Reflecting on Acts for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

From Acts of the Apostles, by William S. Kurz, SJ, commenting on Acts 4:8-12

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Jesus instructed his disciples not to be afraid when they are brought to trial for their faith: “When they take you before synagogues and before rulers and authorities, do not worry about how or what your defense will be or about what you are to say. For the holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say” (Luke 12:11–12). Here, in fulfillment of Jesus’ prophetic instructions, Peter is filled with the holy Spirit as he answered them.

His response manifests Spirit-inspired wisdom and boldness. The same Peter who cowered before the challenge of a serving girl (Luke 22:56–57) now fearlessly confronts the Sanhedrin: Leaders of the people and elders. He implicitly reproaches them for interrogating him about a good deed done to a cripple, then solemnly proclaims to them and to all the people of Israel the cause of the healing: it was done in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene. Even though Jesus was the one whom you, the Sanhedrin, crucified by handing him over to Pilate with a capital charge (Luke 23:1–2), God reversed that action and raised him from the dead. Peter declares that in his name, Jesus’ name, the lame man stands before you healed.

In this testimony Peter states the facts and, in so doing, reproves the Sanhedrin for opposing God’s plan. Jesus is the stone rejected by you, the builders which has become the cornerstone. The Sanhedrin are the “builders” of Israel, yet they had rejected the Messiah, the cornerstone, or capstone, essential to the building’s structure. In the Gospel, Jesus quoted this same line from Ps 118:22 to show that his rejection by the Jewish leaders was part of God’s plan and to illustrate the divine reversal of human purposes (Luke 20:17–19). God raised up the crucified Jesus and made him the cornerstone of the new temple, the Church.

© 2013 William S. Kurz, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Acts for the Third Sunday of Easter

From Acts of the Apostles, by William S. Kurz, SJ, commenting on Acts 3:13-15, 17-19

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With the phrase the God of our ancestors, Peter emphasizes his shared Jewish identity with his listeners. The expression underscores the continuity between God’s present action through the apostles and his former deeds for his people in the Old Testament. The God who is acting through the apostles is the God of Abraham, [the God] of Isaac, and [the God] of Jacob (see Luke 13:28; 20:37; Acts 7:32), who revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3:15). The same God who made promises to the patriarchs of Israel—the only God—continues to act through Jesus his Son.

This healing is a sign that God has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you, his Jewish compatriots, had rejected before Pilate (see John 1:11). Though “servant” can also be translated “child,” here it alludes to Isaiah’s prophecies of the Suffering Servant, who would suffer for the sins of the people but be glorified by God (Isa 52:13–53:12; Acts 8:32–35).

Peter calls Jesus the Righteous One, a title used by the centurion at the cross who recognized Jesus’ innocence (Luke 23:47). In sharp contrast, the listeners had a murderer, Barabbas, released (Luke 23:18–19) and killed the author of life. The word for “author” can mean that Jesus is the cause or originator of life (see John 1:1–4) or that he is the pioneer or leader of life, inasmuch as he is the first to rise to life after death (see Col 1:18). Although the Jews who clamored for Jesus’ crucifixion chose death over life, God reversed their decision and raised him from the dead, of which the apostles are witnesses.

© 2013 William S. Kurz, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Acts for the Mass of Easter Day

From Acts of the Apostles, by William S. Kurz, SJ, commenting on Acts 10:34a, 37-43

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Peter’s sermon reaches its climax with the early Christian creedal statement “This man God raised [on] the third day.” As confirmation of Jesus’ resurrection, Peter focuses not on the empty tomb but on the testimony of us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance. He testifies that Jesus did not appear to all the people, but to us only. The risen Jesus will not be seen by his enemies or unbelievers, nor even by the vast majority of followers, until his return at the end of the world, when “they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27). Until then, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7).

Peter declares that Jesus commissioned us to preach to the people and testify to him. This speech to Gentiles differs from Peter’s earlier speech to Jews, where he had cited the resurrection to argue, “Therefore let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). To Gentiles, who would not be familiar with Jewish messianic prophecies, he cites the fact of the resurrection to argue that Jesus is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. Paul’s speech to the Athenians will similarly refer to the risen Jesus as universal judge on the last day (Acts 17:31).

Christian belief in the risen Jesus is also grounded in all the prophets of the Old Testament, who bear witness to Jesus. That is, faith in the resurrection is based on both the living witness of apostles who saw Jesus risen and on the Old Testament prophecies. The aim of both the testimony of eyewitnesses and the prophecies is that every believer in Jesus will receive forgiveness of sins through his name. The essence of salvation is that people’s sins are forgiven by invoking Jesus’ name, because of all that he has accomplished on their behalf.

© 2013 William S. Kurz, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Mark for the Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 9:2-10

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Jesus’ triumphal entry takes place among thousands of pilgrims arriving in the Holy City for the feast of Passover (14:1). There is a sense of excitement and elation, as the crowd around him shouts for joy and spontaneously shows him signs of honor. To spread cloaks on the road was a gesture of homage before a newly crowned king (see 2 Kings 9:13).

Mark’s description evokes an occasion some two centuries earlier, when Simon Maccabeus and his followers entered the city after their successful revolt “with shouts of jubilation, waving of palm branches . . . and the singing of hymns and canticles, because a great enemy of Israel had been destroyed” (1 Macc 13:51).

The crowd chants from Ps 118:25–26: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! This psalm, originally a royal song of thanksgiving for a military victory, was one of the great hymns sung by pilgrims processing into the temple for a festival. Jesus will later apply it specifically to his coming passion and resurrection (Mark 12:10–11).

Hosanna is a Hebrew word that originally meant “Save us!” but in liturgical usage had become a shout of praise or acclamation, much like “Hallelujah!” The blessing on “he who comes in the name of the Lord” was a customary greeting, but also has a deeper significance: Jesus comes in God’s name as his faithful representative, who will perfectly accomplish his will.

The cry, Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come! Expresses messianic hope, but without directly acknowledging Jesus as Messiah. The people’s enthusiasm is genuine, but they do not seem to recognize that the time of fulfillment has already arrived (1:15), and that the kingdom has come in the person of Jesus himself, the “son of David” (10:47). Nor do they realize that his kingship will be exercised not in a political restoration of the Davidic monarchy, but on the cross.

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on I Corinthians for the Third Sunday of Lent

From First Corinthians by George T. Montague, SM, commenting on I Corinthians 1:22-25

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The tendency of the Jews who opposed the ministry of Jesus and that of Paul (compare Matt 12:38–42; Luke 11:29–32), was to demand signs, miracles or spectacular deeds of power, and Greeks look for wisdom, something that will captivate but not disturb the cultured mind.

Paul here shows his grasp of the psychology of both cultures, which made him an apt instrument for reaching both, but he does so by proclaiming something that goes counter to, because it goes beyond, the natural tastes of each: Christ crucified.

Jews indeed looked for a Messiah, but the fact that Jesus died on the cross proved that he was not the glorious liberator they desired. For them, the cross was a stumbling block, an obstacle to faith.

The Greek understanding of time and history was not eschatological: it did not have a conception of a goal toward which history was moving. “Time,” Aristotle said, “is a kind of circle.” Thus a religious founder should be one who more than any other would lead one to contemplate the order and harmony of the universe and lead humanity to a more harmonious subjection to its inevitability.

This was at least the view of the Stoics, who were Paul’s contemporaries and with whom he argued in Athens (Acts 17:18). In short, such a founder should be a philosopher. A founder who stands the world’s values on its head by going to death on a cross—the fate of the criminal dregs of humanity—would indeed have no chance of winning the Greek, even less by claiming that the cross was followed by the resurrection of the body.

As for the Jewish critic, the apparent failure of one who claimed to be the Messiah was proof that he was not. That is why it takes a special grace, a divine call, to read in the cross more than stupidity and weakness.

 

© 2011 George T. Montague and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Mark for the Second Sunday of Lent

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 9:2-10

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The Transfiguration, like Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11), is a Trinitarian event, with the Holy Spirit’s presence now symbolized by the cloud rather than a dove. Just as at the baptism, the heavenly Father gives audible testimony to his beloved Son. At the baptism God had addressed Jesus himself; now he speaks to the disciples about Jesus, revealing a status that far exceeds that of Moses and Elijah.

This testimony to Jesus (here and at his baptism) is the only word the Father is recorded as saying in the Gospels, since Jesus is the fullness of all that he has to say to humanity.

The command to Listen to him recalls Moses’ promise that God would one day raise up “a prophet like me . . . from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen” (Deut 18:15). The disciples are to listen to everything Jesus has to say, but especially, in the context of the conversation that has just transpired (Mark 8:31–38), his prophecy about his messianic suffering and its implications for them. They have been shown a glimpse of the road far ahead: if they listen carefully and obey his commands all the way to the cross, their destiny will be joined to his, and they too will one day be transfigured with divine glory.

At the pinnacle of this experience the disciples suddenly find themselves with Jesus alone. Moses and Elijah have already accomplished their tasks, but Jesus must now complete the Father’s plan by going to the cross alone. His own life and mission will be the fulfillment that transcends all that took place in the Old Testament.

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Mark for the First Sunday of Lent

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 1:12-15

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As Adam and Eve were driven out of the garden (Gen 3:24), Jesus is driven out into the desert, the barren wilderness around the Dead Sea. There he remains for forty days, a number that signifies a time of testing, as Israel was tested during Moses’ forty days on Mount Sinai (Exod 24:18; 32:1), and during the forty years in the desert (Deut 8:2). Jesus relives the story of Israel, but as an obedient Son who is totally faithful in his own trial in the desert.

The desert is depicted in Scripture as the realm of evil powers, symbolized by the predatory beasts that lurk there (Lev 16:10; Isa 35:7–9; Ezek 34:25). Jesus goes there to be tempted (or “put to the test,” NJB) by Satan, that is, to be tested in his resolve to carry out his messianic mission in accord with the Father’s will. He faces the same decision as Adam and Eve in the garden (Gen 3:1–6) and Israel in the desert (Exod 15:25; 16:4)—but unlike them, he rebuffs temptation and stands fast in his determination to please the Father.

“Satan” means “adversary” and is synonymous with the devil, the prince of demons (Mark 3:23–26), who will oppose Jesus at every turn. Jesus enters into Satan’s territory deliberately, to begin his campaign against the powers of evil. He is looking for a fight! Yet he will confront Satan not with a blast of divine lightning, but in his frail human nature, empowered by the Spirit.

Mark’s mention that Jesus was among wild beasts, evidently without harm, recalls Isaiah’s prophecy that at the coming of the Messiah even wild beasts would be tamed (Isa 11:1–9; see Ezek 34:25–28), restoring God’s order to creation. The angels ministered to him, just as they had accompanied Israel in the desert (Exod 14:19) and provided food for Elijah (1 Kings 19:5–7).

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Mark for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 1:40-45

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One of the most striking features of the Gospel of Mark is the theme of the “messianic secret.” Although Jesus does mighty works of healing and deliverance, he repeatedly insists that these works not be publicized (1:44; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26; 9:9) and forbids both people (8:30) and demons (1:25, 34; 3:12) to reveal his true identity. Why?

The key to the puzzle is found only after Peter’s confession of faith (8:27–30). Jesus’ messianic identity is a deeper mystery than any of his followers yet fathom, and it must be unveiled gradually.

The messiah of popular expectation was a political and military leader who would liberate Israel from Roman domination and usher in a new world of peace and prosperity. But Jesus had come to bring a much greater liberation—from the domination of sin, Satan, and death—and his mission was inseparably linked with the laying down of his life on the cross. Until that mystery was revealed, the risk was that sensational reports about his miracles would generate a false and distorted messianic enthusiasm.

Although it is easy for us in hindsight to disparage Jesus’ contemporaries for their worldly expectations, his twenty-first century followers are just as prone to misinterpret him on an earthly, superficial level—for instance, in some forms of liberation theology or in the “prosperity gospel.” The gradual disclosure of the messianic secret has to happen for every Christian, as we learn from Jesus the paradox of the cross.

As we are purified of our limited human ideas of what God’s kingdom should be, we are led into the reality that is far greater: what “eye has not seen, and ear has not heard . . . what God has prepared for those who love him” (see 1 Cor 2:9).

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Mark for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 1:29-39

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Given the stunning displays of power just recounted, there is a note of simplicity and humility in the report that Jesus rose early to go off and pray. Although he speaks and acts with divine authority, Jesus seeks guidance from God like an ordinary man.

Both the time and the place chosen by him are especially suited to prayer. Mark emphasizes the early hour, very early before dawn, as if, like the psalmist, Jesus desires to precede the sunrise in giving glory to God: “Awake, my soul; awake, lyre and harp! I will wake the dawn” (Ps 57:9; see 88:14; 92:2). The deserted place recalls the desert in 1:3–13, a place of solitude conducive to intimate communion with God. Aware that crowds will always be flocking to him from this point on, Jesus is determined to find the time he needs to renew his communion with the Father in prayer (see Mark 6:46; 14:32–42).

Simon Peter acts on behalf of the many who are looking for Jesus because they perceive in him the answer to their deepest longings. Jesus had taken the initiative in calling the disciples (1:16–20), but now they pursue him, or “track him down.” There may be an allusion here to the bride’s pursuit of her beloved in the Song of Songs, interpreted by the ancient Jews as an image for Israel’s spousal love for God: “in the streets and crossings I will seek him whom my heart loves. I sought him but I did not find him” (Song 3:2–4). In a real sense, “everyone is looking for” Jesus, whether they know it or not.

Upon their “finding him,” Jesus replies with a solemn declaration of the purpose of his mission (see John 18:37 for a similar declaration). Have I come suggests more than Jesus’ appearance in public; it alludes to his being sent into the world by the Father, and thus implies his preexistence (see Mark 9:37). He has come to preach, that is, proclaim the kingdom (1:14), on an increasingly wider scale. And his preaching, as is evident from the episodes already narrated (1:15–34), consists not merely of words but of a power that has a dramatic impact on his listeners, making the kingdom a reality in their lives. By saying “let us go” Jesus includes his disciples in that mission. His time alone with his Father has confirmed him in his self-understanding and prepared him for the whirlwind of ministry to follow.

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Mark for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 1:21-28

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Jesus’ teaching has the intrinsic effect of exposing evil so that it can be expelled. Mark does not explain whether the man with an unclean spirit was a regular synagogue attendee or whether he came specifically to disrupt Jesus’ sermon. But in the presence of Jesus, the grip of evil on the man comes to light and he cries out in fear and rage, What have you to do with us?

The spirit is challenging Jesus’ encroachment on the demons’ formerly uncontested territory, evidently aware that his coming portends their downfall. The spirit claims hidden knowledge of Jesus’ identity, a frequent demonic tactic (3:11; 5:7) that may be intended to catch Jesus off guard or gain some control over him. But the attempt is futile.

“Holy One” is a term usually reserved for God (1 Sam 2:2; Hosea 11:9) but is occasionally used for those who are consecrated in his service as priests or prophets (Num 16:5–7; 2 Kings 4:9; Ps 106:16). Holy One of God is an accurate title for Jesus (see John 6:69), but not one that he wants publicized at this point in his mission. He will reveal his identity on his own terms and in his own time, to ensure that it will be rightly understood.

Jesus sternly rebukes the spirit: Quiet! (literally, “Be muzzled!”) Come out of him! In a final show of defiance, the unclean spirit convulses the man as it departs, helpless before Jesus’ word of command. Already the Baptist’s prophecy of a “mightier one” to come (v. 7) is being fulfilled before the people’s eyes. The demon’s tyranny is over and the possessed man is set free.

The people react with amazement: What is this? A new teaching with authority. They recognize an intrinsic connection between Jesus’ teaching and his power to dispel evil.

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.