Article 44: The Word of the Lord

Part 1

Yahweh, your God, is in your midst; a mighty saviour. He will exult with joy over you. He will renew you by his love. He will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival.  Zp 3: 17

How could Zephaniah have come to such an amazing and unique understanding of God?  He must have enjoyed a very unique relationship with his God. We too are called into a similar relationship. “But how on earth is my relationship going to reach such a depth,” you may well ask?

Pope Benedict XVI gives us the answer.

“I remind all Christians that our personal and communal relationship with God depends on our growing familiarity with the Word of God. To everyone the Lord says: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”  (Rev 3: 20)  (124)

* * * * * * *

In 2008 Pope Benedict assembled Bishops from all over the world for a Synod. The topic of discussion was, “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.” Based on the discussion he published a document in which he addresses the findings of the Bishops.  This document is titled “Verbum Domini” (The Word of the Lord). The quotation given above  comes from the final paragraph. Pope Benedict obviously regards Verbum Domini as very important and so should we. He is convinced that the Bible should be an essential part of our spirituality.

“ This sacred Synod earnestly and specifically urges all the Christian faithful, to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the “ excelling knowledge of Jesus Christ.” prayer should accompany the reading of sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together for “we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine sayings.”    (25)

Is this teaching new? Certainly not!  John Paul II frequently spoke and wrote about the importance of the Bible for our spiritual lives.  In 2002 he wrote:

“In the new millennium we are called to contemplate Christ with a gaze fixed, on the face of the Lord.  But where does one concretely contemplate the face of Christ? Christ is truly present in his Word and in the Sacraments, especially in the Eucharist.  Recognizing him requires a gaze of faith which is acquired through the habitual reading of the Word of God. (23)

Do we really appreciate the importance of the Word of God in our lives? Is it possible that we are being given a wake-up call? Now is the time for us to start reading the Scriptures regularly. The Church makes this really easy for us. The Liturgical readings for the year are  the official Scripture reading programme for an entire year.

One often hears that Christianity is a religion of the Book. This is not quite correct. The Synod Fathers tell us that God speaks to us in a variety of ways.

They rightly referred to a symphony of the Word, to a single word expressed in multiple ways. Jesus Christ is truly the Word of God. The Word of God, divinely inspired, is sacred Scripture, the Old and New Testaments. God has spoken through the prophets and the Word preached by the Apostles. Creation itself is an essential part of the symphony.   (7)

Our faithfulness to reading and praying the Word of God is not just a personal matter. Not surprisingly, the Synod called for:

“a greater “biblical apostolate”, not alongside other forms of pastoral work, but as a means of letting the Bible inspire all  pastoral work.  There should be a commitment to emphasizing the centrality of the Word of God in the Church’s life. This does not mean adding a meeting here or there in parishes, but rather of examining the ordinary activities of Christian communities and associations. Just imagine the transformation that would follow if  the Women of St Anne, the Knights of  da Gama and every other Church organization committed themselves to making the Word of God central to living out Christianity. (73)

The Scripture message will come to life in a way that helps the faithful to realise that God’s Word is present and at work in their everyday lives. (59) Our Christian Journey to Christ will be based on the Word of God.  Our spiritual life will be based on the Word of God.  Through prayerful and frequent reading of the Bible we will, with time, deepen our personal relationship with Christ. How could we live without the knowledge of Scripture, by which we come to know Christ himself, who is the life of all believers?

Let us go forth proclaiming the Word everywhere by the witness of our lives. May the Lord himself, as in the time of the prophet Amos, raise up in our midst a new hunger and thirst for the Word of God. (91)

Numbers in brackets indicate the paragraph in Verbum Domini.

Article 42: The God of Order

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The year is 550 BC. The Hebrew people have lost the war with Babylon. The
destruction was unbelievable. Families have been destroyed, livelihoods gone,
security non-existent, all is chaos for a people in exile. In the midst of this tragedy
a priest ponders how to reconcile the beauty of creation with this mess. Where is
God? What kind of a God do we have?

He starts writing: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.”

How to continue? Why not tell a story about the first week when all began.

He ‘knows’ how the world is structured. The Earth is a solid, flat disk. The sky
above is a dome holding back an ocean of water. There are doors in the dome
which God opens to allow rain and snow to fall. Under the earth there is another
water supply from which the oceans and springs are supplied. The earth will not
float, so it is supported on solid columns. Nobody has ever questioned what the
columns rest on! The sun, moon and stars hang from the ceiling above. “Sheol –
the place of the dead” has to be below the earth’s surface because that is where
dead bodies go. God lives in the heavens, way above the dome and the upper water
supply.

The writer tells of eight acts of creation spread over six days and God rested on the
seventh. The priest believed in the sacredness of the Sabbath so he had to have
God resting on the Sabbath. Two acts of creation will have to take place on the third

to govern the day, the smaller light to govern the night, and the stars.” Why speak
of small and big lights? Why not use sun and moon. In Babylon the Sun and Moon
were regarded as gods and Yahweh is not about to sow confusion by creating other
gods. God is one.

The oceans and the atmosphere are next to receive God’s attention. These are
decorated with the birds and the fish and once again this creation receives a
blessing.

The dawning of the sixth day commences with God decorating the earth (created
on the third day) with animals. The house is now complete. It is time for the family
to occupy their new home. Humanity is created. “God created man (humanity) in
the image of himself; in the divine image he created them (humanity); male and
female he created them.” God’s children have taken up residence and “we” strongly
resemble him.

Where are the groceries? The animals get the green plants for sustenance. To us
He says; “I give you all plants that bear seed, and every tree that bears fruit; they
shall be your food.” (1: 29) We will have to wait till Gen 9: 3 before we can enjoy
a ‘braai’.

Did God restore order to the lives of the exiled people? He did. Cyrus of Persia
allowed them to return home in 538 BC.

Article 41: In the Beginning

The opening words of the Bible are, “In the beginning”, followed by the story of creation in six days. At the back of the African Bible we find a scientific chronology of creation. From the start to the appearance of homo sapiens took about 14,2 billion years. These two stories seem to contradict each other, or do they? I think not! Perhaps they are both right.

To understand what is happening here, we need to understand that there are many kinds of literature. Try paging through a newspaper. You will find advertisements, political reports, the leading article, comic strips, scientific and sports articles, to name a few. We understand that each literary form is different from another; we therefore, automatically adjust how we understand them. Hopefully nobody would understand the headline, “Sharks eat Cheetahs” as a scientific article. Sharks do not eat cheetahs – this is pure nonsense. Approach it as a sports report and you will either enjoy it or hate it, depending on which rugby team you support.

The stories which make up Genesis 1 – 11 are certainly not scientific or historical. They
belong to the literary form (genre) of Myth.

Myth is an imaginative story expressing deep TRUTHS about life in a creative manner; eg, God is the Creator (Gen 1: 1 – 2: 4a); there is a struggle between good and evil. (Story of Paradise Lost Gen 3; Tower of Babel, Gen 11: 1 – 9).

There are two Creation Stories and they are quite different. The TRUTH behind both these
stories is that God is the Creator. Is this in conflict with science? No! In fact, the story
that the scientists tell about the origin and development of the earth, gives a picture of God
which is infinitely greater than one in which God creates by a word.

Traditionally it was held that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible (Torah / Law).
This presents many problems. In Deuteronomy Chapter 34 Moses’ funeral is described.
Clearly somebody else had to have written this account.

Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. (Gen 4: 1 – 2) The third son was Seth. (Gen
4: 25) Two verses later we read, “This is the record of the descendants of Adam … Adam
was one hundred and thirty years old when he begot a son in his likeness, after his image;
and he named him Seth.” (Gen 5: 1-3) No author could possibly have Seth as the third son
and two verses later, as the first born.

A possible explanation is that there were two writers involved; they wrote at very different
times and somebody later combined the two stories. Whoever did this was not too
concerned with the lack of historical logic that resulted. This is what we think actually
happened.

Scholars tell us that, the Torah / Pentateuch / First five books of the Bible, were written
by four groups of writers. They are given names that say something about their style of
writing:

Yahwist (J); Elohist (E); Deuteronomist (D); Priestly (P)

In Genesis 1 – 11 we find only two of these groups of authors, Yahwist and Priestly. The
Yahwists wrote in the tenth century BC and the Priestly around the time of the Exile (587 –
538 BC)

“How on earth is it possible to say who wrote which parts,” you may ask? Actually it is quite
easy when you are shown how. We will use the two creation stories to do this.

Different names for God

The Hebrew word used for God in Genesis 1 is “Elohim”. Genesis 1: 1 reads, “In the
beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.”

Genesis 2: 4b begins with, “At the time when the Lord God made the earth and the
heavens..” In this verse the Hebrew word used is “Yahweh” and we translate it “Lord God”.

The first story was written during the 500’s BC (Priestly) and the second story much earlier,
about 1000 BC. (Yahwist)

Different points of view

The story written in Genesis 1 shows a priestly influence and quite naturally speaks about
“heaven and earth.” From his point of view heaven is more important and so he puts it
first. The second writer says, “earth and heaven.” He was probably a farmer. His first
concern is for the earth.

In the first story God is very busy, but always from a distance somewhere ‘up there’ – a truly priestly perception.

The farmer places God on earth. He describes the Lord God taking up clay and forming
man out of the clay. “Then the Lord God planted a garden.” (Gen 2: 8) Farmers are very
practical people. “The Lord God took the man and settled him in the garden.” (15) One can
easily imagine the Lord God showing ‘Man’ his new home – our home. Emmanuel, God is
with us. (Mt 1: 23)

Article 40: The Leper

How we treasure our prejudices!  Think of all the people that we classify as second class, because of their gender, skin colour, accent or just because we think we have a higher calling.  We would never admit to calling them unclean, but unhappily we treat them that way.

The story of the healing of the leper (Mk 1: 40 – 45) applies a Law set down in Leviticus, “The person who has a leprous disease1 shall .. cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ .. He shall live alone:  his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”  (Lev  13: 45 – 46)  During Jesus’ time on earth most people, including the religious authorities, were convinced of the validity of this Law.  Clearly the authors of Leviticus drew an unwarranted conclusion from their understanding of God’s purity.  They thought that lepers (and other classes of people) had to be separated from the community.  Believe it or not, Leviticus 13 begins, “Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron!”  God said no such thing.  Jesus’ example directly contradicts this law.  He teaches us that we should not be casting out the lepers but healing them with love and compassion.

40A leper came to him (and kneeling down) begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”  1Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, and (looking beyond the disease to the person) touched him, and said to him, “I do will it.  Be made clean.”  42The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.

43Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.  44Then he said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”

45The man went away and began to publicise the whole matter.  He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.  Jesus remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere. (Mk 1: 40 – 45)

Mark arranges his stories in groups of three.  He challenges us to search out the common theme that connects them. In Chapter 1 the man with the unclean spirit is cured in the synagogue. (21)  The cure of Simon’s mother-in-law comes next (29), followed by the healing of the leper.  The man, the woman and the leper are all people who have been declared unclean and then marginalized.  The man with the unclean spirit should never have been in the synagogue.  Simon’s mother-in-law is not important enough to have a name – as a woman she has no standing in society.  The leper is totally excluded from society and does not even rank as part of humanity.

Do you know how it feels to be excluded?   Watch young boys picking teams and you will begin to understand.  See the look on the faces of the “last, ‘useless’, five or six”; and then the joy when they are spared the humiliation of being the least wanted.

Jesus’ response to the leper’s request is to be, “Moved with pity.”  However, if one reads carefully, it is possible to sense Jesus’ indignation and anger at a system that creates outcasts.  He does not hesitate to flout this inhuman interpretation of the Law.  The text says he “touched him.”  A better translation is, ‘he embraced him.’  Jesus knew that there would be consequences to his actions.  The moment he touched the leper he himself was classified ‘unclean’ and had to remain “outside in deserted places.”  By identifying with the leper Jesus is now the leper.  No wonder he asked the man not to talk about his cure.

Jesus’ disregard for an unjust Law struck a chord with many right-thinking people.  They too ignored the strictures that were placed on Jesus and “people kept coming from everywhere.”

The Law, at its best, recognizes God to be “merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”  (Ex 34: 6)  As Jesus reaches out to the leper we recognize these qualities of God reflected in his life.

Who were the first people to share in Jesus mission?   Simon and Andrew.  They were the first chosen.  Their first mission only starts in Mark 6: 7.

The story of the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law concludes with, “Then the fever left her and she ministered to them.”  This does not mean she made the supper.   She devoted herself to bringing the Good News to her family, friends and neighbours.  After the healing of the pagan demoniac he was instructed to, “Go home to your family and announce to them, all the Lord in his pity has done for you.”  (Mk 5: 19)  A woman and a pagan the first active apostles!!

Now there is a lesson for us!!

  1. Leprosy refers to any skin condition and not Hansen’s disease.

Article 39: I believe in God

Is your God a ‘policeman’, or an ‘accountant’ recording everything you do, punishing wrong and rewarding good, or …?

In part two of the Sermon on the Plain, we learn from Jesus what God is like.  “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you… do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back.” Then you will be great and you will be children of  the Most High, for He himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”. (Lk 6: 27; 35-36)

One can read this passage and the one that follows as a challenge to good behavior or as a list of God’s qualities.  37.Stop judgingStop condemningForgive…Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.  For the measure with which you give will in return be measured out to you.”  (Lk 6: 37-38)

This is Good News, the Gospel, Jesus brought us.  What a wonderful God we have!  He is generous to a fault, lavishing mercy, gifts and forgiveness on us, simply because he loves us.

How is it that so many of us have such a negative picture of a threatening, punishing, vengeful God? For over a thousand  years the Hebrews  lived among  pagan peoples,  who believed  that their “gods” had very little interest in their well-being.   They feared dire consequences should the gods not be kept happy.

Scripture scholars tell us of early revelations of a radically different God.  “But the Lord said (to Moses), ‘I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry.”              (Exodus 3: 7)  Unlike the Pagan gods, Yahweh is deeply concerned with our well-being.  He tells Moses and us, “I will be with you.”  (3: 12)  God assures us, “I will free you.. I will rescue you.. I will take you as my own people.. I, the Lord, am your God.”  (Ex 6: 6 – 7)  “I will set my Dwelling among you, I will be your God and you will be my people.”  (Lev 26: 11 – 12)  This is the same God, who John tells us, “..became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (Jn 1: 14)  Our God has always been close to us and always will be.

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament we find three characteristics of God.  The Hebrew words are; “hesed” (God’s loving kindness, mercy); “emet” (God’s faithfulness); and “raham” (compassion; this word derives from the word for ‘womb’   and speaks of the tenderness of God’s love).  God’s relationship with us is described in the same terms as a mother’s love for her unborn child.

“With everlasting love  (hesed) I will have compassion (raham) on you says the Lord, your Redeemer  … For the mountains may depart.. but my steadfast love (hesed) shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion (raham) on you.”  (Is 54: 8, 10)

“Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance; who does not persist in anger forever, but delights rather in clemency (hesed), and will again have compassion (raham) on us, treading underfoot our guilt?  You will cast into the depths of the sea all our sins;  you will show faithfulness (emet) to Jacob, and grace to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from days of old.  (Mic 7: 18 -20) 1

We come across these qualities of God hundreds of times in the Old Testament.  In the New Testament, we have the story of the Good Samaritan showing compassion and mercy to an injured man. (Lk 10: 33, 37)

With such a loving, merciful and faithful God, it is strange that our behavior/responses should give God cause to cry out in pain “O my people what have I done to you, or how have I wearied you?” (Mic 6: 3)  and in the Song of the Vineyard,… “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done?” (Is 5: 4)

In spite of our waywardness our God remains a shepherd, feeding his flock.  In his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in is bosom.  (Is 40: 11)  He assures us that our offences are brushed away like a cloud and our sins like the mist.  “Return to me,” he says, “I have redeemed you.”  (Is 44: 22)

As we face the ups and downs of life, our God encourages us:  “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine.”  (43: 1)

  1. Fallon M;  Gospel according to Luke, p44

Article 38: Centurion and Friends

Centurion and Friends

The story that follows is so remarkable that I have quoted it in full.  I have used the NRSV.

1After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.  2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death.  3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave.  4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”  And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you.  But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.  8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”  9When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith (people acting out of all that is best in human nature – people behaving in a truly human way).”   10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.  (Lk 7: 1 – 10)

Was this Jesus’ first visit to Capernaum?  Certainly not!  Lk 4: 29-30 tells us about Jesus’ very hostile reception from the people of his home town, Nazareth.  It was so unpleasant, that he moved to Capernaum, never to return.  What does “all these sayings” refer to?  The second half of chapter six contains the Sermon on the Plain. (Lk 6: 20-49)  The central saying is, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  The story about the centurion illustrates this beautifully.

Key to understanding this incident is Jesus’ statement, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”  For most of us ‘faith’ means a set of theological beliefs.  In Scripture ‘faith’ means something quite different.  It is important to get a clear understanding of “faith” when used in the Bible. 

We will do this by examining the meaning of the Hebrew word, “mnh”.  This is the quality of behaving reliably according to one’s nature or commitments.  It is often translated as faithfulness.  It picks up the notions of reliable, secure, sure, certain and trustworthy.  God has this quality because God always acts according to who God is:

The Word of the Lord is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness.  (Ps 33: 4)

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lam 3: 22-23)

God is faithful because; he is upright; true to his covenant with us; his love and mercy never cease.

God always acts according to who God is.  He is love and can be depended on to act lovingly.  He is merciful and will always act mercifully.  He has made promises and can be depended upon to keep them.  God has ‘faith’ in its fullness.

“God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.”  (Gen 1: 27)  As sons and daughters of God we are called to be like God.  In his humanity Jesus perfectly reflected God.  By imitating him we will be truly human in the very best sense.  We will have ‘faith’ in its fullness.  Of us it will be justly said, “You are my beloved daughter / son; with you I am well pleased.”  (Mk 1: 11)

The characters in our story are; the centurion, the slave, the Jewish elders, Jesus and the centurion’s friends.  Each one behaves in an exemplary way.  The centurion, an officer in a conquering army, builds a synagogue for the community he would normally oppress.  The Jewish elders have forgotten their hatred of this soldier, who represents their conquerors.  They plead his cause.  Jesus does not hesitate, when responding to the request of a gentile.  Note the consideration of the centurion.  He knows that no Jew should enter the home of a pagan, so he sends his friends to save Jesus this embarrassment.  In the centurion’s friends, we have pagans acting with much consideration towards a Jew.  Every person in this story recognizes the dignity and humanity of others.  They behave in the most humane way.  They are faithful to the highest human values.

Choose life or choose death.  These people chose life.  How will I choose?

Article 37: John and Jesus Part 2

John the Baptist is centre stage before Jesus begins his mission.  Did you ever notice that the gospels open with a scandal?  People were leaving the established religion where the temple was central to all worship.  They found John, who was preaching in the wilderness, more authentic than the temple preaching..

Sacrifices, in atonement for sin, were made twice a day in the Temple.  John’s agenda was not concerned with ritual.  He called for a change of heart, attitude, thinking and practical personal repentance.  The people confessed their sins.  John gave them the assurance of God’s forgiveness.  In most religions it is the priest who exercises this function.  John challenged this custom.

Jesus would do the same.  Jesus never said, “I forgive your sins.” He gave the paralytic the assurance, “Your sins are forgiven.” (Mk 2: 5)    His final words to the woman caught committing adultery were, “Has no one condemned you?”  “No,” she replied.  Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” (Jn 8: 10 – 11)  Both of these incidents took place outside the formal religious structures.

In many ways Jesus and John were similar.  John only preached out of doors. Jesus  was happy to preach anywhere the opportunity presented itself, in the countryside, the synagogue, the temple, at home or in other people’s homes.  Both men were strongly independent.  Both confronted the religious authorities, Scribes, Pharisees and Chief Priests.  They aligned themselves with the unclean, sinners and all marginalized by society.  Jesus, however, also had many friends among the wealthy and influential.

In other ways these two prophets were like chalk and cheese.  John was an ascetic.  His diet was the same as the poorest of the poor.  His clothing was basic, to say the least.  Jesus, however, enjoyed a good meal, along with a glass of good wine.  He entertained.

John spoke much about judgement and often threatened people with fire.  It is not surprising that he worked only where there was plenty of water.  His baptism presents an image of the fires of retribution being put out, as the water flows over the person being baptized.  Jesus concentrated on love and forgiveness.  John thought the end time was coming soon. Jesus was convinced that the kingdom of heaven was already present.

JESUS’ DISCIPLES

Where did Jesus find his disciples?  The gospels give different accounts.  Perhaps the account in John’s gospel is the closest to what actually took place.  Jesus was still working alongside John when he began to recruit his own disciples.  Many of his disciples were drawn from the ranks of John’s followers.

This was clearly Peter’s thinking, when, in Acts, he sets the criteria for the selection of a replacement for Judas.  “Therefore, it is necessary that one of the men, who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of John.” (Acts 1: 21)   In his sermon to Cornelius’ household he says, “Jesus Christ proclaimed peace all over Galilee after the baptism John preached.  God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit.  We are witnesses of what he did.”  (Acts 10: 37 – 39)

In John’s gospel Andrew and another unnamed disciple are the first to be called.  Peter was the third.  He was introduced to Jesus by his brother Andrew. Only after this does Jesus leave John and go to Galilee.

JESUS BAPTISM

“A voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son.”  (Mt 3: 17)

If all the people present saw what happened and heard the voice, one would expect that they would have said, “I know who Jesus is.  He is the Son of God.  At his Baptism, I heard God say that he was his Son.” This did not happen!

Clearly this story, so rich in symbolism, must be much more than just a historical account.

The description of Jesus’ baptism looks like a Christian Baptism.  It tells us about what we cannot see but believe happens at Baptism; the heavens open, the Spirit descends and the voice of God recognizes the baptised as son or daughter.

For Centuries the Jewish people had been longing for the coming of the Messiah.  This is we find echoed in throughout the Old Testament.  “He said to me, you are my son, today I have begotten you.”  (Ps 2: 7)  “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.  I will put my Spirit upon him.”  (Is 42: 1)

Everyday, pious Jews prayed for the coming of the Messiah, “Oh that you would tear the heavens open and come down.” (Is 63: 7 – 64: 12)  “The heavens opened.  The Spirit descended.  God proclaimed, ‘This is my beloved Son.”  Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, was now present among them.

Article 27: Did You Know

Did you know?

Infancy Narratives Part III

Matthew is Jewish and so is the community for whom he is writing. It is therefore not surprising that his Gospel is framed within the context of Jewish tradition. He sets out to assure his audience of the continuity between the Law, the Prophets, Jewish belief and Jesus’ teaching. He does this in his infancy narrative by inserting the phrase, “for thus it had been written by the prophet.” He uses this device five times. Speaking about the return of the Holy Family from Egypt he writes, “He stayed there until the death of Herod that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” Mt 2: 15 / Hos 11: 1 (Cf 1: 22; 2: 5; 17; 23)

For Matthew, Jesus is the New Moses. Joseph was responsible for the Israelites going to Egypt. It is also Joseph who takes Jesus into exile. Moses’ life was threatened by a bad king (Pharaoh). It was Herod who threatened Jesus’ life. At the time of Moses’ birth many baby boys were put to death, so too when Jesus was born. Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt into freedom. Jesus is brought back from Egypt to the promised land.

As Moses leads his people through the desert he is confronted by an evil king, Balak. Balak sends for a wise man, Balaam, who like the wise men obeys God rather than the wicked king. (Num 22 – 23)

Given his concern to link Jesus into the story of the Jewish people it is not surprising that he begins his genealogy with the call of Abraham, “Abraham became the father of Isaac.” What is surprising is the people he includes among Jesus’ ancestors; cheats, thieves, adulterers and murderers. Shocked? It is going to get worse.

Five women are mentioned and Mary is the only Jewess. Tamar (Gen 38), Rahab (Josh 2), Ruth (The book of Ruth), Bathsheba (referred to as Uriah’s wife) (2 Sam 11) are the characters in “Isidingo, according to Matthew”. All these women have an ‘unusual sexual history’ to say the least.

Bathsheba was the wife of one of David’s commanders. One day David spotted her taking a bath on the roof of her home!! One thing led to another and she fell pregnant, David being the father of her child. To cover up the scandal David organized the death of her husband Uriah. The child that was born was Solomon.

The point that Matthew is making is, “that God’s salvation comes through the foolish and the fragile, the crooked and the cracked. Anyone can play a part in God’s plan, which finds its fulfillment in Jesus, who is called Christ.” 1

There are many lessons to be learned here:

Good can come out of shady deeds. The women’s presence among the male ancestors of Jesus, signals the important role that women disciples will play in the community of Jesus’ followers.

These narratives about Jesus’ infancy are not sweet children’s stories. The themes of murder, violent leaders, refugees, and the poor running for their lives make up the introduction to Jesus’ work. In his adult life we will find Jesus battling every kind of prejudice, greed and injustice.

* * * * * *

Luke also parallels the Old Testament. The Jewish story starts with an old couple who have no hope of having children, Abraham and Sarah. Luke opens his Gospel with Zachariah and Elizabeth in the same situation. Both elderly couples are promised that they will have a son. To everybody’s surprise they do.

We are all aware of the Covenant given to Moses at Sinai. There is however a second covenant, the Covenant given to David. (2 Samuel 7)

9 I shall make for you a great name ..

13 I shall establish the throne of his kingdom forever

14 I shall be his father, and he will be my son ..

16 And your house and your kingdom will be secure forever.

This is an unconditional covenant. It will not be revoked. This covenant is inserted into Luke’s Infancy Narrative.

“He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (1: 32-33)

It is important for Luke to portray Jesus as the son of David. This he does when he mentions that Jesus was wrapped in ‘swaddling clothes’. In Wisdom 7: 5, Solomon, David’s son is ‘wrapped in swaddling clothes’. Jesus is the new son of David and his kingdom will have no end.

1 McBride, Denis; Jesus and the Gospels, p 16

Article 36: John and Jesus Part 1

The year is 30 AD.  Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, has much on his mind.  He feels an urge within himself to change his occupation.

At that time it was the custom for girls to marry when they were thirteen or fourteen.  The young men started work when they were fourteen and were married by the time they were eighteen.   Jesus was in his early thirties.  Men of his age were grandfathers.  Why would Jesus, a mature man, settled in his profession, make a complete change in his life.  Not only was he contemplating changing his occupation but we are also told that he later moved house to Capernaum.

What was it that he had in mind?  He proposed to become a wandering teacher.  He was to be recognized as more than a teacher, a prophet.  The two disciples on the way to Emmaus tell us about, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet, mighty in deed and word before God and all people.”  (Lk 24: 19)

Without doubt Jesus had heard about the prophet John, who was baptizing at the Jordan.  Most people seek advice from others before they make a life changing decision.  It would have been the most natural thing in the world for Jesus to visit John, perhaps work with him and learn from his experience.  If we follow John’s gospel, then Jesus spent quite a long time with John.

During this time with John, he must have been profoundly influenced by John.  People who later  heard him speaking thought they were listening to John the Baptist.  Herod said to his servants, “This man is John the Baptist.  He has been raised from the dead; that is why mighty powers are at work in him.” (Mt 14: 1)  In Matthew’s gospel both John and then Jesus began their preaching mission with, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  (Mt 3: 2; 4: 17)

Did Jesus baptize?  Matthew, Mark and Luke do not show Jesus baptizing, John does.  “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the region of Judea, where he spent some time with them baptising.   John was also baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was an abundance of water there.”  (Jn 3: 22 – 23)  Jesus was still learning so he teaches and baptizes in Judea, which was a much friendlier territory.  John, who has more experience, works in the tough area of Samaria, where he could expect an unfriendly reception.

“When Jesus heard that the Pharisees had found out that he was making and baptizing more disciples than John – ( though in fact it was his disciples who baptized, not Jesus himself ) – he left Judea and went back to Galilee.”  (Jn 4: 1 – 3)  This passage marks the time when Jesus decided to go his own way.

John the Baptists movement continued separate from that of Jesus and the Baptist’s disciples believed that he was the Messiah.  This sect continues to this day and can to be found in Iraq.

All evangelists went out of their way to show that Jesus was, by far, the more important person.1   It was very important for the early Christians that Jesus be seen as superior to John.  “John the Baptist says, ‘He must increase; I must decrease.”  (Jn 3: 30)

Luke tells us that Jesus returned to Nazareth.   He was welcomed and invited to read from Isaiah during the Sabbath service.  He then preached.  All realized that he was a changed man.  “All spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” (Lk 4: 22)  Clearly Jesus had been with John for a considerable time and was returning with knowledge and skills that they had never seen before.  This was truly a story of ‘Local boy makes good.”  It took only minutes for jealousy to raise its head.  There was no way that they were going to accept this new Jesus.  Sadly, Jesus was forced to leave his home town and move to Capernaum.  This was the last time we hear of him in his home town.  He never returned and even his relationship with family was soured.  They thought he was mad.

What a transformation must have taken place in Jesus during his stay with John.  He left Nazareth as Joseph’s son, the local carpenter, and returned a prophet and teacher.  All knew him for his strong family ties and devotion to Judaism.  He was more concerned with the kingdom of heaven.  His family were those who, “hear the word of God and keep it.”

  1. Perhaps this accounts for (though in fact it was his disciples who baptized, not Jesus himself) which was added by somebody after John’s Gospel had been completed.

(After Denis McBride)

Article 35: Get Your Priorities Right

35  Get your priorities right.  (Mt 22: 15 – 21)

“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar

and to God what belongs to God.”  (Mt 22: 21)

This is a Wisdom Saying, a catch phrase and a truly memorable punch-line.  As Jesus went from place to place he must have repeated his teaching again and again.  People, in all probability, forgot much of what he said.  It was the punch-lines that they remembered.  We can easily imagine Jesus’ audience or Matthew’s community walking home muttering to themselves;

“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  (Mt 22: 21)

What belongs to Caesar is important – we have an obligation to contribute to the common good by paying our taxes.  As Christians we should play our part in society being good, loyal and law-abiding citizens.

“What belongs to God” is all that is so precious that we cannot make concessions on what is of God – family, friendship, the sanctity of sex, self respect, compassion, humility, the care of the poor.

There was great tension between Jesus of Nazareth and the religious authorities.  Matthew tells us about the running battle that raged between the Scribes, Pharisees and Chief Priests, on one side and Jesus on the other.  Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem shocked them.  “The whole of Jerusalem was shaken.”  (21: 1-5)  After the cleansing of the temple the children sang out “Hosanna to the Son of David.”   The Chief Priests and the scribes were indignant. (21: 12-13)   “By what authority,” the chief priests demand of Jesus. (21: 23)  In reply he tells the parable of the tenants. The Chief Priests and Pharisees,  “knew he was talking about them.”  Worse still, the people regarded Jesus as a prophet. (21: 23-46)  It is not surprising that they would start plotting to get rid of this troublesome man.

“Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.  And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status.  17Tell us, then what is your opinion:

 Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” 

The Pharisees and Herodians who asked this question had prepared well.  They put Jesus in an impossible position.  If he spoke against the taxation he was sure to be in trouble with the civil authorities for encouraging a riot.  Passover was just around the corner.  Thousands of Galilean hotheads were flocking into Jerusalem.  Everyone knew that it would only take a small incident to spark a riot.  Pontius Pilate, the Governor was ready.  He and many fresh troops had already arrived from Caesarea.  If Jesus spoke one ill-advised word encouraging the people not to pay their taxes Jerusalem could be in flames.

Jesus was also hugely popular.  If he spoke in favour of people paying this head tax he was going to lose much of his popular following.  “How could he possibly wriggle out of this situation,” wondered the Pharisees and Herodians?

19Show me the coin that pays the census tax.”  Then they handed him the Roman coin.  20He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”  21They replied, “Caesar’s.”

On one side of the coin was an image of the Emperor Tiberius, and on the other the inscription ‘Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, High Priest.’  No sincere Jew would have walked around with such a coin in his pocket.  The Law forbade the making of images.  No Jew could have countenanced the claim that the Emperor made to be divine, and yet they were quite happy to produce it and show it to Jesus.  If they really objected to the coin, what were they doing with one?

At that he said to them, “Then repay (give back) to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

The confrontation is no longer about taxes.  There is the civil authorities represented by Caesar and then there is the image of God.

“God created humanity in his image, in the divine image he created them; male and female he created them.”  (Gen 1: 27)  Nobody has the right to dominate us, enslave us, to oppress us; we belong to God.  Exploitation of workers, prostitution, humiliation, mistreatment of others and burdening others with guilt, are all ways of treating the human person as an object.  By treating people in this way, Jesus tells us that we are steeling something that is very precious from our God.  “Pay back to God what is God’s,” he tells us.

How do we do this?  Five times Matthew will tell us.

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” (25: 34 – 36)