil—the power of evil—is digging in for a pitched battle. For Jesus, there is no more time for the victorious skirmishes in the countryside. The time has come to carry to battle to Jerusalem, and there to render the one eternal sign for all time, the sacrifice of himself on the cross and his Father’s loving intervention on Easter.
I have been reading the Wisdom Commentary series volume on St. Luke’s Gospel during this Year C of the Liturgical Cycle. The Wisdom Commentary series is the first scholarly collaboration to offer detailed feminist interpretation of every book of the Bible. This is an extraordinary undertaking and financial commitment by a Catholic publisher, and from what I have seen so far, the text I am reading combines a good translation of Luke, a clear commentary/explanation of the text, the meaty kinds of footnotes that tantalize novices and experts alike, and literary inserts from artists, philosophers, saints, ad other sources which enhance the explanation of the text.
By happy fault I have reached the Fourth Chapter of Luke’s Gospel, and specifically the Temptation narrative of Jesus in the desert, which will be proclaimed in our churches this coming Sunday, the First Sunday of Lent. Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert or a wilderness place. The term “desert” is rich in Biblical symbolism, and the presence of Jesus in the desert embodies multiple meanings. The most obvious is the forty years of wilderness endured by the Israelites which served to purge them of their past and prepare them for their future. Did Jesus need an exile in the desert to “find himself?”
Recall that the previous Chapter 3 in this Gospel had described Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan where the Holy Spirit “descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” and the Father’s voice from heaven identifies Jesus’ identity to himself, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” [Luke 3: 21-22] Biblical and Christological scholars identify the historical baptismal moment as symbolic of Jesus coming to full awareness of his ministry through this intervention of the Spirit and this “affiliation proclamation” by the Father. It is on the heels of this powerful revelation that the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert, that place of hard discernment and awakening, to put forward the full implications of being the Son of God.
The desert is also a symbol of the great cosmic battle of good and evil to be played out at the end of time. Jewish Apocalyptic literature is rich in this metaphor, and it survived into Christian life as the image of the armies of Michael the Archangel and Lucifer fighting for dominance at the end of time. So, it is not surprising that all four Gospel writers depict the meeting of Jesus and the devil in the desert context, given that after his desert sojourn Jesus will expel demons and announce the triumphant coming of the reign of God. But the battle will not be easy, noy in the desert and not in the ministry.
In the waters of the Jordan, the Father had declared that Jesus is his Son. By contrast, the devil’s first volley reads: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” This is the first of three temptations in which the devil challenges Jesus to abandon the integrity of his ministry. The Wisdom Commentary puts them thus:  temptation to self-interest and expedience;  temptation of power and glory gained by false worship;  temptation of invulnerability, self-importance, and entitlement. [pp. 118-119]
I can say from personal experience that the Temptation narrative is a bear for preachers. Over the years most preachers of my experience—and me, on my bad days years ago—resort to the fallback message of “don’t fall for the wiles of the devil.” This approach loses the distinctiveness of each of the Temptations as well as the theological richness of what St. Luke is trying to do with an imagery that is truly startling. I am always surprised that when this Gospel is read at Mass there is never much affect of surprise in the building, either from the celebrant or deacon or from the congregation. But here we have the devil beginning a series of temptations, only one which takes place in the desert. St. Luke’s narrative goes on to tell us that the devil transports Jesus to a point where all the kingdoms of the world are visible! We are now entering Elon Musk territory. And then, the devil brings Jesus to the pinnacle or highest place in the Temple of Jerusalem. Let your imagination take you on this incomprehensible sequence.
Geography is our friend here in getting some insight into each of these temptations. The desert is the land of scorpions and cobras; there are no fruit trees or wheat fields. I appreciate this reading much better since my trip last summer to Zion and Arches National Parks in the desert of southern Utah. St. Luke records that after forty days in this environment Jesus was “famished.” The devil’s first temptation makes sense in a way— “Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” True, the Gospel records Jesus’ working miraculous deeds, but only as a manifestation of the Kingdom of God. Jesus did not abuse his power for his own convenience, or what the Wisdom Commentary calls “temptations to self-interest and expedience.” [p. 118]
The second Temptation, as narrated by St. Luke, loses something in the English translation. As The Paulist Biblical Commentary observes, “It gets lost in translation, between Matthew’s word for world [Greek, kosmos] and Luke’s [oikoumenē]. This is significant. Luke almost always uses oikoumenē in an imperial context…Luke is referring to the Roman Empire, not to the entire population of the earth…This fits a vision of history seeing the kingdom of Satan, embodied especially in the Roman Empire, now challenged by the emergent manifestation of the kingdom of “empire” of God being inaugurated by Jesus. [The Paulist Biblical Commentary, pp. 1046-47] This second Temptation, referred to as an invitation to “power and glory gained by false worship” [WC, p. 119] is the devil’s way of saying that Jesus’ life would be much more rewarding were he to venerate the status quo of the Roman Empire rather than tackle it head on with his liberating message of the Good News.
The third Temptation, that Jesus throw himself off the highest point of the Temple, is a call to test the power of God. There are multiple examples in all the Gospels where signs are demanded of Jesus to “prove” his divine calling and his legitimacy as God’s Son. In St. Luke’s Passion Narrative, Pilate sends Jesus to Herod, who was happy to see him and hopeful that Jesus might work miracles in his presence. Recall Herod’s lyrics in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar: “Prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool.” The “proof” of Jesus’ legitimacy is his absolute trust in his Father which he would never abuse as a substitute for faith. Miracles only serve faith. Again, the ministry of Jesus would have been much easier if he had called upon his Father to smooth out every risk and rescue him from the ardors of his identity as the Suffering Servant.
The theme which runs through the Temptation narrative is power, its use and abuse. What is the catechetical and homiletic stance for this Gospel vis-à-vis those without power, those who are abused? Feminist sociologists and theologians have been reflecting upon and debating this question for going on a century. In a 1960 essay in the Journal of Religion, Valerie Saiving Goldstein famously wrote: “The temptations of women as women are not the same as the temptations of man as man, and the specific feminine forms of sin—“feminine” not because they are confined to women or women are incapable of sinning in other ways…but because they are outgrowths of the basic feminine character—have a quality which can never be expressed by such terms as “pride” and “will to power.” [cit. pp. 119-120]
The Wisdom Commentary authors Reid/Matthews caution against gross simplification—feminist theology has diversified and intensified since the mid-twentieth century. All the same, Gospel narratives such as the Temptations of Christ are male dialogues which discuss moral issues of men who enjoy much more power in the worldwide quilt of cultures. Reid/Matthews cite the example of the devil’s command that Jesus change a stone into nourishing bread to feed his “famished” self. The authors states that “this would not be as strong a temptation for many women, especially those from cultures where feeding others is considered their prime responsibility. A greater temptation would be to neglect their own selves as they ensure that everyone else is fed. For women with scarce resources, this means giving the best portions of food to their husband and children while taking only scraps for themselves.” [p. 120]
Commenting on the second Temptation, Reid/Matthews argue that “the will to power tends to be a stronger temptation for men than for most women. A more prevalent shortcoming for women is failure to claim and exercise our power or unwillingness to challenge the systems that limit our power. Another temptation for some women is to regard power as a bad thing, something we shouldn’t try to grab, rather than see it as collaborative energy to accomplish good.” [p. 121]
Following this stream of thought, the Wisdom Commentary authors offer this analysis of the third Temptation. “The temptation to consider oneself invulnerable, self-important, or entitled to special protection takes on a different contour for most women and other members of minoritized communities…Women who are socialized always to put men’s needs and aims before their own rarely are tempted to self-importance, just the opposite. And those who live with a batterer or who struggle daily against poverty know how very vulnerable they are and would not be tempted to think otherwise.” [p. 124]
I stated earlier that preaching and catechizing the Temptations of Christ is a bear. Indeed, the true challenge comes into focus when we realize the extraordinarily strong possibility that the sinful challenges of Satan and the responses of Jesus as recorded by St. Luke take place not just in extraordinary settings, but in a male world, the Roman Empire male world at that. Given that only males in sacred orders are empowered to preach, particularly at the weekly gathering of the Catholic family on Sunday, we find ourselves in a situation where an uncritical or superficial reading of Gospel texts is profoundly lopsided. The preacher faces the challenge of unpacking the Word of God in its linguistic and cultural setting [then and today] to penetrate the full meaning of Jesus’ teaching at this instant in history. This is demanding work, and it assumes, among other things, an openness to the fresh thinking of a growing generation of women academics in our schools of theology [and, most of all, in our seminaries.]
The frequent practice, as I alluded to earlier, is for the preacher to default to a safe and familiar ground—something like “resist the devil” and “do good.” Warmed over apple pie from mom that does injustice to the fullness of Revelation and the theological genius of the Spirit-guided pen of the evangelist Luke. The greatest temptation for all of us this weekend is to run from the task, throw up our hands in the face of such genius, and, to cite another Gospel text, “walk away sad.”
Surprises are not always good things, but in the case of the Wisdom Commentary series entry, Luke 1-9, I found myself intrigued, inspired, and informed by a Gospel commentary written from a balanced, researched, and affective feminist perspective. I chose this commentary on Luke for my “Year C” Scripture reading, i.e., corresponding to the proclamation of Luke’s Gospel at all the Sunday Masses of 2022. The Wisdom Commentary series is a story unto itself, something of a gamble undertaken by the venerable Liturgical Press of Collegeville, Minnesota, the Benedictine publishing ministry which dates back at least as far as the 1920’s. As the General Editor Sister Barbara E. Reid, O.P., writes in this volume’s introduction, “Wisdom Commentary is the first series to offer detailed feminist interpretation of every book in the Bible.” [p. xxi]
On the practical side of matters, The Wisdom Commentary series is a massive financial commitment. Liturgical Press has committed to producing hardcover texts and commentaries of all seventy-two books of the Catholic Canon of the Bible. In some cases, individual biblical books will be multi-volume, as in the case here with St. Luke, the first volume covering chapters 1-9. Throw in the compensation to the authors and the time and resources involved in analysis of biblical texts, and it is easy to see that this project runs to the cost of millions of dollars. In part, this is reflected in the retail cost of the volumes. The texts are expensive. The publisher’s price for my Lukan commentary is listed at $50. Amazon’s price is presently $33, which is where I purchased mine. The book is also available on Kindle at $19, but I recommend the hard copies so that the reader can annotate and highlight for future reference. The Wisdom series is intended as a permanent reference for an adult Catholic’s library. [I get tired of saying it, but parishes need to offer its members multiple reminders and opportunities to fund the books, resources, courses, and workshops for their catechists and other ministers, and to provide libraries and other forms of access for adult Catholics wishing to pursue greater spiritual, biblical, and theological maturity.]
It is remarkable to see a Catholic publisher undertake a financial risk in today’s environment. But what is even more remarkable to me is the groundbreaking challenge of producing a full biblical commentary by noted feminist biblical scholars around the world. I would guess that in certain Church circles there is a certain shock value attached to the idea of studying the scriptures from a feminist perspective, as if that is somehow heretical or modernist. But one of the things a student of theology learns very quickly in the first year is that the formulation and interpretation of Scripture and doctrine are always the product of a perspective—a time, a culture, a mindset, an ethnicity.
God’s Word is unchanging and infinite. The variable is the ability of human comprehension. None of us is immune to the strengths and weaknesses of our cultural and religious outlook. The earliest Christians believed that the Second Coming was imminent, an event they would witness in their lifetime. St. Luke, by contrast, understood Christianity as a long-term community of faith. In the fourth century, when confusion about the nature of Jesus was rampant, the Council of Nicaea [325 A.D.] borrowed heavily from Greek Platonic philosophy to create the language we still use in our Nicene Creed at Mass, “consubstantial with the Father.” Time impacts our understanding of Jesus’ life and works.
The grandparent of all perspectives is sexual. No one can deny that the Scriptures are the product of male culture; and, to tread out the worn but accurate maxim, “the victors write the history.” One cannot fault the authors of the original biblical texts; they composed sacred revelation as they understood it in the prism of their times. What is less excusable is the absence of self-examination over time. Plato observed that “an unexamined life is not worth living,” and the principle is true even in matters of divine revelation. Put another way, are we constantly undertaking critical analysis of the way we understand Scripture to make sure we have not become prisoners of habit, or worse, of an interpretation of Scripture that protects the status quo, to the advantage of some versus the disadvantage of others?
It is a most pleasant surprise, then, to discover that since Vatican II a greater number of women are entering the field of Biblical research and bringing to their work a wholesome confidence of their place in the unending quest to unpack the riches of the Sacred Word. In reading Luke 1-9 I was floored by the number of women cited in the extensive bibliography [pp. 297-339] I decided to count the number of women scholars sourced for this text, and the number was 317! We are talking here about published and peer-reviewed experts in the field of Sacred Scripture. I get the impression that the future of Biblical study will be significantly enhanced by the growing presence of women scholars.
As I noted above, some people are a little squeamish about the adjective “feminine” when it is appended to matters religious. But we have lived with masculine bias for two millennia, to the point that we even refer to the Deity as “He.” An honest question that must be faced is whether the cultural dominance of the masculine experience has poisoned the well of all things religious. Is it possible, for example, that Christianity has coopted the male gender of Jesus as a template for male dominance in the Church or, for that matter, in marriage or in the workplace?
The Wisdom Commentary series, including my current read, Luke 1-9, adopts an approach to the Scriptures that builds upon the best of the Christian tradition of scholarship while introducing new insights into texts drawn from the personal experience of womanhood and texts and translations that have gotten lost in the shuffle. I will comment further on the style of this commentary in a following text, but one particularly good example will suffice. In Luke 2:19 the evangelist records that Mary, after the birth of Jesus and the reverencing by the shepherds, ‘treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” The authors Reed/Matthews note that “the word suneterei, rendered ‘treasured’ in the New Revised Standard Version [of the Bible], means more than simply storing something away. It has the nuance ‘to preserve against harm or ruin, to protect, defend’ and ‘to keep in mind, to be concerned about.’ Mary’s action is not the least passive. Like the shepherds who keep watch [2:8] …Mary guards all that has occurred, putting things together, connecting, and interpreting. Like a feminist theologian, she continually interprets what God is doing in her life and that of her family and her people.” [pp. 81-82] “The whole of the Lukan narrative is framed by women who keep the word, pondering, remembering, connecting, interpreting, and announcing it.” [p. 83]
I have been reading and reflecting upon this book for about six weeks. I am up to Chapter 3, the Baptism of Jesus, appropriate enough for the current liturgical calendar. I am pleased with the commentary, but more than that, there is an atmosphere of spirituality that, as a man, I find particularly welcome. In its own way this text not only enriches one’s spiritual life but also leads to reflection upon the sanctity of marriage, i.e., how my own wife’s faith and witness shores up my own commitment to everything in the Gospel and in real life that is worthy and wholesome.