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.