Monday, July 19, 2021

17th Sunday B


A Feast in the Field for Today | St. John's Lutheran Church, NYC 

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time B


Readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44  Ephesians 4:1-6  John 6:1-15


This week’s liturgy begins a series of five weeks when the Gospels are taken from the Bread of Life discourse in John 6.  Throughout this period the church explores various aspects of the Eucharist.  Today’s readings proclaim how God wondrously feeds his people in time of need. God’s largess exceeds human expectations and calls those who have been fed beyond the state of physical sustenance to union with the God who gives the gift of eternal life. 

The reading from 2 Kings recounts how the Lord, through the prophet Elisha, was able to feed a hundred men with twenty barley loaves.  This miracle must be related to the major motif of the Elijah-Elisha stories in 1-2 Kings: the conflict between the Canaanite god Baal, thought by many in Israel to control the fertility of the earth, and Yahweh, the God of Israel, the true Lord of life.  To counter Israel’s temptation to worship Baal, in chapter 4 of 2 Kings, the Lord empowers the Elisha to perform four miracles demonstrating his power over life, death and fertility in time of need: the giving of oil to the widow of a prophet in debt (4:1-7), the resurrection of the son of the Shunammite woman (4:8-37), the healing of the poisoned stew (4:38-41) and the multiplication of the loaves (4:42-44).  

The very structure of this little narrative highlights the superabundance of God’s life-giving power.  The barley loaves are brought to Elisha, the man of God, who commands that they be given to the people to eat.  When the prophet’s servant objects that this amount is inadequate to feed a hundred men, the prophet unhesitatingly takes charge and, in the Lord’s name, announces: “They shall eat and there shall be some left over.”  The incident concludes with the fulfillment of the Lord’s word: “And when they had eaten, there was some left over, as the Lord had said.”  The point of these miracles is not, as in Western scientific thinking, the impossibility of such actions by virtue of natural laws, but their invitation to belief in the Lord God whose word is powerful in creation and history.

The second reading continues the Ephesians selections with the beginning of the exhortation section, urging the community to a life of unity (4:1-6). The first part of Ephesians (ch 1-3) presents a prayerful meditation on God’s choice of both Jews and Gentiles to share in the community of salvation by being members of a single cosmic body through their common redemption in Christ.  Now Paul pleads with the Ephesian Christians to live a life worthy of their calling to unity.  The virtues needed are humility, meekness, patience and bearing with one another lovingly; these are gifts already given in the community’s common faith and baptism.  Members are united in one body and Spirit, sharing one hope.  In Baptism they professed belief in one Lord and one God and Father who is over all, works through all and is in all.  Now they are called to become what they already are through their common faith and baptism.

The Gospel is John’s account of Jesus’ feeding 5,000 in Galilee by multiplying loaves and fishes.  John’s narrative is unique in interpreting Jesus’ miracles as signs that invite observers to go beyond a merely physical and earthly understanding of Jesus to belief in his true identity as the one sent from God to bring life to the world by laying down his life.  The crowd is following Jesus because they have seen the signs he was performing (6:2).  In the miracle and the long dialogue that follows (6:25-59), Jesus challenges them to come to an understanding of him as the bread of life come down from heaven to give his flesh for the life of the world (6:51).  At this first stage the crowd fails to appreciate the full significance of Jesus’ sign by interpreting it on a purely political and earthly level.  They witness Jesus, like the prophet Elisha, feeding a crowd of 5,000 with only five barley loaves and a couple of dry fish, and they respond by saying, “This is undoubtedly the prophet who is to come into the world” (6:14; cf. Deut 18:15-19).  But the crowd’s understanding of the title is purely political, as they want a Messiah who will give them their fill of bread (see John 6:26).  When Jesus realizes they want to make him an earthly king, he flees back to the mountain alone.  In the subsequent dialogue he will invite them to move beyond this earthly understanding of the miracle.

John’s loaves and fishes story bears some similarities to Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, recounted in the Gospels of Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13).  In both, the devil’s first temptation is to turn stones into bread, but Jesus, as an obedient son of God, refuses by insisting that providing bread alone will not fulfill his messianic mission.  He quotes Deut 8:3: “Not on bread alone does man live, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  Today’s readings are an invitation to move beyond the wonderful physical gifts provided by God to a union with the Giver who has spoken the word of love in Jesus’ redeeming gift of himself.

Monday, July 12, 2021

16th Sunday B


Eternal Echoes: Strength and gentleness.... (be imitators of God) | The  good shepherd, Jesus pictures, Christian art 

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time B


Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6     Ephesians 2:13-18       

Mark 6:30-34


            In the Old Testament a favorite image for both the Lord’s love for his people and the saving work of the expected Messiah from the line of David is that of the good shepherd who tends his flock with care.  Today’s readings present Jesus as the fulfillment of these hopes.  Let us praise the Lord’s selfless love for us in Christ in the words of the refrain of our responsorial psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want” (Ps 23).

            The reading from Jeremiah is the culmination of a long section of oracles condemning the recent Davidic kings of Judah for their absolute failure to govern with justice and compassion (see Jeremiah 21:11-22:30). This concluding oracle contains both elements of harsh judgment but also promises of salvation.  It begins with the Lord’s “woe” against the shepherds (kings), especially Jehoiakim and Zedekiah (the last king of Judah), “who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture.”  The result of their misrule will be exile in Babylon and the temporary end of the line of Davidic rulers.  “Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel,/ against the shepherds who shepherd my people:/ You have scattered my sheep and driven them away./  You have not cared for them,/ but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.”  The passage ends, however, with two promises.  First of all, the Lord himself will take up the task of shepherding his people.  He will gather the remnant of his flock from the lands to which he has driven them (Babylon) “and bring them back to their meadow (Judah); there they shall increase and multiply.”  Secondly, in “the days to come,” the Lord “will raise up a righteous shoot to David” who will “govern wisely and do what is just and right in the land.”  His reign will bring salvation and security to both Judah and Israel, and he will fulfill the meaning of Zedekiah’s name, ‘The Lord our justice.’

            The reading from Ephesians continues to celebrate the unity of Gentiles and Jews in “one new person,” the body of Christ, the Church.  Using imagery associated with the Jerusalem Temple and its sacrifices and dividing walls, Paul affirms that the Gentiles “who were once far off” from salvation “have become near by the blood of Christ.”  Christ is the Christian community’s “peace” because he has “made both (Jews and Gentiles) one” by breaking down “the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh.”  This dividing wall which separated Jews and Gentiles was “the law with its commandments and legal claims.” It has now been abolished as a way of salvation by Christ who reconciles both groups “with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it.”  Our selection concludes with a beautiful Trinitarian formula celebrating God’s action in bringing all, both Gentiles and Jews, to salvation.  “He (Christ) came and preached peace to you who were far off (the Gentiles) and peace to those who were near (the Jews), for through him (Christ) we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

            The Gospel selection presents Jesus as the shepherd Messiah who is concerned for both his disciples who have been on mission preaching repentance, driving out demons, and healing the sick, and the vast crowds who are frantically pursuing him and his disciples.  Between the sending out of the disciples (6:7-12) and their return in today’s reading (6:30-34) Mark has inserted King Herod Antipas’ reaction to Jesus—he thinks Jesus in John come back to life (6:14-16) and, in a flashback, the story of his beheading of John the Baptist (6:17-29).  This insertion keeps the question of Jesus’ identity before us and prepares for his violent death at the hands of Pilate and the persecution which his disciples will experience once he has gone (see 8:31-10:52; 13:9-13).  Our reading begins with the apostles gathering together around Jesus and reporting “all they had done and taught.” Jesus, the tender shepherd, then invites them to withdraw to a deserted place to rest because the great crowd of people does not even give them an opportunity to eat.  But when they get in a boat by themselves to go to “a deserted place,” the crowd from all the towns sees them leave and hastens to the place on foot so that they arrive before the apostles. When Jesus disembarks and sees the crowd, Mark tells us, “his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”      

            The scene is filled with allusions to the Old Testament.  The withdrawal to a deserted place recalls the Israelites sojourn in the wilderness as they came out of Egypt and their journey to Sinai where they receive God’s Torah.  In fact in the next section (6:34-44) Jesus will feed the crowd of 5,000 men by multiplying loaves of bread and fishes much as the Lord fed his people with manna and quail in the wilderness (Exodus 16).  But before he feeds the crowds with physical food, the good shepherd’s pity for the lost sheep of Israel first moves him “to teach them many things,” to give them the spiritual food of God’s Wisdom/Torah (See Prov 9; Sir 15:3; 24:19). 

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

15th Sunday B


Brooklyn Museum15th Sunday in Ordinary Time B


Readings: Amos 7:12-15        Ephesians 1:3-14        

Mark 6:7-13


The theme for this Sunday’s readings is the call of God which inevitably brings the one summoned into conflict with worldly powers and values but will also result in the ultimate triumph of God’s kingdom.  In hope for the coming of God’s kingdom, let us pray the words of the responsorial psalm: “Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation” (Ps 85).

The first reading from Amos, the earliest of Israel’s classical prophets (c. 750 B.C.), dramatizes the conflict between the authentic prophet and an official man of religion who has sold his soul to the political powers of his day.  Amos was an outsider in Israel; he came from the village of Tekoa in Judah, where he was a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees.  But he was sent by the Lord to prophesy in Bethel, the major sanctuary in the northern kingdom of Israel.  His oracles are a fearless and searing judgment against the social injustices and empty worship found there.  The priest Amaziah, ever loyal to the status quo, attempts to protect King Jeroboam II’s interests against the attacks of this Judean outsider.  He is a pathetic figure of a man of religion who, although the official representative of God at the sanctuary at Bethel, has made money and political favor his god.  His attempt to dismiss Amos betrays an understanding of religion as a matter of wealth and politics.  He assumes Amos is a professional prophet who earns his living by prophesying and attempts to protect “the king’s sanctuary” and the “royal temple” by driving the outsider from the land of Israel.  Amos, of course, refuses to capitulate to the priest’s threats.  He rejects Amaziah’s designation of him as a professional prophet and defends his credentials by reference to his call by the Lord himself.  “I was no prophet,/ nor have I belonged to a company of prophets;/ I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores./  The Lord took me from following the flock, and said to me,/ Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”  In the following verses which were not included in this reading, Amos fearlessly announces the destruction of the royal dynasty, the conquest of the land and the exile of Israel.

For the next several weeks the Epistles will be taken from the Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.  Today’s reading is taken from the opening doxology which praises God for the choice of the early Christian communities to share in God’s plan of salvation to unite all things, including the once antagonistic Jews and Gentiles, through redemption in Christ.  Ephesians is a theological tract written for Gentile Christians who are now called to share with Jewish Christians the privilege of membership in the community of the saints (cf. Eph 2:11-22).  A major theme which runs throughout Ephesians is “the mystery” of God’s plan which calls both Jews and Gentiles into a single body, the Church, destined to be the cosmic presence of Christ, its head, who will eventually integrate “all things in the heavens and on the earth.”  This opening hymn highlights the gratuity of God’s favor to both groups.  The Jews were chosen “before the world began, to be holy and blameless in his (God’s) sight,” and now they have been favored with redemption from their sins and insight into the mystery of God’s plan to unite all things in the universe in Christ.  The Gentiles have also now been chosen to hear “the glad tidings of salvation,” to believe in the good news, and be sealed by the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel is Mark’s account of Jesus’ sending of the Twelve on mission in Galilee (6:7-13) after his own rejection in Nazareth (6:1-6). Jesus stresses their need for detachment from worldly goods (“no goods, traveling bag, coin in the purse”) and the threat of rejection.  The Twelve are to share in Jesus’ work of proclaiming the presence of the Kingdom of God, but they can expect the rejection that Jesus received in last Sunday’s Gospel when his own people rejected him in the synagogue in Nazareth.  Rejection does not halt the progress of kingdom, however; it simply frees Jesus and his disciples to move on to other areas.  After Jesus met with lack of faith in his hometown of Nazareth, Mark says, “He made the rounds of the neighboring villages instead and spent his time teaching” (6:6).  Likewise, he tells his disciples, “If any place will not receive you or hear you, shake the dust from your feet in testimony against them as you leave” (6:11).  Significantly, Mark concludes this section by noting the success of the Twelve’s initial preaching.  They expel many demons, anoint the sick with oil and work many cures.

Each of today’s readings gives insight into various aspects of the call to serve God’s kingdom; it is not be identified with wealth and political power and often places the one called in conflict with those powers and their representatives (Amos 7:12-15).  God’s kingdom is mysteriously destined to unite the whole universe under the headship of the suffering Christ (Eph 1:3-14).  Finally, it will invariably lead to rejection, but this should only free Christians to move on to those fields where God’s word will find fruitful soil (Mark 6:7-13; Mark 4:1-20).

Monday, June 28, 2021

14th Sunday B


Sunday: “As His Custom Was” | Sabbath School Net 



14th Sunday in Ordinary Time B


Readings: Ezekiel 2:2-5  2 Corinthians 12:7-10  Mark 6:1-6


            A central feature of the Christian gospel is the “scandal” or “offense” caused by those sent by God to do his saving work.  In this Sunday’s readings the prophet Ezekiel, the apostle Paul, and Jesus himself are sent to those whose hearts are hardened against God’s saving actions. All three can identify with the words of our responsorial psalm: “Have pity on us, O Lord, have pity on us,/ for we are more than sated with contempt;/ our souls are more than sated/ with the mockery of the arrogant,/ with the contempt of the proud” (Ps 123:3-4)

            The Ezekiel reading is part of the prophet’s first person report of his call to be a prophet to the rebellious exiles in Babylon (see Ezekiel 1-3).  This section is the first of three commissions Ezekiel receives (see chapters 2-3), and it emphasizes both God’s power in sending the prophet forth and the recalcitrance of the exiles as “rebels.”  When the prophet receives his commission, he is prostrate on his face after seeing a fiery vision in a storm wind of the Lord enthroned upon a chariot borne by four mysterious cherubim (Ezekiel 1).  The Lord then literally commandeers Ezekiel for his mission. Ezekiel recounts how as the Lord spoke to him, “the spirit entered into me and set me on my feet.”  Addressing him as “son of man” (mere mortal), the Lord then sends him to prophesy to the rebel exiles:  “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites,/ rebels who have rebelled against me;/ they and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day.”  Although they have been punished for their sins, the Lord warns Ezekiel the exiles are still hardened against his plan: “Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you.”  Ezekiel’s commission is surprisingly simple.  The Lord merely commands him to speak the messenger formula: “Thus says the Lord God!”  Whether the exiles heed or resist, “they shall know that a prophet has been among them.”  We learn later that the Lord is sending Ezekiel as a “watchman” to warn his people to turn from their sins so that they may live (see Ezek 3:17-21; 18; 33).

            In the Second Corinthians reading, Paul is defending his apostolic mission against super-apostles who have tried to win the Corinthian Christians over to a gospel of glory which denies the centrality of the cross in the life of the true apostle (see 1 Corinthians 10-13).  Paul’s opponents have boasted of their apostolic credentials, visions, and ability to work miracles. As the founder and “father” of the Corinthian community, Paul has “foolishly” reminded them of his own credentials, especially his sufferings in behalf of the gospel—the only true sign of an emissary of the crucified Jesus.  But now Paul has just recounted that he too fourteen years ago had an ecstatic vision and revelation from God (2 Cor 12:1-6).  However, lest he be elated by “the abundance of revelations” Paul says, “a thorn in the flesh was given me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.”  We do not know what this “thorn in the flesh” was.  Scholars have suggested several possibilities: a sickness, physical handicap like near blindness (cf. Gal 4:4, 12-20), temptation, disability that weakened his apostolic mission, or even a vexing opponent (see Num 33:55; Ez 28:24).  In any case, Paul tells the Corinthians that, like Jesus in Gethsemane, three times he begged the Lord that it might leave him.  The Lord’s answer conforms to the very nature of the gospel of Christ’s cross and resurrection: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  Paul concludes by insisting, “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.”  He is content “with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints, for the sake of Christ.”  For when he is “weak,” then he is “strong” through the risen Christ.

            The Gospel is Mark’s story of Jesus’ rejection by the people of “his native place,” presumably his hometown Nazareth.  It marks the end of a section of Mark in which Jesus has proclaimed the arrival of the kingdom of God by teaching with authority and working mighty miracles in both Galilee (1:14-4:41; 5:13-43) and Gentile territory (5:1-12).  The demons Jesus has exorcized have recognized him as the very Holy One/Son of God (1:24; 1:34; 3:11; 5:1-12).  The sick and outcast who have faith in Jesus have been healed or had their sins forgiven. The crowds have been astonished by his teaching authority (1:22).  The disciples have left their homes and occupations to follow him but also do not yet fully understand his power and authority (4:35-41).  

But Jesus has also met opposition from scribes, Pharisees, Herodians, and even his own family.  The scribes have been critical of his forgiving sins (2:1-12) and have accused him of working miracles by the power of Beelzebul (3:30); the Pharisees have questioned his association with sinners, failure to fast, and violations of Sabbath in order to heal (2:13-3:6); and members of his family have said, “He is out of his mind” (3:20, 31-34).  Already the shadow of the cross has fallen over the narrative, as the Pharisees have taken counsel with the Herodians to put Jesus to death (3:6). 

            Now when Jesus comes to “his native place, accompanied by his disciples” this theme of rejection and the cross is continued.  As he begins to teach in the synagogue, those who hear him are “astonished”; the same reaction as those who heard him in the synagogue at Capernaum (1:22) and that the crowd will have when he cleanses the temple in Jerusalem before his death (11:18).  Sadly, the people of Nazareth express their astonishment in the form of five rapid fire and disparaging questions about the source of Jesus’ wisdom and power: “Where did this man get all this?  What kind of wisdom has been given him?  What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!  Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?  And are not his sisters here with us?”   Mark concludes by saying, “they took offense (were scandalized) by him.”  Their lack of faith excludes them from the mystery of the kingdom (see 4:10-12), and Jesus responds by identifying himself with the prophets of old who were rejected by their own people: “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.”  He is amazed at “their lack of faith” which limits his power “to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.”  We are reminded that the very mystery of our salvation in Jesus’ cross and resurrection is also a story of the triumph of God’s love over our rejection of his Son.

Monday, June 21, 2021

13th Sunday B


13th Sunday in Ordinary Time B


Readings: Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24  2 Corinthians 8:7,9,13-15 

Mark 5:21-43


“Fear is useless.  What is needed is trust.”  These words of Jesus to Jairus capture the message of this Sunday’s readings.  In the midst of a world seemingly dominated by sin, disease, and death, we hear that God and Jesus offer forgiveness, healing and life that will eventually conquer these evils.  We are challenged by the faith of the woman with the hemorrhage and the grieving Jairus to set aside fear and experience Jesus’ healing and life-giving power so that we can pray in the words of the responsorial psalm: “I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me” (Ps 30:2).

The Old Testament reading from the Book of Wisdom is part of an exhortation to Jews living in Egypt during the Hellenistic period who were tempted to abandon their faith in God’s creation and justice for a materialistic philosophy that advocated a decadent life of pleasure and immorality (see Wisdom 1:16-2:21).  Using a reflection on the creation stories in Genesis 1-3, the author of Wisdom insists that God fashioned humans in the divine image to have life, being and health.  The way to share in this lasting life is through the pursuit of justice which “is undying” and will triumph over physical death (see Wisdom 3:1-9).  In contrast, a choice for a life of selfish pleasure-seeking and persecution of the just will lead to spiritual death, even in this life.  In the words of the author, “But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,/ and they who are in his possession experience it.”

The 2 Corinthians reading is part of Paul’s appeal for the Corinthians to contribute to the collection he has promised for the struggling mother church in Jerusalem.  He gives both a theological basis for charity and a practical scriptural argument for being generous. The foundation for the Corinthians’ charity is Christ’s self-emptying incarnation and saving death in their behalf.  “You are well acquainted with the favor shown you by our Lord Jesus Christ: how for your sake he made himself poor though he was rich, so that you might become rich by his poverty.”  Because the Corinthians have been well-endowed with spiritual and material blessings, the “relief” of others should not impoverish them.  “Your plenty at the present time should supply their need so that their surplus may in turn one day supply your need, with equality as the result.”  The scriptural basis for this confidence that generosity will result in equity is found in the story of God’s gift of manna in the Exodus 16: “It is written, ‘He who gathered much had no excess and he who gathered little had no lack.’”

The Gospel selection presents the anguish of death and disease from the perspectives of an anxious father whose 12-year-old daughter is critically ill and a desperate woman who has suffered from a hemorrhage for 12 years.  In both cases Mark emphasizes the apparent hopelessness of the situation.  The woman has received treatment from doctors of every sort and exhausted her savings, but has only grown worse.  Likewise, when Jairus arrives at his home, the people tell him, “Your daughter is dead.  Why bother the Teacher further?”

Despite these bleak prospects, both put unwavering trust in Jesus’ power to bring healing and life.  Jairus initially asks Jesus for help in the most straightforward way, “My little daughter is critically ill.  Please come and lay your hands on her so that she may get well and live.”  And when the crowd at the house begins to ridicule Jesus, Jairus and his wife believe in Jesus’ assurance that the child is not dead, but only asleep.  Likewise, the woman with the hemorrhage says to herself with great faith, “If I just touch his clothing, I will get well.”

At the center of both episodes is, of course, Jesus as the source of saving power which points to the ultimate gift of his saving death and resurrection.  In the Greek text the verbs used for “be healed” (sothÄ“) and “live” (zesÄ“) are technical terms in the early Church for salvation and resurrected life.  Even in his Galilean ministry, Jesus is already exercising the saving power of the resurrected Lord.  His words to the woman are really an invitation to live the newness of a faith-filled life.  “Daughter, it is your faith that has saved you.  Go in peace and be free of this illness.”  The Aramiac words which Jesus addresses to Jairus’ daughter, “Talitha cumi” are also an invitation to live the renewed life of the resurrection.  When they are translated by Mark into Greek, they become, “Little girl, arise.”

Monday, June 14, 2021

12th Sunday year B

 Trusting Him in the Midst of Our Storm (Part 1) – Beyond The Stone

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time B


Readings: Job 38:1,8-11  2 Corinthians 5:14-17  Mark 4:35-41


            This Sunday’s readings plunge us into the storm of suffering and fear which is a part of our lives as Christians, but we are also assured of God’s saving power through Christ in the midst of our distress.  The verses of the responsorial psalm capture the hope of this Sunday’s liturgy: “They cried to the Lord in their distress;/ from their straits he rescued them./  He hushed the storm to a gentle breeze,/ and the billows of the sea were stilled” (Ps 107:28-29).  Let us joyfully thank God for our deliverance from the power of sin and evil through Christ’s death and resurrection in the words of the refrain to our responsorial psalm: “Give thanks to the Lord, his love is everlasting.”

            The Old Testament reading is from the Lord’s awe inspiring speeches to Job out of the storm at the conclusion of that book.  Although Job is perfectly righteous, we learn in the prologue (chapters 1-2) that he has been singled out by Satan for testing to see if his righteousness is based solely on the blessings that God has bestowed on him.  Job loses all his possessions and children and is afflicted with sores “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.”  Throughout the long dialogue with his three so-called “friends”, Job struggles mightily to fathom the reason for his sufferings.  He rejects their “ashy maxims” which insist that he must have sinned and is being punished.  He bravely demands justice from God and concludes by asking God for an indictment, stating his sins (see chapter 31).  Finally, the Lord speaks to Job and not to his friends who have refused to consider that he may be innocent.  In his speeches the Lord does not answer Job’s questions about the reason for his sufferings.  Rather he questions Job about the limits of human wisdom and thereby reveals His mighty power in bringing order to all creation, including the chaotic waters of the sea.  Job’s suffering and endurance bring him face to face with the Lord in his awesome rule over creation.  In the section included in our reading Job is asked, “Who shut within doors the sea/ when it burst forth from the womb . . .?”  In ancient Near Eastern mythology, the sea is a god who is associated with chaos and is the dwelling place of frightening animals like Leviathan (see Job 40:25-41:26).  But now the Lord reminds Job that He is the one who “set limits for it/ and fastened the bar of its door,/ and said: thus far shall you come but no farther,/ and here shall your proud waves be stilled.”  Job’s encounter with the Lord’s awe inspiring rule over creation restores his relation to Him, even without receiving an explanation for his suffering.  Job’s final words are an expression of submission and trust: “I know that You can do everything,/ that nothing you propose is impossible for You. . . . Indeed, I spoke without understanding/ of things beyond me, which I did not know. . . .  I had heard of You with my ears,/ but now I see You with my eyes;/ therefore I recant and relent/, being but dust and ashes” (42:1-6).

The Epistle reading is taken from a section of Second Corinthians in which Paul is defending his gospel and apostolic ministry to this troubled community.  So-called “super-apostles” have come to Corinth boasting of their ability to work miracles and preaching a gospel of glory (see 2 Cor 10-13).  They have attempted to undermine Paul’s reputation and authority.  Paul, in contrast, preaches a gospel featuring Christ’s saving death and resurrection in behalf of all which impels the true apostle to a selfless love entailing suffering in behalf of the gospel. “The love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore, all have died.  He indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”  The victory of Christ’s resurrection as a second Adam has defeated the power of “the flesh” and begun the new creation. Paul’s own encounter with the risen Christ has completely changed his outlook.  He is now an ambassador for Christ and the new creation.  He boldly proclaims: “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.”

            The Gospel account of Jesus’ calming of the storm is the conclusion of Mark’s long parable chapter. It focuses our attention on the terror of the disciples in the midst of the storm and Jesus’ God-like power in rebuking the wind and calming the sea. The disciples have left their homes and livelihoods to follow Jesus, have witnessed his exorcisms and healing miracles and have even been given a share in his healing ministry (chapters 1-3).  Jesus has said to them earlier in chapter 4, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you” (4:13).  They have heard his parables of the sower, the lamp, the seed growing secretly, and the mustard seed which speak of the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God, despite opposition and small beginnings (4:1-34).  But now as evening comes, Jesus says to them, “Let us cross to the other side (of the Sea of Galilee).”  They are now going to the Gentile territory of the Gerasenes on the other side of the Sea where Jesus will exorcise a legion of demons from a possessed man by allowing them to go into a herd of swine who rush into the sea (5:1-20).  As they take Jesus in the boat along with other boats, he is asleep in the stern and a violent storm comes up and the waves begin to fill up the boat.  Suddenly the disciples are panic stricken and franticly awake Jesus with the words “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  These words capture the fears of the Church in every generation as she tries to follow Jesus into new and difficult situations.  Jesus’ subsequent actions and words are both consoling and challenging.  He awakens and rebukes and wind and commands the sea, like the Lord in the Job reading: “Quiet!  Be still!” But when the wind has ceased and there is a great calm, he chastises the disciples for their lack of faith, “Why are your terrified?  Do you not yet have faith?”  At this point in Mark’s narrative, they do not yet fully realize who they have with them in their trials and difficulties.  Mark concludes the episode by noting, “They were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?’  May we believing Christians have the faith to answer this question.   

Monday, June 7, 2021

11th Sunday year B

 Jesus' Teaching Parables: The Mustard Seed — Joy In Truth

Parable of the Growing Seed11th Sunday in Ordinary Time B


Readings: Ezekiel 17:22-24    2 Corinthians 5:6-10     Mark 4:26-34


            This Sunday’s readings use striking plant and animal images to express our Christian hope in the ultimate triumph of the Lord’s kingdom despite the smallness and apparent impossibility of present circumstances.  Let us in faith and gratitude embrace the Lord’s fidelity to his promises in the lyrics of our responsorial psalm: “They that are planted in the house of the Lord/ shall flourish in the court of our God” (Ps 92:14)

            In the Old Testament reading the prophet Ezekiel, who is living in exile in Babylon, encourages his troubled fellow exiles with a vision of the Lord God’s promise to establish his Messianic kingdom using the image of planting “a tender shoot” of the cedar “on a high and lofty mountain;/ on the mountain heights of Israel” where “it shall put forth branches and bear fruit/ and become a majestic cedar.”  In the first part of chapter 17 Ezekiel fashions an elaborate allegory of eagles and cedars to describe the Lord’s decision to exile his people because of the infidelity of the last king of Judah, Zedekiah, to his solemn covenant with Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon (17:1-21).  But now the prophet assures the exiles of their return home and the Lord’s intention to establish a universal kingdom of peace where “Birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it (the majestic cedar).”  As a consequence of the Lord’s saving actions, the prophet proclaims that all nations will come to know that the Lord’s word providentially guides all of history by punishing the proud and raising up the lowly.  “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.” 

            In the Epistle reading Paul continues the theme of hope as he meditates on the tension in his apostolic ministry between continuing to “dwell in the  body” while “away from the Lord” and being “away from the body and at home with the Lord.”  Although Paul would prefer to go to his home with the Lord, he knows that the demands of his apostolic mission mean that he must continue to “walk by faith, not by sight” but in the full “confidence” that the integrity of his work in the body, and indeed “the lives of all”, will “be revealed before the tribunal of Christ.”  

            The Gospel contains the two parables—the seed growing secretly and the mustard seed which conclude Mark’s account of Jesus’ parables (4:1-34).  Both are parables about “the reign of God” and contain sharp contrasts between small or insignificant beginnings and great, abundant endings.  They must be related to the future outcome of the reign of God that is beginning in the events of Jesus’ ministry in Mark.  Despite Jesus’ authoritative teaching and powerful miracles and exorcisms proclaiming the arrival of the reign of God, he has also met hostile opposition from the scribes and Pharisees which will culminate in his death on the cross (cf. 3:6).  The Kingdom has made only small beginnings at this point, as Jesus has gathered a band of twelve disciples to share in his mission preaching the arrival of the kingdom and driving out demons (3:13-19). 

            Both parables feature the mysterious inevitability of the triumph of God’s kingdom.  In the parable of the seed growing secretly a man simply scatters seed on the ground and then goes about his daily activities of rest and rising.  Through it all “the seed sprouts and grows without his knowing how it happens.”  The soil, not the man, “produces of itself first the blade, then the ear, finally the ripe wheat in the ear.”  Only when the crop is ready does he wield the sickle for the harvest.  Likewise, the mustard seed “is the smallest of all the earth’s seeds,” but when it is sown it becomes “the largest of shrubs” and, like the image of the mighty cedar in Ezekiel, its branches are large enough “for the birds of the sky to build nests in its shade.”  

Jesus’ parables may even be a lampoon of the extravagant political expectations associated with the arrival of the Messiah.  Instead of “a majestic cedar” who rules over the kingdoms of the earth, Jesus is a Messiah who begins the kingdom by healing the sick, calling the outcast, gathering a small band of peasant disciples, and causing opposition from the official leaders.  He is a Messiah who is destined to be rejected and die on the cross.  But, despite these scattered and small beginnings, paradoxically the kingdom of God is underway and will inevitably triumph just as the harvest follows the scattering of seed and a large mustard shrub comes from “the smallest of all the earth’s seeds.”  Mark notes at the end of our reading that Jesus spoke to the crowd “only by way of parable, while he kept explaining things privately to his disciples.”  The disciples’ task to understand the nature of the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ Messianic mission.  As Mark’s gospel continues we will see that they often fail to understand and even abandon Jesus at the hour of his arrest.  But even to these cowardly disciples the message of Jesus’ parables is that the time will come for the harvest and the small mustard seed will “become the largest of shrubs, with branches big enough for the birds of the sky to build nests in its shade.”