NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT
LUKE 13: 1-9 LINK TO USCCB ALL THREE READINGS
Some people told Jesus about the Galileans
whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!
Or those eighteen people who were killed
when the tower at Siloam fell on them--
do you think they were more guilty
than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”
And he told them this parable:
“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard,
and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none,
he said to the gardener,
‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree
but have found none.
So cut it down.
Why should it exhaust the soil?’
He said to him in reply,
‘Sir, leave it for this year also,
and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;
it may bear fruit in the future.
If not you can cut it down.’”
The Lectionary of the Lenten Season provides a bit of a challenge here for those of us who prepare during the week, because parishes and congregations have options regarding the Gospels of weeks three, four, and five. In the A Cycle the Church assigns three masterful compositions of conversion from the Gospel of John (the woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus.) These three texts are intimately connected to the RCIA and the preparation of the catechumens for baptism. The liturgical guidelines indicate that these three readings from St. John may replace the Gospels of the B and C cycles “especially in places where there are catechumens.” Hopefully, that would be most parishes. However, in checking with my own diocese I see that the regular B and C Cycle Gospels are used except at the parish Mass where the “scrutinies” of the catechumens take place. So, if you happen to attend that Mass in your parish schedule, be prepared for the Gospel of the Samaritan woman at the well, she of the five husbands fame.
The rest of us will be presented with Cycle C’s Lukan reading, which might be titled “when bad things happen to average people.” This is an intriguing piece, and it is tempting to take our eyes off the bigger picture to the rather vivid account of local violence. Joel Green reflects that some interpreters have read the account of Pilate’s misdeed as a test to see if Jesus is pro-Roman or pro-revolutionary. (513ff) Jesus’ own citing of a collapsing tower tends to put this text in the greater horizon of the need to repent.
Think back a moment to the healing of the man born blind in St. John’s Gospel, where the disciples open the narrative with the question of whose sin caused the blindness, the blind man’s, or his parents? There was, Green observes, a certain arrogance of the times that bad things happen to bad people. In truth I suspect that this is still a commonly held belief—that all poor people just need to work harder, for example. For much of my lifetime the New York Times would include in its obituaries of famous people who died of cancer that they were “heavy smokers.”
This particular text is better understood with geography in mind. Jesus is himself a Galilean (Luke 1 and 2), and the ugly hand of Pilate’s abuses had extended into his home setting. Midway through his Gospel, Luke reports that Jesus has “set his face for Jerusalem” where his final act, submission to crucifixion under the auspices of this same Pilate, is even more undeserved than the fate of eighteen bystanders killed by a falling tower. Crucifixion—as a means of capital punishment—was reserved for the worst of the worst. That this fate was to befall Jesus was a scandal to his followers and evidence to his enemies that indeed Jesus was Beelzebub, the devil incarnate. Thus the confusion among Jesus’ followers on Easter and beyond. For our purposes here, Jesus will reaffirm redemptive suffering. Suffering is not a curse but the common lot of man, all of whom stand in need of redemption and conversion. Those of us who have dodged bullets in this life can never disengage ourselves from the wounded.
In fact, the lucky ones should consider themselves so due solely to God’s mercy. This is the point of the second part of the passage, the unfruitful tree. There is a Syrian tale of a failed tree which is quite similar to Luke’s narrative, except for one point: The Syrian farmer follows accepted farming practices of the time and roots out the tree as soon as it peters out. In Luke’s narrative the owner-farmer was inclined to do the same, as the tree had not produced anything in three years. (Is this a parallel to the people who heard Jesus during his three-year ministry?) The gardener, however, implores the master to give the tree one more year. He explains that maybe better treatment and feeding might restore the tree to fruitfulness. Both men are demonstrating extraordinary patience with a tree that most would have abandoned two years ago.
Luke’s intent throughout his Gospel is to connect good preaching with bearing good fruit. One cannot hear the Word of God without a change to productive behavior. We do not find out exactly what happens to this tree in the text, though one thing is certain: if one year later the tree is not producing good figs, both the master and the gardener are in agreement that the tree be cut down.
Luke’s purposes here do not include explaining the problem of evil; why Jesus’ listeners surround him in good health while their confreres in Jerusalem are killed in the market pursuing business as they should to feed their families. If Luke were alive today, I guess he would say that God loved us so much that he gave up all to join us in what so often looks like a rigged card game.
I received word on Monday night that one of our regular blog readers, Bill, died last week after a long and painful illness. Bill had written to me about a month ago. His favorite page was the Tuesday Gospel post. He said that to keep himself focused and spiritually enriched, as well as to manage his pain, he was translating the New Testament from its original Greek to English. We were high school and college classmates. May he rest in peace.
As today is my birthday, my bride has my day planned out, so I am moving the Sunday Gospel post back one day to Wednesday 24th.
On a serious note, one of our regular Tuesday readers passed away this week--I learned about his death last night. He had been painfully ill for some time. He wrote me a few weeks ago and told me he was translating the Greek New Testament into English to help him through his pain. May he rest in peace.
THIS SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT
Luke 9:28b-36 USCCB Link to all three readings
Jesus took Peter, John, and James
and went up the mountain to pray.
While he was praying his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white.
And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah,
who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus
that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep,
but becoming fully awake,
they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.
As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus,
“Master, it is good that we are here;
let us make three tents,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
But he did not know what he was saying.
While he was still speaking,
a cloud came and cast a shadow over them,
and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.
Then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.
They fell silent and did not at that time
tell anyone what they had seen.
The ninth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel succeeds a series of dramatic and memorable miracles in the Lukan narrative: the expulsion of demons from a struggling victim and into a herd of suicidal swine, the request of the synagogue leader Jairus that Jesus heal his sick daughter (who had in fact died), and the healing of the fearful woman suffering from a hemorrhage over many years. Chapter 9 will have its own dramas, but as Joel Green writes, in this chapter the emphasis will turn to issues of Christology (the identity and nature of Christ) and Discipleship. In Chapter 9 the personal characteristics of the disciples and their active functioning in the mission will come to the fore. (Green, 351ff)
Chapter 9 will feature the announcement of the disciples’ mission (9:1-11), the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes (9:12-17), and Peter’s confession of faith and Jesus’ teaching on discipleship (9:18-27). It is interesting that the last sentence of Jesus’ teaching reads as follows: “But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God.” In the very next sentence we begin this Sunday’s reading, Luke 9:28b-36, a moment of direct divine revelation witnessed by Peter, James, and John.
These three disciples have already seen quite a bit of Jesus’ glory, and they were singled out to witness Jesus raise Jairus’ daughter back to life. Peter has been moved to confess his faith in Jesus as “the Messiah of God” a few sentences previous. But full understanding of Jesus still eludes them, even if their hearts are generally in the right place. Our Sunday text, known as “The Transfiguration,” ties together the purpose of Jesus’ mission with his Jewish roots and his ultimate destiny. That this event is reported in all four Gospels (the law of “multiple attestation”) gives the Church high confidence in its historical credence.
Green explains that the Transfiguration is best understood in the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the Exodus. Moses was called to the top of Mount Sinai where he beheld God, with the impact being that he would have to cover his face when he returned because of its radiance. The Exodus journey was a deliverance from Egyptian bondage to a promised land, a journey that prefigured Jesus’ saving journey to his death and resurrection. It is not surprising that later in Chapter 9, Jesus “sets his face for Jerusalem” to complete his own exodus and enter into the glory of his Father.
It is often overlooked that this episode begins with Jesus’ invitation to the three disciples to join him on the mountaintop to pray. A lot of ink has been spilled about why these three disciples are so intimately involved in the action of chapters 8 and 9, but a very simple answer may be that they have been selected as students of the first seminar on faith and discipleship. Jesus is literally showing them what he does—he prays. In Luke’s narrative Jesus’ prayer is intense and is sometimes the precursor of a divine manifestation. This was true at the time of Jesus’ baptism when during his prayer his Father affirmed him before all of the Baptist’s witnesses.
It is during the prayer that Jesus’ face is changed. The Greek text uses the term metamorphosis here, and later to describe the resurrected Jesus. In Hebrew anthropology the outer face is an expression of the inner man; the intensity of Jesus’ prayer allows his disciples to see the inner nature of the man they have been following and assisting. It is a true epiphany or theophany to use Biblical terms.
It is this manifestation of Jesus’ nature that constitutes the highlight of the event. The appearances of Moses and Elijah serve as visual connectors to the Hebrew heritage of faith: Moses the deliverer/law giver, and Elijah as the preaching/suffering prophet. Luke describes this three-way conversation with detail: they talked about Jesus’ own exodus and all that he would accomplish in Jerusalem. This sentence embodies an essential but elusive truth: that all that would happen to Jesus in Jerusalem, i.e., his ignominious passion and death upon the cross, was preordained in God’s plan, of a weave with Abraham (see Sunday’s first reading), Moses, and the prophets. This is not the last time Jesus would have a conversation like this; in Luke 24 Jesus spends the better part of a day making the same point to the two men on the road to Emmaus, who are shattered by the scandal of the cross.
Waking from sleep, Peter attempts to prolong the moment, so to speak, by suggesting the construction of three tents or booths. This is a reference to the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot today) which marked God’s provisioning of the exiles in the desert and the hope of eschatological or future glory. Luke credits Peter with a good sense of Hebrew symbolism, but his sarcastic assessment that Peter “did not know what he was saying” is a rebuke to the fact that Peter slept through the prayer of Jesus or to the fact that Peter continued to call to Jesus as “Master” when the reader knows that Jesus has just revealed his divine nature and his plan…as Peter snored away. If this was a graduate school of discipleship, Peter got the “gentleman’s C.”
The miraculous cloud continues the epiphany of God, and it enfolds the disciples as if to take them way. Their fear or awe is the typical Lukan response to divine interventions, such as with Zechariah and Mary earlier in the narrative. Green notes that up to this point in Luke’s narrative only demons have orally identified Jesus correctly; here on the mountain God the Father gives the most powerful identification possible, with the stern command that Peter, James, and John (and all disciples and readers to follow) “listen to Him.”
After this remarkable experience, Luke reports that Jesus was “found alone.” From now on Jesus himself carries the fullness of his heritage and his Father’s everlasting truth. The disciples are silent. Like the two men in Emmaus, it is only after the Resurrection and the Pentecost events that all the pieces of the puzzle will fall together for them.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT
LUKE 4:1-13 USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days,
to be tempted by the devil.
He ate nothing during those days,
and when they were over he was hungry.
The devil said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered him,
“It is written, One does not live on bread alone.”
Then he took him up and showed him
all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.
The devil said to him,
“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.”
Then he led him to Jerusalem,
made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here, for it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,
With their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It also says,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
When the devil had finished every temptation,
he departed from him for a time.
For regular Tuesday readers we are going to interrupt the sequential flow of St. Luke’s Gospel in Ordinary Time for the next fourteen weeks or so (that seems like a long time) as we observe the Lenten/Easter/Pentecost observance. Tomorrow (Wednesday) is Ash Wednesday, the formal opening of Lent, though in early times Lent as a season of public penance began on a Sunday when the whole assembly could be gathered.
The Gospel readings for Lent, not surprisingly, are chosen in symphony with the Christian’s Lenten journey from sin and death to Resurrection life and the fullness of the Holy Spirit. The first two Sundays, this coming week and February 21, represent something of the low and the high watermarks of Jesus’ public life and mission. This Sunday’s reading is an account of the temptation of Jesus in the desert; the following week will present the transfiguration or glorification of Jesus on the mountain in the presence of Peter, James, and John. For these first two Sundays the Church draws the Gospels from the evangelist of the year; thus it is Luke’s accounts of these events that we will hear this year.
To appreciate Luke’s unique telling of the story, it might be useful to compare his text with the other Evangelists who narrated the scene, Mark and Matthew. (John does not include a transfiguration account.) Mark, as the first account in actual time, is sparse but rich in symbolism. In fact, let me quote it in full (Mark 1:12-13). “At that point the Spirit sent him out toward the desert. He stayed in the wasteland forty days, put to the test there by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him.” This is one of the most economical texts in the Bible in terms of squeezing rich meaning out of few words, and Mark established a template for Matthew and Luke to build upon.
“At that point” (in Mark) refers to Jesus’ baptism, when God’s spirit descended upon him “like a dove.” The first command of the Spirit is the prompting into the desert. The word “desert” is double entendre. As Mark himself says, the desert is a “wasteland,” the same word used to describe the state of affairs before God began the act of creating in Genesis 1:2. Mark certainly knew this. There is, then, a connection made between Jesus and Creation—he was present at the beginning, and has come to begin the New Creation, a reordering of human chaos into everlasting life and glory. The second meaning of “desert” comes from the Jewish apocalyptic sources as the site where the final great battle between the forces of good and evil will occur, the showdown between the powerful angels Michael and Lucifer. Jesus is understood in the Gospels as the conqueror of demons, including their chief, by his miracles, and ultimately by his Resurrection.
“Forty days” in Mark’s context is clearly a reference to the years of Israel’s desert, establishing Jesus as the father of the New Israel who will shortly call twelve followers as the foundation of the new Twelve Tribes of Israel. The “wild beasts” metaphor has multiple biblical references—to the days before the fall when Adam and Eve lived in harmony with nature, and the apocalyptic passages from the Prophet Isaiah, where in God’s glorious future lion and lamb, cobra and child, will one day again live in harmony.
We can bring all of Mark’s magnificent theology forward into our Sunday reading from Luke and carry it as a foundation into Luke’s much lengthier narrative which is built around a dialogue between Jesus and Satan. Joel Green parallels the three temptations of Jesus in Luke to the history of Israel: (1) Israel was allowed to hunger in order to learn that one does not live by bread alone; (2) Israel was instructed to worship the one and only God, and not to follow after any other god; (3) Israel was commanded not to put the Lord God to the test. Luke is harkening back to Deuteronomy, the famous “second telling” of the Israelite experience and law. (Green, 190f)
Satan, in our account here, is actually playing “Bad Israel” to Jesus’ “New Jerusalem.” Luke makes Jesus the embodiment of the restored Israel by making these temptations very personal. For example, the first temptation is to change one rock into one loaf of bread, enough to feed one very hungry man. (Matthew 4:3, by contrast, reads, “command these stones…”) Interestingly, the devil does not question Jesus’ identity as the Son of God; what he is trying to pry out of Jesus is whether he actually trusts his Father to feed him. “Trust in feeding” was a major breakdown for Israel in the desert that led to much murmuring. In that instance, God did provide by the miraculous appearance of manna.
The second temptation involves the devil’s offer of rendering to Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world,” noting that in fact the devil currently does possess them. Green makes an intriguing point: up to this point in Luke’s Gospel “the world” has been essentially the Roman empire. Here the Greek original implies all of the world, Jew and Gentile alike. A man of Luke’s erudition knew something of Alexander the Great and the existence of other kingdoms of the world.
The gist of the temptation is truly existential, suggesting that Jesus give up his very identity as Son of God. We know already from Luke that life as God’s Son would be anything but easy. Certainly this temptation had a long history of Israel, which fell into idolatry and bad political arrangements precisely because it had lost its soul. Jesus, however, remains faithful to Psalm 2:8, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth [the whole world] for your inheritance. On the face of things, the devil is making a good material offer, but Luke’s reader is able to see that upon analysis Satan is offering something he cannot claim as his own, given the reality of Psalm 2, and that Satan’s world is in fact something that has been given to him. Satan is not equal to God.
In the third temptation, the devil, now aware of Jesus’ profound devotion to the Scriptures, attempts to dissuade Jesus from his mission with another Psalm. Psalm 91:1 makes reference to “you who live in the shelter of the Most High,” that is, the Temple of Jerusalem. Green notes that this temptation is related to the upcoming passion of Jesus in Jerusalem, in the virtual shadow of the Temple. Satan’s temptation is to test God in this critical juncture, that Jesus might escape the cross. Satan has overlooked two things: Psalm 91 is addressed to those whose obedience to God makes them worthy to dwell in God’s house, and that divine rescue comes through suffering and death, and not before. (Green, 195)
For Luke, the temptation scenario is the first round of Jesus’ final confrontation with the power of evil, for he records that “[Satan] left him for a time.” But from this encounter in Chapter 4, the reader comes away with the model of Christian faith and life. While there is so much to take away from our next Sunday reading, one thought remains with me in particular: that for all of the cosmic and Biblical forces in play, good and evil, Luke reminds us that faith, at its heart, rests upon my individual response and my willingness to entrust my own destiny with the Lord of the Scriptures.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
LUKE 5:1-11 USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening
to the word of God,
he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret.
He saw two boats there alongside the lake;
the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets.
Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon,
he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore.
Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon,
“Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”
Simon said in reply,
“Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing,
but at your command I will lower the nets.”
When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish
and their nets were tearing.
They signaled to their partners in the other boat
to come to help them.
They came and filled both boats
so that the boats were in danger of sinking.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said,
“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him
and all those with him,
and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee,
who were partners of Simon.
Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid;
from now on you will be catching men.”
When they brought their boats to the shore,
they left everything and followed him.
Last Sunday’s Gospel reading concludes with Jesus in difficult straits, his synagogue brethren attempting to throw him over a cliff. In the interim between last Sunday and next Sunday, Jesus moves on to a private home which happens to belong to one Simon, who is housing his gravely ill mother-in-law. Yes, this is the same Simon of Apostles’ fame. Joel Green notes that Luke has a habit of anachronizing characters, i.e., bringing them on stage before he identifies them in a later scene, a good example of the old proverb that “even Homer nods.”
That this unfortunate woman lives in Simon’s household indicates that her family is dead or scattered. Jesus expels the woman’s fever in the fashion of expelling a demon, demonstrating in action for her what he had proclaimed in word just previously in the synagogue. She is released from her affliction; as Green puts it, “Jesus’ ministry of release has begun to take shape.” (225) The in-law’s response is the exact opposite of the hostile crowd: she gets out of bed and waits upon Jesus with a deep sense of gratitude. Chapter 4 has set a pattern for all of Luke’s writing: synagogue/temple generally encounter trouble; home settings engender conversion and faith.
Chapter 4 closes with a word description of a massive healing at sunset in the desert on the Sabbath. Green suggests that the attraction to Jesus which is starting to grow in the wilds of the desert is based upon the wonder over his miracles. This desert population wants him to settle there, for obvious reasons, but Jesus is firm that he must stay on the road announcing the Kingdom of God to more synagogues.
As we enter Chapter 5 and this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus has yet to make his first bona fide disciple or follower. In Sunday’s text, Luke addresses the definition of a true disciple while providing his readers with an introduction to those who would become his core community and the inheritors of the mission to bring God’s release to all. There is an interesting little turn in the narrative, in that Jesus had explicitly cited synagogues as his target audiences, but Chapter 5 begins with a preaching episode in the open on the shore of Lake Gennesaret, a fruitful fresh water lake not far from the scene of Chapter 4’s events. The Greek text suggests that Jesus had preached here on at least several occasions.
Given the absence of modern day microphones, there was a natural tendency for crowds to move closer to a speaker to hear him better. As a matter of practicality Jesus borrows Simon’s boat—we know Simon from Chapter 4—to give himself some space and enable him to sit down. The fishermen are on land cleaning their nets. Some points about fishing: Luke explicitly states that Simon owned the boat. These fishermen were not day laborers but part of a family-owned business; neither they nor their community would have thought of them as poor. Scripture scholar David Bivin has gathered evidence (1992) that the fishermen were using trammel nets, a type visible to fish during the day and thus effective only at night.
After concluding his preaching, Jesus asks Simon to take the boats out and drop the nets. This is quite a request—the fishermen are not equipped for daytime fishing, they would normally be seeking sleep at this time, and they had just fished under appropriate conditions and caught nothing. Thus, there has to be an agenda of sorts—some element of faith in this preacher—that would make a tired professional fisherman undertake a request that flew in the face of common sense. Green, I think, captures the situation well. Simon’s reaction parallels Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel’s truly astounding request in the scene we know today as the Annunciation, which Luke previously narrates in Chapter 1. “Everything you are asking flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but I trust you enough to obey.”
The resulting catch is astounding—two boats brought to near sinking with an extremely profitable haul. Luke intends his reader to see this event as a theophany or public vision of divinity. Simon certainly does—he falls to his knees at the feet of Jesus and begs him to depart, “for I am a sinful man.” Because poverty was lumped together with sin in the thinking of the times, it is remarkable for a man who is definitely not poor to declare his sinfulness. Simon has grasped the nature of conversion—a change of the inner man in all circumstances of life—and the same realization comes to James and John, his partners in the business. What a reversal from the crowd at Capernaum whose response to Jesus’ miracles was a plea to stay and do more.
In one of the great puns of the Bible, Jesus assures the three that they will soon be “catching men.” The Greek actually reads “capturing men alive.” Jesus uses the phrase “from now on,” and this is exactly what will happen. With surprising alacrity, the three disciples walk away from their boats (their major capital investment) and the miraculous catch (a financial windfall, we forget) and followed Jesus.
There is probably another miracle here in that Simon somehow survived explaining all this to his wife—and especially his mother-in-law—who thanks to Jesus is now in fine fighting mettle again.