Reflecting on Mark for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 6:1-6

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According to his usual custom (Mark 1:21, 39; 3:1), on the Sabbath Jesus enters the synagogue to teach. At first the villagers seem to react in the same way as other audiences: they are astonished at his wisdom and authority (1:22; 11:18). But in this case it is an astonishment at what seems inappropriate and out of place to them. To their minds Jesus is just “one of the guys,” someone they have known all their lives. They had never seen anything extraordinary about him. All this itinerant preaching and miracle-working seems to them to be putting on airs.

Where did this man get all this? Their questions display not a sincere pursuit of truth but rather indignant skepticism. They are asking the right questions, which all the readers of the Gospel are meant to ask, but with the wrong attitude. They cannot accept that the answer might be “from God.” Wisdom and mighty deeds (dynameis) are attributes of God himself (Jer 10:12; 51:15; Dan 2:20), and Scripture often refers to the great deeds accomplished by God’s “hand” (Exod 32:11; Deut 4:34; 7:19). But the people cannot bring themselves to draw the logical conclusion of their reasoning.

The villagers deem that Jesus’ hands would be put to better use by returning to his former occupation: woodworking (the Greek word for carpenter, tektōn, can also mean builder or craftsman). Their reference to Jesus’ family members by name shows their close familiarity with his background. Only in Mark is Jesus referred to as the son of Mary, an unusual designation since Jews customarily referred to sons in relation to their fathers (Matt 16:17; Mark 10:35). It may have been a veiled slur, alluding to the fact that Mary was not yet married at the time of Jesus’ conception (see John 8:41), or perhaps simply an indication that Joseph was deceased.

Their questions suggest that they have pigeonholed Jesus: they are confident that they know all there is to know about him. So they took offense at him (skandalizomai, meaning to stumble over an obstacle). The idea that their hometown carpenter, Jesus, could be inaugurating the kingdom of God was scandalous; it did not conform to their preconceived ideas about how God would and could act. And their attachment to their preconceived ideas became an obstacle to faith.

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

Reflecting on Mark for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 5:21-43

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Who touched me? The disciples think Jesus’ question is absurd, given the thronging crowds. As on other occasions where he is about to display his sovereign power, they completely miss the point. They even feel obliged to help their Lord gain some common sense and realism (as in 6:35–37; see John 11:12, 39). But their perplexed reaction only reveals how much they still have to learn.

What made the woman’s touch unlike that of all the others in the crowd was her faith. She had wanted to touch Jesus’ garment lightly, without attracting any attention to herself, whereas others were jostling roughly against him. Yet her touch was more efficacious than all the rest, because through faith it came into contact with the person of Jesus and his healing power.

Jesus looked around, desiring that she meet his gaze and enter into a relationship with him. As soon as the woman realizes Jesus is seeking her out, she is afraid. And no wonder, because by deliberately touching another person she has just breached the rules regarding ritual impurity. But as the leper discovered (1:41), it is impossible to make Jesus unclean; rather, his touch makes the unclean clean.

The woman’s fear and trembling expresses not merely timidity but human awe at the mighty deeds of God, as at the calming of the storm (4:41; see Exod 15:16; Ps 2:11; Jer 33:9). She already knows she has been healed (Mark 5:29) but perhaps at a deeper level now, she realizes what has happened to her: she has come into contact with the Lord. She falls down before Jesus (a gesture of homage, as in v. 22), and confesses her daring act.

Far from reprimanding her for her boldness, Jesus reassures her, addressing her affectionately as daughter. Like all those who “do the will of God” (3:35), she is welcomed into his family. Jesus will later commend Bartimaeus with the same words: Your faith has saved you (10:52). The Greek verb sōzō, used here in verses 23, 28, and 34, means both “save” and “heal.” The woman’s faith has opened her to receive not only physical healing but also the ultimate salvation of body and soul that it prefigures.

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

Reflecting on Mark for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 4:35-41

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The Sea of Galilee is known for the violent storms that can arise without warning, as wind is funneled through the steep valleys among the hills surrounding the lake. In this instance the gale is so fierce that it terrifies even seasoned fishermen. Waves come crashing over the boat, swamping it and threatening to sink it. Yet in the midst of this fury, Jesus is in the stern, asleep. Anyone who has ever been in a violently storm-tossed boat has reason to think that this ability to sleep through the storm was the first miracle! Jesus exemplifies the perfect trust in God that is often signified in Scripture by a peaceful and untroubled sleep (see Job 11:18; Ps 4:9; Prov 3:24).

But his serenity is not shared by the disciples, who awaken Jesus with a stinging reproach: Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? It is the first time in the Gospel that Jesus has been called “Teacher,” having just completed a day of teaching (Mark 4:1–34). This time there will be a powerful lesson of faith, learned by experience. The tone of the disciples’ question suggests that they have a vague idea that Jesus can do something about the storm, but they think he is indifferent to their desperate plight, as if he has no concern for their safety or survival. How often God’s people reproach him this way, from the Old Testament (see Exod 14:10–11; Num 14:3) to this day.

Jesus does not leave his disciples in their panic but immediately awakens and rebukes the raging elements. He does not pray that God would calm the storm, but commands it himself with sovereign authority: Quiet! Be still! (literally, “Be muzzled!”). Rebuked is the same word used to describe his casting out of unclean spirits (1:25; 3:12), suggesting that demonic powers somehow instigated the squall that threatens to deflect him and his disciples from their mission. In the Old Testament the sea is often viewed as a symbol of chaos and the habitation of evil powers (Job 26:12–13; Ps 74:13–14; Isa 27:1). Jesus exorcises these adverse forces of nature with the same authority with which he freed human beings from demonic oppression.

Instantly the howling wind subsides and the choppy waters become calm. The wording parallels Ps 107:28–29: “In their distress they cried to the Lord, who brought them out of their peril, Hushed the storm to a murmur; the waves of the sea were stilled.”

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

Reflecting on Mark for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 4:26-34

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It is as if Jesus is thinking aloud, searching for ways to help his listeners to grasp the mystery of the kingdom (see 4:11). Because the kingdom is a divine reality, it cannot be defined or contained in human categories. It can be understood only by using analogies, word pictures that force the listener to think and ponder at a deeper level.

Once again, the earthly reality most suitable as an analogy to the kingdom is, of all things, a tiny seed. In this third seed parable, the emphasis is on the seed’s smallness. For Jesus’ Jewish audience, the idea of the kingdom as a seed must have been quite a surprise. A more predictable comparison would be a mighty army (see Isa 13:4; Joel 2:11) or a cataclysmic earthquake (Isa 29:6). But no, the kingdom is like a mustard seed, which Jesus describes (using the device of hyperbole, or exaggeration, for effect) as the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants (another hyperbole).

In mentioning large branches that shelter many birds, Jesus is evoking the Old Testament image of a lofty, shady tree, symbolizing an empire that grants protection to peoples of different races and tongues (Ezek 17:23; 31:6; Dan 4:9). The parable of the mustard seed thus points to the future worldwide reach of the kingdom of God. From its humble, inauspicious beginnings in Jesus’ itinerant preaching in Galilee with a small band of followers, the kingdom will mature to an immense tree in whom the Gentiles will find a home. This growth will not be due to human methods but to God’s hidden power. Jesus speaks with utter assurance of the future success of the kingdom, urging his disciples to persevere with hope and patience.

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

Reflecting on Mark for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

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Mark’s whole account of the public ministry has illumined and prepared readers for what Jesus is about to do. The disciples had shared many meals with Jesus. They had learned that he overturns social and legal barriers, that he is the messianic Shepherd who feeds God’s people, and that he is able to provide more than enough to satisfy all. They had learned that he would “give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45) and be raised from the dead. Although they had not understood “about the loaves” (6:52; 8:17–21), and will still not fully understand until after the resurrection, now the mystery is being unveiled: Jesus himself is the bread, broken and given for many.

To understand Mark’s succinct account, it is important to read it in light of its setting as a Passover supper (see vv. 12–16). A Passover supper would include the traditional elements: a blessing by the head of the household, the ceremonial foods and wine, the retelling of the story of the exodus, and the singing of hymns. Jesus’ initial actions are typical of the host at a Jewish banquet, and are identical to what he had done in the two miracles of the loaves (6:41; 8:6): he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. The customary blessing was a prayer of thanksgiving to God for having provided for his people. The sharing of one loaf was a sign of the fellowship the banqueters were enjoying. Mark implies that even Judas is included in this fellowship, since he has said nothing about his departure.

According to custom the host at Passover interprets each of the ceremonial foods by relating them to the exodus. But Jesus’ interpretation goes far beyond the Passover and brings the meal to an entirely new level: Take it; this is my body. With these simple words, the Last Supper becomes a prophecy in gesture, anticipating and interpreting the passion that was to occur the next day. Jesus identifies the broken bread with his own body about to be broken on the cross. In Hebrew thought, “body” is not merely the flesh but the whole person as a physical being. Jesus is revealing that his death will be a gift of himself to them (see 10:45). By asking them to “take,” that is, to eat the bread that is his body, he is inviting them to receive this gift of himself into the depth of their being.

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

Reflecting on Matthew for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 28:16-20

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Every lifelong commitment must have a beginning. Discipleship begins with a sacramental initiation, with baptizing all new followers of Jesus in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit.

Although the doctrine of the Trinity would not be clearly articulated by the Church until the fourth and fifth centuries, the seeds of this teaching are present in this command of Jesus and in many other New Testament texts. Besides that, readers of Matthew first encountered the Father, Son, and Spirit in the context of Jesus’ own baptism (3:13–17). Thus the relationship of baptism to the three Persons of the Trinity does not come out of the blue, for they have already been linked together at that earlier point in the Gospel.

Along with baptism, new disciples are to be instructed in the teachings of Jesus. The importance of hearing Jesus’ words and putting them into practice, emphasized in the Sermon on the Mount (7:23–27), is here confirmed. Of course this will entail an introduction to basic principles and precepts, but eventually the disciple is to receive a full presentation of all that Christ commanded. The gospel is meant to give shape and direction to our entire life, so believers must be informed of how it impinges on family matters, economics, relationships, employment, government, education, and so on.

In other words, the good news of Jesus Christ must ultimately go beyond personal formation to a broader inculturation. The Lord wants the truth of his message to Christianize all nations as nations. Only when both individuals and societies are conformed to the gospel can we say that the Father’s will has been done “on earth as in heaven” (6:10).

The parting words of Jesus bring our minds back to the beginning of Matthew, where Jesus received the name Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us” (1:23). Here the same idea is expressed in the statement: I am with you always.

This is his promise to remain forever present with the Christian community (see 18:20). The disciples are not left to rely on their own resources as they march forth with the gospel. Jesus is there to unleash its power and to prepare the hearts of all who receive it. When the disciples proclaim the good news, it is the words of Jesus that the hearers accept or reject (see 7:24–27). When the disciples administer baptism, it is Jesus who baptizes “with the holy Spirit and fire” (see 3:11). It is the active presence of Christ that makes the Church the “universal sacrament of salvation” for the world.

© 2010 Curtis Mitch, Edward Sri, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Acts for Pentecost Sunday

From Acts of the Apostles, by William S. Kurz, SJ, commenting on Acts 2:1-11

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The listeners are astounded, because they all understand the Galilean speakers in their respective languages: “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language?”

The countries mentioned cover most of the world that was known to first-century Palestine and symbolize the fact that the Church will embrace the whole world, transcending all barriers of race, class, and nation. They include the regions of Israel’s historic enemies, Mesopotamia (the center of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires) and Egypt, fulfilling God’s promise that Israel’s oppressors would one day turn and acknowledge the God of Israel as the true God (Ps 87:1–4; Isa 19:22–25).

The list refers to Jews from the Diaspora who have relocated to Jerusalem, or Jews who have come there on pilgrimage for the Feast of Pentecost. Jesus promised his apostles that they would be his witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), as had been prophesied concerning the Servant of the Lord in Isa 49. Their witnessing to God’s mighty acts in many languages is an initial fulfillment of this promise.

The fact that Jews from many different nations all heard the disciples speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God portends that the ancient tragedy of Babel (Gen 11:1–9) is now being reversed. The people at Babel had arrogantly tried to “make a name” for themselves by building a tower to the heavens—symbolizing the human attempt to seek power, wealth, and security without any reference to God. In consequence God confounded the universal human language into many different languages, which made it impossible for them to complete that tower. Instead, they were scattered throughout the world as separate nations, each with its own language.

At Pentecost, the Spirit-given ability of Jesus’ disciples to speak in various languages signifies that God is beginning to overcome human divisions. Now the Spirit has miraculously enabled Jesus’ followers to speak and be understood in many languages from all over the known world. The unifying power of the Spirit will be frequently demonstrated throughout Acts as people who would never before have associated with one another—Jews and Gentiles, slaves and prominent people, the upright and the formerly impious—share a common life of brotherhood and sisterhood in 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 Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

From Acts of the Apostles, by William S. Kurz, SJ, commenting on Acts 1:1-11

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Luke’s description of Jesus’ ascension looks backward to its Old Testament foreshadowings and forward to Jesus’ prophesied return at the end of time.

….The scriptural theme of the passing on of Spirit-filled prophetic vocations—from Moses to Joshua, from Elijah to Elisha, and now from Jesus to his apostles—shows that succession of authority has always been part of God’s saving plan.

As Moses ascended Mount Sinai in a cloud (Exod 19:16–20; 24:15–18) to receive the gift of the law and then give it to the people, so Jesus is now lifted up to heaven on a cloud to receive the gift of the Spirit and give it to his Church (see Acts 2:33). Often in Scripture a cloud represents God’s presence (see Exod 13:21; 16:10). The angelic figures’ appearing as two men dressed in white garments recall Moses and Elijah, who appeared with Jesus in the cloud at the transfiguration (Luke 9:29–35).

As the disciples are looking intently at the sky as he was going, the two men chide them, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” They remind the disciples that Jesus had prophesied his parousia, his return in glory on a cloud at the end of the world (Luke 21:27–28): “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven,” that is, on a cloud.

Jesus’ ascending in a cloud alludes to Daniel’s vision of “One like a son of man” coming on the clouds of heaven to receive everlasting dominion from God (Dan 7:13–14). Jesus had indicated that he himself is the Son of Man foreseen by Daniel who will come with power and glory (Luke 21:27).

Jesus’ ascension does not imply his absence from the Church. Rather, as Acts will show, he will be present and active in a new way through the Holy Spirit (see John 14:18). As his disciples speak and act “in his name,” Jesus himself will be at work through them (see Acts 3:5–16).

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

Reflecting on Acts for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

From Acts of the Apostles, by William S. Kurz, SJ, commenting on Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48

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Here for the first time Luke specifies that the believers who had accompanied Peter to the home of Cornelius were circumcised Jewish Christians. They were astounded that the gift of the holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also. Gentiles were not members of God’s chosen people. Although Jews knew that Israel was called to be a “light to the nations” (Isa 49:6; see 42:6; 60:1–3), most expected that that would happen by Gentiles joining the chosen people, being circumcised, and keeping the law of Moses. Yet these uncircumcised Gentiles had obviously been filled with the Spirit of God.

The evidence from which Peter and his companions arrived at this understanding was hearing these Gentiles’ speaking in tongues and glorifying God, just as had happened to Jewish believers at Pentecost, who “were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues” (Acts 2:4). The gift of the Holy Spirit is evident in its effects in the recipients, such as tongues and prophecy (see Acts 19:6), which Paul will call gifts of the Spirit (see 1 Cor 12:4–11). For the New Testament, the Holy Spirit’s coming on believers is not something imperceptible, to be accepted only on faith, but observable, sometimes even dramatic (see Gal 3:2–5; Heb 2:4). On this occasion it caused the Jewish believers who were present to expand their limited conception of God’s plan and be docile to his purposes.

Peter’s leadership is decisive in this momentous development. His response to the surprising outpouring of the Spirit on his Gentile listeners is to obey God’s obvious guidance and fully incorporate them into the Church without further ado: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people . . . ?” Because they have received the holy Spirit even as we have, what objection could anyone raise to God’s evident will to accept them fully as fellow Christians?

The Ethiopian eunuch had raised a similar question to Philip: “What is to prevent my being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). Here there would normally have been even greater resistance to baptizing a whole group of uncircumcised Gentiles. Luke makes it clear that it is God’s own direct action of giving his Spirit to these Gentiles that overrides all objections that would prohibit baptizing them. For they now have the same Spirit as the Jewish believers.

This confirms Peter’s realization that “God has shown me that I should not call any person profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28). These Gentiles too are now adopted sons and daughters of God and members of the body of Christ, God’s Son.

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

Reflecting on Acts for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

From Acts of the Apostles, by William S. Kurz, SJ, commenting on Acts 9:26-31

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After his arrival in Jerusalem, Saul tried to join the disciples. The Jerusalem disciples naturally avoided him out of fear, not believing that he was a disciple.

It took the mediation of Barnabas to incorporate Saul into the Jerusalem church. Barnabas took charge of Saul to facilitate his acceptance and introduced him to the apostles, who were still leaders in Jerusalem. He related to them the story of Saul’s vision of the Lord and his subsequent bold witness in the name of Jesus. Paul considered it essential to remain in unity with the original apostles (see especially Acts 15 and Paul’s collection from Gentile Christians for the poor of the Jerusalem community in 1 Cor 16:1–3).

Because of Barnabas, Saul was thereafter able to associate freely with them in Jerusalem. There he spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord, as he had done in Damascus.

The focus of this account, which highlights Paul’s acceptance by the apostles in Jerusalem, differs from Paul’s emphasis in Gal 1:15–20, where to some degree he minimizes his contact with the apostles in Jerusalem in order to emphasize that his apostleship came directly from Christ and was therefore as authentic as that of the Twelve. Although details of the accounts here and in Galatians 1 are difficult to harmonize, the main facts of the two reports can in general be reconciled.

It is unclear to what extent Paul’s fifteen-day private visit with Peter and James (Gal 1:18) may coincide with Barnabas’s introduction of Saul to the apostles and Saul’s witness to Jesus in Jerusalem described here in Acts 9. In any case, Saul’s bold speech in Jerusalem was not to last long, as the following verses make clear.

When Saul spoke and debated with the Hellenists, they reacted the same way as those in Damascus: they tried to kill him. But also as in Damascus, this plot against Saul became known. Therefore his fellow Christians took him down to Caesarea, and in that port city they put him on a ship to Tarsus, his hometown in the province of Cilicia in Asia Minor.

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