Reflecting on Mark for the Second Sunday of Advent

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 1:1-8

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The first verse of the Gospel is a title to the whole work. Like Matthew and John, Mark opens with an echo of the book of Genesis. The beginning recalls the first line of the creation narrative in Gen 1:1, and suggests that the good news that Mark is about to tell is a new beginning, a new work of God as original and stupendous as the creation of the universe.

What does gospel mean here? The Greek word euangelion (root of the English word evangelize) means “good news” or “joyful tidings,” and often referred to festive public occasions such as a military victory or the coronation of the emperor. An inscription from about 9 BC calls the birthday of Caesar Augustus “good news for the world.”

For the Old Testament prophets, especially Isaiah, the “good news” is not a past event but a promise that God is coming to save his people:

Go up onto a high mountain,
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
Cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God! (Isa 40:9; see Isa 52:7; 61:1)

Mark’s announcement of “the beginning of the good news” is a resounding proclamation that now, in Jesus, the long-promised visitation of God has begun. The gospel is something to be preached (1:14; 13:10; 14:9; 16:15) and believed in (1:15). Indeed, so good is this good news that it is worth more than life itself (Mark 8:35; 10:29–30).

What is the content of this good news? In a word, it is that Jesus is the Christ, the Son the God.

 

© 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 Advent

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 13:33-37

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Be watchful! is the refrain that has been repeated throughout the discourse (vv. 5, 9, 23). This time Jesus adds, Be alert! (or “stay awake!”), as he will again urge the disciples during his agony in the garden (14:34). The fact that the disciples do not know when the time will come means that they are to live in a state of constant watchfulness….

Be on the watch (grēgoreō) is another verb that means to stay awake and be on the lookout, part of the duty of prophets (Lam 2:19; Ezek 3:17; Hab 2:1). Again Jesus emphasizes that they do not know when he is coming. Lord (Greek kyrios) refers to Jesus in his lordship over the house of God—both the temple of the old covenant and the Church of the new covenant.

He may appear at any of the four divisions of the night, in Roman reckoning. Jesus is speaking of his sudden and unexpected coming at the end of time, when he will judge his disciples for how they have exercised their authority in the Church. But Mark also links this warning to Jesus’ passion by structuring the passion narrative precisely in terms of these four night watches: evening (Mark 14:17), midnight (implied in 14:32–65), cockcrow (14:72), and morning (15:1). Jesus warns that he may come suddenly and find them sleeping—which is just what will happen during his agony in Gethsemane (14:37–41).

To be asleep signifies spiritual torpor and self-indulgence (Rom 11:8; 1 Thess 5:6–8); to be awake is to be alive in faith (Rom 13:11; Eph 5:14). The trial in Gethsemane is the beginning of the trial that will last throughout the whole age of the Church, in which Jesus’ followers are called to be constantly alert and attentive to the presence of their Lord.

The final verse affirms that his warning is directed not only at the four who are privy to this discourse (13:3), but to all his disciples for all time: Watch! There is no room for complacency in the Christian life.

© 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 Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 25:31-46

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The opening verse sets the scene. It is the return of the Son of Man surrounded by heavenly angels and seated majestically on his glorious throne. Christian tradition interprets this as a vision of the last judgment, when the thoughts, words, and deeds of the entire human race are weighed in the balance by Jesus the judge.

The Son of Man’s first action is to assume the role of a shepherd who divides the sheep of his flock from the goats. It is often pointed out that Middle Eastern herdsmen normally allow their animals to graze together and that sheep and goats tend to be valued equally. This makes it difficult to say for sure why the judgment is depicted as a separation of sheep from goats. Nevertheless, it is clear from the outset that the sheep represent the saints, for they are placed at the Lord’s right, which in ancient cultures represented the good, fortunate, or honorable place (see 1 Kings 2:19; Ps 110:1), while the left represented the bad, unfortunate, or dishonorable.

The verdict of the king is that those on the right are blessed by the Lord and are the beneficiaries of his kingdom. These have shown themselves to be children of the Father and thus heirs of his heavenly estate (see 5:9, 44–45). Ever since the foundation of the world this plan of salvation was in place in the grand designs of the Almighty.

The reason for all this is then revealed. Whatever else can be said of the righteous, they have led lives of generosity and compassion toward others. They supplied basic human needs to the hungry and thirsty of the world. They took in a stranger, put clothes on the naked, sat at the bedside of the ill, and helped comfort those in prison. Serving their fellow human being through acts of kindness and mercy has secured their heavenly inheritance. The sheep are surprised to learn, however, that in caring for the needy they have cared for the Lord himself.

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

Reflecting on Matthew for the Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 25:14-30

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When the master returns to settle accounts with his servants, the first two are praised and promoted. Since both made a 100 percent return on their investments, both are told: Well done, my good and faithful servant and Come, share your master’s joy. Having been trustworthy in small matters, they are promised great responsibilities. This is the same principle enunciated in 24:47, namely, that fulfilling spiritual duties well earns even more of the Lord’s trust.

Then the servant in charge of one talent renders his account with an excuse for giving back the same amount. Because he knew his master to be a demanding person, raking in profits wherever he could, he was paralyzed with fear at the thought of losing his master’s money. This is why he buried the talent rather than invested it.

The reply of the master is a stern and stinging rebuke. In his view, the very reason cited for burying the talent should have been the motivation to trade with it. The fact that the servant knew his master to be a tough businessman should have prompted him to pursue some kind of financial undertaking. Even the small amount of interest he could have earned from a bank would have been better than no return at all. But having failed to make even a minimal effort, he is branded a wicked and lazy servant.

Confining ourselves to the storyline of the parable, the master’s rebuke seems excessively harsh. But if the talents represent each servant’s “knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (13:11), then the severity of the charge is understandable. Being entrusted with the message of salvation entails great responsibility. To sit on that message or to bury it for ourselves is a serious breach of responsibility to the Lord, who calls us to share his good news with the world. He does not want us to give it back to him unshared and unfruitful.

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

Reflecting on I Corinthians for the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome

From First Corinthians by George T. Montague, SM, commenting on I Corinthians 3:9c-11, 16-17

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Paul develops the image of the Church as God’s building, but from the viewpoint of the builders, meaning the ministers, with Paul himself as the first. Speaking from his own experience, he recalls that it was according to the grace of God given to me: thus it was God’s choice, not his, that he should be a founder of churches in Gentile territory. He does not hesitate to call himself a wise master builder.

His task was to lay a foundation on which others could build. That is why Paul did not settle in one place very long. He would invest as much time as necessary to give the new community sufficient stability, appoint local leaders, and move on. This policy shows an enormous trust both in the Holy Spirit and in the fledgling leadership in whose hands he left the community.

But he warns the Corinthians against any builder who would lay a different foundation than the one Paul has already laid: Jesus Christ. This was no small matter in a place like Corinth, where every imaginable cult had its hawkers, and syncretism — the mixing of elements from various religions — was rife. Others not of apostolic origin could introduce pagan or even Jewish extraneous elements and dilute or transform the gospel into an unrecognizable counterfeit.

But even assuming that the minister builds on Paul’s foundation, the quality of his work may vary, from gold to straw. The first three elements Paul mentions are not combustible, the last three are. Paul, then, has been like the master contractor who, after laying the foundation, has let out the rest to subcontractors. If these build well, their work will stand on the day of judgment, biblically associated with fire (Dan 7:9–10; Mal 4:1–2; 2 Pet 3:7).

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

Reflecting on Matthew for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 22:34-40

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Polemics continue as the Pharisees return with another challenge for Jesus. This time they send a scholar of the Mosaic law. The question is a simple one: Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

This is not a trick question but is designed to see if the Galilean preacher has the knowledge necessary to be teaching others about God and his will for their lives. Jesus replies by citing the love commandments from Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18.

The first is part of the Shema, the monotheistic creed of Israel that the faithful recited as part of their daily prayers. It is the greatest commandment of the Torah because it spells out the highest obligation of every person, which is to love the Lord with the combined strength of one’s heart, soul, and mind. The love he demands is not simply affection or emotion but a commitment to keep the Lord’s covenant.

The second commandment calls us to love our neighbor with the same solicitude with which we naturally care for our own needs. Earlier Jesus applied this precept to friends and enemies alike (5:43–48), declaring it one of the requirements for gaining eternal life (19:19). Together the two love commandments sum up the Ten Commandments, three of which delineate our responsibilities toward God and seven of which concern our duties toward others (see Exod 20:2–17).

To stress the point, Jesus adds that the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. Literally, the text says that the Torah and the Prophets “hang” on the double love commandment, as though these two precepts support the full weight of biblical religion in all its various aspects. No other commandment of the Bible is properly observed if either one of these is transgressed or compromised, for the aim of all divine Scripture is to bring us out of ourselves to love and serve God and our fellow human beings.

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

Reflecting on Matthew for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 22:15-21

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The trap comes in the form of a question: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? The Pharisees are trying to force Jesus into a dilemma. By giving him only two options for an answer, they hope to back him into one of two predicaments.

If Jesus affirms the propriety of the tax, he will come off as a Roman sympathizer, discrediting himself in the eyes of numerous Jews for whom the Roman rule of Judea was an intolerable burden. On the other hand, if Jesus forbids paying the tax, the Herodians are sure to report him to Roman authorities for instigating a tax revolt. The last time a charismatic Galilean led a tax revolt in Palestine the Romans responded with appallingly brutal force.

Immediately Jesus detects their malice and knows that they are testing him. So he asks them to show him the coin that pays the census tax. Little did they realize what was happening. By producing the coin used for the tax, the Pharisees are publicly exposed as hypocrites. They may oppose Roman taxation in principle, but apparently they are in the habit of paying it just like every other Palestinian Jew

….Instead of walking into the trap, Jesus slips through it, taking advantage of the situation to make an important point. He says, Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Just as Jesus exposed his questioners as hypocrites, so now he exposes their question as a false dilemma. He is saying that political and religious obligations can both be legitimately met. Paying taxes is not a compromise of one’s duties toward God, nor does serving God exempt one from supporting the civil government.

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

Reflecting on Matthew for the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 22:1-14
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The parable of the wedding feast is about our response to God’s call.

It cautions us first of the dangers of indifference. When the Father invites us into a relationship with his Son, we can either choose to respond or we can quietly decline the invitation and go back to our personal pursuits as though nothing has changed and no new demands have been placed on our lives.

Another danger brought to our attention is indignation. Many people fight the idea that we are all sinners in need of salvation. In such cases, the good news and its call for repentance can seem like a threat to our happiness and our deepest desires for fulfillment in life. This can put us on the defensive and even provoke a hostile response toward those who challenge us with the claims of Christ.

Finally, the parable warns us against incomplete conversion. The man without the wedding garment had neither ignored nor refused the invitation to the feast. But his yes to the call of God was not carried through in his life. He wanted the good things of the kingdom, but not enough to break with his sinful ways and live as a committed disciple.

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

Reflecting on Matthew for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 21:33-43
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The confrontation becomes explosive when Jesus says directly to the chief priests and elders that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you. If they had not caught on so far, Jesus makes his allegory clear: they are the wicked tenants who will be removed from leadership over God’s people. Care over God’s kingdom will be given to a people that will produce its fruit—a new people of God (1 Pet 2:9), whom Matthew’s readers would understand to be the Church (see 16:18).

Continuing to use the stone imagery, Jesus’ words about one who falls on this stone alludes to Isa 8:14–15, where the Lord becomes a stumbling stone for the unfaithful. The image of a stone that will crush anyone on whom it falls and that person being dashed to pieces recalls Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of a statue signifying a series of pagan kingdoms that was shattered to pieces by a stone. In the vision, the stone represents a new kingdom that becomes like a mountain filling the earth (Dan 2:35, 44–45).

These two Old Testament stone images come together in Christ. As the stone of Isaiah, Jesus is the one over whom the unfaithful Jewish leaders stumble. As the stone of Dan 2, Christ’s kingdom—despite the opposition in Jerusalem—will become like a large mountain, toppling pagan empires and becoming a great worldwide kingdom.

Hearing Jesus challenging message, the chief priests and the Pharisees (who also were present) want to arrest Jesus, but they did not want to upset the crowds, who view him so favorably as they did John the Baptist (22:26). The crowds consider him a prophet.

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

Reflecting on Matthew for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 21:28-32
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Despite the temple authorities’ evasive answer, Jesus exposes their rejection of John the Baptist with a parable about a man with two sons. The father asks his sons to work in the vineyard, an Old Testament image for Israel that Jesus has already utilized (20:1–16; Isa 5:1–7). The first son refuses his father. In a culture where sons are to honor and obey their fathers (Sir 3:1–16), the son’s initial I will not is a shameful act of defiance. But he later changed his mind and went out into the field.

Although the second son agreed to work the field and even honorably addressed his father as “lord” (translated “sir” in the NAB), in the end he disobeyed and did not do the father’s will—reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching in 7:21 about those who call him “Lord” but do not do the Father’s will and do not enter the kingdom.

Obviously, the first son is the one who did his father’s will. Even the chief priests and elders recognize that. But what Jesus says next would have utterly dumbfounded them. Jesus tells them that the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before you. Tax collectors and prostitutes were considered to be at the bottom of the socioreligious scale and outside God’s covenant—the kind of people the chief priests and elders looked down on the most. Yet, like the first son, these notorious sinners, who rebelled initially, repented when they heard the exhortation of John the Baptist. That Jesus would say these sinful outsiders will enter God’s kingdom before the chief priests and elders would have been completely astounding—and offensive.

At the same time, Jesus links the chief priests and elders with the second son. They had the law, and by taking office they affirmed that they would do God’s will. But when God sent his prophet John the Baptist calling all to repent, they did not believe him. They will find themselves watching the sinners enter God’s kingdom before them. It is implied that if they fail to repent, they will be left out of the kingdom (8:11–12).

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