NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: WISDOM 1:13-15; 2:23-24
THIRTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings here.
God did not make death,
nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
and there is not a destructive drug among them
nor any domain of the netherworld on earth,
for justice is undying.
For God formed man to be imperishable;
the image of his own nature he made him.
But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,
and they who belong to his company experience it.
All my sources place the composition of the Book of Wisdom at about 50 B.C. or just before the Christian Era. The work was composed in Greek, not Hebrew, even though the author sometimes speaks in the voice of Solomon, who lived a millennium earlier. Wisdom was written in Alexandria, Egypt, for Jews of the Diaspora or scattering that began at the end of the Babylonian Captivity in 539 B.C. when Jews did not all return to Jerusalem but began settling in other parts of the world.
It is hard to conceive of a city with greater academic riches than Alexandria at the time of Christ; situated in Egypt and energized after the conquest of Alexander the Great around 300 B.C., Alexandria became a universal learning center, remembered for its famous library, the largest in antiquity, established by the Ptolemy dynasty. Marc Antony, by some accounts, gave his bride Cleopatra 200,000 volumes as a wedding present for the library. The goals of its founder in the mid-third century B.C. included assembling a copy of every book in the world; estimates range from 40,000-400,000 volumes. The Romans burned the library probably during the struggle between Marc Antony and Octavian for the Roman emperorship, in about 30 B.C.
A sizeable community of Jews lived in Alexandria, and it was inevitable that their books of revelation and the thoughts of their scholars would fall under scrutiny and serve as the object of heated debate in the forums of discussion in this cosmopolitan setting of writing and research. What critics of Jewish belief attacked most strenuously was the Hebrew understanding of the workings of God. This was probably an extension of the debate over the nature of evil, which continues to the present day. The issue was the question of whether God created evil and suffering in the world.
The response of the Jewish community is the Book of Wisdom, from which our first reading of this weekend is taken. Reviewing the text again, we see the very strenuous assertion that “God did not create death.” In fact, the Wisdom authors are lavish in their praise of God the Creator, proclaiming that all of creation is wholesome and nothing was made to hurt a human being, not even a drug. Wisdom declares that God’s ultimate act was to make man like himself, imperishable.
Critics—then, and five centuries later when St. Augustine compiled a massive analysis of the question in his work on the Genesis creation account—could easily contend that there was plenty of evil in the world and that man was, claims to the contrary, destructible. Jewish and later Christian preachers and thinkers would have to square the circle, so to speak, and this is the purpose of Wisdom 2: 23-24. In Sunday’s concluding lines, the injection of evil into human existence is “the envy of the devil” who introduced death into the world. This model of anthropology is well established in Christian thought, for it removes God from the onus for sin and pain while at the same time making the cross of Christ a cosmic necessity.
When Augustine addressed this question as a Christian bishop in the fifth century A.D., he ran askew on some of the basic point in the Garden Narrative of creation. For our purposes here, I will cite just one. Genesis 3 is very clear on the introduction of evil chaos: “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the creatures God had made.” Over the centuries interpreters—including my third-grade teacher—have approached this conundrum with the idea that the devil usurped the identity of an earthly creature to counter the perfect intentions of God. To follow the logic of this, one would have to accept the contention that from the beginning there was a being powerful enough to derail the creating Will of God.
The more disquieting attempt at an explanation is the assertion of Sunday’s reading is that God made man in his own nature, an assertion that humankind bears an incredible potency to create. And, looking around about us, we have not exercised it well.
THIS SUNDAY’S FIRST READINGS
FEAST OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST
USCCB link to all three readings
SATURDAY VIGIL MASS: JEREMIAH 1: 4-10 (or the Sunday reading may be used)
In the days of King Josiah, the word of the LORD came to me, saying:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you.
"Ah, Lord GOD!" I said,
"I know not how to speak; I am too young."
But the LORD answered me,
Say not, "I am too young."
To whomever I send you, you shall go;
whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Have no fear before them,
because I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.
Then the LORD extended his hand and touched my mouth, saying,
See, I place my words in your mouth!
This day I set you
over nations and over kingdoms,
to root up and to tear down,
to destroy and to demolish,
to build and to plant.
SUNDAY FIRST READING: ISAIAH 49: 1-6
Hear me, O coastlands,
listen, O distant peoples.
The LORD called me from birth,
from my mother's womb he gave me my name.
He made of me a sharp-edged sword
and concealed me in the shadow of his arm.
He made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me.
You are my servant, he said to me,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.
Though I thought I had toiled in vain,
and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
yet my reward is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.
For now the LORD has spoken
who formed me as his servant from the womb,
that Jacob may be brought back to him
and Israel gathered to him;
and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD,
and my God is now my strength!
It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
There are a few feasts in the Roman calendar that override the standard Sunday observance when these feasts fall on a Sunday. All Saints Day, All Souls Day, The Transfiguration (August 6) and the observance of John the Baptist all come to mind. The Baptist enjoys a preeminence in the observance of the saints. In the missal of my youth there were three feasts dedicated to John the Baptist: the vigil of his feast in purple vestments (June 23), the feast itself (June 24), and a separate observance of his martyrdom in red vestments on August 29. In 1970 the Missal dropped the separate day of vigil but maintained this June 24 feast we observe this weekend as well as the August 29 feast of his martyrdom.
John the Baptist is one of the most highly visible characters in the Gospels. Scholarship today continues to examine his origins, his relationship to the Old Testament prophets, his relationship to Jesus, and his impact upon the early Church. Jesus talked of him frequently after John’s martyrdom, challenging his enemies to say publicly whether “John’s baptism is of God.” That Jesus himself submitted to John’s baptism has been a point of some disquiet for some, to the point that the history is retold with high levels of factual certainty, for who of the evangelists would have invented a story highlighting Jesus’ subservience to John and his ritual of forgiveness of sin?
Defining John’s place in salvation in history is not easy. One can argue that he is the last great Old Testament prophet; one can also argue that the prophetic John is the first to announce the Kingdom of God in the fashion that Jesus would use in his own ministry. Although the two readings listed above come from different authors and times, they bear two common features: (1) that God preordains his special servants from their birth, or even in the womb; and (2) God works through his prophets, providing them with strength and success when all odds stack against them.
Did the Hebrew Scriptures cited here predict the coming of John? Jeremiah begins his prophecy around 627 B.C. and holds the record for the longest span of prophetic activity, 45 years. During that time, he would have preached during the final days before the Babylonian exile, when Israel’s kings failed to carry out the reforms required on them to keep the soul of the Covenant with God alive. After the punishments had befallen his people. Jeremiah turned his gaze to “the hope that God would eventually restore his people.” (Boadt, p. 327) But the idea of restoration is multifaceted. Jeremiah gives indications that he sees the power of Babylon as limited, like Egypt’s, and that a better day lie ahead for God’s chosen ones.
But Jeremiah’s later preaching is marked with a new moral stance. Israel had brought suffering upon itself by the ineffectiveness of its kings, whose primary failures boiled down to a failure to keep the Covenant delivered by Moses through the Law. It may have occurred to the prophet that the paradigm under which Israel lived and understood the Law needed a new theological expression. Again, to draw from Father Boadt, Jeremiah came to understand that the Law was not an objective rule carved in stone, but rather that the future would herald a writing of God’s moral commands on the heart of each believer with an accompanying grace of the Spirit to carry forth the personal living of God’s commandments.
Without losing its corporate identity, Israel was being introduced to a personal sense of morality, where fidelity was not the full provenance of the king but of every son and daughter of Abraham. Jeremiah did not live to see the end of the Babylonian Captivity, but if he had, he would have seen a resurgence of a personal responsibility for fidelity to the Law, to the point that Jews cast off wives of foreign descent and rejoiced at hearing the Word once more to the point of deep personal emotion, a post-Exilic time described in detail in the historical Biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
It is not a coincidence that when John the Baptist began to preach and baptize along the Jordan, the crowds recognized him as prophetic, empowered by God’s spirit. John’s preaching cannot easily be connected to any branch of Judaism then in existence, but rather to a more universal call to personal holiness in the forgiveness of sins. St. Luke’s Gospel speaks of John’s words addressed to Roman soldiers as well as Jewish compatriots. The morality of John is highly personal in terms of accountability; he describes the judgment at the end of time as the separation of wheat from chaff, the latter burned in a great fire.
It is unlikely that Jeremiah, or for that matter the author of Isaiah in Sunday’s first reading, had the specific character of a John the Baptist in mind in either of Sunday’s readings. But, given that both Gospels for the weekend Masses speak of the conception and birth of the Baptist in terms of Hebrew history, metaphor, and expectations, it is more likely that as was common in the early Church, Christians identified the profound meaning of Jesus’ message and ministry by a “rereading” of the Hebrew Scripture. The same is true in the fashion that Christians came to understand the Baptist’s identity and role in the proclamation of the Kingdom of God fulfilled in Christ.
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: EZECHIEL 17: 22-24
ELEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
Thus says the Lord GOD:
I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar,
from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot,
and plant it on a high and lofty mountain;
on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it.
It shall put forth branches and bear fruit,
and become a majestic cedar.
Birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it,
every winged thing in the shade of its boughs.
And all the trees of the field shall know
that I, the LORD,
bring low the high tree,
lift high the lowly tree,
wither up the green tree,
and make the withered tree bloom.
As I, the LORD, have spoken, so will I do.
In reading for the Reformation posts, I came across a description of how young Martin Luther was taught the Bible in school. In 1500 the consciousness of “Bible” was quite different from our sense of a bound, unified collection. For much of our history the Bible, in the public mind and in the catechetics of the age, was a selection of texts that served Church worship and academics. Any text or reading was approached in a four-step process: (1) the literal sense, which in Luther’s day meant how a text applied to Christ; (2) the topological sense, its moral interpretation; (3) the allegorical sense, how the text applied to the Church, and (4) the anagogic sense, the text’s relationship to the end times.
How this method came into being is a complicated story, but by the early medieval era the art of theology was essentially answering these four questions in Scripture texts, with the best responses published in books called “sentences.” The most famous collection, ultimately the definitive collection, was written by Peter Lombard between 1147 and 1151. Any prospective Church scholar was expected to write a commentary on The Sentences of Lombard. Luther himself, as normal for the times, was expected to master The Sentences. The integrity of The Sentences was proclaimed at the Council IV Lateran in 1215. What this boils down to is the medieval method of Biblical study, i.e., the mastery of earlier interpretations summarized by Peter Lombard. Not only was this a grueling exercise for hungry, idealistic young scholars, but a student could only penetrate the interpretations of Peter Lombard and his commentators. In Luther’s monastery—as in most others—monks were forbidden to read the stand-alone Bible, only the ivy-covered interpretations of select sections from previous centuries.
The Renaissance—which encouraged men of letters to examine ancient texts for themselves—and the printing press led to more expansive study of the Bible, but Luther emphasized the freedom of any Christian reader to embrace the books of the Bible as entities unto themselves whereby God might speak directly to the heart of the reader. Luther himself was saved from possible madness when he broke from traditional interpretations and trusted his conscience on his personal interpretation of St. Paul that humanity is saved by the free grace of a forgiving God, and not through arbitrary works to buy one’s way into heaven.
The history of Biblical interpretation brings up the question of how we embrace Biblical texts today such as our first reading this coming Sunday. May we bring our personal insights into “interpreting” what we read in preparation for Mass and direction in Christian living? I would answer that with a qualified yes. The medieval method of Bible study may have been stifling, but at the risk of throwing out the baby with the bath water, it is also true that the Church is filled with the Holy Spirit, so that its collective authority and scholarship serves as something of a safety net to keep the sincere reader in the family of united understanding.
In approaching Sunday’s reading, two projects of importance are examining the relationship of the Ezekiel text with the assigned Sunday Gospel, from Mark 4, and assessing the Book of Ezekiel itself, particularly Chapter 17. The second task might be more formidable than the first, but it is the honest preventative from concocting an interpretation that is little more than empty personal projection.
Since the first reading is almost always from the Hebrew Scripture, some introductory orientation is necessary. The USCCB’s introduction to each book of the Bible, such as an on-line overview of the Book of Ezekiel, gives us the time and the setting, as well as clues to what the sacred author(s) meant to pass along. On the Café title page, I have a link to Father Lawrence Boadt’s 2014 overview of the Old Testament for new readers, and major Catholic publishers such as Paulist Press and Liturgical Press offer individual commentaries on the various books if you are so inclined.
The Prophet Ezekiel preached before and during the Babylonian Captivity (roughly 600 B.C.-540 B.C.). Ezekiel delivered powerful sermons warning Israel that its internal and external conduct together would bring a justified wrath from God in the form of foreign destruction and prolonged exile from the homeland. As the book progresses, and Ezekiel himself is forced into exile, he becomes more apocalyptic, uttering promises of hope for Israel at a time when this virtue was in short supply. If you look closely at next Sunday’s reading, you can see the prophet-poet at work; God will take a tiny branch and plant it on a high and lofty mountain where it will bear much fruit. This is a daring metaphor to put forth in the depths of hopeless slavery.
So why did the Church, in its wisdom, pair this reading with Mark 4? Perhaps because Jesus, six centuries later, makes use of a parable or metaphor remarkably like Ezekiel’s. Jesus speaks of the mustard seed, the humblest of garden sowing, growing forth into a massive tree where various forms of life live safely and profitably under its canopy. The common themes here between the two readings are the unlikelihood or the mysterious process by which small plants become great despite incredible odds, and that these wondrous things will occur in the future after a period of trial. Ezekiel and Jesus preached at different times and at different stages in God’s plan: Ezekiel saw the future as the restoration of Israel, while Jesus has his sights on the Kingdom of God inexorably making its way toward the conquering of the kingdom of evil.
So long as one has taken the time to address the setting of a text and the likely intention of the author, as best as we can determine that, one is free to “ponder these things in one’s heart,” to paraphrase the spiritual life of the Virgin Mary, certainly to a degree much greater than the young monk Luther was permitted to do.