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August 13 2017 (A) Nineteenth Sunday of the Year

  1. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
  2. Reflection & Dialogue: Prayer for help in a troubled Church

The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).

First Reading (1 Kings 19:9, 11-13). Stand on the mountain before the Lord. This reading concerns the great prophet Elijah at Mount Horeb (also known as Sinai), the mountain on which God revealed himself to Moses, spoke intimately with him as friend to friend, and on which he made the covenant with Israel. God in the first of the Ten Commandments had revealed himself as the one true God to Israel. Israel was to have no other gods before him, no other gods to rival him. Whatever of a theoretical monotheism, worship of Yahweh God of Israel as sole god, in practice was accompanied by worship of local gods. This was true especially of the northern kingdom of Israel, and more so during the reign of King Ahab, in the mid-ninth century B.C., who married Jezebel, daughter of Ittobaal, king of Tyre and Sidon. She was a devotee of her god Baal, a cult Ahab also embraced, resulting in the promotion of this pagan worship, with its many pagan prophets, in Israel. Elijah, the first major individual prophet in Israel, strongly opposed Ahab and Jezebel, a contest culminating at Mount Carmel with victory by Elijah, and the slaughter of the pagan prophets. Elijah’s life was now in danger and he ran away, tired of the fight and weary of life itself. He was inspired to go to Horeb, the mount of the original revelation, to renew his courage and commitment. In the original revelation God had told Moses that he would put him in a cleft in the rock until his divine presence had passed (Exodus 33:22). Elijah may have thought of this when he went into the cave. At the Horeb (Sinai) event (Exodus 19) the storm, earthquake and lightening manifested the divine presence. This is not so in the case of Elijah. The Lord is not in any of these. Then there was the sound of a gentle breeze, which apparently had Elijah realize that the Lord is about to make his presence felt, and he covered his face at the entrance of the cave. The text as read in today’s liturgy ends here. Its continuation in the biblical text gives the conversation between the Lord and Elijah. We are not told the significance of the Lord showing his presence in the gentle breeze. It facilitates the conversation with the prophet. The divine presence, in a time of danger for the very existence of the covenant in Israel, shows the Lord’s concern and presence with his people in the person of an attested leader. As such it goes well with the gospel reading which has the same theme. Moses and Elijah, the great witnesses to the covenant of Horeb/Sinai, will appear as witnesses to the Law and the Prophets at the transfiguration of Jesus.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 84[85]). Let us see, O Lord your mercy and give us your saving help.

Second Reading (Romans 9:1-8). I would willingly be condemned if I could help my own people. Paul has completed the doctrinal section of his letter at chapter 8. In the following three chapters (9-11), read from over the next three Sundays, Paul turns his attention to something that has been very much with him all during his missionary activity, that is the failure of his own Jewish people to accept Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, and the fulfilment of their long history and of the promises. Paul’s mission from the risen Christ was to be apostle to the gentiles, the non-Jews. In his earliest letter come down to us 1 Thessalonians 1:14-16) he has unkind things to say about his fellow Jews in Palestine, but rarely touches on the question of their neglect to accept the Gospel in his other letters. It must be a question that was constantly with him. Now at the end of his missionary activity in the east he speaks openly of it to the Romans. In case anyone might doubt the sincerity of his anguish, he calls as two witnesses to his words both Christ and the Holy Spirit. He would willingly be excommunicated, accursed, under a curse of destruction, if this would help his fellow Jews, his own flesh and blood. Paul was very proud of his Jewish origins, and could remind his gentile churches of this. He now reflects on, and lists, the great gifts that have been bestowed on them by God, with plenty of biblical evidence for each of them: adopted children and the first-born as God’s people (Exodus 4:22), the glory of God that resided with them in the Temple, the covenants with Abraham, Jacob (Israel), Moses and David, the Law as an expression of the divine will, the very impressive liturgy, the promises of a glorious future and the messianic promises. With his own people Paul gloried in being descended from the “Fathers”, the patriarchs. Paul notes that the Jews’ greatest honour is that from them, from their flesh and blood, came Christ. The ending of this text in many translations is “came Christ who is above all, God blest for ever. Amen”. Many believe that here Paul is asserting the divinity of Christ who is God blessed for ever. This understanding is not altogether necessary, and some take the final words of praise, doxology, as referring to God: “God who is over all be blessed for ever. Amen.

Later Paul will note that these promises made by God to Israel have not been revoked, as he affirms in 11:29 (read next Sunday): “(With Israel) God never takes back his gifts or revokes his choice”. This important statement of Paul plays a central role in present-day Jewish-Christian discussions.

The Gospel (Matthew 14:22-33). Tell me to come to you across the water. The very opening words of the Gospel reading call for reflection: Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him. Setting it in its context in the Gospel and in the Gospel history, it is well to recall that this reading follows immediately on last Sunday’s Gospel reading with the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves. The account of this miracle as given in John’s Gospel (6:14-15) says that on experiencing the miracle, the people believed that Jesus was the promised prophet, and Jesus, realizing that they were about the come and make him king, withdrew to the mountain by himself. This was probably the reason why he sent the disciples away to a safer place. He also sent the crowds away, and went into the hills to pray alone. The evangelists, especially Luke, often note that Jesus prayed, especially at important events in his ministry: at his baptism, before the choice of the twelve, when teaching the Lord ’s Prayer, at the disciples’ profession of faith in him at Caesarea (Luke 9:18), at Gethsemane, on the Cross, for his executioners. His prayer showed his union with the Father, and the truth that his work was the revealing of the divine mystery. It gave an example and a message to the Church to follow. The next section calling for reflection is the calming of the storm at sea, followed by the apostles profession of faith in Jesus as Son of God. They take Jesus walking in the waters as a ghost. Jesus tells them not to be afraid with the words “It is I”, an expression which characterizes God at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14), and elsewhere is invoked as a sign of divine help and assurance against fear (Isaiah 4:4; 43:5, 10-11) and may be intended as sign of divine presence in Jesus here. Peter is given a central role in the episode, wishing to walk on the water like Jesus. Jesus chides him for his lack of faith. When both Jesus and Peter got into the boat the storm suddenly ceased. This control of Jesus over sea and wind, from biblical tradition, helped the disciples make their profession of faith in Jesus as truly the Son of God. Three main points call for our reflection: the prayer of Jesus and the central place of prayer in the Church for the individual and the community; the boat in the storm is the image of the Church tossed by problems. Jesus is never very far away and comes to her aid; Peter has a special role in Jesus’ plan. And Jesus has prayed that Peter’s faith may be strong to strengthen the faith of others.

  1. Reflection & Dialogue: Prayer for help in a troubled Church

What is indicated as material for reflection with regard to the present readings seems determined by the Gospel text, and many of the reflections are already incorporated into the comments on this reading. The boat battered by the waves of the sea and storm have been taken traditionally as symbols of the Church in her journey through the sea of time, with Jesus coming to her aid in times of distress. Peter calls out for help. There are other texts in the Gospel with the same message, in fact more explicitly so than this one. Jesus himself by his example and teaching has stressed the need for prayer. Prayer is a profession of faith in the Church as mystery, as a gift of God understood through faith, enlivened and in fact sustained through prayer.

            The Catholic and universal, worldwide, Church encounters different problems and dangers in various parts of the world, from persecution and the danger of annihilation to the problems of scandals from within. In the old and the English-speaking world its chief problems today arise from a prevailing lack of faith, and opposition to faith, in the surrounding secular world, and the attacks on the credibility of the Church itself from failings and scandals within it, as well as the lack of vocations to the priestly and religious life, which were both a service to the Church by their activity and a sign to the believing community of values beyond the merely human to be believed in. It is a time to address prayer to the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into his harvest, to send his Holy Spirit to keep the values of the kingdom alive in believers’ hearts. It is a time of calling for fervent prayer to God to purify his Church from sin and scandal, to have it abound in the good works that will glorify our Father who is in heave.