29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Our Way to the Father’s Presence

Trinity Church, Boston – Interior, from Art in the Christian
Tradition
, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.
For the Son of Man did not come to be served
but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
(Mark 10:43–45)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Hebrews 4:14-16
October 17, 2021

Today we begin a new section of the Letter to the Hebrews and examine in, what to us may seem excessive detail, Jesus as High Priest. In two verses, the author provides an overture for the several chapters that follow and introduces themes he will take up and develop later. To understand any of them we must step back and look at covenant and the priesthood that it requires.

The Israelites identified as a people who had a unique relationship with the God they referred to as “the Lord.” They did not have a contract with him for goods and services but a covenant sharing his very life. In their world, a covenant made a common family. Jews intrigued by Christianity would never jeopardize this relationship and would only convert if they thought this was a way of being even closer to the Lord. The author of Hebrews is concerned that some of the members of his community, most likely a “Jewish Christian” church in Rome, have had second thoughts and were considering a return to Judaism. He is therefore talking to them as a Jew to other Jews and we must master some basic ideas to follow him. Continue reading “29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Our Way to the Father’s Presence”

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time – A Love Beyond Our Ability to Understand

For he had great possessions’, (detail)
George Frederic Watts, 1894, Tate Gallery
(About this Image)

Jesus, looking at him, loved him
and said to him,
“You are lacking in one thing.
Go, sell what you have,
and give to the poor
and you will have treasure in heaven;
then come, follow me.”
At that statement his face fell,
and he went away sad,
for he had many possessions.
(Luke 10:21–22)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Hebrews 4:12-13
October 10, 2021

Last week we began our examination of the Letter to the Hebrews. The quality of its language reveals a highly educated person, his familiarity with Jewish scripture and folklore, a born Jew. The urgency of his address shows a concern that his readers are under some form of persecution and that many of them may return to Judaism. Today, he will remind them whose opinion ultimately matters.

He writes in very cultured Greek, but he employs very Jewish techniques. Last week’s section was an interpretation of Psalm 8. This week he again returns to the Psalms with the conclusion of a long and quite profound discussion of Psalm 95 most especially:

Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me,
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.”
Therefore in my anger I swore,
“They shall not enter my rest.”
(Ps 95:8–11)

This Psalm refers to the time when although the LORD had freed them from slavery in Egypt, they rejected his rule almost immediately after their liberation. As they had just been the beneficiary of a great miracle, they showed themselves “hard of heart” that is unable to hear the word of God. The forty years refer to the time the Jewish people wandered in the desert. They do not receive their rest—entrance into the promised land—until all but two have died and the new generation has learned to hear the word.

The author of Hebrews takes another step. Rest is more than a geographical place or political reality but living in right relation with God.

At the beginning of his letter, he writes:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors
in many and various ways by the prophets,
but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,
whom he appointed heir of all things,
through whom he also created the worlds.
He is the reflection of God’s glory
and the exact imprint of God’s very being,
and he sustains all things by his powerful word.
When he had made purification for sins,
he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
having become as much superior to angels
as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
(Heb 1:1–4)

This connection was once best obtained through Judaism—note reference to angels—but now it is through Jesus. He is more than the means of speaking the Word he is the word who indeed created the world.

The line immediately before today’s passage reads:

Therefore, let us strive to enter into that rest,
so that no one may fall after the same example of disobedience.
(Heb 4:11)

We begin today with “indeed”—therefore living a life of obedience which will bring us to God’s rest is possible through the Word of God who is Jesus.

For this author this is the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures:

Indeed, the word of God is living and effective,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
penetrating even between soul and spirit,
joints and marrow,
and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.
(Heb 4:12)

It is living, here meaning at very least contemporary. Many times, the author will remind he people that they can hear the voice of God and choose him. For example:

Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
as on the day of testing in the wilderness
(Heb 3:7–8)

Again, from the Scriptures they knew what effective meant:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
(Is 55:10–11)

Because a sword could eviscerate
it was a good symbol for getting at truth.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
(Is 49:2)

and

Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands
(Ps 149:6)

Remember in Luke, Simeon says to Mary: “and you yourself a sword will pierce, so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

In the author’s anthropology, “soul” means that which is human and “Spirit” that which is connected to God. Joints and marrow are the deepest part of the body. Jesus, the word of God, goes to the very core of our being and reveals all.

The human heart can be a dark place, but we cannot hide from God and thus we cannot hide from Jesus:

The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse—
who can understand it?
I the LORD test the mind
and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings
(Je 17:9–10)

and

O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
(Ps 139:1–2)

No creature is concealed from him,
but everything is naked and exposed
to the eyes of him
to whom we must render an account.
(Heb 4:13)

The Old Testament has many times when humans tried to escape from God, most famously:

They heard the sound of the LORD God
walking in the garden
at the time of the evening breeze,
and the man and his wife hid themselves
from the presence of the LORD God
among the trees of the garden.
(Ge 3:8)

Yet it is impossible. A line from 1st Enoch, a book that did not make it into the canon but would have been known to the author’s audience is on target:

Everything is naked and open before your sight,
and you see everything;
and there is nothing which can hide itself from you
(1 Enoch 1:5)

We need to remember that many of his readers might have been considering returning to Judaism. The author is telling them that it is Jesus to whom they will render an account and that he knows everything about them.

We might find this a terrifying thought, yet I find it comforting. He purified us of our sins by his death on the cross and this is love beyond our ability to understand. Here is the wonder: Jesus knows us completely and loves us totally.

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Joining Jesus in Serving

Creation of Eve, Giusto de’ Menabuoi, 1376-78,
Chapel of S. Giovanni Battista, Padua

The LORD God then built up into a woman the rib
that he had taken from the man.
When he brought her to the man, the man said:
“This one, at last, is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called ‘woman, ‘
for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother
and clings to his wife,
and the two of them become one flesh.
(Genesis 2:22–24)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Letter to the Hebrews 2:9–11
October 3, 2021

The Church begins the “Letter to the Hebrews” as the second reading at Mass this week. It is an interesting work in and of itself, but its choice is fortuitous. This summer we read the “Letter of St. James” written by a Jew who accepted Jesus as his Savior to other Jewish converts to Christianity. He argued, persuasively, that accepting Jesus made them better Jews and that consequently they had made the right choice. The situation facing the author of the “Letter to the Hebrews” is more complicated. He is addressing a congregation with members who may have had second thoughts about their conversion. It is generally considered to have been written in Rome for Roman Christians. As it assumes great familiarity with not only the Hebrew scriptures and cult but also “folklore,” its primary audience is presumed to be Jews. The title “To the Hebrews” was added after it was written, but reflects this reality. It is difficult to date but is presumed to have been written during persecution of Christians for “atheism,” not sacrificing to the gods of Rome. Jews were exempted from these sacrifices so returning to the ancient faith would have been enticing. As we will discover, there are other reasons as well.

The “Letter to the Hebrews” has many layers. The author’s Greek is excellent. His only rival in the New Testament is St. Luke. Also, he will most effectively state the complete humanity of Jesus while at the same time unambiguously proclaim his divinity. There are other interesting and profound insights as well but let us get to the passage for today.

Continue reading “27th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Joining Jesus in Serving”

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Rebuilding with Charity and Justice

Moses Elects the Council of Seventy Elder,
Jacob de Wit, 1737, Royal Palace of Amsterdam
(About this Image)

Then the LORD said to Moses:
Assemble for me seventy of the elders of Israel,
whom you know to be elders and authorities among the people,
and bring them to the tent of meeting.
When they are in place beside you,
I will come down and speak with you there.
I will also take some of the spirit that is on you
and will confer it on them,
that they may share the burden of the people with you.
You will then not have to bear it by yourself.
(Numbers 11:16-17)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Letter of St. James 3:16-4:3
September 26, 2021

This week we will end our examination of the Letter of St. James. Although it is not the final section of the letter, it will allow us to clarify two themes we have been following throughout. James has spoken to the community as a whole and provides a “community ethics.” Today, he will show us the individual consequences of participating in corporate sin. We have often commented on James’ connection to what we now call Catholic Social Teaching. This week we will see the roots in greater depth but also where it must be expanded.

For James, riches can cause progressive moral decay. In the section immediately following last week’s reading he writes to the entire community:

Lament and mourn and weep.
Let your laughter be turned into mourning
and your joy into dejection.
Humble yourselves before the Lord,
and he will exalt you.

(Jas 4:9–10)

These are strong words, but there is great hope. Compare this with the opening of today’s selection:

Continue reading “26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Rebuilding with Charity and Justice”

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Receiving True Wisdom from Above

Suffer the Children, Carl Bloch, 1865-1879, Frederiksborg Palace (Denmark)

Taking a child, he placed it in their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.”
(Mark 9:36-37)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Letter of St James, 3:16-4:3
September 18, 2021

The first Mass reading is often from the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. We have seen especially in the books of Sirach (see commentary for March 3, 2019) and Wisdom (see commentary for Nov. 8, 2020) that the authors were aware of what could be accepted from pagan thought and custom and what could not. They also insisted that Jews maintain their distinctive acts of worship especially the sacrifices in the Temple. These authors knew that their readers lived in a non-Jewish world and even if they wished to cut themselves off from pagan influence it was ultimately impossible, and they would need to address these concerns. This was a challenging task and we read these books because the authors succeeded.

St. James’s task was even more difficult. Many different groups of people read his letter. The primary audience were Christian converts from Judaism. They would be judging his letter by Jewish standards. Would following Jesus make them participate more deeply in their covenant with the Lord? Did it make them better Jews? We must also remember that Christianity was an urban religion and there might be several house churches, parishes, in the city or town. These were connected not so much to the other churches in that town, but to a confederation of churches in other cities who looked to one of the apostles or gospel writers for inspiration. There would be some in these local churches who wanted to reach out to the other local parishes and others who did not. This tension was evident in the letters of St. John which we read this Easter Season. We have noted previously that the author of the letter of St. James is very aware of the writings of St. Paul and shares many ideas and indeed much of the same language as the gospel of St. Matthew. He is actively seeking to show his unity with other Christian parishes. Like Sirach or the author of the book of Wisdom, he is also aware that his people do not live in a bubble and will be exposed to pagan thought particularly pagan moral thought. He will need to show that Jesus provides a superior philosophy. Remember however that in the classical world “philosophy” meant more than it does today. It expressed a way of life. A good philosophy gave both diagnosis and prescription.

Both are present in today’s reading.

James’ community was not without conflict and tension. We do not know the full details, but can assume from what we have previously read and what we will read next week, it reflected the difference between how the rich and the poor were treated. James gives his diagnosis several verses before today’s reading:

Who among you is wise and understanding?
Let him show his works by a good life
in the humility that comes from wisdom.
But if you have bitter jealousy
and selfish ambition in your hearts,
do not boast and be false to the truth.
Wisdom of this kind does not come down
from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.

(Jas 3:14–15)

For both Jews and Gentiles, “core” beliefs are revealed in behavior. For James, true wisdom is expressed in humility. This would not be immediately apparent to people in his world. As we saw when we examined the letter to the Ephesians, humility was considered if not a vice far from a virtue. (see commentary for July 25, 2021) It is however a common Christian belief:

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in hear

(Mt 11:29)

In a community divided between rich and poor, jealousy was an easy vice to embrace the expression. “Selfish ambition” originally meant cheating to achieve political office, but here it meant using unsavory methods to obtain anything. Wisdom is used sarcastically for “the philosophy or way of life” that comes not from God but from the devil.

This creates disorder and uncleanliness: “foul practice.” The wisdom, way of life, that comes from God is pure, clean, and undefiled. Because it is an expression of humility, it creates good fruits that flow from harmony. This too is reflected in other Christian communities:

Those who look to Paul
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked,
for you reap whatever you sow

(Ga 6:7)

Or those who look to Matthew:

“Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God”

(Matt 5:9)

However, there is rarely peace. James states that this is because our “passions make war within our members.”

This is many times found in the New Testament

“Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles
to abstain from the desires of the flesh
that wage war against the soul”

(1 Pet 2:11)

Paul also speaks of a war within his body (Rom 7:21-23).

But this is also common to classical literature: Plato wrote:

“Whence come wars, and fighting’s, and factions?
Whence but from the body and the lusts of the body?”

(Phaedrus, 66C)

And Cicero:

Hatred, discord, disagreements, seditions,
wars are all born from desires …”

(Concerning the ends of goods and evils)

Our desires aim as much for recognition as actual objects of that desire They will not give us wisdom – an effective way of life. What we really need and ultimately desire is the wisdom with comes from above. It can only be received as a gift.

Again, this may be found in Matthew’s gospel:

Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives;
and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks,
the door will be opened.

(Mt 7:7–8)

If we ask for what will build up the community and ultimately bring us happiness we will receive it, because it will be for our benefit. If not, he will not give us anything which would not help us.

Which one of you would hand his son a stone
when he asks for a loaf of bread,
or a snake when he asks for a fish?

(Mt 7:9–10)

You ask but do not receive,
because you ask wrongly,
to spend it on your passions

(Jas 4:3)

James is not asking his readers to accept his diagnosis “on faith.” Look and see if the strife and disharmony you see comes from people seeking to be noticed, affirmed, and rewarded at the expense of others. If yes, then he asks that they all ask about the virtues which come from above, especially humility. Pagans and those Jews influenced by their philosophy would have found this humiliating. Yet James proclaims that if they accepted these gifts no matter how counter-intuitive, they would have the peace and harmony they all claim to desire. He tells us the same thing. Have things changed much in 2,000 years? Are we still seeking the wisdom from below and wondering why peace eludes us? Next week’s selection from St. James will show us the personal consequences of division and disorder, but he wisely insists that we first acknowledge that it will come from assuming that we can attain the fruit of heaven with the wisdom of hell.

Don’t Outsource Compassion

Saint Martin and the Beggar, El Greco, 1597–1599, National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC)

If a brother or sister has nothing to wear
and has no food for the day,
and one of you says to them,
“Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well, ”
but you do not give them the necessities of the body,
what good is it?
(James 2:15-16)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
James 2:14-18
September 12, 2021

Today’s selection from the “Letter of St. James” is often interpreted as a criticism of St. Paul. It seems to contrast salvation by faith with salvation by works. This lies behind Martin Luther’s statement that James wrote the “Epistle of Straw.” This is not the case indeed Paul and James are both good Jews and share a common set of beliefs and attitudes.

They both held that the LORD wished to create a covenant with humanity. A covenant is a sharing of life and love so close that one becomes part of the same family. Through this covenant we are not only “related” to the LORD but to all his people as well. This attitude is found throughout scripture.

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Needing All Our Brothers and Sisters to be Saints

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
The burning sands will become pools,
and the thirsty ground, springs of water.
(Isaiah, 35:6-7)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Letter of St. James 2:1-6
September 5, 2021

We continue today with the Letter of St. James. It was, as we discovered last week, written by a Jew to fellow Jews. Whether the author was James, the kinsman of Jesus or not, he had significant prestige among the people and insight into their communities.

These communities were within the Roman empire. It was part of the managerial genius of the Romans to realize that they could not directly administer every aspect of life, especially in small towns in faraway places. Therefore, they used the native ruling elites to maintain order and peace. We see this with the trial of Jesus. The priests were the local elite entrusted with this task and they first examined Jesus. When they deemed him a greater danger than a mere rabble rouser and thought he needed to be put to death, they needed the Romans to approve and perform the execution.  

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