Holy Spirit

ACTA
LECTIONARY COMMENTARY
EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME YEAR C
YEAR OF LUKE

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READINGS
A reading from the book of Ecclesiasticus 27:2-7
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 92:2-3. 13-16. R/. cf. v. 2
A reading from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians
15:54-58
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke
6:39-45
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Check it out. There is no mention of God in our first reading. No mention of faith, of hope, of love. No mention of anything that sounds religious. Yet the reader today will proclaim that this is The word of the LORD and we will respond Thanks be to God. What we hear today amounts to four pretty ordinary proverbs that teach not much more than to be careful every time you open your mouth in case you put your foot in it. Do we need the Bible to teach us what we learned at our mother’s knee?
Our Library
The Bible is a library of books. Like every library, it is divided into sections and subsections. The major sections are The Old Testament and The New Testament. For as long as one thousand years before Jesus came into our world the Old Testament was gradually produced by a tiny and not very successful nation in the Middle East who came to be known as the Jewish people. This people were regularly conquered by powerful neighbours and so spent most of their time longing for independence and freedom.
And another thing. Those of us who live in cities need to be aware that the collection of books that make up the writings we call the Old Testament concern country people. This was a world of camels and asses, sheep and goats, lizards and scorpions, figs and olives, rivers and mountains. There was only one industry in the world down to about the 18th century: agricultural. Almost all other sources of wealth can be traced back to harvesting, shepherding, and fishing. The Bible reflects that world and its language, its poetry, and its prayers come from a world of peasants.
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These far distant and strange people wrote their stories. They wrote their songs. They produced great poetry, put together collections of their laws and customs. They wrote parables and prophecies and prayers. Above all they wrote about their God. When their stories were collected and housed in a single book that book came to be called simply The Book.1 For in that collection of writings this insignificant people believed they had produced more than the story of their times and their concerns. Rather they came to believe that what was written was the story of God’s concern for men and women from creation to the grave and beyond.2
When a Jew called Jesus was born into these people such was the impression he made that some began to believe that he had come from God. For hundreds of years prophets, priests, and peasants had longed for God to come amongst them to right the wrongs they suffered, to give them freedom, and through them to spread justice and peace upon the earth. This Jew, this Jesus of Nazareth, seemed to some to be the one sent by God, a messiah to right all wrongs.3 When he was killed for challenging the ways of the world, some believed that God delivered him from death in order to lead a community who bought into his story and joined in the project of creating a new world. It would be a world modelled on the
1 The word “bible” comes from the Greek word biblos, which describes the inner bark of the papyrus plant. A kind of paper was made from drying the bark and flattening it out. From the word biblos we get the word bible and this became the The Bible, The Book.
2 Of course, all creation is God’s concern and, therefore, must be the concern of humanity. Pope Francis has emphasised this responsibility in his encyclical Laudato si.
3 The word messiah (in Hebrew mashiah) means “one anointed (with precious oils) to be an agent of God to work on behalf of God’s people. The Greek word to describe such a person is Christos (from which we get the word chrism) and in English Christ that became a name for Jesus even though it describes an occupation rather than a personal name.
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plan that God had constantly proclaimed in the teaching of ancient prophets and dramatized in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the messiah sent to our world to pray us into responsibility.
After his death a small number of women and men (women were the first) met with the risen Jesus. They were invited to transform the kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of God. To empower this little band of believers Jesus assured them that his Spirit would be with them, that his presence would be their unfailing guide and strength. With faith in his word and hope in their hearts, brave souls set out to create a world in the image and likeness of God. And as they went they wrote for themselves the story of their understanding of the God who had called them and the Jesus who walked with them. What our first fathers and mothers in faith experienced as they made their way, we find written in what became the twenty-seven different pieces of writing that make up the New Testament.
That is our inheritance. The Jewish Scriptures have been gifted to Christians. What was experienced by God’s people came to be understood as God’s outreach to all peoples. The ancient story of the Jewish people is seen by Christians as the beginning of every people’s story. We come to know Jesus in the New Testament and to realise that we are called, as our Christian ancestors were called, in order to join with him to complete the story. The enterprise is brought to life in our prayer: to do on earth as it is done in heaven.
Wisdom
The Bible, Old and New Testaments, is a storybook. It tells the story of God’s involvement with the people who walk this earth. Given the fact that we humans have
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wandered over the face of the whole earth, the stories of a tiny, insignificant people who came to be named Jews, on the face of it, ought not to be important in the great scheme of things. But in God’s concern for humanity’s wellbeing, their story was and is at the heart of everyone’s story. What the Bible teaches us is that their story is the seed sown by God on this earth, a seed that has flowered into the Christian story. That is why we who declare ourselves to be Christian must immerse ourselves in the Old if we are to understand the New. That is why we must gather the wisdom of the past if we are to live today so that we will transform tomorrow. Our future is written in the wisdom of the past.
However, when we come to read what called The Wisdom Books one finds in the Bible there are a few very surprising surprises. In these books there is little or no account of the story of the miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt, no mention of Moses and the Law, little hint of the covenant given on Mount Sinai, indeed not much mention of God.4 The history of Israel and the doings of all the kings are not to be found in these books. Nor is the voice of the prophets to be heard. Indeed, God is not at the heart of so-called Wisdom Literature in the Bible. It is human experience that is the path to God in these books. That means taking human experience seriously, not treating it as insignificant when compared to what the prophets reveal about God. Human experience—of birth, death, sadness and joy, love and hate, justice and the lack of it, riches and poverty, sickness and health—are universal experiences and it is these that occupy the Wisdom Books in the Old Testament. Thus when we listen in church today to a reading from the Book of Ecclesiasticus and respond The Word of the LORD, we need to be aware what we are
4 To some extent the Wisdom of Ben-Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon are exceptions to these general observations.
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doing. We are declaring that God is to be found in human experience, that God is revealed to us in our human living. We insist that as Christians we listen to the Church to ensure we walk the way of God. But equally we insist that our human experience is also where we learn God. That is what the Bible teaches; that is what the Church (and our preachers) needs to understand. Today the Book of Ecclesiasticus speaks from the common experience of humanity: watch your tongue. We do well to notice that Jesus in our Gospel reading does the same: the blind can’t lead the blind. Indeed, the preaching of Jesus, as we find it in our Gospels, is nearly always based on human experience. He teaches in the wisdom tradition. He teaches in parables and in the language of human experience (“A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho …”). Even today, with a little application, his words speak to heart and mind.
And that brings us to today’s first reading, a reading from Ecclesiasticus or, to give its proper name, The Wisdom of Jesus Ben-Sirach.
A reading from the book of Ecclesiasticus 27:2-7
When a sieve is shaken, the rubbish is left behind;
so do a person’s faults when he speaks.
The kiln tests the potter’s vessels;
so the test of a person is in his conversation.
Its fruit reveals the cultivation of a tree;
so a person’s speech reveals the cultivation of his mind.
Do not praise anyone before he speaks,
For this is the way people are tested.
The word of the LORD.
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Our Bible is full of all kinds of stories. It is full of prayers, not only the 150 prayers in the Book of Psalms, but prayers and people praying are scattered all over the place. It is full of the poetry of the prophets calling on humanity to face up to God. It is full of bits of history revealing the doings of men and women, good and bad, saints and sinners. It is also full of wisdom. It has a whole collection of books devoted to recording the wisdom that comes from living. Wisdom is always the voice of experience. Not only in the Bible but also throughout the ancient Middle East (and elsewhere in the world, ancient and modern) collections of sayings of the wise were commonplace.5 Indeed, the ultimate achievement of life was to become wise, as the Book of Proverbs declares:
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
and the one who gets understanding,
for the gain from her is better than gain from silver
and her profit better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.6
Proverbs 3:13-15
The Book of Ecclesiasticus comes from this tradition. It was written in Jerusalem by a man named Jesus, the son
5 The Book of Proverbs, The Book of Ecclesiastes (Qohelet), The Book of Wisdom, Baruch. Many books contain bits of wisdom, ancient proverbs, and stories illustrating the wisdom to be found in human experience.
6 The Hebrew word for “wisdom” is hokmah which is a feminine noun. When the Bible was translated into Greek (about 250 years before the time of Jesus) the word sophia was the Greek word used. That is also a feminine noun. The words refer to human skills, skill in battle, in technical work, in the administration of government, to indicate cleverness, even shrewdness.
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of Sirach. He wrote the book in Hebrew around 180 B.C. and his grandson translated it into Greek in Alexandria probably fifty years later. It was found in a synagogue in Cairo and became an important book of instruction in Judaism and later in Christianity. In some Christian circles it was named Ecclesiasticus (“the Church’s book”) because it became part of the Bible of the Latin Church. It is not part of Jewish Scriptures, nor of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, nor of Protestant Churches.
The book was written for the young and aspiring sons of the wealthy. These are urged to aspire to public service, to work hard, to have compassion for the poor and needy, to be honest, and to cherish integrity rather than the accumulation of riches. The truly wise seek to live according to God’s directions, not human desires.
It is not, and unlikely to become, bedside reading for women. Ben-Sirach praises “a wife and a husband who live in harmony” (25:1). He admires the silent, stay-at-home, submissive wife as “a gift from the LORD” (25:14). “A modest wife” is “a good wife” but “in her well-ordered home”. I think that these lines damn with faint praise:
Like the shining lamp on the holy lampstand,
so is a beautiful face on a stately figure.
Like golden pillars on silver bases,
so are shapely legs and steadfast feet.
Ecclesiasticus 26:17-18
What he has to say about “a headstrong daughter” (26:10) you may interpret for yourselves:
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As a thirsty traveller opens his mouth
and drinks from any water near him,
so she will sit in front of every tent peg
and open her quiver to the arrow.
Ecclestiasticus 26:12
It is, therefore, necessary wisely to judge ancient wisdom in the light of our experience and to recognise when and how we have to move on. Of course, it is not true that we have progressed in all our ways.
Today’s reading offers four proverbs that teach the importance of thinking before speaking and listening before judging. They are chosen to illustrate that Jesus used the same kind of wisdom to promote sensible behaviour. The lesson is that the more we learn how to be truly human the more we learn to be truly God-like.
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 92:2-3. 13-16. R/. cf. v. 2
R/. It is good to give thanks to you, O LORD.
It is good to give thanks to the LORD.
to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
and your faithfulness by night. R/.
The righteous flourish like the palm tree
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. R/.
They are planted in the house of the LORD
they flourish in the courts of our God.
They still bear fruit in old age;
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they are ever full of sap and green,
to declare that the LORD is upright;
he is my rock,
and there is no unrighteousness in him.
R/. It is good to give thanks to you, O LORD.
Some psalms have an inscription as an instruction as to its use. Psalm 92 informs us that it is “A song for the Sabbath day”. Singing the psalm with this in mind, it is helpful to remember that the mythological story in the Book of Genesis relates that God created the heavens and the earth in six days and that God rested on the seventh day. God’s name (Yahweh) is mentioned seven times in the full text of Psalm 92. We thank God for “your great works”, for giving us joy “by the work of your hands, for God’s wondrous “designs”. All that God does proclaims “your steadfast love”.
Righteous people flourish for they reflect the very nature of God who loves with an everlasting, steadfast love, and who acts righteously by making, as St Matthew puts it, “his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).
A reading from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians
15:54-58
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?
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The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the LORD,
knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.
The word of the LORD.
This is the last quotations from Paul’s first letter to the Christian house-churches of Corinth that have made up the second reading since the second Sunday of year C. Unfortunately, by omitting sentences here and there it is difficult to follow the teaching of Paul with the clarity it deserves. Today the complicated discussion that runs throughout Chapter 15 is again made what is already difficult even more difficult, by omitting sentences that contain the beginning of his argument at this point. Here is how his discussion at this point kicks off:
First fact:
I tell you this, brothers and sisters: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
1 Corinthians 15:50
Human nature cannot simply enter the realm of divine nature without more ado. A physical body, such as human beings possess, cannot suddenly enter into the realm of the spiritual. Something needs to change. We must be aware that Paul’s idea of soul was entirely in conformity with basic Hebrew (Jewish) understanding. “Soul” means “life”. Death occurs when God “requires your soul”, as in Luke 12:20, where “soul” obviously means “life”. The “three thousand souls” who became
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Christians (Acts 2:41) were people. What Paul means is that the human person needs transformation by the Holy Spirit in order to enter eternal life. That transformation begins with life being “in Christ” in our present existence.
Second fact:
Behold! I speak to you a revelation: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.
1 Corinthians 15:51-52
Paul has a heavenly secret to reveal. Though not everyone will die—Paul wrongly believed that “the end of the world” was just around the corner—everyone, dead or alive when that “day” dawned would be transformed. What excites Paul is that God will act. God will change the limitations of the human physical body into that which can be a home in the realm of God. He explains his understanding with a high degree of soaring imagination in writing to Christians in Thessalonica who were much concerned about “what happens when we die”:
For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord [= Jesus], will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage
one another with these words.
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1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
The glorious truth is that God will take matters in hand and change mere mortal human beings into immortals who are thus enabled to be with God. At this point, before he ties himself up in knots, Paul breaks into mockery of death itself. God’s victory over death’s destruction is complete. It was, in Paul’s understanding, that Adam, the first human being dies, thus bequeathing death to all who followed. Because sin robbed Adam of the glory bestowed on him (poetically expressed in the garden and its provisions), so all inherited the death that that brought about. That is undone. As God undid the death of Jesus, so God undoes the death of all humanity through “the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ”. So, Paul’s final word is to live and work in the sure and certain hope of our resurrection for what happened to Jesus is the destiny God prepares for all humanity.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 6:39-45
[Jesus] … told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A pupil is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye.
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For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
The Gospel of the LORD.
In the light of what we have seen in relation to today’s first reading from the Book of the Wisdom of Ben-Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), the first thing to notice about our Gospel reading is that it is a piece of wisdom teaching. It is wise to give when the promise is that by doing so the reward is greater than what could be reasonably expected.
In his preaching what scholars have called The Sermon of the Plain, Jesus fills out the programme that he had announced in reading from Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:18-19). Going beyond the demands made by Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus demands that “the great crowd of his disciples and the people from all Judea and Jerusalem”, even the Gentile pagans from Tyre and Sidon, all of whom were healed of their diseases, to live in a way beyond what was demanded in the Torah (Law) of the covenant, or in any part of the Jewish Scriptures. Far from loving enemies, those Scriptures are full of massacres of enemies and the rich flaunt their wealth and enjoy their power. What Jesus is doing is introducing new standards, standards that he lives by. He is, as the angel
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Gabriel told Mary, “the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Those who listen to his voice, those
who love as he loves,
who bless as he blesses,
who pray as he prays,
who give as he gives,
will be “sons and daughters of the Most High". For to do as Jesus does is to do as God does. God is kind to the ungrateful and to evil people. The standard required of those who would hear the words of Jesus and do them is this:
Be merciful as your Father in merciful.
Notice the voice of experience. When the blind lead the blind they end up in the ditch. When a pupil tries to short-cut the learning process, failure is to be expected. Only the one who is fully trained, who learns all that his teacher knows, will be as competent as his teacher. Taking the plank out of your own eye is a good preparation for taking the speck out of your brother’s eye.
A good fruit tree is the one producing good fruit. Figs don’t grow on thorny bushes and grapes don’t grow on brambles. Goodness comes from good people. Evil comes from evil people. What is in your heart comes out of your mouth. The thing is everyone knows this.
These obvious pieces of everyday wisdom are a pathway to doing God’s will. Indeed, such as follow these obvious bits of human wisdom will be “sons and daughters
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of God”. What Jesus has done is to point to ordinary human experience in order to teach those who would learn from him to be like God.
Joseph O’Hanlon

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