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THE SUNDAY LECTIONARY

TWENTY-FOURTH  SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

YEAR B: YEAR OF MARK

Joseph O’Hanlon

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READINGS

A reading from the prophet Isaiah                                          50:5-9a                                       

Responsorial Psalm                                       Psalm 114:1-6. 8-9.R/. v.9

A reading from the letter of St James                                    2:14-18  

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark           8:27-35

     

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Poor chapter 7.

Poor chapter 8.

Poor us!

There are 37 verses in chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel.  There are 38 in chapter 8. Of this total of 75 verses in the two chapters, our Lectionary compilers wielded the axe and left us with a meagre 23.  This has impoverished our understanding of the Gospel according to Mark. It is not simply the fact that these two chapters are of immense importance in themselves but that they are of great significance in the portrait and significance of Jesus which St Mark wishes to convey, and of direct relevance to issues which confront our Church today.

On leaving out much of chapter 7

Consider Mark’s chapter 7.  Here we have an extended discussion concerning Jewish religious traditions and commandments, matters of great significance in a Christian movement that was founded within Judaism by devote Jews and has at the centre of its faith the life, death, and destiny of a Jewish man, the very author of their faith.  Gradually the followers of Jesus of Nazareth came to understand that the gospel of God, brought to earth in the life of Jesus, was intended for all humanity. So non-Jews, people regarded as pagans, were to be invited to embrace the gospel of God. But on what terms? Were they to become Jews, to observe every law and command to be found in Jewish Scriptures and traditions?  

  This matter was probably the most serious question ever to confront Christians in our long history.  The Acts of the Apostles moves quickly from Pentecost Day onwards to announce that God’s gift of his Son was a gift to the world.  Peter’s very first sermon declared as much:

“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams;

even on my male servants and female servants

in those days I will pour out my Spirit,

and they shall prophesy … .

And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

(See Acts 2:14-21)

The last sentence of his earth-shattering homily is amazingly true and utterly devastating to a devout Jew:

For this promise is

for you and for your children

    and for all who are far off,

  for everyone

whom the LORD God calls to himself.

Acts 2:39

  Chapter 7 deals with some issues of major concern to devout Jews, to Pharisees who cherished the traditions of their elders.  For the earliest Christians these matters were constantly an issue as they sought to preach the Lord Jesus. As they offered Jesus to the world some cut back drastically on Jewish customs and practices that they considered not to be at the heart of faith in God.  Others felt that one had to swallow the whole Jewish package, as it were, in order to be faithful to Jesus the Jew. Paul was on the liberal side and fought desperately with Peter who tended to the more conservative missionary strategy. You can read about it in Paul’s angry letter to Galatian Christians.  After almost one hundred years of Christian proclamation all the complications of Jewish customs and traditions, but not its central understanding of God, ceased to be of central importance to Christians.   It is important that we engage in that debate, that we understand it, and that we realise why God intended that Jesus must be given to the world, and not confined within the portals of Judaism. We must foster debate with our Jewish brothers and sisters; they are our fathers and mothers in faith. We must come to know what is at the heart of our faith and what is not, as we attempt to proclaim the gospel of God in a world in most need of it.  Leave out chapter 7 and we rob St Mark of his opportunity to teach us lessons we desperately need to learn.

  

  Please notice Mark 7:24-30, a story of a pagan woman, a cultivated Syrian lady who came to Jesus and did not go away empty-handed.

  Please recall last Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mark 7:31-37, a story of a deaf and dumb man, another pagan Gentile, who was ushered into Jesus’ presence.   His friends knew Jesus and were probably converted by the former Gerasene Demoniac (see Mark 5:1-20). The outcome was that, not only was the man healed, but the whole people burst in to a glorious song:

He has done all things well!

Now ask yourself:  

Why was this woman’s story

left out of our Lectionary?



On leaving out most of chapter 8

Of the 38 verses in Mark’s chapter 8, we are given only nine verses.  This is what is left out:

  1.  Again, Jesus feeds thousands of people.
  2.  Pharisees ask for a sign from heaven.
  3.  Disciples are warned that they lack understanding.
  4.  Jesus heals a blind man.

The two remaining stories that are in today’s Gospel reading are,

  1.  Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah.
  2.  Jesus declares that he is a suffering Messiah

who will die and rise again.

The point at issue here is that by omitting so much we are deprived of grasping a great change that takes place in Mark’s Gospel at this point.  The disciples have twice participated in a momentous feeding of many thousands, yet they do not understand. Their hearts are hardened. They do not understand.  They do not realise the significance of what is happening, of what Jesus is doing. They have eyes that do not see. They have ears that do not hear.  These men have been with Jesus from the day he called them in Galilee.  They have seen and heard all that was done and all that was said. Jesus is forced to conclude: you still do not understand.  This is crisis time. This is certainly crisis time.

  So things have to change.  From now on Jesus engages a concentrated programme of education of his intimate disciples, the disciples identified as the Twelve.

By omitting almost all of chapter 8 our Lectionary fails to orientate us to this programme change and therefore fails to alert us to listen with more attention, to scrutinise more carefully all that we see, and to pray that our hearts are not hardened, our eyes closed, and our ears stopped.   



A reading from the prophet Isaiah                                          50:5-9a                                       

The Lord God has opened my ear,

and I was not rebellious;

I turned not backward.

I gave my back to those who strike,

and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;

I hid not my face

from disgrace and spitting.

But the Lord God helps me;

therefore I have not been disgraced;

therefore I have set my face like a flint,

and I know that I shall not be put to shame.

He who vindicates me is near.

Who will contend with me?

Let us stand up together.

Who is my adversary?

Let him come near to me.

Behold, the Lord God helps me;

who will declare me guilty?

To understand passages quoted from the Book of Isaiah we need to know something of the man and something about the book that bears his name.  Let’s begin with the man.



Isaiah: prophet in Jerusalem

A prophet in the Bible is a man or woman who speaks on behalf of God.  The ideology of the vocation of a prophet or how the calling to be a prophet is imagined is like this.  A prophet belongs to the heavenly court. That is, a prophet serves God standing about the heavenly throne of God.  The prophet is a heavenly civil servant whose task is to listen to every word that comes from the mouth of God. That is why prophets usually begin to speak with these words:  Thus says the LORD, or, as Ezekiel prefers, The word of the LORD came to me.  What prophets saw and heard in heaven they revealed on earth.   Notice the vocational vision of Isaiah in Isaiah chaper 6.

The second and seriously important thing to know about Isaiah is that he was born and bred in Jerusalem under the shadow of the Temple and his concerns and those who were inspired by his vision are governed by all that the House of God stood for in Israel’s religious perspectives.  It is possible that Isaiah was a priest, as were Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Certainly there are priestly concerns running through the book which bears his name.

The Book of Isaiah

Isaiah prophesied in the region of Jerusalem between the years 740 and 701 B.C.  Yet the Book of Isaiah reflects over three hundred years of Jewish history. Isaiah the prophet began a prophetical school which continued long after the prophet’s death. Isaiah himself is probably the author of the first nine chapters.  Modern scholarship divides the book as follows:

First Isaiah (chapters 1 - 39)

Second Isaiah (chapters 40 - 55)

Third Isaiah (chapters 56 - 66)

Each section reflects different historical circumstances and different religious concerns.  So to understand “A reading from the prophet Isaiah” presented in our Lectionary, it is necessary to understand which section it belongs to and what historical and religious impulses inspired the contents of that section.  Today’s reading comes from Second Isaiah is concerned with the effects the fall of the Babylonian Empire and the rise of Persian power had on the Jewish people, many of whom had been driven into exile in Mesopotamia by the Babylonians.  This part of Isaiah is full of the expectation of a return to the land of Judah. It calls the Persian ruler Cyrus II “God’s messiah” as he instigated a return of the exiles to the Holy Land (Isaiah 45:1).

  The prophecy in today’s reading is given in the first person singular (I was not rebellious) but this is the voice of the whole nation.  Since each individual must mirror the vocation of the whole people to be a light to the whole world, the convention in Second Isaiah is to have the whole nation speak with one voice.  Hence “I gave my back to those who strike”.

   The meaning of the piece reflects the theology of Second Isaiah.  Israel’s sinfulness was the real cause of the exile, not the Babylonian conquest.  God used the conquest to bring the people back to faithfulness to God’s covenant with Israel.  Otherwise how are the benighted pagan Gentiles ever to see the light of God’s love. The expectation and the hope is that a repentant Israel would be brought back to begin again to live as God’s people and become a light to the nations.  When Cyrus II introduced a new policy of letting people settle in their own lands (and then taxing the life out of them), he was seen as implementing God’s merciful return of the people. I don’t think God was into the taxation lark.




Responsorial Psalm                                       Psalm 114:1-6. 8-9.R/. v.9

R/.   I will walk in the presence of the LORD,

in the land of the living.

I love the LORD for he has heard

the cry of my appeal;

for he has turned his ear to me

in the day when I called.

R/.   I will walk in the presence of the LORD,

in the land of the living.

They surround me, the snares of death,

with the anguish of the tomb;

they caught me, sorrow and distress.

I called on the LORD’s name.

O LORD, my God, deliver me!

R/.   I will walk in the presence of the LORD

in the land of the living.

How gracious is the LORD, and just;

our God has compassion.

The LORD protects the simple hearts:

I was helpless so he saved me.

R/.   I will walk in the presence of the LORD

in the land of the living.

He has kept my soul from death,

my eyes from tears

and my feet from stumbling.

I will walk in the presence of the LORD

in the land of the living.

R/.   I will walk in the presence of the LORD,

in the land of the living.

Today’s responsorial psalm is Psalm 114 as in the Latin Vulgate.  The Psalms in our Lectionary and in the Jerusalem Bible and its offspring do not use the Hebrew or Greek numbering as most modern translations do.  The confusion is rather annoying here as Psalm 113-118 in Jewish liturgy are known as the Hallel Psalms, the Psalms of Praise (you can see that “Hallel” is related to “Halleluia”).  The Hallel Psalms form part of the Passover liturgy and were sung by Jesus and his disciples as they set out on their walk to the Mount of Olives after the Last Supper (Mark 14:26).  The predominant theme of these psalms is praise of God and other rich sentiments are woven into the fabric of this collection of Alleluia songs.  You may wish to read them in Holy Week as you make your journey to Good Friday.

A reading from the second Letter of St James                      2:14-18  

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

The word of the LORD.

Some scholars hold that James wrote his letter to oppose the teaching of St Paul that faith alone brings about our salvation.  That is, we must believe that our salvation is totally the work of God. Our good works in no way cause or contribute to our salvation.  This teaching is central to the teaching of Martin Luther and he called James’ letter “as epistle of straw” because of what we read in today’s second reading.  

  While the relationship of faith/actions has already been touched on in the letter ((hearing/doing in 1:22-25; discrimination between rich and poor in 2:1ff.; care of the poor in 2:5), here we have the faith/good works (or faith/action) at the centre of discussion.  

  The word ‘faith’ occurs 16 times in James and eleven of these occur in the discussion of faith/action, faith/good works (2:14-26).  The word ‘work’ or ‘works’ occur 15 times and 12 in this section. It is not at all clear to me that St Paul makes faith and Christian actions mutually exclusive.  He is everywhere concerned with the poor and his writing revealed a man constantly concerned with poverty in the Jerusalem community, and, indeed, with poverty wherever it is to be found. Nor do I think that James is condemning Paul for alleged ‘faith only’ teaching.  And I might add, that I think that Martin Luther and the Catholic side both misread the New Testament on what came to be the defining issue of the whole sad Reformation upheaval.

 The earliest Christian communities in Jerusalem and elsewhere were concerned with the poor and needy.  To take one example, from their earliest days Christians were known for their care of widows and orphans, not exclusively of Christian widows and orphans, but those impoverished in the general community.  This drew praise even from those who regarded Christians with distaste for a variety of other reasons. I think that James and Paul can be tarred with the same brush - they both believed what Jesus taught.  Read Matthew 25:31-46 if you have any doubts.



A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark           8:27-35

     

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.

   And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

   And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.

The Gospel of the LORD.



Here begins the concentrated teaching of the disciples, who are destined to become apostles.  More and more we see Jesus taking them apart, often into a house, to give them new teaching or to clarify what had been spoken in the public domain.  It is a turning point in the Gospel. No more wandering through Galilees gentle hills. There is a telling note in Mark 9:30:

And they went on from there and passed through Galilee.  And he did not want anyone to know, for he was teaching his disciples.

The days of private tuition had arrived.  Cramming from here on in became the order of the day.  The examination of these disciples will soon come. It’s called the death of Jesus.  Will they pass with honours? Will they pass at all?



A QUESTION OF IDENTITY

  The subject matter of today’s Gospel - the identity and destiny of the Son of Man - is at the heart of this private tuition.  We will meet it again and again as we journey with Jesus and his disciples to Jerusalem, to Calvary, and to the empty tomb.

  It begins in the region of the new town Herod Philip built in honour of the Emperor (hence Caesarea Philippi) in the very north of Galilee.  Jesus leads his disciples, not into, but in the adjacent countryside of the local villages. He “was questioning them as they are on the way”.

A few comments

  1.  Jesus has led his apprentices, his trainees, his learners to a remote classroom.  ‘Disciple’ does not mean ‘follower’; in both Greek and Latin it means ‘a student’. That is, a learner of some sort.  ‘Apprentice’ would be my translation of choice.

  1.  “He was questioning them”.  This is not a one-off occasion.  He was conducting an extensive inquiry with a high degree of persistence.  He seeks to establish the depth of their faith.

  1.  The questioning takes place as they were “on the way”.  This “on

the way” is loaded. In the very earliest Christian communities Christians were accustomed to call themselves “People of the Way”, meaning the new way of life they had been called to by the Holy Spirit.   Jesus will shortly set out on “the way” to Jerusalem (10:32) and we shall see how weighted that reference is, considering all that will happen to him and his apprentices in that city.

He was questioning them about who the people say I am.  An identity parade. Who is this man?

  1.  It is important to grasp that at the very outset of this long passage what is at stake is the identity of Jesus.  This is the most fundamental of Christian questions. Who do you believe Jesus to be? Get that wrong and everything else is meaningless.

  1.   Jesus expects that “the people” will have their opinions but the implication is that they will not have got to the heart of the matter.

“They told him, ‘John the Baptist, and some say Elijah, yet others    one of the prophets’. Jesus is not another version of these eminent people.  So Jesus brings the question home. He continues the press the matter and insists of aiming the question at the disciples:  “Who do you say that I am?”

  1.  There is no getting away from Jesus’ insistence that you can’t pin your faith on someone else’s opinion.  You must answer for yourself.

  1. Peter had been named first among the Twelve back in 3:13-19.  You will recall that Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome where Peter had ended his days witnessing to the very Christ Jesus who all those years before had asked the identity question.  On that occasion he was confident that he could speak the truth to Jesus on behalf of his brothers: “Peter said to him, ‘You are the Messiah’.” And Jesus rebuked him, sternly warning him, not to tell anyone anything about him.

  1.  Christian readers, at this point, will recall that on another occasion, a young maidservant will address Peter and his reply will be a mouth full of curses denying any knowledge of the man:  “I do not know the man”. We have to keep Peter’s affirmation and his denial together and to learn that, as Paul taught us, we carry these truths in vessels of clay.

That is the end of the first half of today’s Gospel.  We know that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One.\



The Destiny of the Son of Man

The second part of today’s Gospel reading opens with a dramatic and utterly surprising sentence:

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.                                                   Mark 8:31-32

The time has come for plain speaking.  The very heart of Mark’s Gospel is expressed without any frills, without any qualification or  extended explanation. Jesus lays it on the line.

A few facts:

  1.  Notice that “he began to teach them”.  To understand that Jesus must die, to grasp why he must die, to realised that this good man must be rejected and killed, to understand that he will rise again, - all of this cannot become part of our deepest faith in a day.  Perhaps not even in a lifetime.

  1.  The most difficult word in these sentences is ‘must’.  For this ‘must’ is God’s ‘must’. What Mark means is that God demands, that God insists, that the Son of Man, God’s only Son, must endure all these things before he is exalted into glory.  This ‘must’ cannot be explained in one reading, in one homily, and Mark will repeat this message with increasing detail (see Mark 9:30-32 and 10:33-34). To understand what is been told us here requires a lifetime of prayer.



  1.  Peter‘s reaction is not surprising in itself.  Who would not be taken aback by such a sudden and perplexing revelation from a man who had done all things well?

  It is the vehemence of his response that takes one’s breath away.  Peter accuses Jesus of being a demon or being possessed by a demon.  

Listen:

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

Peter (the Rock) takes Jesus aside, as Jesus had taken his disciples aside from the crowds, and, as Jesus began to teach his disciples, so he “began to rebuke him”.  It is the work “rebuke” that is beyond the pale. For that word “rebuke” is always the word used to overcome demonic powers, to unpossess a human being possessed of a demon.  Peter is saying that, in revealing that he, the Messiah, will be cruelly put to death, reveals himself to be possessed by a demon.

Recall these lines in Mark:

(i)  But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him.                                  1:25

(ii)  And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.                                                                                                   4:39

(iii) And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.                                                                 9:25

(iv) And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.                                                                           10:13

(v)  And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me”.  

                                                                                                          10:48

Notice that to deny children, to obstruct the blind, the halt and lame, access to Jesus is to do the devil’s work.

The enormity of what Peter has done in response to what Jesus has revealed of his divinely appointed destiny  forces Jesus to name what precisely Simon the Fisherman has become. Jesus in turn rebukes him:



Satan, get behind me!

The reason is plainly stated, and stated by Jesus.  Turning to see his disciples and to ensure that they are not infected by what Peter has declared, Jesus scathingly remarks,

For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.    8:32

Though he had given Simon the new name Peter (meaning the Rock), Jesus never calls him Peter throughout the whole of Mark’s Gospel.  I wonder why.



Taking up one’s cross

Today’s Gospel reading moves from the private tuition of the apprentices to the public domain.   The final words are for the crowd and the learners (disciples).  They are told that if they wish to become part of the Jesus project, then everyone must divest themselves of human concerns that would hinder such commitment.  They must take up their cross and follow Jesus with the total dedication that demands.

  But note that Jesus is not demanding that we who strive to follow him must get ourselves crucified.  What Mark means (and St Paul before him) is that to belong to the crucified Saviour is to be open to the ridicule the world has for anyone who is crucified.  There would be no future for Christianity if everyone got crucified. But these days there are plenty of reasons why the world should regard Christians with contempt.   We may have to lose our life in the eyes of the world before there is any sign of salvation.

Joseph O’Hanlon

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