Monthly Archives: March 2011

Reflecting on Ephesians for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

From Ephesians by Peter S. Williamson, commenting on Ephesians 5:11-14:

Paul expects that when Christians confront immorality, whether by shining the light of Christian witness before the world, by gently reproving a brother or sister, or by openly censuring public wrongdoing, the situation will change: but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. In other words, whatever light shines on becomes illuminated, enlightened. Paul hopes for the conversion of people who are in darkness as a result of the light of Christ shining through Christians.

Of course, things do not always work out this way. Jesus, the perfect light, let his light shine by word and example. Some people received the light and became light; others rejected the light (John 1:9–11; 3:19–21). As followers of Jesus, we can expect the same mixed response to our testimony. However, we can be sure that if we want to overcome darkness, we need to turn on a light.

© 2010 Peter S. Williamson and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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Filed under Ephesians, From the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, Lectionary, Peter Williamson

“Virgin” or “Young Woman”? Isa 7:14

The first reading on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, is from Isaiah 7 and includes the famous words: “the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son and shall name him Emmanuel…” (Isa 7:14).  This verse is important since Matthew 1:22-23 explains that Jesus’ birth by the Virgin Mary is a fulfillment of this prophecy: 

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’

However, the recently released NABRE (New American Bible Revised Edition), like some other translations of Isa 7:14 (RSV, NRSV, and NJB) says “young woman” instead of “virgin.”  This discrepancy in translations is confusing to many even well-informed Catholics.  Raymond Arroyo, the host of EWTN’s popular “The World Over Live” recently expressed his perplexity at why the NABRE would make this change.

Before I did my graduate studies in Scripture, I thought that the RSV translation of “virgin” as “young woman” was simply due to scholarly disbelief in the virginal conception of Jesus, since I knew of biblical scholars who did not believe in miracles and did not acknowledge Jesus’ divinity.

It turns out it’s more complicated than that.  The original Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 uses the word almah, which really does mean “young woman” rather than “virgin.”  On the other hand, the Septuagint version of Isaiah, the Greek translation that was used by Jews for a couple centuries before the birth of Christ, uses the more specific parthenos, which does mean virgin.  At that time an unmarried Jewish almah would be assumed to be a parthenos, so the Septuagint translation was completely reasonable.

Although Matthew probably knew the Hebrew original, since he was writing in Greek (like the other authors of the New Testament), he naturally quotes the Greek Septuagint and says “the virgin [parthenos] shall be with child.”

So the simplest explanation is that the NABRE, RSV, NRSV, and NJB, correctly translate the Hebrew original as “young woman,” while the NAB (and the RSVCE and NIV), following Matthew 1:23, correctly translate the Septuagint version of Isa 7:14 as “virgin.”

But this raises the further questions of what Isaiah himself meant by this prophecy back in the eighth century B.C., and how it is that Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah.  The Gospel of Matthew by Curtis Mitch and Ted Sri in the Catholic Commentary series explains the historical context of Isaiah 7:

This prophecy came in a period of crisis for the Davidic kingdom, as enemy armies threatened to invade Jerusalem and remove King Ahaz.  With the dynasty’s survival in question, Isaiah foretold that an heir would be a sign that the kingdom would not end with Ahaz but would continue under God’s protection.  Some might have seen in this prophecy a reference to Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, who carried out a religious reform and delivered Judah from many evils, showing that God was still with the dynasty (2 Kings 18:1-6).

So what does this have to do with Jesus?  Mitch and Sri continue:

However, Matthew sees a deeper level of meaning in the child of Isa 7:14… [because of the Septuagint’s use of parthenos].  Mary is the virgin who conceives and bears the royal son, Jesus.  Matthew’s Gospel, therefore fittingly reveals Isa 7:14 as foretelling the virginal conception of the messiah.

In other words, when Matthew reads the word parthenos (“virgin”) in the Septuagint of Isaiah 7:14 in light of what he knows of the virginal conception of Jesus (a historical tradition known independently to Luke), he recognizes that God was saying something profound through Isaiah that went beyond the political crisis of the eighth century B.C.  The LORD was speaking about a miraculous conception of the Messiah, the definitive heir to the throne of David, through the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:18).  This is the way that God chose to be Emmanuel, “God with us” (Isa 7:14; 8:8; Matt 1:23).  This is the way Isaiah’s extraordinary prophecies (Isa 9, 11) about this future ruler were to be fulfilled.  In hindsight, in light of the further revelation of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, this interpretation of Isa 7:14 makes perfect sense.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission uses the example Matthew’s interpretation of Isa 7:14 to illustrate the fuller sense of Scripture (The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, II.B.3), which it defines “as a deeper meaning of the text, intended by God but not clearly expressed by the human author.

The fuller sense is an aspect of the spiritual sense, “the meaning expressed by the biblical texts when read, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, in the context of the paschal mystery of Christ and of the new life which flows from it.”

The fuller sense “has its foundation in the fact that the Holy Spirit, principal author of the Bible, can guide human authors in the choice of expressions in such a way that the latter will express a truth the fullest depths of which the authors themselves do not perceive. This deeper truth will be more fully revealed in the course of time-on the one hand, through further divine interventions which clarify the meaning of texts and, on the other, through the insertion of texts into the canon of Scripture.”

So, which translation of Isa 7:14 is correct?  “the virgin shall be with child”?  or “a young woman shall be with child”? Both can be defended reasonably.  The second faithfully represents the Hebrew original of the Old Testament.  The first faithfully represents the Septuagint and the way that the Gospel of Matthew and the Christian tradition interpret Isaiah’s prophecy in light of Jesus Christ.  Whichever translation is used should be explained in a footnote.

Weighing the reasons, I think “the virgin shall be with child” is better suited to Catholic Bibles and to the use of Scripture in Christian liturgy.  But obviously, some learned people, including the editors of the NABRE, think otherwise.

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Quenching the Thirst of God

Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4, one of the longest dialogues in all Scripture, is full of Johannine symbolism and hidden layers of meaning.

The setting, Jacob’s well, provides an initial clue to the meaning of the story. As ancient Jews steeped in the Old Testament would recognize, a well is the place where, in a seemingly chance encounter, bridegroom meets bride. Isaac, Jacob and Moses all found their brides-to-be at a well (Gen 24; 29; Exod 2:15-21). These parallels suggest that so too, Jesus’ meeting with the woman of Samaria is a divinely appointed encounter, a meeting of love.

Jesus, thirsty from his long journey, asks the woman for a drink—thereby breaking the powerful social barriers that stood between men and women, Jews and Samaritans.

When the woman expresses her surprise, he answers:

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

This makes clear that the real purpose of Jesus’ request was that he might quench her thirst with “living water.” Living water (or flowing water) is a biblical image for the divine life for which human beings yearn, as in Ps 42:1-2:

As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?

The Samaritan woman is intrigued.

“Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?”

She thinks Jesus is referring to flowing spring water in contrast to stagnant water. Like Nicodemus (3:4) and later the disciples (11:11-12), the woman misconstrues Jesus’ words about a spiritual reality in a literalistic way. But this gives Jesus an opportunity to explain further:

“Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Later in the Gospel, John explicitly identifies the “living water” as the Holy Spirit.

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive (John 7:37-39).

The feast mentioned here is Tabernacles, when the Jews commemorated the water that miraculously came forth from the rock that Moses struck (Exod 17:1-6). Jesus, then, is himself the life-giving Rock (cf. 1 Cor 10:3-4), the source of the Holy Spirit, and the way we drink his living water is by believing in him. The passion narrative portrays how this Rock is “struck”: after Jesus had died, “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34). From Jesus’ wounded heart flows divine life, the Holy Spirit, given to us in the sacraments of baptism (signified by the water) and the Eucharist (signified by the blood). As Paul expressed it, “God has poured his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5).

Jesus promises the Samaritan woman that his water will not only quench her thirst but become “a spring welling up” within her. This suggests that to the degree we drink from the inexhaustible fountain of God’s love, we become a fountain of life for others.

At this point the woman is finally ready to ask for the gift Jesus longs to give her:

“Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”

She still does not understand; she is glad at the prospect of never again having to trek out to the well. Yet her request, like that of the Jews for the bread of life (John 6:34), is sincere. On a symbolic level, without knowing it she is asking for baptism (cf. John 3:5).

But Jesus’ reply is unexpected.

“Go, call your husband, and come here.”

Why this apparent digression? Now that her request has provided an opening, Jesus probes this woman’s heart, uncovering the place where she is wounded. Only the truly thirsty, who are willing to acknowledge what is parched and lifeless within them, are able to drink the living water. This woman’s brokenness, like that of so many others, is in the area of love. In fact, her life is a history of broken relationships.

Her reply, “I have no husband,” is somewhat evasive, but Jesus brings to light her true moral state.

“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.”

Although this revelation is painful, the woman recognizes Jesus’ total lack of condemnation (cf. 4:39). He exposes sin not for the sake of condemnation but forgiveness and freedom.

At this point it is becoming clear that the dialogue is not merely personal. The woman’s life story, in fact, embodies the history of the people of Israel. According to 2 Kings, when the Assyrians invaded the Kingdom of Israel they planted precisely five foreign nations there, each with its god (2 Kg 17:24-31; cf. Josephus, Antiquities, 9.288). Through the prophets, God had revealed himself as the bridegroom of Israel, the true God whose love for his chosen people was passionate and utterly faithful. Yet instead of being reciprocated, his love had met with continuous betrayal in the form of idolatry, the worship of alien gods. The gentile nations imported into Samaria had only intensified the infidelity.

Surely, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel, says the Lord (Jer 3:20).

But God had promised that he would use even the national calamity of conquest and exile to eventually bring about the healing of Israel’s adultery.

In that day, says the Lord, you will call me, “My husband,” and no longer will you call me, “My Baal.” For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more. And I will make for you a covenant on that day…. And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord. (Hos 2:16-20)

Against this biblical background the deeper significance of the story comes to light: Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the divine Bridegroom proposing marriage to Samaritan people! He is inviting this woman, and her whole nation, to return to their first and true husband, the living God.

At the end of the dialogue, after discovering that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah, the woman hurries back into town bursting with the news of what has happened to her. Her encounter with Jesus has overflowed in a desire to share with others what she has experienced. The narrative thus portrays the movement from personal encounter to evangelization, a pattern that remains foundational to the Church’s mission today. By making ourselves present to this story, we too can be drawn into the same movement, experiencing more deeply the “gift of God” and being empowered to proclaim it with a new dynamism.

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Why Does God Allow Tsunamis and Massacres?

In recent days the headline news has been about governments killing their citizens and an earthquake and tsunami taking thousands of lives. These tragic events naturally raise the question, How can God let such things happen? What does Scripture say?

Luke 13:1-5 reports that Jesus was asked a similar question. When people came to him troubled by tragedies of the time, he answered in a way that is at once surprising and disturbing:

“There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  2 And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?  3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.  4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?  5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.'”

Although we have no information about these events other than what Luke tells us, Josephus reports other acts of violence by Pilate against subjects who resisted his will.  The fall of the tower of Siloam may have been due to an earthquake, faulty construction, or both.  In principle, if not in magnitude, these incidents resemble Qaddafi’s violence in Libya and the disasters in Japan.

Why would God permit such disasters?  Jesus rejects the explanation that probably came first to the minds of his hearers.  These victims were not worse sinners than anyone else.  Superficial biblical interpretation might have led to this conclusion.  The Old Testament clearly teaches that sin will be punished and it was expected to occur in this life.  For example, King David’s adultery and murder of Uriah brought terrible consequences to him and to his family (2 Sam 12-20).  Israel’s idolatry and injustice eventually brought military defeat, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and exile from the promised land in 586 BC, just as Deuteronomy and the prophets foretold.

While Jesus’ audience assumed that the victims must have specially deserved the fate that befell them, modern audiences might assume the opposite, that the victims are innocent.  But Jesus does not say that the victims were innocent.  Rather he warns, “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”  The anomaly, Jesus implies, is not that they were judged, but that so far you have been spared.  Repent, while opportunity remains!

In saying “you will all likewise perish,” Jesus speaks figuratively as he often does. He does not literally mean that all who do not repent will meet an untimely death.  Rather Jesus identifies these tragedies as signs warning of a far greater disaster that could overtake anyone of us, judgment and the loss of eternal life.

Jesus doesn’t address some of the questions that bother us.  What about the innocent children who may have been among those who died?  What about those who already repented? When will unjust rulers be held accountable?

But Jesus has implicitly answered these questions, when he teaches in the preceding chapter “do not fear those who can kill the body” but rather fear the one “who has the authority to cast into hell” (Luke 12:4-5).  Unlike many people today who measure everything in terms of this life, Jesus presupposes the eternal perspective, the resurrection of the dead, and the justice of God.  The repentant who have died tragically will rise again and receive their reward. Everyone else who has survived to the present will not escape punishment, unless they repent.

The message of these tragedies, Jesus says, is to summon all to repent.  Every human being must be converted or suffer eternal loss.

What does it mean to repent? The Greek term for repent, metanoeō, means to change one’s mind. Jesus refers to the fundamental decision to do God’s will rather than one’s own.  Luke’s Gospel makes the meaning more concrete through examples.  For example, in Luke 3:8-14 John the Baptist insists that repentance entails right conduct or “fruits in keeping with repentance”—specifically, renouncing wrongdoing and sharing one’s goods with the needy.  The woman who wept on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair shows that repentance entails faith and receiving forgiveness (Luke 7:36-50). Zacchaeus shows that repentance is marked by celebration, making amends, and extraordinary generosity, and that it results in salvation (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus teaches that it causes the angels to rejoice (Luke 15:7, 10). It is what the prodigal son does, but the elder brother refuses to do (Luke 15:18, 28).  It is what the tax collectors and sinners do, but the scribes and Pharisees do not. It is what one thief does and another does not.

Jesus does not say that God directly causes these tragedies.  In the case of political violence, the sinful choices of human beings are obviously responsible.  In the case of natural disasters, the fallen created order that results from human sinfulness malfunctions to harm rather than serve human life (Gen 3:17-19; Rom 8:20).  Nevertheless, God makes use of these evils to announce a warning that can lead to salvation.

An immense wave far greater than the one that struck Japan is rushing toward the whole human race and all that we hold dear.  According to Jesus, for every person the difference between eternal salvation and eternal loss is repentance.  May the tragedies in Japan and the Middle East lead us repent.  May they lead us to pray for, and insofar as we are able, to persuade others to repent as well.

POSTSCRIPT

It’s one thing to know repentance is necessary, the point of Jesus’ warning and today’s post.  It’s another to show someone the way to repentance.  To see the gracious way that Jesus did it, see next Sunday’s Gospel from John 4, the subject of the next post by Dr. Mary Healy.  Or read the rest of Luke!

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Reflecting on the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent

From The Gospel of Matthew by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 7:1-8:

Jesus was transfigured, which means he was transformed. His physical appearance changed such that his face shone like the sun. This recalls Moses’ shining face when he came down Mount Sinai (Exod 34:29–35). However, while there are similarities with Moses, Matthew shows how Jesus outshines him: Moses’ face shone because it reflected the divine glory he had seen, whereas Jesus’ face shines with his own glory, even before the cloud and divine voice are manifested on the mountain. Jesus possesses the glory that Moses saw. Moreover, while Exodus reports that Moses’ face was shining, Matthew’s description of Christ goes much further: his face shines “like the sun” and his clothes became white as light (compare the heavenly horseman in 2 Macc 11:8, the angel at the tomb in Matt 28:3, and the divine “Ancient One” of Dan 7:9).

© 2010 Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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The Richness of Scripture according to St. John of Damascus

The best discoveries often arrive unexpectedly. Just last week I was reading through the writings of the eighth century Greek Church Father, John of Damascus, and I came across an inspiring and lovely invitation to “knock” at the door of the Scriptures and enjoy the fruits of this “paradise” of God.

John’s love and appreciation for the Bible is obvious in what he writes. This short selection shows how important the Scriptures were to the Church Fathers, and how pivotal they were for their writings.

Beginning with the metaphor of knocking upon the door (“knock and it shall be opened”), John portrays the Scriptures in terms of the garden of Eden, the place of Paradise, lush and rich with life-giving fruit for us. He weaves into this description the action of the Trinity—how through the Scriptures the Spirit (the dove) bears us to the Son and through him to the Father.

“So let us knock at the very beautiful paradise of the Scriptures, the fragrant, most sweet and lovely paradise that fills our ears with the varied songs of inspired birds, that touches our heart, comforting it when grieving, calming it when angry, and filling it with everlasting joy, and that lifts our minds onto the back of the sacred dove, gleaming with gold and most brilliant, who bears us with his most bright wings to the only-begotten Son and heir of the husbandman of the spiritual vineyard and through Him on to the Father of lights.

“Let us not knock casually, but with eagerness and persistence, and let us not lose heart while knocking, for so it will be opened to us. Should we read once and then a second time and still not understand what we are reading, let us not be discouraged. Rather, let us persist, let us meditate and inquire.

“From the fountain of paradise let us draw everflowing and most pure waters springing up into life everlasting. Let us revel in them, let us revel greedily in them to satiety, for they contain the grace that cannot be exhausted.”

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Adam, Christ, and Us

For those hungry for God’s word, the three readings of the First Sunday of Lent in Year A provide a remarkable repast of biblical theology.

The second reading (Rom 5:12-19) contains one the most explicit NT identifications of a type of Christ: “Adam… is the type of the one to come” (v. 14). A type is a person, event, or institution in the OT that foreshadows Christ or something in the life of the Church.  Typology “discerns in God’s works of the Old Covenant prefigurations of what he accomplished in the fullness of time in the person of his incarnate Son” (Catechism 128).

What seems strange is that this lofty affirmation about Adam follows three verses that describe how Adam’s sin brought sin and death to the human race (Rom 5:12-19 is the biblical basis of the doctrine of original sin).  How is Adam a type of Christ?

The verses that follow continue to emphasize the differences between Adam and Christ. Adam’s single transgression (to transgress means to violate a command) led to many sins (v. 12, 16) and brought condemnation and the reign of death to all.  But Christ’s “gracious gift” and “righteous act” brought “abundance of grace,” “the gift of justification,” “acquittal,” and “life” to all.

The only likeness this text presents between the type, Adam, and Christ is that both determine the destiny of “all” who follow them.  Each stands as the representative head of the human race, whose choices affect the rest.

The Old Testament and Gospel readings narrate the respective choices of Adam and Christ that shaped human destiny.

The first reading, Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7, depicts the creation of man, the Garden of Eden, and the transgression of Adam and Eve.  God said that they could eat of any tree in the Garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

After giving credence to the serpent’s lies that death would not follow disobedience and that God did not have her best interests at heart (Gen 3:5-6), three motives attract the woman: “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom” (v.7).

First John 2:16 identifies these three as the paradigmatic temptations of “the world”: “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life” (literal translation).

Her husband follows her. From the beginning, the “sin of Adam” is not merely that of an isolated individual, but is intertwined with that of a human community that has first entertained temptation, then accepted the disobedience of others without objection, then chosen to disregard God’s word.

Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness in Matthew 4:1-11 confronts the second Adam with the same three allurements.  Jesus is tempted to satisfy physical appetite at the expense of spiritual nourishment (the desire of the flesh), to glorify himself by an act of presumption (the pride of life), and to enrich himself through false worship with “the kingdoms of the world and their magnificence” (the desire of the eyes).

In each case, rather than yield to the deceptive attraction of temptation, the second Adam responds with words from Scripture that express God’s will, a will he has embraced and refuses to transgress.  Although the wilderness temptations occur after his baptism and before his ministry begins, they stand for all the particular temptations that occur in Jesus’ life.  Jesus’ obedience in the wilderness and above all at the cross (Phil 3:5) is the means by which he saves us.

St. Paul sums up the difference between Adam and Christ in the last verse of the second reading, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19).  The difference is obedience.

Romans 6 and 8 explain how what Jesus has done becomes effective for all.  The first few verses of Romans 6 explain how through baptism “our old self”—literally, our “old man,” Adam, “was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom 6:6).  Romans 8:1-13 explains the role of the “Spirit of Christ” (v. 9) in our living a life that is liberated from the power of sin.

Christ has recapitulated (repeated and summed up in himself) and redeemed the choices of our first parents; he has  empowered us to recapitulate, to imitate, his life of obedience.

Just as Jesus fasted, prayed, and fed on God’s words so that he knew what to say and do when temptation came, so let us fast, and pray and feed on God’s word this Lent.

O Christ our head, second Adam from above, help us to follow you in the path of obedience.  Help us by your Spirit to put off the old self, the nature we inherited from our first parents, and to put on the new self (Eph 4:22-24; Col 3:9-10), your nature which is ours through faith and baptism.  Let us love God’s words and obey them just as you loved and kept your Father’s word.  Amen!

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Reflecting on the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent

From The Gospel of Matthew by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 4:1-11:

The triumph of Jesus in the wilderness is much more than a personal victory. It is also a triumph for the people of God. In part, this is because Jesus overcomes temptation with his human will. He could have vanquished the tempter with his divine might, but this was not his chosen approach. Instead, Jesus faced his trial in a human way, in full solidarity with humanity. He never ceased to be the Son of God, and yet he won the battle as a man. . . . This has practical implications for Christian discipleship. One is that Jesus gives us an example to follow, in order that we may succeed as he did. . . . A second implication is that Jesus can empower us to remain faithful in times of testing.

© 2010 Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.
 

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Jesus of Nazareth Part II

The fact that Benedict XVI has spent what little time he can squeeze out of his papal schedule continuing work on his three-volume Jesus of Nazareth indicates the tremendous importance he attributes to the renewal of theology, and in particular, biblical theology.

The second volume of Jesus of Nazareth, covering the events of Holy Week, will be released tomorrow, March 10. (The pope is already working on the third volume, a “prequel” covering the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke.) I have read the preview copy of volume 2 sent to me by the publisher, and it is as theologically rich and insightful as the first volume.

It seems to me that Benedict’s deepest goal is to provide a model of what biblical theology can look like when the tools of modern scholarship are integrated with faith in Scripture as a living word from God. The pope is seeking to reunite what has long been split apart—Scripture and theology, biblical exegesis and Christian faith. He is not afraid to do things that are considered taboo in some biblical circles:

  • He synthesizes reflections based on each of the four gospels (and even Paul) into a single coherent whole rather than only looking at, say, the christology of Mark or the christology of John.
  • He interprets Scripture from within the living tradition of the Church, rather than as a supposedly neutral bystander.
  • He holds that the real, historical Jesus is none other than the Jesus of the gospels.
  • He takes as the purpose of his biblical investigations that both he and his readers might encounter Jesus and grow in friendship with him.

Yet at the same time the pope takes very seriously questions of history and the gradual development in the early church’s understanding. The result is a reflection in which each detail of the passion accounts opens up unexpected depths; each detail interconnects with the whole mystery of Jesus’ identity and messianic mission. Even the differences in perspectives among the evangelists only bring out the figure of Jesus in clearer relief.

Benedict’s book is totally unprecedented in that he writes as pope, yet truly wants to be read as a theologian whose contribution is evaluated and even critiqued by fellow theologians. In the foreword to the first volume he stated, “this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me.”

Following are my own reflections on one of the sections that can be discussed before the book is released tomorrow. I’ll post more later.

When was the Last Supper?

The pope goes into some depth on this subject that has been a matter of controversy ever since the patristic era, since there are apparent contradictions in the Gospel accounts. (For a good succinct summary, see the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, p. 188.) The Synoptic Gospels indicate that the Last Supper was a Passover meal on the Thursday evening before Christ died (Mk 14:12-17). The Gospel of John, on the other hand, indicates that the Passover began on Friday evening that year, which implies that the Last Supper could not have been a Passover meal. Here, in brief, are the main solutions proposed:

  1. The Synoptic Gospels are historically accurate. John tweaks the details for the sake of theological symbolism: at the very hour the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the temple, Jesus, the true Lamb of God, died on the cross.
  2. John’s account is historically accurate. The Synoptics portray the Last Supper as a Passover meal although this was not historically the case.
  3. John is right in that the Passover was on Friday according to the official Jewish lunar calendar; however, the Essenes and perhaps other Jews used a different (solar) calendar, according to which the Passover was on Tuesday evening. Jesus celebrated the Passover on Tuesday according to this alternative calendar.
  4. John is accurate regarding the official Passover, but Jesus celebrated an anticipated Passover on Thursday evening (a day early), knowing that this would be his only chance to do so before he died.
  5. When read correctly, John is not actually saying that the Passover was on Friday evening. Rather, “eat the Passover” (18:28) refers to the feasting that would continue throughout the whole feast of Unleavened Bread, the “octave” of Passover, so to speak, which began on Thursday evening. And “day of preparation of the Passover” (19:14) means the Friday within Passover week. Therefore there is no contradiction between the Gospels, and the Last Supper was a Passover meal as indicated in the Synoptics.

After considering various proposals, the pope adopts the solution offered by John Meier, number 4 on the list above. He writes:

The answer given by Meier is astonishingly simple and in many respects convincing: Jesus knew that he was about to die. He knew that he would not be able to eat the Passover again. Fully aware of this, he invited his disciples to a Last Supper of a very special kind, one that followed no specific Jewish ritual but, rather, constituted his farewell; during the meal he gave them something new: he gave them himself as the true Lamb and thereby instituted his Passover….

One thing emerges clearly from the entire tradition: essentially, this farewell meal was not the old Passover, but the new one, which Jesus accomplished in this context. Even though the meal that Jesus shared with the Twelve was not a Passover meal according to the ritual prescriptions of Judaism, nevertheless, in retrospect, the inner connection of the whole event with Jesus’ death and Resurrection stood out clearly. It was Jesus’ Passover. And in this sense he both did and did not celebrate the Passover: the old rituals could not be carried out — when their time came, Jesus had already died. But he had given himself, and thus he had truly celebrated the Passover with them. The old was not abolished; it was simply brought to its full meaning

Without having studied the question in depth, I am more inclined to solution 5 on the list above. The idea of an anticipated Passover makes it difficult to explain, for instance, the question recorded in Mk 14:12, which assumes Jesus’ adherence to the official calendar: “And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the passover lamb, his disciples said to him, ‘Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the passover?’”

But the more important point is what the pope draws out of this discussion: Jesus’ paschal mystery as the interpretive key of all Scripture. At one and the same time Jesus fulfills all that belongs to the old covenant and yet brings a radical and unexpected newness. This Christ-centered understanding of Scripture was foundational the New Testament and most of Christian tradition, yet is rarely addressed in biblical scholarship today. With his careful biblical-theological work, Benedict has given that ancient conviction a new credibility.

If I have one complaint about the book it is that, very understandably, the pope takes as his interlocutors mainly German exegetes of his own generation. It would have been great to see him interact, for instance, with more recent British scholarship (for instance, N.T. Wright, Richard Bauckham, James Dunn, who tend to be less skeptical of the biblical accounts and have put forward some convincing new arguments for the historical reliability of the gospels). But no doubt Benedict had to interrupt his biblical studies to meet a few heads of state, appoint bishops, deal with abuse scandals, and try to revive the faith in historic Catholic countries like Spain. I for one am grateful that he found enough time to continue the work in biblical theology at which he is extraordinarily gifted.

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Feasting in Lent

Even though Lent is about to begin, many of us have not given much thought yet to what we’re going to give up for Lent. While fasting remains a pillar of Lenten observance, I would like to suggest that this Lent that you do some feasting as well.  I mean feasting on the word of God.

The Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent presents us with Jesus in the wilderness, resisting the devil’s temptation to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger.  Jesus answers: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Although Jesus abstained from food for forty days, he nourished himself on the word of God—in fact his words were a quotation from Deuteronomy 8:3.

Catholic are used to talking about receiving nourishment through the Holy Eucharist.  We are less accustomed to speaking about feeding on the words of Sacred Scripture, but it’s the faith of our Church: “The force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church,… the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life” (Dei Verbum 21).

Since he came to office, Pope Benedict has repeatedly urged Catholics to rediscover lectio divina, the prayerful reading of Scripture, most recently in his Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini.  He says if we do, he is confident “it will bring to the Church a new spiritual springtime.”

I recommend that every Catholic adopt the practice of feeding daily on Scripture this Lent.  Those who do are likely to make it a year-round and lifelong practice.  Why? Because I know of no other discipline that brings as much energy and strength to a person’s spiritual life.

I am a complete glutton for this kind of feasting.  I may even double my consumption of this food during Lent!

What Scriptures shall we read during Lent?  Of course, the daily Mass readings are great.  However, I would like to suggest a Scriptural course for your menu alongside the seasonal readings.

I suggest reading through a Gospel slowly, meditating on the life of Christ and on how Jesus is calling us to follow him.  I can think of no better way of deepening our discipleship.

In order to overcome the common problem of over-familiarity with the Gospel stories, I recommend reading them with the help of a commentary that can provide fresh insight into what we’re reading.

I especially recommend the brand new Gospel of Matthew by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri (apt for Year A) or the slightly shorter Gospel of Mark by Mary Healy of the Catholic Commentary.  Both provide the biblical text accompanied by very helpful and often inspiring explanation.  By reading only six or seven pages a day, perhaps fifteen minutes a day, one can read through an entire volume during Lent and come away with a much deeper understanding of the life of Jesus and of how he is calling us to follow him.

It’s important that people read at the pace they find most helpful for digesting God’s word.  For some, that will mean reading faster and for others more slowly.  If you “fall behind” in your reading, when Holy Week begins, skip ahead to read the final chapters describing Christ’s Passion.  Save the final chapter on the Resurrection for Easter Week.  Then go back and read the parts of Christ’s life you missed.

Questions for personal reflection or group discussion about the Catholic Commentary are available online as well as suggestions about using it for lectio divina.  For my personal reading of Scripture I personally prefer to ask myself a few simple questions:

  1. What is this passage saying about God?
  2. What is it telling me about human beings?
  3. What is this passage showing me about myself?
  4. What does the Lord want me to do about it?

As you decide how you are going to observe this holy season, the following words from Holy Father’s message for Lent 2011 may be helpful:

In order to undertake more seriously our journey towards Easter and prepare ourselves to celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord – the most joyous and solemn feast of the entire liturgical year – what could be more appropriate than allowing ourselves to be guided by the Word of God?

However, the Holy Spirit may leads you to on God’s Word this Lent, I only wish to add this: Bon appétit!

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Filed under Peter Williamson