Fair and SquareRead Now
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: JOB 7: 1-4, 6-7
FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
Job spoke, saying:
Is not man's life on earth a drudgery?
Are not his days those of hirelings?
He is a slave who longs for the shade,
a hireling who waits for his wages.
So I have been assigned months of misery,
and troubled nights have been allotted to me.
If in bed I say, "When shall I arise?"
then the night drags on;
I am filled with restlessness until the dawn.
My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle;
they come to an end without hope.
Remember that my life is like the wind;
I shall not see happiness again.
I was hacking away on my keyboard yesterday when my doorbell rang, and I received a visit from two elderly women from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. With all the unsolicited emails, robocalls, and other electronic overtures on behalf of the kingdom of mammon or Russian election mischief, it is refreshing to meet human beings—in this case of advanced years—following the call of the Great Mission from Matthew 28. For years I have wanted to invite such guests into my home—though I suspect the Witnesses do not drink coffee, which is about all I have prepared in mid-morning. Yesterday I was in a hurry and did not have much time to give them.
I am long past the day when I feel inclined to parry with Jehovah’s Witnesses over bible quotes, and the recent visits of JW’s suggest to me that their purpose of visiting is much less polemical than in years past. My visitors yesterday offered me this year’s first edition of The Watchtower: Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom. The Watchtower (and you can follow this link to what I received yesterday), according to Wikipedia, dates to 1879 and is the largest circulated periodical in the world, at 70 million copies in 327 languages. The spokeswoman struggled to explain to me the cover story, asking me “if the Bible is still here.” After some gentle exploring, I finally understood her question, appropriate to every Christian of all denominations and beyond that; “Is the Bible Still Relevant Today?”
When I told her that I very much agreed the Bible had much to offer today—and this coming from a Roman Catholic teacher, no less—she was so pleased and thanked me profusely for answering my door. I was good to my promise and read a sizeable portion this morning in preparation for today’s commentary on Job. I could never be a card-carrying Jehovah Witness because of the tradition’s one-dimensional approach to interpreting the Bible, but in a catechetical sense the JW’s work excessively hard to create meaningful points of contact between the Bible and the skeptical, secular world. I am not overstating the case by very much when I say that the Witnesses—judging from their literature—are more eager to embrace the world’s questions and critiques than Catholicism may be.
In the late Old Testament Era several sacred texts were written to address what the twentieth century would call “existential angst,” the pain of living. We can include questions of suffering, injustice, the unafflicted lives of sinners, and the very elementary question of what happens after the grave. There are at least three books in the Hebrew canon that address this existential or psychological pain of living; collectively they are called the Wisdom Books, specifically Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes [or Qoheleth]. Our guest expert today is Dr. Robert Alter of Cal-Berkeley, translator and commentator of The Wisdom Books (2010). Alter has translated many of the Old Testament texts, and given his running commentary of his translations, he makes serious reading of the Old Testament much more accessible to those entering the Hebrew Scripture for the first time.
I had always been of the belief that the Wisdom literature of the Bible [including the Garden narrative of Genesis 3] owed something of its origins to the minds that produced Greek tragedy, which at its heart struggles with the contradictions of human living. Alter argues that this type of literature was not uncommon throughout the Middle East in late Biblical days. What is evident is that Jews of the post-exilic era wrestled with the same questions as their non-Jewish neighbors. Alter observes that the Jewish Wisdom literature contains very little, if any, reference to Jewish history or law other than the existence of a monotheistic God.
What appears to have happened in the last few centuries before Christ is the emergence of a profound division among the Jews themselves. If we look at the historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah, written in the century after the return of from the Babylonian Exile in 539 B.C., it is evident that considerable work went into restoring the religious practices and mores of the Jewish people, including the restoration of the Temple and the enshrinement of the Law. But it is also true that recent history had led many Jews to the same questions of their neighbors, as well as to critique of their traditional theology.
One issue taking front and center stage was death: was it final? When God had made the original contract with Israel through Abraham, the rewards were entirely material and earthly: Abraham would live long enough to see his descendants grow and prosper. There is no promise of reward beyond the grave; for most of the Old Testament life ended with earthly death; rewards for good deeds would be granted in this lifetime. This understanding of life and death was sufficient when things were going well; but the Exile and other events, such as the Syrian takeover of Jerusalem (c. 175 B.C.) proved too many examples of young and noble observers of the Law who were killed or martyred without any earthly reward.
The puzzlement and pessimism expressed in Wisdom literature—and certainly in Sunday’s first reading—seem almost scandalous. But Jews included such texts in their sacred canon, as does Christianity today, partly the avoidance of magic and idolatry. Judaism wrestled with its own brand of quid pro quo: do what the law commands and success will be yours. This is a thinking man’s magic. In the Christian era Luther decried the idea that man is saved by works alone. In the story of Job, the hero/victim is a noble man of good works; in the Old Testament idiom he would have been rewarded much like Abraham. The irony of Job is that, at the pinnacle of his good life, calamities of the worst sort overtake him.
Many readers and even scholars are troubled that God would act “unfairly” toward Job; the “restoration” at the very end of the book seems focused upon making things right with the reader as much as with Job. The very best of scholars will admit that the Book of Job does not really answer the issues of evil and unfairness, and the question remains today the most disquieting of doubts for thoughtful people of all persuasions. In this sense Job is the most “ecumenical” of all the Bible books [along with Qoheleth] in putting the finger on the heart of human unrest.
Job 7 is paired with the Gospel reading from Mark 1 in which Jesus heals the sick and expels the demons believed to cause illness. Mark is not quite the philosopher that the author of Job manifests, but on the other hand Mark can be brutally graphic. In his depiction of the Crucifixion [this year’s Palm Sunday proclamation] Mark quotes Jesus—a man consecrated and anointed to do good--as crying from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” in the last moments of his unjust capital punishment. To paraphrase New Testament teaching, we have a Savior who is not unfamiliar with the sufferings and doubts of the human lot. In his humanity Jesus did not have the answer to the Job questions, but he did have a master plan—an action plan-- to penetrate the darkness, to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect, to live the Beatitudes with open-ended energy.
This is faith—the surviving confidence that there is something beyond what we cannot comprehend. The absence of faith—expectation of reward and fairness in a zero-sum game—is magic and idolatry
The Missing BookRead Now
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: DEUTERONOMY 18: 15-20
FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
Moses spoke to all the people, saying:
"A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you
from among your own kin;
to him you shall listen.
This is exactly what you requested of the LORD, your God, at Horeb
on the day of the assembly, when you said,
'Let us not again hear the voice of the LORD, our God,
nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.'
And the LORD said to me, 'This was well said.
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin,
and will put my words into his mouth;
he shall tell them all that I command him.
Whoever will not listen to my words which he speaks in my name,
I myself will make him answer for it.
But if a prophet presumes to speak in my name
an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak,
or speaks in the name of other gods, he shall die.'"
This is our first treatment of Deuteronomy in the Café postings. If you have read this book or are aware of its placement in the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures, you may have a picture of the text as Moses’ last will and testament, with the Chosen People standing at the brink of crossing the Jordan and finally entering the land of Canaan after a forty-year sojourn in the desert. Moses, you might recall from Numbers 20: 12, had been told by God that he himself would not enter the land with his people, and his death is described in Deuteronomy, much to the dismay of those who held and still hold that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch.
Given its content and placement, Deuteronomy appears to come from an early source in Israel’s history as a nation, but this is not the case. The term Deuteronomy comes down through several languages to today’s English “Second Law,” and indeed it does repeat segments of the Law from Exodus and other works of the Pentateuch, though with editing. The history of this ‘second law” is described by Father Boadt in Chapter 18 of Reading the Old Testament. He points us in the direction of the chronicle of the kingship of Israel, i.e., those who followed Saul, and specifically to 2 Kings around 600 B.C.
According to 1 & 2 Kings, the anointed leaders of Israel had ranged from the mediocre to the outright scandalous. Idolatry and neglect of law and observance were commonplace. [The Prophet Zephaniah chronicles the time well.] In 622 B.C. the reform minded King Josiah ordered a repair of the Temple, and in the process the high priest Hilkiah discovered a hidden book. Boadt, with other scholars, is uncertain if this text was lost or whether it was hidden from a previous king who might have destroyed it due to its high moral tone. The text certainly alarmed Josiah; as Boadt writes, “[Josiah] tore his clothes in distress because it threatened God’s wrath on any who did not obey its word.” [p. 301] Josiah consulted his prophetess who confirmed that Jerusalem would be destroyed for its idolatry; her prediction was correct, for the Babylonian Captivity would begin just three decades later.
Josiah had reason to believe from the text that its authority had come from God through Moses. However, scholars of the past two centuries have been able to identify editorial changes in the Deuteronomic text that indicate a much later authorship. Unlike the Law recorded in Exodus, the Deuteronomic text adds provision for urban life and trade, including the use of coinage. In addition, Deuteronomy addresses the ownership and care of slaves; the original law had been addressed to a people newly released from slavery in Egypt! The temper of this book presupposes that a lot of time had passed since the days of spartan desert living.
Nonetheless, Josiah and other pious Jews were jolted by the text to realization of how far the people had fallen from the purity of the Law as it had been observed immediately after Sinai. With that in mind, the appropriate placement of Sunday’s reading with Mark’s Gospel falls into place. Deuteronomy 18, part of Moses’ last will and testament as composed by the author, quotes Moses as receiving a confirmation from God that “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin, and I will put my words in his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him.” Since there is good certainty that this text was written much later than the lifespan of Moses, the reader can rule out the identity of Joshua, for example, or some other immediate individual as the great prophet to come. The author has a bolder and long-range vision in mind in speaking of a prophet to come.
Does the author(s) of Deuteronomy have Jesus specifically in mind in Sunday’s reading? It is very unlikely that the writer intended the reference to the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Old Testament prophesies are powerful and inspired, but rarely time-conditioned. It is safer to assume that the prophesy here applies more immediately to Israel during its kingship era, and it is noteworthy that the text is discovered during the reign of a reform-minded king. That said, the full sense of Scriptural revelation comes to fulfillment in the totality of the inspired work. The message of Scripture is a whole, not extraneous bits of data and predictions.
Given that the early Christian Church was made up of Jews, the Apostolic era did not conceptualize pre and post Jesus as we might think. Jesus himself said that he had not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to bring them to fulfillment. Jesus, himself a Jew, would have formed his thought and deeds in the context to the full body of Jewish revelation. Certainly, the first writers of the Christian era would have drawn heavily from Deuteronomy and the other 71 revealed books in coming to understand Jesus.
Mark 1: 21-28, Sunday’s Gospel, lays out the many ways Jesus fulfills the hopes of Jewish prophesy and law. He taught and worshipped in the synagogue, he taught with authority, he expelled demons. If anything, Jesus is taking Moses’ forecast of Deuteronomy 18 farther than anyone would have hoped—but the language and deeds of Jesus would have been familiar to both Josiah’s listeners and centuries of those to follow.
More Than A Fish StoryRead Now
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: JONAH 3: 1-5, 10
THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
The word of the LORD came to Jonah, saying:
"Set out for the great city of Nineveh,
and announce to it the message that I will tell you."
So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh,
according to the LORD'S bidding.
Now Nineveh was an enormously large city;
it took three days to go through it.
Jonah began his journey through the city,
and had gone but a single day's walk announcing,
"Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed, "
when the people of Nineveh believed God;
they proclaimed a fast
and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way,
he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them;
he did not carry it out.
The Book of Jonah breaks the mold for what we typically think of Biblical books. Long a basic staple of religious instruction-as much for its captivating narrative as for its underlying theological implications—Jonah is remembered primarily for its scientific improbability of a man spending three days in the belly of a whale (and whales are herbivorous, at that). That the tale of the whale comprises only a modest part of this four-chapter work is generally not fully appreciated. Sunday’s reading selection is restricted to Jonah’ immediate ministry in Nineveh, bypassing the prophet’s previous avoidance of duty as well as his later angst about the outcome of God’s work.
The full book of Jonah can best be termed religious satire. It was written quite late in Jewish history, possibly reflecting a controversy among Jews over the nature of redemption: were pagans worthy of a shot at salvation? Jonah himself does not think so, seeing himself as the harbinger of another Sodom and Gomorrah scenario which he seems to relish, God’s destruction of a wicked foreign city. In fact, Jonah does not really preach a call to redemption at all, fixated as he was on the upcoming apocalypse. Sunday’s text reports that he went about for a day exclaiming: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Sunday’s text edits out verses 6-9, where the king of Nineveh plays the real prophet himself. He [the king] calls for a massive fast and show of repentance, and then he adds, “And who knows? God may again repent and turn from his blazing wrath, so that we will not perish.” The king delivers the full message, not Jonah, who is quite infuriated that he will not be the grand master of a show of divine wrath.
The Book of Jonah may have been written as late as 200 B.C., long after the death of the last classical prophet of Israel. The Jerome Biblical Commentary, one of the Café’s regular sources, places the Book of Jonah at the very end of the Old Testament canon. In reviewing the JBC’s introduction to Jonah, I am struck by the observations of Father Anthony R. Ceresko, who writes: “In Jonah, one of the last representations of a prophetic figure, we find not someone of heroic nature but a caricature of a prophet” which Ceresko attributes to the disillusionment with and disappearance of prophesy that marked this period. That said, the book reflects a profound humility; the unknown author of Jonah turns our eyes from prophets to the One whose messengers they were, the One who can achieve his ends sometimes even despite envoys like Jonah. (JBC, p. 580)
Sunday’s text is slightly misleading as presented above; it is paired in the Lectionary with Mark 1: 14-20. I would have some difficulty bringing these texts together in a sermon, given that the first reading overlooks what a poor prophet Jonah actually was. Mark, by contrast, speaks of John the Baptist’s arrest for heroic preaching [John was widely regarded as a prophet from of old], and then describes the proclamation of Jesus: "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel."
Jesus was aware of the Book of Jonah and quotes it in two Gospels. He was probably aware of Jonah’s shortcomings as a prophet. The final chapter of Jonah describes the prophet absorbed in self-pity that God’s mercy overturned his hoped-for outcome of punishment, and that he [Jonah] had been greatly inconvenienced and dispatched on a wild goose chase—through a whale’s stomach, no less. In both of Sunday’s passages—Jonah and Mark—the goodness and the glory of God’s saving love are made manifest. The Ninevites, all 120,000, are redeemed and forgiven. In Mark, Jesus extends an invitation to repentance for the kingdom of God is at hand, and this invitation is immediately seized upon by the men who would form the Twelve.
The constant in both readings is the closeness and constancy of God’s mercy. A poor prophet such as Jonah could still effect, even unwillingly, the call of God to repentance. John the Baptist and Jesus, who both gave everything they had for the sake of the kingdom, would do likewise in calling the world to penance. As Ceresko writes, the giant persona of the classical Old Testament prophet was being replaced by the imminent presence of the One who wishes to save all.
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: 1 Samuel 3: 3b-10, 19
SECOND SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
USCCB Link to all three readings
Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the LORD
where the ark of God was.
The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, "Here I am."
Samuel ran to Eli and said, "Here I am. You called me."
"I did not call you, " Eli said. "Go back to sleep."
So he went back to sleep.
Again the LORD called Samuel, who rose and went to Eli.
"Here I am, " he said. "You called me."
But Eli answered, "I did not call you, my son. Go back to sleep."
At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD,
because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet.
The LORD called Samuel again, for the third time.
Getting up and going to Eli, he said, "Here I am. You called me."
Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth.
So he said to Samuel, "Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply,
Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening."
When Samuel went to sleep in his place,
the LORD came and revealed his presence,
calling out as before, "Samuel, Samuel!"
Samuel answered, "Speak, for your servant is listening."
Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him,
not permitting any word of his to be without effect.
Now that we are settled into Ordinary Time, and I have had several weeks now to post on the first readings of the Sunday liturgy, it is a fair question to ask: why does the liturgy include a weekly [, daily] text from the Hebrew Scripture? The stock answer is “for our pious edification,” but next Sunday’s text raises more questions than answers. A better answer might be the revealed nature of the text itself; the Hebrew Scripture is considered inspired by both Jews and Christians, and therefore has something to say to the reader in its own right. In this text we have description of a mysterious call from God that is not initially understood by the hearer or his mentor. When the divine origin is finally recognized, Samuel utters the now-famous prayer, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” [In the process, one of the worst of our present-day hymns was born, “Here I Am, Lord,” often referred to quietly as the hymn to the obvious.]
But the truth of the text itself does not entirely answer the question of its use at Mass; the gathering of Christ’s people establishes a unique context for listening, so the question needs to be reset to (1) why any Old Testament texts are celebrated in the Eucharist, and (2) why is this text chosen in tandem with the Gospel of Sunday, John 1: 35-42?
The answer to the first question rests in the very nature of Christ, the one whom we gather to worship. The pairing of Hebrew Revelation with the person of Christ is the Church’s earliest exercise in Christology or the understanding of the Savior. Having just completed the Christmas cycle of feasts, it is possible to see how the arrival of Christ is portrayed in the Gospels in the setting of Jewish history and expectations. From the divine announcing of births (both Jesus and John the Baptist) to the flight into Egypt to escape Herod in the fashion of the infant Moses, the Christmas event takes its heart from Hebrew history. When the prophet Simeon, within the Temple confines, beholds the child Jesus and exclaims, “Now, Lord, you may dismiss your servant, for my eyes have seen your salvation,” we have the last word on the nature of Jesus as the son of his religious history as well as its fulfillment.
It would be poor theology indeed if Hebrew Revelation was not part and parcel of memorializing the Christ, who himself stated that “I have come not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to bring them to fulfillment.” When the lector steps forward to proclaim the Old Testament, our family history album is being opened again and we are reintroduced to the culture of faith from which Christ has stepped forth and continues. It is critical here bring up the role of Vatican II in its emphasis upon the importance of the Old Testament, in theory and in fact. Specifically, the renewal of the rite of Mass begun in 1963 introduced the reading of the Old Testament as the first of three texts. Prior to the Mass of Paul VI in 1970, there were two readings at Sunday Mass, a text from one of the Letters of St. Paul, and a Gospel text.
The dignified place of Hebrew Scripture at Mass is also a statement of the holiness of the Jewish people before God. I do not need to catalogue the atrocities perpetuated against Jews to our present day; the Neo-Nazi and skinhead demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA, last year are evidence enough that a sizeable portion of our population propagate dangerous attitudes and emotions toward Jews. The Catholic history in this regard is less than noble; aside from the curse of persistent anti-Semitism, Catholic theology until recent centuries has plundered the Old Testament for concrete predictions of Christ and cherry-picked texts to buttress moral Church teachings, as in the famous quote about Onan’s practice of coitus interruptus [Genesis 38:9] as an argument against artificial contraception. Students today examine the Hebrew texts through the intent of their sacred authors, as should we.
The second question references the relationship of a Sunday’s chosen Old Testament text to the Gospel of the day. The editors of the Lectionary have tried to pair texts with similar themes. In our case here, the Gospel of John describes the call of the first disciples of Jesus. There are several parallels to the Hebrew text, the most obvious being the specificity of God’s call. In 1 Samuel, God badgers young Samuel to the edge of distraction. In John’s Gospel, it is the Baptist ironically who recruits for Jesus. The new disciples switch allegiances and become recruiters for Jesus themselves, bringing Simon Peter himself into the new community.
If Jesus is becoming the epicenter of a major change, so is Samuel in his own time. He is the last of the Judges, and the first of the Prophets. It is he who must face the vociferous mood of his people, who believed that “judges” were no longer adequate to lead and protect an Israel that was growing in strength and ambition, not to say attracting enemies such as the Philistines. Samuel believed that a kingship was a bad idea, with too much power entrusted to one man, but after discussion with God—who is equally frustrated about the calls for a king—they agree to grant the peoples’ wishes, letting them discover over time how “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” 1 Samuel 8 covers their deliberations in detail. Samuel eventually anoints Saul as Israel’s first king, and the 500-year monarchy of Israel is set in place.
Just as Samuel had anointed Saul, John the Baptist poured the water of the Jordan over Jesus, during which he [the Baptist] “saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain with him.” Jesus, then, is anointed, like Saul, and the very next paragraph is Sunday’s text where the kingdom of the New Israel is now being gathered. The original kingship of Israel would ultimately disintegrate, but as Jesus would say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”