Next Sunday’s Gospel from the USCCP site here. (Matthew 5: 1-12a)
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain,
and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.
He began to teach them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you
and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward will be great in heaven.”
Although the Sundays of November are captivating for their feasts, the Lectionary selections for November are not kind to the conclusion of the narrative of St. Mark, which has formed the backbone of this year’s Cycle B readings. November is the final month of the Church’s liturgical year, with Cycle C and the Gospel of Luke beginning on November 29, Thanksgiving weekend. This coming Sunday, November 1, the Feast of All Saints, has its own prayers and readings unique to the day which supersede the Mass texts for the Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time. Holy Days and major feasts take precedence when they fall on Sundays. Mark will be back on November 8 with Jesus’ observations about the poor woman’s simple gift to the temple. The final reading from St. Mark is November 15, his famous apocalyptic description of the end times. The last Sunday of Ordinary Time (the 34th) is always replaced by the Feast of Christ the King, and in the B Cycle the Gospel is drawn from St. John, Jesus’ encounter with Pilate on Good Friday.
From the preceding paragraph you may catch a hint that in the worship of November is oriented toward “the Last Things.” This is true to a point; for most of Catholic history, at least as far back as the 600’s, the Church has had a celebration of the saints and the souls in Purgatory. In its origins All Saints was part of a three day observance: the vigil of All Saints (October 31), the feast of All Saints (November 1) and the Memorial of All Souls (November 2). The October 31 Vigil was known as the Vigil of all the Hallowed (holy) Ones, and this lengthy term was shortened to Halloween over time.
Now that I have raised the “H” word, I guess I have to finish. Halloween began with religious roots. In looking at several sources, it seems that at some point the vigil of All Saints either coopted some pesky pagan customs (Celtic, sorry to say) or may have inadvertently encouraged local customs of the macabre, given the subject matter of the feasts, death and the grave. Those with long memories may recall that in the 1980’s there was a strong Evangelical campaign to stamp out the October 31 observance in the U.S. because of Satan’s influence. NPR looked long and hard for a clergyman dumb enough to go on the air and defend Halloween…and they found one. I explained the original meaning of Halloween as the Vigil of All Saints—“take that, you uneducated ministers”—and crossed my fingers that my career, such as it was, would not take too big a hit. A few days later I was in the chancery for an unrelated meeting which included our diocesan director of liturgy. In front of a table of my peers he said to me out loud, “I heard you on NPR. You sounded like you were defending your right to collect free candy.”
The history of the All Saints-All Souls commemoration in its various forms is the Church’s most intense liturgical focus on where we go after we die. The Baltimore Catechism used to speak of the Church as a three-part entity: (1) the Church triumphant, the saints; (2) the Church suffering, those who have died and are making the difficult passage from our imperfect world of sin to the beatific vision of God, in a state known as Purgatory; and (3) the Church militant, we the living who are entrusted with saving our souls and spreading the kingdom of God. (Those in hell were no longer factored into the equation.)
It is the third group where the jury is out; we still have determinative options about our own futures beyond the grave.
This is the liturgical theme underlying Sunday’s Mass and Scripture selection. The Gospel for the feast (Matthew 5: 1-12) is the opening of the famous Sermon on the Mount. We have not talked much about St. Matthew yet; his Gospel is proclaimed during Cycle A and it will be another year before we will study it together here on the blog. But a few points may help to explain this text’s placement here. As a stand-alone text, the Sunday reading will be easily recognized as the “Eight Beatitudes” or the principles of Gospel living. If the parallels between Jesus delivering new law from a mountain reminds you of Moses on Sinai receiving and then delivering the Ten Commandments, that seems to be the intent of St. Matthew. Writing to a community composed of Christians who had converted from Judaism, Matthew is working to keep the community Christian, as many members were facing persecution and fleeing back to Judaism, who received better treatment from Roman authorities. Matthew’s Gospel as a whole is an effort to portray Jesus as the New Moses, and the Church as the New Jerusalem. The Beatitudes have thus set the bar higher. They do not dissolve the Ten Commandments, but they define the Judeo-Christian life as the quest for a perfect life. The Swiss theologian and Vatican Council peritus Hans Kung put it well when he wrote that Christianity is the only religion in the world to demand that its members strive to become like their God.
The Beatitudes, unlike any other moral code, are open ended to perfection. We are called to be poor in spirit, sorrowing (over the suffering of others and our own sinfulness), to be lowly, to hunger and thirst for holiness, to show mercy, to be single-hearted, to be peacemakers, and to endure persecution for our “differentness” as Christians. No one can say he or she has “done” the beatitudes (as in the case of the young man in Mark’s Gospel, who said he had followed the commandments from his youth.) Since all of us will face judgment, we can imagine the grim scene where someone tries to explain to God that “I was a peacemaker for much of my life, but I figured I did enough of that and I went back to being contentious.
The Feast of All Saints is not a remembrance of real saints who don’t get much attention nowadays, which is what I was taught in elementary school. The feast, and certainly the Gospel, is targeted to that third group, “the Church Militant,” who still have the opportunity of choice about what happens to us when the casket closes.
Sunday’s Reading: Mark 10: 46-52 USCCB Text Link
As Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd,
Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus,
sat by the roadside begging.
On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth,
he began to cry out and say,
"Jesus, son of David, have pity on me."
And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent.
But he kept calling out all the more,
"Son of David, have pity on me."
Jesus stopped and said, "Call him."
So they called the blind man, saying to him,
"Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you."
He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.
Jesus said to him in reply, "What do you want me to do for you?"
The blind man replied to him, "Master, I want to see."
Jesus told him, "Go your way; your faith has saved you."
Immediately he received his sight
and followed him on the way.
+ + + + + +
This Sunday’s Gospel, the healing of blind Bartimaeus reported in Mark and in various forms in the other Gospels, is as good an opportunity as any to discuss the term “miracle.” This is another of those “collective nouns” that embodies an incredible range of acts and attitudes. The word “miracle” was less a problem for Church and society before the Enlightenment, when the bifurcation or split between the spiritual and the physical was less pronounced in the collective psyche. Around 1600 advanced scientific observation led to the development of quantifiable and observable laws and principles of matter. The scientific method of proof took center stage, and at least in our Western culture, continues to do so as a rule. Newton defined motion’s laws with Kepler’s and others’ mathematic advances—without computers, no less—and the planets Neptune and Pluto were discovered on paper before being recognized by any astronomer through a telescope.
Thus the modern meaning of miracle is an act or event that runs counter to what we know by scientific evidence and observation. The term, when applied to Jesus in the non-theological sense, refers to his acts of healing and powers over nature. The story of Bartimaeus is actually less remarkable by this standard than Jesus driving demons into a herd of swine who promptly killed themselves by dashing into the sea (Mark 5: 1-20, if you don’t believe me.) So, in this era of evangelical fervor versus scientific certitude, can one say that Jesus actually restored sight to Bartimaeus, or fed five thousand with five high-fiber barley loaves, or for that matter, rose from the dead?
Critical observers of the Scriptures would have to admit that whatever their nature, miracles of all sorts were attributed to Jesus by four distinct reporters of his tradition. In Scripture study this is referred to as the “law of multiple attestation.” An outsider would also have to agree that these miracles are never stand-alone events. They are always connected to a movement of faith. In Sunday’s Gospel, for example, Bartimaeus manifests an enthused, confident, and energetic expectation that this “Son of David” can restore his sight, and he is not put off by the naysayers who try to silence him. Father Daniel Harrington refers to this episode as “a call story” as much as a miracle story. Jesus gives Bartimaeus an expressed opportunity to state what he needs (and, implicitly, what he believes Jesus can do.) Not only is the blind man healed, but he becomes a follower of Jesus. The relationship between faith and miracles is enhanced earlier in Mark when he reports that Jesus could not perform many miracles in his home town, due to its lack of faith.
Of course, we have not addressed the question of whether Jesus did (or could do) all the miraculous things attributed him by the Evangelists. Miracle accounts could be a metaphoric theological literary form invented by Mark and copied by the other evangelists for their catechetical value. Or, miracle stories of Jesus may be inspired by the Hebrew Scriptures and great works attributed to Elijah and others. In some cases I suspect there is truth to this. But I would propose that there is a starting point to reflections on miracles where honesty compels us to start.
In all of the Judeo-Christian tradition rests the core belief that in the beginning was God. Catholic theology has consistently held that God’s perfection and total otherness means God had no need to create. That God would undertake creation is, aside from God’s own existence, a wonder to behold, a reality that exceeds the tenets of science as we know it. It is, to be sure, the ultimate miracle. I am fully aware that there are many who do not believe this description of the beginning of being, and probably many more who give lip service in the Creed without absorbing the wondrous heart of the matter.
The best way I can describe faith to my students, and to myself for that matter, is by focusing on our point of origin. Science, including philosophy and theology, provides us with organizational tools for our reflections, but the true consent of faith—like Bartimaeus’ in the Gospel—originates in that part of us we owe to God’s creation. Over my years in grad school professors described this human faith in a variety of ways; the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich had just died (1965) and was very much in vogue at that time. Tillich had unconventional ways of making theological points; the term that has stuck with me over the years is his expression of God as the “ground of being.” I was trained in essence to approach prayer and belief as grounded in the miracle that is God; my existence and all that I do or feel or believe ultimately rounds back to this grounding in God’s mystery.
As a struggling pilgrim, the question of my faith and all of its questions revert to the one reality—or miracle, if you will—that I am, and that I sense within me my grounding in mystery. Given this miracle, are other miracles possible? I would have to say yes, but with the proviso that there is a “hierarchy” of mysteries that brings us back to the reality of being and creation as miracles themselves. I am not deeply read in Tillich’s system of thought, but my guess is that Tillich would have seen Jesus returning to his own ground of being, a man in time who is God, for whom all things are possible.
[Tillich also said, “Boredom is rage spread thin.” I love him.]
Gospel Mk 10:35-45 USCCB website source
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him,
"Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."
He replied, "What do you wish me to do for you?"
They answered him, "Grant that in your glory
we may sit one at your right and the other at your left."
Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking.
Can you drink the cup that I drink
or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?"
They said to him, "We can."
Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink, you will drink,
and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;
but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give
but is for those for whom it has been prepared."
When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.
Jesus summoned them and said to them,
"You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles
lord it over them,
and their great ones make their authority over them felt.
But it shall not be so among you.
Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.
For the Son of Man did not come to be served
but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Because the Catholic Lectionary does not include every episode or passage from the four Gospels, there are times when it is helpful to look at a Bible or a commentary to see the setting of the Sunday reading, for example. Thus, it is worth noting that the episode for this coming weekend’s liturgy is set directly after the third prediction by Jesus of his upcoming arrest, trial, and death; in addition, Mark, like Luke, adds a further dimension that Jesus had made up his mind (or “set his face” as Luke puts it) to go to Jerusalem for the final showdown with those who are actively dismantling his mission on behalf of the Kingdom of God.
If Jesus is under assault, his disciples are blissfully unaware of it. Sunday’s Gospel is a powerful argument that the Twelve are actually regressing in their faith journey. For the request of James and John that opens the Sunday Gospel occurs after the disciples have heard Jesus’ prediction not once but three times! James and John sound like the farmer’s two sons standing at the bed of their sick father. “When you kick off, pa, which one of us gets the new tractor?”
I returned to Father Harrington’s analysis in the Jerome Biblical Commentary (618-19), who notes that the insensitivity to and ignorance of James and John is particularly galling, since Peter, James and John had formed something of an inner circle, exclusively witnessing certain miracles and even the Transfiguration. James and John, of course, are the notorious boanerges or “sons of thunder” whose impulsive tempers and self-aggrandizing tendencies are something of a trademark of this Gospel. Their behavior here is so outlandish that Matthew, writing later with more hindsight, edits and softens the text to blame the parents, so to speak, as he writes that it was actually James’ and John’s mother who made the request for seats at the right hand. (Matthew 20:20)
The curious thing about the demand—and that’s what it was—of the boanerges is that their language indicates their correct literal hearing of Jesus’ predictions. Jesus had in fact indicated he would rise on the third day after his passion and pass into glory. James and John thus heard the bad with the good, but proceed to express concern about their share of the glory without a glimmer of concern about their participation in the bad. In short, they heard what they wished to hear, the perennial danger for all of us who take up the Gospel today.
Father Harrington divides Sunday’s reading into three distinct units: (1) a place in the kingdom demands suffering; (2) it is not Jesus’ prerogative to determine status in the coming Kingdom, and (3) leadership in Jesus’ community demands service. The first point seems historically consistent with the hypothesis that Mark’s Gospel was originally addressed to Christians suffering persecutions in Rome. The second point may be scandalous to a few, but the Synoptic Gospels are clear in holding that, as a human being, Jesus lived within the limitations of space and time and demonstrated typical human experiences such as uncertainty of the future. To this we must add that it is typical in Mark’s Gospel for Jesus to always manifest subservience to the will of his Father. Even if Jesus did enjoy the right of assigning heavenly accommodations, he would never claim this divine prerogative in the presence of his disciples at the expense of his Father’s glory.
The third point is one of the great moral teachings of the entire New Testament: that “greatness” comes only from humility. The choice of Greek wording is critical. In verse 43 Jesus contrasts greatness with service, or literally, whoever would be great must become a diakonos or servant. We get our word “deacon” from the Greek here; in Acts of the Apostles Luke recounts that the first seven deacons were entrusted by the Apostles with basic church community service, such as bringing bread to widows. Jesus proceeds further with the thought, observing that whoever would be first would be the doulos or slave of all.
As Roman Catholics we belong to a sacramental church: the tangible realities of things are of equal importance as the idea of things. Even in the Apostolic times there were heretical concepts to the effect that one could be saved by “secret knowledge” (the Gnostics, for example.) Sunday’s Gospel counters such tendencies with its emphasis upon the observable and tangible: real suffering attends discipleship, waiting on tables constitutes fidelity. A close reading of the texts indicates that Jesus was not denying the need for leaders, teachers, and bearers of authority. What he was looking for was the proper attitude of leaders: that they see positions of authority as opportunities of service.
Authority is not always exercised wisely or with humility, and this is particularly troublesome when such abuse of power occurs in the Church. This morning on my PEW news service I came across a story from the Washington Post about Michael Keating, age 10. He is unable to eat or speak or undertake normal physical functioning due to severe cerebral palsy. You have all seen Michael even if you do not recognize his name. At great inconvenience his family brought him to see Pope Francis’ motorcade in Philadelphia. When the Pope noticed him in his apparatus, he had his driver stop. Francis went to the boy, took his face in his hands, and kissed him.
The Post, in its best Woodward and Bernstein tradition, decided to do a profile of the family. I found it to be a remarkably inspiring story, but there was one episode involving the Church that absolutely strained credulity. When Michael was seven, his parents presented him to their local parish for his First Communion. They were informed by the pastor that because Michael could not speak and make his first confession, he could not receive the Eucharist. (If you need a minute or two to absorb this, so did I.) I cannot pretend to know what goes on in the mind of this pastor who believes his canonical entitlements give him the right to act in such a scandalous manner, but it is a sad truth that the Church is peopled by many leaders who would not understand Sunday’s Gospel if they fell over it in the parking lot. By the good grace of God another pastor in the area, Father Michael J. Fitzpatrick of West Brandywine, PA, welcomed the family and made the appropriate adjustments so that Michael could receive his First Communion…and indeed young Michael receives with his family every week through his feeding syringe.
Maybe Father Fitzpatrick should preach this weekend to the Bishops at the Synod about humility and family life.
Mark 10: 17-30
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up,
knelt down before him, and asked him,
"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good?
No one is good but God alone.
You know the commandments: You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother."
He replied and said to him,
"Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth."
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,
"You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
At that statement his face fell,
and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,
"How hard it is for those who have wealth
to enter the kingdom of God!"
The disciples were amazed at his words.
So Jesus again said to them in reply,
"Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,
"Then who can be saved?"
Jesus looked at them and said,
"For human beings it is impossible, but not for God.
All things are possible for God."
Peter began to say to him,
"We have given up everything and followed you."
Jesus said, "Amen, I say to you,
there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters
or mother or father or children or lands
for my sake and for the sake of the gospel
who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age:
houses and brothers and sisters
and mothers and children and lands,
with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come."
There is an old saying that the best way to learn something is to teach it, and I feel that way about the Tuesday Scripture page on the blog. Over the year that Tuesday entry has morphed into a mini-commentary on the upcoming Sunday Gospel, which has meant for me a new journey through the text of St. Mark. This morning, when I laid eyes upon this weekend’s text, I found myself overwhelmed by the power—rather frightening, actually, as Peter himself observes in the text—of this Gospel, and going further, by this whole business of the revealed Word of God in Sacred Scripture.
Needless to say I need to consult with good sources before writing each Tuesday, and I realized today that I have not drawn much from the Jerome Biblical Commentary, something of the flagship of Catholic commentaries. I noticed for the first time that the chapter commentary on St. Mark was written by Father Daniel Harrington, an outstanding scholar who passed away just last year and whose obituary is here. I own several of his books, but those dealing with St. Matthew’s Gospel. His commentary on St. Mark (JBC, 596-629) is very helpful here today and I am drawing heavily from his insights.
Father Harrington, in his overview of this Sunday’s Gospel, points out that we have three separate segments or pericopes within the Markan Lectionary selection: (1) the rich man; (2) Jesus’ instructions to the disciples, and (3) Jesus’ teachings on the rewards of giving up riches. The overarching theme is the abandonment of this life’s rewards for the sake of full discipleship and the joy of the Kingdom of God. The first piece begins with the approach of a man to Jesus; it is not indicated initially that he is rich, and nowhere that he is young. (Matthew would later describe him as “the rich young man” in 19:20). Harrington comments that his salute of Jesus as “good teacher” is, as we say, a little over the top, and this may account for Jesus’ somewhat terse or annoyed answer in 10:18.
Readers may find it strange to hear Jesus speak of his Father as he does here: “No one is good but God alone.” Today’s reader thinks of Jesus as consubstantial with the Father, as the Creed states, but in the primitive days of Mark’s world the early Church was only gradually growing in awareness of Jesus’ full identity. Jesus proceeds to lay out the standard ethical life of a devout Jew, strict observance of Commandments 4-10, those dealing with love of neighbor. He does not mention the first three Commandments, possibly holding them back for the moment when he will talk about the true love of the disciple. This prospective disciple before Jesus does indeed ask the right question: he senses that there is “more” to discipleship and engagement in the Kingdom. But he, like the Apostles in earshot, are stunned at the cost of true discipleship, the abandonment of all early goods and total trust in the God of the coming Kingdom. That the man went away sad may be a metaphor for the many who left the Christian assembly in times of persecution when confiscation of property by the Romans was one of the costs of Christian discipleship (and not necessarily the worst.) Harrington, for his part, tends to soften the text a bit by commenting that the command to sell property was a particular invitation to this man and should not be taken as a general principle of Christian life, but Jesus’ follow-up instructions and the shock of the disciples would seem to indicate that he has introduced a stunning new dimension to living in the Kingdom.
In fact, Jesus opens the second section of the reading with an eye-opening proclamation about the incompatibility of wealth with entering the Kingdom. It is here that we get the Bible school classic maxim, “the camel passing through the eye of a needle.” I have heard preachers twist themselves into pretzels by explaining that (1) Jesus’ words here about camels and needles are Arabic metaphor, or (2) that a needle is actually a small door in a city wall which required considerable troublesome labors for a camel loaded with goods. Harrington states unequivocally that all such efforts at blunting Jesus’ words here are misleading wastes of time. It is what it sounds like: it will be extremely difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God. The disciples are amazed, in part because riches had been considered a sign of divine favor, and in large part because the teaching seemed impossible. Mark reports their confusion: “Then who can be saved?”
It may be good here to stop for a moment to remember a critical point about Jesus and the Gospel: all four Gospels ask of us to do the impossible. St. Matthew concludes his famous Sermon on the Mount with Jesus’ teaching to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) The Swiss Theologian Hans Kung, in his On Being a Christian, states that of all the world’s religions, Christians are the only ones whose moral/ethical charge is to become like the divinity. All other world religions establish a bar of attainment, so to speak. For the Christian, no such thing exists. How often is the Christian to forgive? Infinitely. When has a Christian hungered enough for justice? Never. When can a Christian claim to have prayed enough? Never. When can a spouse say that he or she has loved his or her partner enough? Never.
Jesus’ words here about riches, needles and camels are not out of character, then, with the entire New Testament corpus. Rather than lower the bar, Jesus introduces a new thought to his thoroughly befuddled disciples, that what seems to be impossible by human rational reflection is entirely possible with God. I can’t help but think of how well this passage relates to last Sunday’s reading about entering the Kingdom with the trust of a child.
In the final segment, Peter leads off by asking the ultimate adolescent question. He “gets” the radical demand Jesus is talking about, and so he asks, “What’s in it for us?” This is a fair question, posed by a man who is halfway home. He understands the call, but like the rich man earlier, he too has to decide which way to go. Jesus then describes the rewards of the Kingdom. Harrington notes that these blessing occur in this life (fellowship with believers, for example) as well as in the Kingdom to come. Jesus’ summary is a point-on description of early Christian life: alienation from family, losses of property, and even persecution, but with the rewards of new and in eternity.
Taken as a whole, Sunday’s Gospel probably arouses in us a natural tendency to explain away its total demand of our very selves for the sake of the Kingdom. But rather than look for loopholes, let’s clutch it to ourselves and like children ask the Father, with whom all things are possible, to help us dare the walk to perfection