October 19 2014 (A) Twenty-Ninth Sunday of the Year
A. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
B. Reflection & Dialogue: The Mission of the Church in our own Day
The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).
First Reading (Isaiah 45:4-6). I take Cyrus by his right hand to subdue nations before him. This text is part of a collection of prophecies and other material now known as Second Isaiah. The material was directed to the Jews in Babylon towards the end of the exile there in 550 to 540 BC. This particular text would appear to come from about the year 550 BC. An unusual feature of this reading, among prophetic texts, is that it mentions an individual by his personal name, namely Cyrus. Cyrus was the founder of the Persian Empire. It is a Persian name, meaning “shepherd”. Cyrus was victorious over the empire of the Medes in 559 BC, and won himself further fame by his victory of king Croesus of Lydia in 547, which added Asia Minor to his conquests. After this, in 546, he turned his attention to Babylon, where a knowledge his conquests would have already been well known by the Jewish exiles. In 539 Babylon submitted peacefully to him, and in 538 Cyrus issued his decree permitting the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple.
From the Jewish point of view Cyrus was a pagan, without any knowledge of the God of Israel. In this reading God speaks directly to Cyrus, and addresses him as his anointed, his messiah. He tells Cyrus that his victories and conquests are due to the God of Israel himself for the sake of his servant Jacob, his chosen one. Although Cyrus did not know God, the God of Israel, his victories were intended to have the knowledge of God spread throughout the known world, from the rising to the setting of the sun, and know that apart from the God of Israel all is nothing. One message of the reading is that divine providence works quietly to achieve its aims.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 95). Give the Lord glory and power.
Second Reading (1 Thessalonians 1:1-5). We constantly remember your faith, your love and your hope. The significance and message of this brief reading is probably best appreciated when set in its historical and theological context. It is a letter that can be accurately dated: AD 51, thus the oldest piece of Christian literature that has come down to us. (The contents of the Gospels were being assembled and preached earlier, but not written down as we have them.) The date AD 51-52 shows the rapid progress of the Christian message. The crucifixion of Christ, the resurrection and descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost) occurred in AD 30 or 33. Paul was converted abut three years later with the mission to bring Christianity to the pagans (gentiles, non-Jews), in three missionary journeys. The second of these brought Paul and companions to Troas in Asia Minor, opposite Macedonia (Northern Greece) and Europe. There he had a vision of a man in Macedonia calling him “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). Paul had success in Philippi and Thessalonica, but persecution forced him to go to southern Greece (Athens). There he attempted to bring the saving message of the Gospel to the learned body of Athens (Areopagus), but was scoffed by some and politely dismissed by others at mention of the word “Resurrection” (anastasis) of Christ (Acts 17). Dispirited, he went on to nearby Corinth. Writing to the Corinthians about AD 57 he tells them (1 Corinthians 2:1-5): “And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed I to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power (New International Version (NIV). Dispirited at Corinth Paul is reassured by God (Acts 18:9-11). “One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.’ So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God”. (New International Version. (NIV) While at Corinth, in the course of disputes with the Jews, there was intervention by the Roman proconsul Gallio, which has us date the incident to AD 51-52.
The divine power of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians and today’s second reading is the divine power of the Holy Spirit, of grace, that gives full conviction. The gospel and Christian message are not just words but also the power of the spirit that brings belief and inner conviction in the message.
Note the points made in the reading: divine election, the three theological virtues (faith, hope and charity) at work in the believing community, the centrality of prayer.
The Gospel (Matthew 22:15-21). Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God. In context this is one of four dialogues between Jesus and Jewish groups and individuals: Pharisees and Herodians, Sadducees, a lawyer (learned scribe) of the Pharisees, a question of Jesus to the Pharisees. As background to today’s gospel reading: the setting is in Jerusalem, in Judea. Judea was directly ruled by Rome since the deposition of Archelaus in AD 6, and a tax imposed of probably one denarius coin (with the image of the emperor regarded as divine, then Tiberius) on it. It was a yearly tax, levied on everyone, slaves included. Jewish sentiment in Judea would be anti-Roman, by Pharisees and many others. The Herodians (of the family of Herod the Great, no longer ruling in Judea, unlike Galilee) were pro-Roman and would report any evasion of tax to the Roman authorities. The Pharisees aligned with them to see if they can get Jesus into difficulty with the Roman authorities. He sees through their intention, and avoids their trick.
His reply “render to Caesar” (i.e. the Roman Emperor) had Church to be careful not to get into unnecessary trouble with the Roman authorities in as far as possible. On some issues it could not compromise, e.g. honouring the Emperor as God and denying (cursing) Christ. “Render to God” in Jesus’ day could have many implications. In early Irish interpretation (Gospel commentaries), going back to early tradition, it was understood as rendering oneself, as image of God, to God, this by a Christian life. At all times it would imply rendering to God one’s life in keeping with Christ’s radical teaching regarding his own person and the demands of the kingdom, for instance “any one who loves father or mother, brother or sister, family, friends… more than me, is not worthy of me …” (Mat 10:37).
B. Reflection & Dialogue: the Mission of the Church in our own Day
Today is Mission Sunday. World Mission Sunday takes place on the second last Sunday of October each year. At the Mass the readings will be those from the current Sunday, which this year provide rich material for reflection on various aspects of the Church’s mission to preach the saving mystery of Christ to the world of our own day. In Rome this year the celebration will take place at the conclusion of the Synod of Bishops on the “Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization”. We can here give some head titles to guide our reflection on this mission, in keeping with the liturgical passages read today.
God has proclaimed his message to humanity throughout the ages. “You are my witnesses”. God chose the pagan Cyrus to witness to his might from the rising of the sun to its setting. He told his exiled people through the prophet Second Isaiah: “You are my witnesses”. This the Jewish people were in their homeland and through the Persian, Greek and Roman empires. In a recent century, through Margaret Mary Alacoque, Missionary of his Sacred Heart, Jesus wanted her to make known to the world how much he loved it, and how he longed to address his saving message to a people gone astray.
In weakness and in fear. Like Paul beginning his mission in Corinth, many today seeing the difficulties facing the Church and witnesses to the Gospel will feel weak and in fear. They can take comfort from Paul’s words cited above.
Do not fear. Continue to proclaim the Gospel. We can gain comfort from God’s words to Paul as he felt hesitant in his mission of preaching the Gospel: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you”. Divine power is always present in the proclamation of God’s word.
Forces at work against belief in God today. Scandals in the Church and an organized militant humanism. Forces working against practice of the faith, and even belief in God, are at work at different levels. Organized militant humanism would wish people to hold that there should be no belief in any being or activity which is beyond what reason and the senses can perceive.
Conviction and certainty in the truths of the Gospel and in the Church. Involvement in the Church’s mission requires on the part of believers conviction and certainty in matters of faith. As the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:1) puts it: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen”. Defence of the faith is not founded on reason or the senses, as Paul has strongly put it. Faith is a gift of God that gives certainty to the believer.
Divine power accompanies proclamation of the word. Paul expresses this truth well in his letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thes 2:13): “I thank God that when you received the word of God (the Christian message) that you heard from us, you received it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is at work in you believers”.
The central place of prayer in the mission of the Church. There are many aspects to be attended to in the Church’s mission in today’s world, matters relating to an understanding of the faith: history, science and many more. But basically the Church is the revelation of God’s plan of salvation, and thus a mystery. Faith in it, the understanding of it, must be nurtured by prayer. Hence Paul’s emphasis on prayer for an understanding of the mystery, of God’s work in Christ and the Church. The patron of the missions is St Therese, the Little Flower, who never set foot on mission territory.
Proclamation and defence of the faith a matter for both laity and clergy. The problems of belief in the modern world are manifold, and should be of concern for all believers, calling on all believers to respond to them as occasion calls. While practice of the Christian faith is the greatest witness of all, the many other questions call for attention as well, with responses from the laity probably now more than from the clergy.
It is now exactly three years since the first instalment of this internet service was first put up. On that occasion extra material was provided to indicate some of the problems encountered by the early Church in its proclamation of the Gospel. These texts were followed by some others indicating the emphasis placed by the Church on the place of the Scriptures in Christian life. No small interest has been shown in these texts, and it is decided to repeat them again here.
1. Introduction to subject
We live in an age and country where fundamental issues of faith are being discussed. Believers need to be alert and informed of matter of faith and practice. Such discussion has been part of the Christian Church since it foundation. For Jesus’ day an example in today’s Gospel reading (Jesus in discussion with Pharisees and Herodians). It continued through the early years of the Church and later. A good example in the letter 1 Peter, written the Christian in dangcited earlierer of harassment and persecution in present-day north-western Asian Minor (Pontus, Bithynia etc.), possibly or probably written between AD 70-90. The Christian attitude advised in 1 Peter, is evidence of its practice in the roughly contemporary letter of Pliny the Younger. The relevant texts given here:
2.1 Peter 3:13-17 (about AD 70-90)
“Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear,* and do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; 16yet do it with gentleness and reverence.* Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God”.
3. Pliny the Younger letter to the Emperor Trajan on Christians
Pliny the Younger was Roman Governor of Pontus/Bithynia for the years 111-113 AD and was keen in ruling the province in accord with Roman law and procedure. In case of doubt he referred matters to the Emperor himself, then Trajan. One of the problems brought to his attention was accusations against the new Christian movement. He refers to Rome, indicating his practice in the matter, and seeking guidance. His text speaks for itself.
Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.
4. The Church recalls the central Role of Scripture in our Christian Lives
Documents of Vatican II: Dei Verbum. Divine Revelation (1965)
SACRED SCRIPTURE IN THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH
21. The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body. She has always maintained them, and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles. Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture. For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. Consequently these words are perfectly applicable to Sacred Scripture: “For the word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12) and “it has power to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32; see 1 Thess. 2:13).
22. Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful. That is why the Church from the very beginning accepted as her own that very ancient Greek translation; of the Old Testament which is called the septuagint; and she has always given a place of honor to other Eastern translations and Latin ones especially the Latin translation known as the vulgate. But since the word of God should be accessible at all times, the Church by her authority and with maternal concern sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books. And should the opportunity arise and the Church authorities approve, if these translations are produced in cooperation with the separated brethren as well, all Christians will be able to use them.
23. The bride of the incarnate Word, the Church taught by the Holy Spirit, is concerned to move ahead toward a deeper understanding of the Sacred Scriptures so that she may increasingly feed her sons with the divine words. Therefore, she also encourages the study of the holy Fathers of both East and West and of sacred liturgies. Catholic exegetes then and other students of sacred theology, working diligently together and using appropriate means, should devote their energies, under the watchful care of the sacred teaching office of the Church, to an exploration and exposition of the divine writings. This should be so done that as many ministers of the divine word as possible will be able effectively to provide the nourishment of the Scriptures for the people of God, to enlighten their minds, strengthen their wills, and set men’s hearts on fire with the love of God. (1) The sacred synod encourages the sons of the Church and Biblical scholars to continue energetically, following the mind of the Church, with the work they have so well begun, with a constant renewal of vigor. (2)
24. Sacred theology rests on the written word of God, together with sacred tradition, as its primary and perpetual foundation. By scrutinizing in the light of faith all truth stored up in the mystery of Christ, theology is most powerfully strengthened and constantly rejuvenated by that word. For the Sacred Scriptures contain the word of God and since they are inspired really are the word of God; and so the study of the sacred page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology. (3) By the same word of Scripture the ministry of the word also, that is, pastoral preaching, catechetics and all Christian instruction, in which the liturgical homily must hold the foremost place, is nourished in a healthy way and flourishes in a holy way.
25. Therefore, all the clergy must hold fast to the Sacred Scriptures through diligent sacred reading and careful study, especially the priests of Christ and others, such as deacons and catechists who are legitimately active in the ministry of the word. This is to be done so that none of them will become “an empty preacher of the word of God outwardly, who is not a listener to it inwardly” (4) since they must share the abundant wealth of the divine word with the faithful committed to them, especially in the sacred liturgy. The sacred synod also earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful, especially Religious, to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the “excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:8). “For ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”(5) Therefore, they should gladly put themselves in touch with the sacred text itself, whether it be through the liturgy, rich in the divine word, or through devotional reading, or through instructions suitable for the purpose and other aids which, in our time, with approval and active support of the shepherds of the Church, are commendably spread everywhere. And let them remember that 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 saying.” (6)
It devolves on sacred bishops “who have the apostolic teaching”(7) to give the faithful entrusted to them suitable instruction in the right use of the divine books, especially the New Testament and above all the Gospels. This can be done through translations of the sacred texts, which are to be provided with the necessary and really adequate explanations so that the children of the Church may safely and profitably become conversant with the Sacred Scriptures and be penetrated with their spirit.
Furthermore, editions of the Sacred Scriptures, provided with suitable footnotes, should be prepared also for the use of non-Christians and adapted to their situation. Both pastors of souls and Christians generally should see to the wise distribution of these in one way or another.
26. In this way, therefore, through the reading and study of the sacred books “the word of God may spread rapidly and be glorified” (2 Thess. 3:1) and the treasure of revelation, entrusted to the Church, may more and more fill the hearts of men. Just as the life of the Church is strengthened through more frequent celebration of the Eucharistic mystery, similar we may hope for a new stimulus for the life of the Spirit from a growing reverence for the word of God, which “lasts forever” (Is. 40:8; see 1 Peter 1:23-25).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992)
Mainly citing the documents of Vatican II
131 “and such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigour, and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting fount of spiritual life.”109 Hence “access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful.”110
132 “Therefore, the study of the sacred page should be the very soul of sacred theology. the ministry of the Word, too – pastoral preaching, catechetics and all forms of Christian instruction, among which the liturgical homily should hold pride of place – is healthily nourished and thrives in holiness through the Word of Scripture.”111
133 The Church “forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful… to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.112
Vatican II. Constitution on the Liturgy (1963)
7. To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross” (20), but especially under the eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes (21). He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20)
Bible texts: biblegateway.com; Google: (a) Documents of Vatican II; — (b) Catechism of the Catholic Church;–(c) Oremus Bible Browser