SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
John 20 19:31
All three Readings: USCCB site
On the evening of that first day of the week,
when the doors were locked, where the disciples were,
for fear of the Jews,
Jesus came and stood in their midst
and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”
Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve,
was not with them when Jesus came.
So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”
But he said to them,
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
and put my finger into the nail marks
and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Now a week later his disciples were again inside
and Thomas was with them.
Jesus came, although the doors were locked,
and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands,
and bring your hand and put it into my side,
and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
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 Christ, the Son of God,
and that through this belief you may have life in his name.
This coming Sunday is an excellent example of a well-intentioned idea gone bad. I am speaking here specifically about the very recent introduction of the theme of “Divine Mercy Sunday” into the well-established Easter liturgical observance. The Easter Gospels elaborate some of the most critical truths of the Faith and provide us with insight into the Apostolic understanding of the Redemption. This Sunday’s Gospel alone contains the meat for dozens of sermons, but my fear is that many homilists will devote their sermons to Sister Faustina and the Chaplet, in imitation of John Paul II’s personal devotion. In fact, I’m going to make a little bet with myself that this happens in my parish, and if I win I’m treating myself to Hazelnut coffee and an orange scone at Panera’s next Monday.
If we stay faithful to the Roman Missal and focus upon the majestic Gospel of John, where do we even begin? This text in hand is not about a cynical disciple who happened to miss the second most important meal of his life, though superficial preaching and poor catechetics have reinforced the caricature of doubting Thomas over the years. The Johannine Resurrection narrative is an exposition of the three events that give life to the Church: Jesus’ mastery over the bonds of death, his glorious ascent to the Father’s right hand, and his bestowal of saving grace to the Church through the Holy Spirit. In Sunday’s Gospel we have presentation of all three, in the context of how the future Church would struggle to pass this salvific heritage along.
To get the full picture of this Sunday’s text, two things are essential. First, John’s Gospel is by far the last of the four canonical Gospels; estimates of its date of composition average out at about 100 A.D., which would be at least seventy years after the events it describes. Clearly John is not writing as a historian, but as a theological commentator on history, on the ways that the disciples and the earliest Church came to grips with the Easter mysteries and was continuing to deal with these mysteries at this later date. John, and his precise identity remains uncertain even today, had seen a great deal of post-Resurrection Christianity and recognized its strengths and liabilities in his own day.
The second point to bear in mind is the full flow of the narrative that precedes the Sunday Gospel. Peter and the perplexing “other disciple” have already seen the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene is the first to actually behold the risen Jesus—but only after a protracted encounter in which she mistakes him for the gardener. The Gospel text has an edge here: “But she did not know him.” Finally recognizing him, she attempts to grasp his feet, but Jesus stops her because “I have not yet ascended to the Father.” He instructs her to tell the disciples “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” The message, curiously, is addressed not to Mary Magdalene, who is standing right there, but to the original disciples then in seclusion. There is, then, something of a sign of priority about the Twelve that will play out in the upper room shortly. When Jesus next appears, he will have ascended to the Father with great significance for the disciples.
This is where we join the narrative on Sunday, Easter Sunday night by John’s reckoning. Jesus, unencumbered by locked doors, appears in their midst. Again, this text was written in a day when heresies or errors about the nature of Jesus were already well developed—some claiming he was a divine mirage, others that he was a human hoax, his body hidden by disciples. John addresses both errors: The Jesus who appears in the disciples’ midst despite locked doors is the now ascended/glorified divine Lord. In fact, the disciples rejoiced precisely because it was the Lord (a divine term in the Greek original). There is none of the hesitation of Mary Magdalene earlier in the day. By the same token, Jesus shows them his wounds in considerable detail—the Lord God is one and the same with the human crucified Jesus of Nazareth.
What is overlooked in this Gospel is not just the Ascension event of the day, but the Pentecost event to follow momentarily. We are more accustomed to think of Luke’s Pentecostal event in the Acts of the Apostles fifty days after Easter with fire and tongues, but John portrays the gift of the Spirit in the Easter night event. Jesus announces that he is “commissioning them,” an empowerment they in turn will pass on to the next generation of leaders in the Apostolic tradition. He commissions them and empowers them by breathing the Holy Spirit upon them. It is intriguing to me that Jesus defines their primary mandate of the Spirit as the forgiveness of sins. Grave “sin” at the end of the first century was a Christian synonym for exclusion from the saving Christian Church, particularly the Eucharistic bread of life. The disciples (and their successors) were thus empowered to protect the holiness of the Church, even with such extreme censure.
But as we well know, the entire cohort of the Twelve was not present. Judas met a bad end, but what about Thomas? Sometimes the genius of John is amazing. John has actually set up Thomas for this episode as a bit of a cynical or sarcastic fellow; in John 11:16, when Jesus proposes to go to Jerusalem upon Lazarus’ death, it is Thomas who chimes in, “Let us go along to die with him.” His curmudgeon-like personality aside, Thomas’s famous statement of doubt in Sunday’s Gospel is really no worse or more ill-informed than any of the other disciples. Neither Peter nor his young disciple companion showed much enthusiasm on Easter Sunday morning, and they had seen the empty tomb. Nor, for that matter, had Thomas seen the risen Christ upon his first visit, and more importantly, he had not received the gift of the Spirit.
No, Thomas plays a different role in this Gospel. He is us. He is “every man” who hears the Resurrection story for the first time. He does not believe it. Not only can he not verify it with his senses— “unless I put my fingers in the nail marks”—but he cannot comprehend it, either. It is too strange to be true, too good to be true. Just as ancient Adam is “every man” in terms to sin, Thomas is “every man” who is confronted by the essence of Jesus Christ for the first time.
Thomas would make his famous act of faith as we remember it from our own childhoods, but Jesus’ answer is actually addressed beyond Thomas to everyone who will not see the wounds with their own eyes. “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believed.” What a magnificent statement to a church trying to survive in 100 A.D. and beyond, when all the living witnesses of the resurrected Christ are dead, and the faith rises or falls on the credibility of the Spirit-filled successors of the apostles, the new residential bishops, in faith communities where no one at the Eucharist had living memory of Jesus in his wounded glory.
This is a fitting way for John to end his Gospel. However, still unresolved is the precise relationship between Peter and the Church, and Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Chapter 21 provides that epilogue and the early Church included all twenty-one chapters in the New Testament canon or collection.
The Easter Vigil Gospel: Luke 24:1-12
USCCB link to all Vigil Readings
At daybreak on the first day of the week
the women who had come from Galilee with Jesus
took the spices they had prepared
and went to the tomb.
They found the stone rolled away from the tomb;
but when they entered,
they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
While they were puzzling over this, behold,
two men in dazzling garments appeared to them.
They were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground.
They said to them,
“Why do you seek the living one among the dead?
He is not here, but he has been raised.
Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee,
that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners
and be crucified, and rise on the third day.”
And they remembered his words.
Then they returned from the tomb
and announced all these things to the eleven
and to all the others.
The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James;
the others who accompanied them also told this to the apostles,
but their story seemed like nonsense
and they did not believe them.
But Peter got up and ran to the tomb,
bent down, and saw the burial cloths alone;
then he went home amazed at what had happened.
Easter Morning Gospel: John 20:1-9
USCCB Link to all Easter Sunday Readings
On the first day of the week,
Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning,
while it was still dark,
and saw the stone removed from the tomb.
So she ran and went to Simon Peter
and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them,
“They have taken the Lord from the tomb,
and we don’t know where they put him.”
So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb.
They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter
and arrived at the tomb first;
he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in.
When Simon Peter arrived after him,
he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there,
and the cloth that had covered his head,
not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.
Then the other disciple also went in,
the one who had arrived at the tomb first,
and he saw and believed.
For they did not yet understand the Scripture
that he had to rise from the dead.
A good but not great number of Catholics attend the Easter Vigil as a rule, and a much larger number attend on Easter Sunday itself. This is unfortunate in the sense that the Easter Vigil is the single most important celebration of the Church Year. The Vigil, of its nature, must be celebrated at the earliest after dark on Saturday; in fact, it can be celebrated during the middle of the night until sunrise, as does occur in monasteries and other settings. In United States parish life, the Easter Vigil has acquired a reputation as an extraordinarily long service targeted for a small specialized population, those persons observing the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults who are baptized during the Vigil. The somewhat lopsided emphasis upon a small number of converts is an unfortunate development since Vatican II that cries out for reform, as the Vigil—of all nights—belongs to the entire parish family. But, since we are not going to solve that issue in four days, let’s take a look at the liturgical/scriptural cards we are dealt.
There are two entirely different sets of rites in the Missal, one for the Easter Vigil, and another for Easter Sunday itself starting at sunrise. As the Vigil holds preeminence, the Gospel text for the Vigil Mass comes from the C Cycle’s evangelist, Luke. For Easter Sunday morning Masses, a portion of St. John’s resurrection narrative is proclaimed. And, interestingly, for congregations celebrated Mass in the evening of Easter Sunday, Luke’s narrative of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus may be read. Our focus will be the Vigil and the morning masses.
It is helpful to remember that when Luke took pen in hand to record the Resurrection narratives, over a half century had passed in the interim, as most commentaries date the Gospel of Luke at around 80 A.D., give or take. Consequently, Luke has had considerable time to consider the reports handed down to him, which no doubt included reference to a confused and downcast post-crucifixion phase among Jesus’ followers that may have lasted quite some time. In reading Luke, and the other Gospels for that matter, it is good to consider that we have received an encapsulation, dramatic accounts with rapid resolutions that in fact probably played out over longer periods of time. In particular, Luke’s use of the phrase “forty days” must be seen in its biblical meaning as a “period of time.”
With that in mind, it is evident that Luke is consistent with Mark and Matthew in reporting an early morning discovery by faithful Galilean women of an empty tomb. Luke’s narrative is not nearly as dramatic as Matthew’s, who has other lessons to teach, but the presence of two men in dazzling garments is compelling enough. In fact, the women’s reaction to the stone having been rolled back and the absence of Jesus’ body is remarkably composed until they behold these messengers, and then they fall to the ground. Luke is demonstrating what we might call a psychological awareness curve: the earliest followers came to an awareness that (1) the burial site had been tampered with soon after Jesus’ burial, and (2) Jesus’ body was missing. Both of these factors would have been cause for considerable stress and confusion—as the disciples of Emmaus indicate to Jesus later in the narrative—but the two men in dazzling white apocalyptic garb take the story to a divine plane that none of Jesus’ original followers was quite ready to embrace just yet.
The message of the two men is the heart of Luke’s entire Gospel: everything in this narrative, from Zachary’s encounter with Gabriel in Chapter 1 to Jesus’ glorious farewell at the end of Chapter 24, is “the divinely ordained plan.” For the early followers of Jesus—and we who follow—some portions of God’s plan revealed in Jesus are just grand, like the promise of unending mercy. However, the pain in the plan—the cross, the scandalous death—was too much to comprehend at first. The early Christians were having great difficulty connecting the dots, and they did so haltingly and over varying time lines. In this text the women seem—with the help of the two men—to have recalled the totality of Jesus’ message, and they go off to tell the eleven and others how to connect their dots, apparently without any command or commission from the two men, whose role in the story is finished and they leave immediately.
So the next question becomes, why did the disciples brush them off? It is all the more remarkable because these women have been named in the Gospel earlier and described as virtual companion disciples; one of them is the wife of a high official. In looking at the text closely, Luke describes the women as telling the male disciples “this,” which must refer to the entire salvation narrative that the women themselves recalled with the help of the two men. “This” would also be the same content of Jesus’ own instruction of the two disciples on the Emmaus road later in the narrative. The word picture here is of a sizeable number of articulate women contending with the eleven over the essential meaning of the entire Hebrew Scripture in the light of new information and experience. It is a snapshot, actually, of a prolonged process of gradual unification and understanding among those who would become Christ’s Church.
Peter’s role in this narrative is intriguing. Luke does not tell us if Peter joined in this argument or not, but he alone decided to check the tomb on his own, and he beheld the same conditions as the women had noted earlier, except that in Peter’s visit there are no men in dazzling robes to help him connect the dots. Peter returned home “amazed at what had happened,” implying strongly that Peter at some level knew what happened. Remember too that Peter was long dead when this Gospel was written; there is a statement here of Peter’s legitimacy as the first among equals to come to Resurrection faith, as well as an endorsement of those presently preaching the Resurrection, most notably the bishop of Rome and the first generations successors of the apostles.
The Easter Sunday Gospel from John reflects much of the same teaching intent as Luke’s text above. John’s Gospel was written even later than Luke’s. One of John’s many theological goals was unity of faith. There are indications of divisions in the Church around 100 A.D. with some communities acknowledging “the disciple whom Jesus loved” as the first in faith and distrustful of the majority of churches who looked to Peter’s enduring seat of authority. The final editor of John’s Gospel attempts throughout the Johannine Resurrection narrative to bring the family together, so to speak.
This accounts for the curious protocol at the tomb where the “beloved disciple” (never named) gets there first but does not enter, allowing Peter to enter first. The author provides what I would call “useful ambivalence.” He writes that the younger disciple saw and believed, which would put him ahead of Peter in faith. But then he writes that “they” (Peter and the beloved disciple) did not understand that Jesus had to rise from the dead. The editor/author of John apparently hoped he had soothed the waters with this formula, but such was not the case. Chapter 21 was added to the original text for the precise purpose of identifying Peter’s position in the Church and vis-à-vis the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” establishing once and for all the roles of the two men as we understand them today.
Brew Master’s note: I just returned from voting in today’s Florida Primary. I am told that most of the state has already voted in early open election or by absentee. That seemed to be true at a local church where I cast my ballot. No line. I don’t want to say my ballot was printed a long time ago, but there were about sixteen presidential primary contestants on the GOP state ballot. I have since learned, too, that “withdrawing” from a campaign does not mean “quitting” a campaign, at least by Florida procedures. The ballot looked like an NCAA March Madness bracket selection. Suggestions for the latter are gratefully accepted.
It is hard to believe that next Sunday is Palm Sunday, or officially “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion,” according to the Missal. For those of you of pre-1970 vintage, last Sunday (or Sunday Five of Lent) used to be known as Passion Sunday, when the statues and crosses were covered in purple until the Gloria of the Mass of the Easter Vigil. The last Sunday of Lent was known simply as Palm Sunday, and like today, it has two proclamations of the Gospel: the festive entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem where palms and other plants and cloaks were spread out before his feet, and the solemn proclamation of the Gospel of the Passion. In earlier days the Passion of St. Matthew was always read on Palm Sunday; with the present day cycle the three Synoptic Gospels are read in their appropriate years, and the Passion of St. John is always read on Good Friday.
I have provided a link here to all four of this weekend’s Scripture proclamations. It would be my hope that you have a chance to reflect upon them in any format, with particular emphasis upon St. Luke’s Gospel, as this is the narrative Gospel of Cycle C this year. Today I will just highlight some of Luke’s unique theological insights into his narratives. For starters, Luke depicts the Last Supper as a Passover Meal (22:15), as do Mark and Matthew—John does not, in order to put the time of Jesus’ death at the time of the pre-Passover lambs’ butchering in the Temple. Joel Green (757) notes Jesus’ proclamation that he would not eat this Passover “until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” This is a critical point in Luke, that Jesus’ death was preordained in history and revelation, a point not fully grasped after his Resurrection when Jesus explains the Scripture to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus on Easter.
Luke describes Jesus as taking the opportunity after the main courses of the dinner to talk rather pointedly about his mission and the purpose of his death. He discusses servanthood when his table mates break into an argument about which is the greatest. (What bad timing.) John will expand this into the famous scene of the washing of the feet, proclaimed at the Holy Thursday evening Mass. In 22:28 Jesus pays respect to his men for “being with him” in his trials, (refer back to yesterday’s morality post and the meaning of being “with Jesus”) and he promises them glory as leaders of the restored Twelve Tribes of Israel. The literary irony here is that on the next day, as Jesus hung upon the cross, none of these new “leaders” are to be found. Quite the contrary, a career criminal makes a dramatic confession and plea to be remembered, and Jesus tells him, “This day you will be with me in paradise.” Another theme of Luke: extraordinary mercy, as seen earlier in Luke’s parable of the loving father and his two sons.
Luke records Jesus’ prediction that Peter would betray him that night, but Jesus goes on to talk about the need for preparedness, to the point of obtaining weapons. (22:35-38) He seems to reference coming confrontation. Green identifies two upcoming battles: (1) the aim of Satan to thwart the divine purpose; and (2) the physical hostility the disciples will face as they continue their post Resurrection missionary work. It is important to note that unlike last year’s Passion account from Mark, Luke is writing his Gospel about a decade after the bloody four-year suppression of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. Luke thus already knew how ugly things would get in the generations after the Last Supper.
It is no accident that only Luke has a Good Friday account of women weeping over Jesus as he carries his cross to Golgotha. Jesus, despite his difficulties, stops to address them: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us;’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” Green interprets this text as Jesus redirecting their tears, away from him and toward the city of Jerusalem itself which will be punished for rejecting the Messiah and attempting to thwart God’s plan. Luke, of course, in his writing already knew that this fate had indeed fallen, and it would focus the Christian psyche upon Rome, and no longer Jerusalem.
Going back to the evening dinner, Jesus and his disciples proceed to the Mount of Olives for the episode we often call “The Agony in the Garden.” The prayer of Jesus is real; he is not asking for relief from his coming test but strength to meet it head on. Luke alone makes the point that Jesus sweated profusely, “like drops of blood,” but Green observes that this is the sweat of an athlete already engaged in the world’s most serious combat. The presence of angels suggests that this is the final apocalyptic battle of God’s Son over the massed power of the world’s evil. And even in the moment of his arrest—a rather violent encounter where one man lost his ear—Jesus extends mercy to the wounded representative by a restorative healing. This, too, appears only in Luke.
One of the truly unusual features of Luke’s passion narrative is Pilate’s decision to send Jesus to Herod. (Luke 23: 6-12) This episode is recorded nowhere else, though it is memorialized in the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar, where Herod sings, “Prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool.” In actuality Green finds that Rome was very reluctant to get involved in what Pilate interpreted as something of an intramural religious dispute, and thus very happy to pass Jesus to another jurisdiction, so to speak. A second point of this episode is the opportunity of the Jewish leadership to again show its true colors, as Luke writes that in the presence of Herod they protested “vehemently” against Jesus. In this Gospel Herod has already played a not insignificant role. He had John the Baptist beheaded, expressed an interest in seeing Jesus (Luke 9: 7-9) and later expressed a desire to kill him (Luke 13:31). In the end, Herod proves to be just another unbeliever looking for signs as proofs, and Jesus remains silent throughout.
I have here attempted to highlight some of the portions of the Passion Narrative that are unique to Luke, our evangelist in the C Cycle. I have only scratched the surface, and I hope that you do have the opportunity to reflect at greater length on Sunday’s Passion account, not simply from academic curiosity but with a burning conviction to pray and stand “with Jesus” as you fight your own cosmic battles with the evils of the world.
For those of you who wish to pursue advanced reading, Joel Green’s commentary, our house source, (pp. 744-831) is excellent; the link is on the home page of the blog. For other sources, progressing from easiest to most challenging, I might suggest A Crucified Christ in Holy Week by Father Raymond Brown; Luke: Artist and Theologian, Passion Account as Literature by Father Robert Karris; The Passion According to Luke: A Redaction Study of Luke’s Soteriology by Father Jerome Neyrey, and finally the massive The Death of the Messiah by Father Brown. (I see my review of this last work in 2004 is still on its Amazon page.)
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT
JOHN 8: 1-11 LINK TO USCCB ALL THREE READINGS
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area,
and all the people started coming to him,
and he sat down and taught them.
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman
who had been caught in adultery
and made her stand in the middle.
They said to him,
“Teacher, this woman was caught
in the very act of committing adultery.
Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.
So what do you say?”
They said this to test him,
so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
But when they continued asking him,
he straightened up and said to them,
“Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
And in response, they went away one by one,
beginning with the elders.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
“Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
There is a break in the narrative of St. Luke, as this coming Sunday’s Gospel recalls the episode of Jesus and the adulterous woman brought to him by the scribes and Pharisees as written by St. John. Depending on which source you use privately, this entire text may or may not be bracketed. The USCCB text here does not show brackets, but your household bible like my New American Bible may show all eleven lines in brackets.
Brackets in a Bible have technical purposes. They are the equivalent of those highway signs that read “construction ahead” (or in Pennsylvania, “Temporary Inconvenience for Permanent Improvement.”) You want to watch the road a little more closely for the unusual. Brackets are most commonly seen in missalettes or worship aids as an indicator that for some reason—usually length—only a portion of a full reading need be proclaimed at a particular Mass. The priest or deacon may omit the text in brackets. The Church give the celebrant an option of shorter or longer versions on some Sundays. A few times I have written a Tuesday commentary here on the blogsite for the entire text of a Sunday, but then my own parish went with the shortened version.
In a full Bible, brackets indicate that there is some question about the intended word or phrase. There is no such thing as an “original Bible.” What we hold in our hands is a compilation of thousands upon thousands of manuscripts, parchments, scrolls, even fragments. Problems arise when, say, 53% of extant texts use one phrasing and 47% use another. Editors of a Bible will put the more likely reading in the narrative but then bracket that text, putting the variant reading at the bottom of the page in a footnote. The principle of Biblical inerrancy (truth) applies to a biblical book as a whole and the intent of the divinely inspired author, not to the exactitude of every word.
But in Sunday’s reading the entire episode is bracketed, which indicates that the Church has reflected for a long time about this text. I checked two of the most respected biblical commentaries, the venerable Anchor Bible commentary series (John vol. 1, Raymond E. Brown) and my trusty Jerome Biblical Commentary. Both sources concur with the footnote from the New American Bible regarding Sunday’s Gospel: “The story of the adulteress is missing from the best early Greek manuscripts. Where it does appear, it is found in different places in different manuscripts… [including after Luke 21:38!]. It seems to have been preserved largely in Western and Latin circles. There are many non-Johannine features in the language, and there are also many doubtful readings. It appears in Jerome’s Vulgate. However, it is certainly out of place here: it fits better with the general situation in Luke 21:38. The Catholic Church accepts it as inspired Scripture.” (NAB, footnote 7:53ff)
So in a strange way we are back at least to the spirit of the narrative of St. Luke. But there is one more useful point from the resources that would seem to help our personal reflection, and that is the possible answer to why this portion of John’s or Luke’s Gospel, reflecting an ancient story of Jesus, appears so late in history, relatively speaking? The Anchor Bible commentary offers this explanation: “The ease with which Jesus forgave the adulteress was hard to reconcile with the stern penitential discipline in vogue in the early Church.” (335) This explanation concurs very well with what we know of third century Church morality and the formative rite of the Sacrament of Penance—the three grave sins of the time being adultery, apostasy, and murder. (The Monday blogs will expand this.)
It struck me that in this late stage of Lent, and in the midst of a Year of Mercy proclaimed by the Church, we will hear a Gospel story of mercy that even the Church took nearly four centuries to accept into its liturgies. Irony does not deflate spirituality; in these circumstances, quite the opposite.
In the text as it stands today, Jesus is put to the test by his enemies regarding what was a capital offense with a punishment of stoning. In truth the bulk of the story focuses on the intentions of the accusers. The Gospel is very clear that the married woman was “caught in the very act,” so her guilt or innocence is not the question. The actual question is conspiracy: Jewish Law is clear that there must be two witnesses to the accusation. This is not a hearsay report. Two men put themselves in position to witness an act of intercourse; were they hiding behind a curtain? Peering in through the roof?
This episode has “set-up” written all over it. The Anchor commentary includes a theory that one of the two witnesses is the “aggrieved” husband, and that what Jesus wrote on the ground was a passage from Exodus 23, “You shall not join hands with a wicked man (to be a malicious witness.)” It is impossible to know exactly what Jesus wrote, but there is more clarity in his observation that the sinless man amongst them should cast the first stone. Again the Anchor commentary is very helpful: Jesus was not denying the proper procedures of law and justice, but in this case he was essentially putting down mob rule, since no one remained to prosecute what Jesus had exposed as an ill-intentioned plot, even where an actual transgression of the law had occurred.
I cannot help but think back two years to the now famous observation of Pope Francis before a press gathering on a plane, “Who am I to judge?” The laws of God are eternal—but never defended by mob violence. It must be with clean hands and clean hearts that we make our judgments, and if we are to err, best it be on the side of compassion.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT
LUKE 15: 1-3, 11-32 USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So to them Jesus addressed this parable:
“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”
I almost feel guilty about sliding into “analytical mode” on the heels of reading one of the most compelling parables of Jesus. There is not much mystery here in terms of the hearts of the parties involved, or the essential message that Jesus conveys in such a marvelous way. What I can do, though, is set some context and point out various linguistic choices with which Luke makes this parable so compelling.
The Gospel text appears in Chapter 15, which opens with the multitude of tax collectors and sinners coming near to listen to him. Evidently the immoral sinners take Jesus more seriously than the Pharisees, who do not come to listen but to complain about Jesus’ welcoming and socializing with these undesirables. Conversing and eating with sinners carried two risks, of course. First, there was the legal matter of uncleanness in Jewish customs of the time. But second was what I would refer to as the “Mr. Carson” objection from Downton Abbey, “That sort of thing is never done.”
Luke then proceeds with two brief parables about recovering the lost: the first is the rejoicing over the discovery of the lost sheep who has somehow wandered away from the other 99. The second is the brief tale of a woman who loses one of her ten coins and rejoices when she finds it—to the point of inviting her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. (I have always wondered if the rejoicing cost more than the coin, but this blog is not The Wall Street Journal.) The common denominator is the rejoicing of finding the restoring what has been lost.
But then Jesus launches in the piece de resistance, a lengthy narrative of a family divided. Joel Green (578ff) comments that numerically the “losses” in this series of parables become more acute: 100 sheep to 10 coins to a little family triad. As long as I remember this narrative, it was called the tale of “The Prodigal Son.” In recent times it has become “The Story of the Loving Father.” It is also possible that one could speak of the alienation of the other brother. All three titles would be appropriate.
All three of these men are in need of redemption, they all “need to be found.” There is an old saying among family therapists that a disruptive child is “the symptoms carrier” of an entire family. His outlandish behavior eventually gets the whole family to the counselor’s office where the family’s systematic illness can be addressed and treated. In our story at hand, the younger son’s conduct is definitely egregious; Green points out that the liquid disposal of an estate before a father’s death was highly unusual and was in fact scorned. Younger sons in the Middle East were often regarded as “lazy and irresponsible,” and the custom of the time was to leave the greater share of the estate to the older, trustworthy brother(s). It is worth noting, though, that according to Luke the elder brother received his share of the estate at the time of the younger brother’s request.
Jesus describes the younger son’s sojourn to “a distant country,” that is, Gentile lands. Whether the young son fully understood the depth of his affront to his family, particularly his father, is hard to say. In fact, he had turned his back on his Jewish heritage and spent the wages of his father’s devout life on “a life of dissipation.” (It is the older son who will spell out his dissipation later, without any evident sources in the story.) The younger son learns two hard lessons: money goes quickly, and famines occur when you least expect them.
Jesus remarks that in the midst of his plight, “nobody gave him any [food].” It is dawning on the son that Rome was not Israel; The Roman writer Plautus spoke for his times and his culture when he observed, “He does the beggar a bad service who gives him meat and drink, for what he gives is lost and the life of the poor is prolonged to their own misery.” The conversion of this young man is gradual: he comes to see his own plight with clarity and that the servants of his father fare much better than he. He sets off for home rehearsing a speech that indeed includes a request for forgiveness but not for full restoration. He would be content to assume a servant’s life, as this is as much as he can dare expect.
The wondrous surprise in this parable is the father’s eagerness to wave off the son’s rehearsed speech; the young man can only get through half the text before the father’s joy at having him home consumes the scene. Green, for example, underscores a scene of a rich landowner running down the street to meet a son who in essence had publicly disowned him. The embrace, the kiss, the robe, the ring, and the sandals are public signs that the young son has been restored to full membership in his family.
I am reminded of Luther’s famous phrase, “Sin strongly, but believe more strongly.” The young son has certainly sinned strongly and, thanks to his father, come to believe more strongly. But what of the older brother? In truth, he has no personality in the story until now. The fact that he is in the field as a site-manager is an indication of his esteem in which he is held by his father. But the first he knows of anything is learned from a servant—who gives him quite a mouthful in a few phrases. It is interesting that the servant calls the younger sibling “your brother,” but the elder son will later refer to him as “this son of yours.”
What we come to see is that the father and the older son have lived in alienation for quite some time. The son’s immediate reaction of anger is not totally unreasonable. As Green writes, “Why is it that recklessness and shamelessness are rewarded with jubilation, when responsibility and obedience have received no recognition?” And yet the elder son’s behavior is inexcusable. He refuses to come into the house, refuses to call his father by his title, and complains—during the party—about his father’s mistreatment, an accusation involving a goat barbecue of all things. The true rage, however, is most intense in his words that “all these years I served you.” The older NAB (1970) translation reads, “All these years I slaved for you.…”
The father takes this abuse, but he does draw a line in the sand: if we are to remain a family, we (you and I together) must rejoice that your dead son has come back to life. The parable leaves us hanging; we will never know what the elder son decides to do. But this parable is very clear about us: if we cannot rejoice at the conversion of the sinner and the undeserved mercy of God, we have no place in God’s family.