THE SUNDAY LECTIONARY
TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
YEAR B: YEAR OF MARK
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A reading from the book of Deuteronomy 4:1-2. 6-8
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 14 (15): 2-5. R/. v.1
A reading from the second Letter of St James 1:17-18 21-22. 27
A reading from the holy Gospel according to St Mark
7:1-8. 14-14. 21-23
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It’s time to learn about the wardrobe mistress, indeed, royal wardrobe mistress. It’s time to meet one of the most important persons in the whole of the Old Testament, and, as far as its emergence is concerned, of the New Testament as well. It is time to hear the story of Huldah.
Once upon a time there was a king and his name was Josiah. We know that most of the kings we meet in the Jewish story as it emerges in the Bible were failures. A few may have been successful from the political and economic points of view. But these are not the concerns of the Bible. The Bible judges kings from God’s point of view. Are they good shepherds of the people? Do they promote the welfare of the people entrusted to them by God? Do they observe all that God ‘s law demands and so be an example of goodness that people can follow? In other words, are they deeply committed to all that God asks of them? Very few shone in the eyes of God or in the eyes of the people.
But Josiah, who became king in 639 B.C. when he was eight years of age, before God and before the people was a good egg. He reigned for thirty-one years and instituted a programme of religious and social reform, the effects of which have lasted in some respects, to this day. He was what Jesus would have called a Good Shepherd.
A major element in his reform was a massive repair job on the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple built by King Solomon was the very heart of Jewish faith for it was God’s House, the dwelling place on earth of God’s Presence. It was God’s Tabernacle, the very word used to describe the Tent of Meeting which was God’s temporary residence as Moses and the people made their way through the desert to the promised land. It was the duty of the kings everywhere in the ancient world to see to the upkeep of the temples in their domain, for these places of worship witnessed to the local presence of the their god or gods who were the protectors of the nation. But many were the kings who ignored this sacred duty. Especially was this sacred duty ignored by many of Israel’s kings and the Jerusalem Temple suffered from years of royal neglect. It fell to the devote heart of the young Josiah to instigate a massive programme of repair:
In the eighteenth year of King Josiah, the king sent Shaphan the son of Azaliah, son of Meshullam, the secretary, to the house of the LORD, saying, “Go up to Hilkiah the high priest, that he may count the money that has been brought into the house of the LORD, which the keepers of the threshold have collected from the people. And let it be given into the hand of the workmen who have the oversight of the house of the Lord, and let them give it to the workmen who are at the house of the LORD, repairing the house (that is, to the carpenters, and to the builders, and to the masons), and let them use it for buying timber and quarried stone to repair the house. But no accounting shall be asked from them for the money that is delivered into their hand, for they deal honestly.
Second Book of Kings 22:3-7
So the pennies of the poor that had been hoarded by the Temple elite were freed up and given to honest workmen, to carpenters and masons, to set about the Temple’s repair.
And then a strange thing happened. It was the custom of Temple authorities not to destroy worn-out scrolls used in worship. Instead, out of respect, they were plastered into the walls. As the workmen toiled, they discovered a scroll:
And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it. And Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, “Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house and have delivered it into the hand of the workmen who have the oversight of the house of the LORD.” Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read it before the king .
Second Book of Kings 22:8-10
Most Jewish and Christian scholars believe that this was a scroll of what we call the book of Deuteronomy or, more likely, an early version of that book. Now at the end of this scroll there is a long description of curses that will befall both king and people if they did not obey all that was laid down in the book:
All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you. They shall be a sign and a wonder against you and your offspring forever.
But what is the illiterate King Josiah to do? Can he trust the High Priest? Can he trust his secretary Shaphan? This scroll appears to be a warning from God of dire disaster if every word of it is not put into practice. Who can authenticate these words? Who truly knows the mind of God?
A prophet! That is what Josiah needed, a prophet who knows the mind of God and can speak in the name of God. So a prophet had to be consulted:
So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan, and Asaiah went to Huldah the woman prophet, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (now she lived in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter), and they talked with her. And she said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the Lord, Behold, I will bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and have made offerings to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. But to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, thus shall you say to him, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel:
‘Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the LORD. Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place. ’” And they brought back word to the king.
Second Book of Kings 22:14-20
Huldah the prophet confirmed the divine authority of this scroll. That had an astounding result. For the discovery of this scroll encouraged the collection of other scrolls containing the stories of Israel’s past and it covenant with God, all the psalms its people sung, all that God demanded of the people. Collections of scrolls that were regarded as inspired by God were put together. Eventually these precious scrolls became the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament. When Christians found their feet in the world, in imitation of the Holy Bible of the Jewish people, they began to gather what they believed were God’s words to them. And so the New Testament gradually came into being. For the very earliest Christians their Bible was the Hebrew or Jewish Bible they grew up with. But over the first four hundred year of Christian life and worship, Christians added their own holy writings to form the New Testament. So Christians inherited the Bible of the Jewish people and eventually added to that rich gift their own meditations on all that God in Jesus had done in and for our world.
None of this would have happened if the prophet Huldah had not given her God-given authority to that scroll that fell out of a wall. We need to remember her story when we listen this morning to a reading from that very book in our first reading, the scroll of Deuteronomy.
A reading from the book of Deuteronomy 4:1-2. 6-8
Moses said to the people:
“And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you… Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. ’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?
The word of the LORD.
The important lesson to learn from the first reading today is that the Bible’s insistence that what God commands is for our own good. If we live as God tells us to live, swords would be turned into ploughshares and lions would sleep with lambs. We would love our enemies so that they became friends. We would do good to those who hate us and turn their hatred into love. We would pray for those who persecute us and believe that God would change their hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. We would become “a wise and understanding people”. People would say of us, “Surely this great Church is a wise and understanding people”. If only.
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 14 (15): 2-5. R/. v.1
R/. The just shall live in the presence of the LORD.
O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?
Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
and speaks truth in his heart. R/.
He does no evil to his neighbour,
nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
in whose eyes a vile person is despised,
but who honors those who fear the LORD. R/.
He who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
who does not put out his money at interest
and does not take a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things shall never be moved.
R/. The just shall live in the presence of the LORD.
Like Psalm 53, Psalm 14 (15) is an oddity for it is not addressed to God directly but speaks to the human heart. It is a teaching lesson, instructing us in how to live if we are to live in God’s presence. If we are to live in God’s house, if we are to share a tent with God, then a blameless life is the entry requirement.
The first demand is to walk justly, to do all that is right in our regard for other people. To speak the truth from the heart is to be honest in all that we do and say. To do no harm to your neighbour, not to slander the people down the street, not to put up with evil around you but to take steps against it, these are what marks you out as one welcome to live on God’s holy mountain. Keeping your promises, not engaging in usury (mortgage lenders, please note), not accepting a bribe (think about it!), these things mark out those who shall never be moved. Never be far from the heart of God.
How do we respond to all that?
A reading from the Letter of St James 1:17-18. 21-22. 27
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures.
Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
The word of the LORD.
James, everywhere in the New Testament called James, the brother of the Lord, is a much neglected figure in the Christian story. We honour Peter. We honour Paul. We neglect James. Of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament, James is twenty places down the list. We will be greatly mistaken if we think that this was always the case. In the oldest manuscripts that have survived this is not the case.
On opening a book or a magazine often enough our eyes will stray first to the table of contents. Open your Bible and look at the Table of Contents of the books of the New Testament. First you will see the four Gospels:
The Gospels are our life’s blood and you will not be surprised that they come first.
Then the next book listed is,
Acts of the Apostles
This is no surprise as this is an important account of the development of the very first days of the very first Christian, from the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem to the arrival of St Paul in Rome. Written by St Luke, it tells the glorious story of our beginnings.
It is what comes next that raises interesting questions. If you look at the Table of Contents in your Bible you will find that after the Acts of the Apostles come all the letters once believed to have been written by St Paul,
and so on, down to Hebrews.
Then we have,
and so on, down to the last book,
Revelation (or Apocalpse)
This is the order of the New Testament books found in hand-written Bibles and later in printed Bibles for the last one thousand years. It is based on the Latin Vulgate of St Jerome, the official Bible of the Western Catholic Church. Jerome was a dedicated Roman Christian. He was secretary to Pope Damasus (366-384), - whose father had been a bishop - before he devoted his life to biblical matters. His extremely influential Bible translation reflects Roman theological nuances. However, the oldest complete copy of the Greek New Testament, the Codex Vaticanus (4th century A.D.) has a different order in its table of contents. After the Acts of the Apostles comes,
The equally ancient Codex Alexandrinus (5th century A.D.) is the same as Vaticanus. The Eastern Orthodox Church in most publications maintains the order of Vaticanus and Alexandrinus.
It is clear that the very earliest tables of contents put the order after Acts of the Apostles as,
James [the brother of the Lord]
Peter, [the first of the Twelve Apostles]
John [one of the Twelve Apostles]
Jude [one of the Twelve Apostles].
In other words, the earliest known Greek manuscripts that we have (as distinct from scrolls, mainly fragmentary), coming from the fourth, fifth and subsequent centuries, list the writings of apostles in order of their prominence in the earliest Christian communities. But before these apostles (Peter, John, Jude) comes James, not an apostle. We must realize that James, the brother of the Lord, was far more important in the very earliest days of the Christian enterprise that anyone else. And we must be aware that even such a seemingly unimportant matter as the order of the books in the New Testament can and was tailored to reflect a particular theological understanding of history. There may be some truth in an adage of G. K. Chesterton that there is no such thing as history, merely historians.
Martin Luther added to the devaluation of James by calling his letter “an epistle of straw”. It is to be hoped that the five excerpts that occur from this to the 26th Sunday of the present Year B will restore his renown as our earliest and still significant teacher to emerge from those who knew our Lord intimately.
We will not find in James profound reflection on the life, death, or resurrection of Jesus. We will not find any reflection on the Holy Spirit in our lives or any consideration of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the world. There is no mention of the Lord’s Supper, nor, indeed, of the sacrament of baptism. When the word ‘LORD” is mentioned it is almost always in reference to God, not to Jesus.
However, do not be deceived. James demands more from us than the most sophisticated scholars. He demands we be “doers”, not just “hearers” of God’s words. If we are only listeners, then our faith is mere self-deception. James spells it out for us in the only “definition” of religion in the whole Bible:
Religion pure and simple
in the eyes of God our Father is this:
to look out for orphans and widows
in their distress;
and to keep oneself uncontaminated
by the world.
What James emphasizes is that faith is practical. If you truly believe in God, then you love your neighbour. To be somewhat crude, you have to put your money where your mouth is. James gives us examples from everyday experience to hammer home his teaching. What God has given to the world, what words God has spoken to the world, must be put into practice, must issue not only in believing but in doing. Singing hymns and arias as you walk pass the orphan in the street and ignore the widow woman with her hand out will not save your soul. We are expected to carry the crosses of this world. We are not meant to run away from this vale of tears. We are meant to dry its tears.
Amazingly, James uses 59 imperatives, more than any other writer in the New Testament. His commands are warnings: do this or else be revealed as a hypocrite. James knows that the true meaning and value of what God has given to the world is a joy to the world. What we must do is participate with God bringing the world to joy.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to St Mark
7:1-8. 14-14. 21-23
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honours me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. ’
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.
For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.
The word of the LORD.
This Sunday brings us to chapter seven of Mark’s Gospel and the Lectionary omits most of it and what it gives us today is a disjointed collection of sentences culled from the first 23 verses of the chapter. So what we have is not Mark’s Gospel but edited pieces of his story. Yet what Mark provides in his chapter seven is information by which we can understand the greatest crisis ever to confront the Christian Church. Every other crisis, from that day to this, even the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, pale into insignificance when we listen carefully to what Mark tells us in this profoundly disturbing chapter.
Who are the Pharisees?
Pharisees get a bad press in our four Gospels. They are the nosiest and most persistent opponents of Jesus. They appear as narrow-minded, rigid, unbending stuffed-shirts who think they know everything about God and are the only ones who do. All this is untrue. If all you know about the Pharisees is the picture of them presented in the four Gospels, then you have been misled. While the image found there of hypocritical religious stuffed-shirts has long been taken as strictly historical, it is in fact greatly misleading. We need to set the matter to rights.
The Books of the Maccabees record a sorry time in the history of the Jewish people. The army generals of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) sought to impose themselves on the empire he left behind. Among the huge territories carved up was little Judah which found itself under the heel of a nasty piece of work known as Antiochus 1V (215-164 B.C.). Not only did he subjugate people. He sought to impost Greek culture and its pagan ways on the people he conquered. The Jerusalem Temple, God’s holy dwelling place, was turned into a pagan temple with an abhorrent programme of pagan sacrifices and practices (see 1 Maccabees 1:41-50). The Maccabee revolt proved successful and a free Jewish state was established which lasted for nearly 100 years. Those Jews who resisted and fought for their faith were called Hasidim (“the separate ones” or “the interpreters”) who kept themselves apart from any pagan practices and who interpreted ancient religious Law to meet the dangerous times they lived in. Out of these people who lived and died for the faith of their fathers grew the Pharisees we meet in the pages of the New Testament. For the most part, the Pharisees we meet in the New Testament are hostile to Jesus and constantly opposed to his teaching. But we need to be aware of a fact which overshadows the presentation of the Pharisees in our four Gospels.
That fact is this: Jesus did not come to save only the Jewish people. The mission the risen Jesus gave to his disciples was to teach all peoples. Their task was to bring to baptism all the peoples of the world, to let all the world know that the gift God gives in Jesus Christ was and is given to all humanity. It is this fact which caused uproar among the earliest Christian communities. For the very earliest Christian communities were almost entirely Jewish. These Christian Jews for the most part insisted that if Gentiles were to be admitted into the Christian household, then they had to become Jews first. That is, men had to be circumcised, Jewish food laws had to be observed, and mixing with pagans was to be avoided. But there were some Jewish Christians who saw this as a denial of the true significance of Jesus for the whole of humanity. To simplify matters, we can get clarity by looking Peter and Paul.
Peter and the Pagans
In his magnificent sermon to all who listened to him in Jerusalem on the Pentecost, Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, announced what the prophet Joel had proclaimed to be God’s intention:
I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.
Joel 2:28 (Acts 2:17)
The prophet declared what the Spirit will accomplish:
… it will come to pass
that everyone who calls
upon the name of the LORD
shall be saved.
Joel 2:32 (Acts 2:21)
Peter spelled out to his amazed listeners what God’s promised gift of His Son meant:
For the promise is for you
and for your children
and for all who are far off,
for everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself’
What happened next ought to amaze us. People flocked to be baptized and,
And they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the community, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.
There you have, at the very beginning, a community that you and I can easily recognise as our fathers and mothers. But there was trouble ahead.
Peter seems to have retreated from his enthusiasm of Pentecost Day and had to be reminded that God’s business was and is with all people. When a Roman centurion, a non-Jew, an uncircumcised man, was inspired to send for Peter so that he might hear the message of Jesus, Peter needed to be reminded three times that God intended all people to be saved and to become part of that prayerful community that first came together in Jerusalem. The whole story is in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 10. Here is the account of the creepy-crawly vision God sent to Peter to wise him up to God’s ways:
The next day, as [the people Cornelius sent to Peter] were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon's house, stood at the gate and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” And Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for. What is the reason for your coming?” And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God- fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” So he invited them in to be his guests.
The next day he rose and went away with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa accompanied him. And on the following day they entered Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshipped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.” And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered. And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.”
And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea’. So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.
You need to read all of Acts, chapter 10, to understand how hard God works to drum into Peter’s head the lesson that God is in the business of saving all humanity, of bringing us all to glory. The Holy Spirit descends on Cornelius and his whole household just as the Spirit had descended on all assembled in that upper room on Pentecost Day.
And yet Peter backslides again!
Paul and the Pagans
Paul lived and died a Pharisee. A Jew, a Roman citizen, a deeply religious and scholarly man, he was educated in his Jewish faith by the best minds in Jerusalem. His passion for God led him to oppose the Christian movement. Not only did he hold the coats of those who stoned St Stephen, he quickly sought official approval for his attempts to suppress what he regarded as an heretical threat to the faith of his fathers. He sought and was granted approval of a mission to destroy Christian expansion into the Jewish diaspora in Damascus. He was well aware that Christians, having been suppressed in Jerusalem, had fanned out from Jerusalem, and were “infecting” Jewish communities beyond the borders of Palestine. But, as we know, Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus changed him and changed the world.
We will have to come back to the conflicts Jesus had with the Pharisees, the disputes Paul had with Peter, and to the break between the Christian movement and its parent, the faith of the Jewish people.