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September 3 2017 (A) Twenty-Second Sunday of the Year

  1. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
  2. Reflection & Dialogue: Free from the Law, but under the Law of Christ.

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

First Reading (Jeremiah 20:7-9). The word of the Lord has meant insult for me. At the end of the Eight Beatitudes Jesus told his followers that they are blessed when people revile them and persecute them and utter all kinds of evil against them falsely on his account, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before them. As Jesus himself was persecuted, so too, he told his disciples, would his followers be. Today’s first reading gives us a very good example of what one prophet had to suffer in his service of the word of God. We are fortunate in this matter with regard to the prophet Jeremiah since in the book of the Bible that bears his name we have biographical material concerning him and also certain autobiographical sketches. Together with this we have in the book six passages known as “the Confessions of Jeremiah” in which the prophet speaks very honestly and openly concerning matters of faith and his own personal problems. One of these is the passage in today’s reading. God chose Jeremiah as his prophet. He put his words in his mouth and sent to proclaim the divine punishment to come on his sinful people. This Jeremiah did, with the phrase “Terror on every side” almost as a refrain in his message of woe. He made various prophecies on this matter, which were not fulfilled, at least within a reasonable length of time, humanly speaking. His audiences mocked him as a result, apparently with the nickname “Mr Terror-on-every-Side”. Jeremiah was a sensitive soul and felt this very much, and in today’s passage he complains bitterly to God on the matter, stating that God has deceived him, taken advantage of him, that God had been too strong for Jeremiah and Jeremiah too naïve. In this crisis, Jeremiah admits that he had been tempted to abandon his prophetic ministry entirely, but a burning pressure within him would not allow him to do so. His prophetic call from God was acting within him like a burning fire. Jeremiah had much to suffer in his service of the word of God. But his prophecies were finally fulfilled, and through his place in the biblical canon he is speaking to us still. And in his suffering, like a lamb led to the slaughter, he was a figure of Jesus.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 62[63[). For you my soul is thirsting, O Lord my God.                                                                                                                                       

Second Reading (Romans 12:1-2). Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice. Paul devoted the first part of his letter to the Romans to his teaching on the new life in Christ, a new life through justification through faith in Christ, and not through the works of the Jewish law. But the aim of all Paul’s teaching was this new life in Christ and the closing chapters of his letter (12-16) are an exhortation concerning this new life, with details on how it is to be lived out in community. The first section of this final part is read today and there will be select passages from it read over the next three Sundays. Paul begins this final part with rather strong words. He appeals to them by the mercies of God. Paul did not found the church at Rome, but in the opening words of his letter to them he reminded them that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord, he had received grace and apostleship to bring about obedience of faith among all the gentiles, including themselves. Christ died and rose again to bring a new inner life to the individual and through them to the world. Paul continues his exhortation on this new life. Paul began his exhortation by mention of the mercies of God. The mercy of God stands at the very heart of the Christian message and of all Paul’s teaching. The Jews offered sacrifices in the Temple, and the pagans in theirs, offerings of animals without reason. Christians would have a different kind of sacrifice and offering. It would be themselves, their bodies in the Pauline sense of this word, and the sacrifice could be called spiritual (or “reasonable” as distinct from that of animals), a sacrifice worthy of thinking beings. It would be themselves, their lives, as a holy sacrifice truly pleasing to God, a life in keeping with the teaching of the Gospels and the example of Christ. Other New Testament texts also stress this spiritual sacrifice. The Church is a temple, a holy house. Believers are a holy priesthood, having pleasing spiritual sacrifices to offer, that is to say a Christian life full of good needs.

   Jewish tradition spoke of two worlds, this world and the world to come. For the Christian also there are two worlds: one with Christ as its light, the other without the light of faith. A question for Paul, and later Christians, was how discern the mind and the will of God. In his earlier life the answer for Paul was provided by the Mosaic Law and the Jewish religious tradition. But this led to his involvement in the martyrdom of Stephen and his persecution of the early Church. The Law of Moses was no longer a factor for Christian’s in determining the mind and will of God in the events of everyday life. What would be central now is a mind directed on Christ and the Gospel, rather than on the secular viewpoints then current. This does not mean or imply that there would be no norm to guide one, and that one’s private viewpoint could prevail. Paul gave plenty directives to his churches, and would provide many in the later chapters of this letter. The question of how determine God’s will always be with us, and Paul’s words will remain central: behaviour not moulded on secular values but deriving from a mind renewed according to the Gospel message.

The Gospel (Matthew 16:21-27). If any want to be a followers of mine, let them renounce themselves. In the Bible this passage comes immediately after Peter, on behalf of the disciples, had acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah. There was a danger that Jesus would be regarded as a political figure, entirely of this world. Jesus makes it clear that this is not the case, with regard to his own person or his followers. Suffering and death are in store for him. He calls Peter Satan, the Tempter towards evil, and tells him that he is an obstacle in his path. His thoughts and values are of this world, not those of God. These words he addressed to Peter. His next words are for his followers in general. He first of all gives the general principle that any persons wishing to follow him must renounce themselves, take up their cross and follow him. The cross in question would be the cross-beam which those on the way to be crucified had to carry on their shoulders. It would have been a familiar sight in Palestine of the day. Some expressions follow that are to be understood in a sense metaphorically, and in the light of Jesus’ journey to Calvary, his death and new life. Jesus came to bring new life. Anyone wishing to cling to the old ways (save his life) will lose this new life and anyone who dies to his or her old life for Jesus’ sake will find the new life. Behind these saying stands the vision of the last and final judgment, a judgment in keeping with one’s life. A decision has to be made on earth with regard to this. There is a certain ambiguity with regard to the word rendered as “life” in most modern translations. The Greek word so rendered, psyche, can also mean “soul”, and probably that is what is intended in some of these sentences. What exchange can, or should, persons make with regard to the eternal fate of their souls? That this is intended seems implied in the reference to the coming of the Son of Man, with the angels, for judgment.

  1. Reflection & Dialogue: Free from the Law, but under the Law of Christ.

A question that has been with Christianity from the beginning, and is still with it, is the place which external laws and norms have, or should not have, in Christian life and conscience. The apostle Paul could say to the Galatians that he had cast aside the Jewish Law, the Law of Moses, had died to it, without making distinctions as to the different elements in this law. Both Paul, and Christianity in general, laid great emphasis on the necessity and the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers. There was a danger that from this a belief could arise the view that there were no longer any moral restrictions on human behaviour. And in Church history this temptation was occasionally succumbed to.

Paul, of course, and the Church stress the fruits of the Spirit. But together with this, there was Jesus’ teaching on the need of self denial, of taking up one’s cross and following him on the road to suffering and glory. But the question always remained as to the connection between the internal working of the Holy Spirit, Christian freedom, and external laws and norms. Paul once (1 Corinthians 9:21) spoke of being as one outside the law (of Moses) but under Christ’s law. Christ’s law, however, is not a code, not spelled out in detail. It is in the Gospels, in the Eight Beatitudes, in the Sermon on the Mount, and in Church tradition.There is, however, a great difference in time and culture between the days of Christ and of the early Church and our own, differences to be borne in mind. When we seek today, as in Paul’s day, to discover the will of God, to know what God wants, what is the right and perfect thing to do, many factors have to be borne in mind, not least what Paul has advised the Romans – not to model oneself on current secular views or mindsets but to pay central attention to a new mind modelled by one’s new Christian mind.