Monday, October 15, 2018

29th Sunday B

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time B

Readings: Isaiah 53:10-11     Hebrews 4:14-16       Mark 10:35-45

Today’s readings challenge us with the cost of Christian discipleship, modeled on Jesus, who identifies his mission with the suffering servant of Second Isaiah.  For the followers of Jesus greatness consists, not in lording it over others, but in selfless service in imitation of “the Son of Man,” who “has not come to be served but to serve and to give his life in ransom for the many” (Mk 10:45).
The first reading is taken from the fourth so-called Servant Song of Second Isaiah. It begins with the confession of a group that has witnessed the ignominious life and death of the servant but now realizes that his sufferings were borne, not for his own sins, but for theirs.  In the verses before our reading they confess: “We had all gone astray like sheep,/ each following his own way;/ but the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all.”  This new understanding of God’s servant was undoubtedly influenced by the suffering of prophets like Moses, Jeremiah and possibly Second Isaiah himself.  In retrospect, they now realize: “The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity.”  But the servant’s suffering and death are not the last words here.   They have come to realize that “If he (the servant) gives his life as an offering for sin/ he shall see his descendants in a long life,/ and the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him.”   By voluntarily offering his suffering and prophetic mission as a sacrifice to atone for the nation’s sin, the servant brings salvation for others.  Clearly Jesus, who “has not come to be served but to serve and to give his life in ransom for the many,” has modeled himself on this servant.  In the last lines, the Lord himself speaks of his servant’s triumph and the salvation his innocent suffering will bring.  “Because of his affliction he shall see the light in fullness of days;/ through his suffering, my servant shall justify many,/ and their guilt he shall bear.”
The Epistle continues the selections from Hebrews with an exhortation to the community to hold fast to its original profession of faith because it has in Jesus a sympathetic high priest who knows weakness and temptation.  Although Hebrews presents the resurrected Jesus as the great high priest who has passed through the heavens, it also stresses that in his earthly existence he was perfected through suffering, obedience, and testing (see 2:10-18).  Therefore, he is able to sympathize and offer mercy and favor to the readers who have also endured great suffering because of the faith (see 10:32-34) and may now be tempted to apathy or apostasy (see 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:35-39).
The gospel reading follows Jesus’ third and most explicit passion and resurrection prediction in Mark, as he deliberately completes his journey to Jerusalem to fulfill his destiny (Mk 10:32-34; see 8:31; 9:30-31).  For the third time, the obtuse disciples fail to grasp the harsh reality and significance of Jesus’ passion for his Messianic destiny, and he must teach them that discipleship means a life of self-sacrificing service modeled on his own life (see Mk 8:32-38; 9:32-37). 

Despite the fact that Zebedee’s sons, James and John, have been a part of the inner circle of disciples from the beginning (see Mk 1:19-20; 5:35-43; 9:2-13), they ignore their master’s words and impertinently request positions of honor at his right and left when he comes into glory in his Messianic kingdom (10:35-37).  In exasperation, Jesus exclaims, “You do not know what you are asking!”  He then asks, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  With complete misunderstanding, they confidently respond, “We can.”  This answer is bitterly ironic in light of their cowardice in Gethsemane, where they will sleep in Jesus’ hour of agony and then desert when he is arrested (Mk 14:32-50).
The other disciples are not spared in this selection.  They had previously argued about greatness after the second passion prediction (9:33-37), and now are indignant at James and John’s request.  Jesus has to teach them all about the revolutionary nature of God’s kingdom.  Just as they had learned that worldly riches are a hindrance for entrance into the kingdom (10:17-31), now Jesus proclaims that greatness in the kingdom is not based on a powerful exercise of authority, making its “importance felt,” but on humble service (diakonia), like that of a servant (doulos) who serves the needs of all.  This service is rooted in Jesus’ own mission as the servant spoken of in Second Isaiah, who give his life as a ransom for many (Mk 10:45; Isa 53:11-12). “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 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.”

Monday, October 8, 2018

28th Sunday B

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time B

Readings: Wisdom 7:7-11      Hebrews 4:12-13         Mark 10:17-30

“My sons, how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” As Jesus continues his journey to Jerusalem in Mark’s Gospel, he challenges us to abandon whatever may hinder complete devotion to the kingdom.  He offers the call of discipleship “with love” and assures us that the reward is a full community life “in this present age” and everlasting life “in the age to come.”

In the first reading the author of the Book of Wisdom takes on the persona of Solomon and prays for the gift of wisdom, rather than power, riches or health (see 1 Kings 3:6-9).  The Book of Wisdom personifies God’s wisdom as a woman who is God’s eternal spirit, creating and directing the universe and history according to a loving plan.  She is the only reality which lasts; “scepter and throne,” “gold” and “silver,” “health and comeliness” are ephemeral in comparison with her.  “Yet,” Solomon assures us, “all good things together came to me in her company.”
The Epistle reading from Hebrews is a warning to a lapsing community that it is called to union with God whose word is both “living and effective” and “sharper than any two-edged sword.”  Faced with the awesome prospect of being judged by this word that “penetrates and divides soul and spirit,” we should remain steadfast in our fidelity to our original calling.
The Gospel is divided into three sections: Jesus’ encounter with the rich man, his teaching to the disciples on the danger of riches for those who would enter the kingdom of God, and his assurance to Peter that those who have sacrificed for the kingdom will be blessed in this life and the next. In his dialogue with the rich man, Jesus lovingly offers him “treasure in heaven,” the kind of lasting wisdom that Solomon prayed for in the Wisdom reading.  When the man claims to want a “share in everlasting life” and insists that he has observed the commandments of the law for that purpose, Jesus challenges him to sell his merely temporal goods and give them to the poor.  But sadly he cannot part with his “many possessions.”  After the man has gone away “sad,’ Jesus warns his disciples that earthly riches are a hindrance for entrance into the kingdom.  To illustrate the folly of trying to enter “the kingdom of God” with earthly possessions Jesus pictures a camel, loaded with baggage, trying to squeeze through a needle’s eye. But then he concludes the dialogue on a hopeful note.  When the disciples express their doubt that anyone can be saved under such demanding conditions, Jesus assures them: “For man it is impossible but not for God.  With God all things are possible.” At this point, Peter reminds Jesus that the disciples, in sharp contrast to the rich man, “have put aside everything to follow you!”  Jesus then assures him that, although a life of discipleship will involve persecution, it will be blessed with rich community fellowship in this world and the everlasting life of the kingdom in the next. “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”

Monday, October 1, 2018

27th Sunday B

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time B

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24   Hebrews 2:9-11  Mark 10:2-16

“May you see your children’s children. Peace be upon Israel!” (Ps 128:6).  This joyful blessing from the responsorial psalm expresses the spirit of today’s readings, celebrating the God-given gift of sexuality and the dignity of marriage and family.

The Genesis story recounts the creation of woman from the rib of man and thereby affirms her equality with man, the goodness of the sexual attraction between man and woman, and the importance of the marital bond as the basis for family life.  In a charmingly innocent manner, the Lord God reflects: “It is not good for the man to be alone.  I will make a suitable partner for him.” None of the various animals created from the earth “proved to be the suitable partner for man,” and so the Lord God creates the woman from one of the man’s ribs, the bones closest to his heart. When she is presented like a precious gift to the man, he exclaims with recognition and joy: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones/ and flesh of my flesh . . .”   The narrator then tells us that this God-given attraction between the sexes is the basis for marriage and family life. “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh” (Gen 2:24).
This Sunday is the first of several weeks when the Epistle will be from Hebrews, an anonymous treatise arguing that Jesus has brought to completion the sacrificial traditions of Judaism.  Today’s selection celebrates Jesus our “leader  to . . . salvation,” who shared our human nature to the point of being perfected “through suffering.”  According to Hebrews, Jesus entered the human condition so that “he might taste death for everyone” and then lead them “to glory.”  The oneness of Jesus and the Father with our humanity is beautifully affirmed in the closing verse of the reading. “He (Jesus) who consecrates and those who are being consecrated.  All have one origin.  Therefore, he is not ashamed to call them brothers.”
In the gospel Jesus, on the basis of the dignity of marriage, protects women from mistreatment by not allowing divorce for arbitrary reasons and offers to his disciples the receptivity of “a child” as the model for entrance into the kingdom of God.  Our selection continues Mark’s account of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem in which he both prepares his disciples for his impending death and resurrection and instructs them in the demands of discipleship.  When the Pharisees attempt to test Jesus on the question of divorce, he has the opportunity to teach about God’s intentions in the creation of man and woman and to overturn Moses’ command which allowed a man (not a woman) to simply divorce his spouse by writing “a bill of divorce” (see Deut 24:1-4).
According to Jesus, Moses’ commandment was a concession to human “hardness of heart” and did not represent God’s original intention expressed in the Genesis creation story.  God’s will is that husband and wife should “become one flesh,” and so Jesus concludes by commanding: “Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”  When Jesus is alone with his disciples, he explains that a person (man or woman) who divorces and remarries is committing adultery against the rejected partner.  Notice that Jesus’ teaching is aimed at protecting marriage and the rights of the rejected partner.  Other New Testament writings do allow certain exceptions to the ideal articulated in Mark (see Matt 5:32; 19:9; 1 Cor 7:10-16).
The episode involving Jesus and the “little children” concludes Jesus’ teaching about marriage and family.  When the disciples scold parents for bringing their children to be touched by Jesus, he commands that they be allowed to come to him and uses them as the model for the open receptivity that is necessary for entrance into God’s kingdom.  “Let the children come to me . . .for the kingdom belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”

Monday, September 24, 2018

25th Sunday B

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time B

Readings: Numbers 11:25-29   James 5:1-6    Mark 9:38-48

“Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets!
Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!”  (Num 11:29)  Moses’ words to Joshua in the reading from the Book of Numbers challenge us to avoid jealousy and to rejoice in the spread of God’s spirit, even when it comes from outside our religious community.  We are reminded that the power of God’s spirit transcends our often petty understanding of what constitutes legitimate ministry.

In the first reading from Numbers the Lord is responding to Moses’ request that he be given help in bearing the burden of leading the rebellious Israelites on their journey through the wilderness (see Num 11:4-15).  After instructing Moses to assemble seventy true and authoritative elders at the meeting tent, the Lord promises to come down upon them and bestow a share in Moses’ spirit (Num 11:16-17).  But when God’s spirit actually descends upon Israel, it expresses itself in a superabundant way; Eldad and Medad, who were left in camp because they were not able to go out to the tent of meeting, are also given the gift of prophecy along with the seventy designated elders. 
Joshua and Moses have very different reactions to this extraordinary gift.  For Joshua, a long time aide of Moses, God’s spirit constitutes a threat because it does not conform to his expectations.  When Eldad and Medad prophesy, he complains in exasperation: “Moses, my lord, stop them.”  But Moses does not cling to his privileged position and even wishes that God’s prophetic spirit be extended to all God’s people: “Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!”
In the Epistle James warns the rich against the presumption that their present comfortable status will give them lasting security.  In fact, the corrosion of their illusory wealth and fine wardrobes will be testimony against them on the Day of Judgment.  The cries of farmhands from whom they have withheld wages “have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”  The rich, who have “lived on earth in luxury and pleasure,” have only succeeded in fatting themselves “for the day of slaughter.”
In Mark’s Gospel selection, John and the other disciples, like Joshua in Numbers, attempt to limit the action of God’s spirit because it does not conform to their expectations.  John reports to Jesus that he and the others tried to stop a man who was expelling demons ‘in your name.’  Jesus, like Moses in Numbers, is open to the many ways in which God’s power may operate. “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.”
            Jesus goes on to promise his disciples that “Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ . . . will surely not lose his reward.”  But then he warns that one who causes “one of these little ones who believe in me to sin” would be better off if “a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”  Jesus concludes by using a series of hyperboles to exhort his disciples to remove the cause of sin, be it hand, foot, or eye, rather than having the whole body thrown into the fires of Gehenna.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

25th Sunday B

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time B

Readings: Wisdom 2:12,17-20  James 3:16-4:3  Mark 9:30-37

“If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”  To best appreciate the shocking character of Jesus’ proclamation to his disciples in today’s Gospel, we should consider the criticism of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who argued that such teachings contradict our human nature because they advocate a “slave morality” that makes Christianity “the most fatal and seductive lie that has ever yet existed.”  Against the worldly wisdom of Nietzsche, who proposed a “master morality” rooted in “man’s will to power,” today’s readings present us with the heroic challenge of humble service rooted in the teachings of the Old Testament and Jesus.

In the first reading, the Book of Wisdom brilliantly contrasts a worldly life spent in the pursuit of power with a life dedicated to justice and trust in God.  The Book of Wisdom is an exhortation to worldly Jews, living in Egypt near the time of Jesus, not to abandon their faith in God as creator and lawgiver for a materialistic philosophy that advocated pleasure and immorality (see Wisdom 1:16-2:21).  Our selection is part of the speech of “the wicked,” lapsed Jews who have given up their faith.  They plan to torture and kill “the just one,” who is a reproach to their lives, as a test case to see if God “will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes.”  The fact that “the wicked” cannot even tolerate the existence of “the just one” says something very profound about the ongoing struggle between good and evil.
In the Epistle reading from James, the conflict between “wisdom from above” and worldly acquisitiveness is applied to the Christian community, and even to the inner life of the individual. James insists that envy and conflict in the community originate in the inner cravings of jealousy within the individual.  When one does not obtain his desires, these can even lead to murder.  In contrast, “wisdom from above,” or a life remade by God’s word, is rich in sympathy and kindness and results in “the harvest of justice” and “peace.”
The Gospel continues Mark’s journey to Jerusalem with Jesus’ second prediction of his passion and resurrection and a teaching on the implications of this for Christian discipleship.  Jesus has just descended from the Mount of Transfiguration where he was revealed as God’s beloved Son to Peter, James and John.  But now, as he journeys through Galilee to Capernaum, Jesus still insists upon secrecy about his identity and teaches his disciples: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”  As with the first prediction, the disciples fail to understand (see 8:32-33), and now are even afraid to question Jesus (9:32). 
The following incident in the house at Capernaum illustrates how far the disciples are from comprehending Jesus’ mission and the requirements of following him.  When Jesus questions them about what they were discussing on the journey, they fall silent because they had been arguing about “who was the greatest.”  This provides Jesus with the opportunity to proclaim and then illustrate the revolutionary ethic of the Kingdom of God.  After sitting and calling the twelve around him, Jesus announces: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last one of all and the servant of all.”  As an example, he takes a child, someone without legal status in the ancient world, stands him in their midst and puts his arms around him as he proclaims: “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me; and whoever receives me receives not me but the One who sent me.”
As we continue to hear Mark’s story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, we must ask ourselves if we are living the life of service and care for the lowly which marks Christian disciples. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

24th Sunday B

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time B

Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9  James 2:14-18  Mark 8:27-35

“Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Jesus’ harsh words to Peter in today’s gospel are a sobering reminder that the Christian Gospel does not conform to worldly standards of power and prestige.  Following Jesus leads to resurrected life, but only after we have gone with him to the cross. “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”
In the first reading from the servant songs of Second Isaiah, the prophet/servant gives an autobiographical report of his tireless commitment to speaking a rousing word to the “weary” exiles who think that their Lord is powerless to save them from their Babylonian captors.  Because of his confidence that the Lord is his help, the prophet, like Jesus in today’s Gospel, has the courage not to turn back from his mission, even though it involves suffering and rejection. “The Lord is my help,/ therefore I am not disgraced;/ I have set my face like flint,/ knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”

The Epistle continues the sections from James and contrasts “lifeless” faith which merely professes belief and active faith which expresses itself in deeds of kindness for those in need.  James’ example is priceless. “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and no food for the day,and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” To merely wish well to a person who has neither food nor clothing is worthless.  This is not real faith at all.  James poignantly concludes by saying: “Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.”
The Gospel for this Sunday is a climactic incident in Mark.  After revealing the kingdom of God in his powerful healing and preaching ministry throughout Galilee and Gentile regions north and west of Judea (Mark 1:14-8:26), Jesus now journeys south toward Jerusalem (8:27-10:54).  He also begins to teach the disciples his full identity as the Son of Man who must both suffer rejection and death at the hands of the Jewish leaders and Gentiles in Jerusalem but also be raised up and return as the glorious Son of Man.  Sadly, the twelve consistently refuse to accept Jesus’ mission and the demands of following him to the cross.
Today’s story is set at a village near Caesarea Philippi in the extreme northern reaches of Jewish territory.  In this obscure place, Jesus asks his disciples the climactic question: “Who do people say that I am?”  They reply that the crowds understand him as a prophet in the tradition of John the Baptist and Elijah.  When Jesus puts the same question to his disciples, Peter, on the basis of what he has witnessed in Jesus’ ministry, is prepared to confess that he is more than a prophet and is indeed “the Christ” or “Messiah.”
Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession is consistent with his teaching throughout much of the Galilean ministry.  He warns the disciples “to tell no one about him.”   Peter and the disciples cannot fully understand Jesus simply on the basis of the powerful miracles he has performed.  Now for the first time Jesus teaches them “that the Son of Man must suffer greatly, and be rejected by the elders and chief priest and scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.”  Peter refuses to accept such a destiny for the Messiah and is rebuked, in the most shocking terms, as a “Satan” who is judging by human standards rather than those of God.  Jesus follows his rebuke by insisting that willingness to follow him to the point of taking up one’s own cross in self-denial and even loss of life will be determinative to the disciples’ judgment when the Son of Man comes in glory. As we continue to read Mark’s account of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, let us ask ourselves if we are prepared to accept the Messiah who comes to us in the apparent weakness of the cross.

Monday, September 3, 2018

23rd Sunday B

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time B

Readings: Isaiah 35:4-7  James 2:1-15  Mark 7: 31-37

“Did not God choose those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom he promised to those who love him?  (James 2:5).  Today’s readings announce the coming of God’s kingdom, foretold in Isaiah and realized in Jesus, who brings God’s justice for the infirm and oppressed.  As people of faith in God’s kingdom brought by Jesus, we are called to live by a new standard of justice based on God’s special love for the poor.  We pray in the opening verses of our responsorial psalm: “The God of Jacob keeps faith forever,/ secures justice for the oppressed,/ gives food to the hungry./ The Lord sets captives free” (Ps 146:7).
The Old Testament reading from Isaiah is a prophetic commission to announce God’s salvation to a frightened group of returning Jewish exiles. “Say to those whose hearts are frightened:/ Be strong, fear not!/  Here is your God, he comes with vindication;/ with divine recompense he comes to save you.  In God’s name, the prophet is to promise wondrous healing for the infirm. “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,/ the ears of the deaf be cleared;/
Then will the lame leap like a stag,/ then the tongue of the dumb will sing.” God’s coming kingdom will also turn the barren deserts of Judah into a delightful garden with “streams” and “rivers,” “pools” and “springs of water.”
The Epistle from James exhorts the Christian to avoid favoritism because it is contrary to faith “in the Lord Jesus Christ glorified.”  James’ example is a stunning illustration of the way that worldly standards conflict with those of the kingdom of God.  In the world, the fashionably dressed, wealthy person invariably receives deferential treatment, while the poor, shabbily clad, is ignored or shoved aside.  But in the Christian assembly, we are not to discriminate in this way because God has consistently chosen the poor “to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom.”

In Mark’s Gospel selection Jesus fulfills the prophetic expectations of the Isaiah reading by healing a deaf and dumb man in the Gentile “district of the Ten Cities” but then mysteriously commands secrecy about the action.  For Mark, Jesus is both the powerful, healing Messiah, promised in the prophets, but also the poor, suffering servant, who will not be fully revealed until his cross and resurrection.  In this selection, Jesus responds to the people’s begging for a healing, but he takes the deaf and dumb man “off by himself away from the crowd.”  In the healing itself, Jesus uses physical gestures and his Father’s power as he commands that the deaf man’s ears be opened in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. “He put his fingers into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and emitted a groan.  He said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ (that is, “be opened!”) At once the man’s ears were opened; he was freed from the impediment, and began to speak plainly.  But, once he has cured the man, Jesus again enjoins the crowd not to tell anyone.  They, however, are amazed at Jesus and at a certain level realize that he is bringing the long anticipated Messianic age.  They proclaim: “He has done everything well!  He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak!”
Upon his entrance into Jerusalem, the crowds will again acclaim Jesus as the powerful Messiah (see ch. 11), but later they will be unable to accept him as the poor, crucified Messiah at the crucifixion.  “Those passing by reviled him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha!  You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself by coming down from the cross’” (Mk 15:29-30).  As we rejoice in Jesus’ bringing the kingdom to the needy and infirm, we also remember that this same mission will take him to the cross.