This Sunday's Gospel

Exegetical notes and homily themes to get you started this weekend:

9/2/18 – Sunday 22 / Pentecost 15
9/9/18 – Sunday 23 / Pentecost 16
9/16/18 – Sunday 24 / Pentecost 17
9/23/18 – Sunday 25 / Pentecost 18
9/30/18 – Sunday 26 / Pentecost 19

10/7/18 – Sunday 27 / Pentecost 20
10/14/18 – Sunday 28 / Pentecost 21
10/21/18 – Sunday 29 / Pentecost 22
10/28/18 – Sunday 30 / Pentecost 23


September 2 – 22nd Sunday of the Year / 15th Sunday after Pentecost  [PROPER 17]

“For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come . . . ”
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

THE WORD:

Today’s Gospel returns to Mark’s story of the Christ event with a confrontation that Mark’s first Christian readers knew all too well.  A contentious debate raged in the early Church as to whether Christians should continue to observe the practices of Judaism.  Jesus challenges the scribes’ insistence that faithfulness to ceremonial washings and other rituals constitutes complete faithfulness to the will of God.  He scandalizes his hearers by proclaiming “nothing that enters a man from outside can make him impure; that which comes out of him, and only that, constitutes impurity.”  It is the good that one does motivated by the spirit of the heart that is important in the eyes of God, not how scrupulously one keeps the laws and rituals mandated by tradition.

Through the centuries of Judaism, the scribes had constructed a rigid maze of definitions, admonitions, principles and laws to explain the Pentateuch (summarized in Moses’ eloquent words to the nation of Israel in today’s first reading).  As a result, the ethics of religion were often buried under a mountain of rules and taboos.  Jesus’ teachings re-focus the canons of Israel on the original covenant based on the wisdom and discernment of the human heart.  Such a challenge widens the growing gulf between Jesus and the Jewish establishment.

HOMILY NOTES:

Faith begins with encountering God in our hearts; our faith is expressed in the good that we do and the praise we offer in the depths of our hearts, not simply in words and rituals performed "outside" of ourselves.

The kind of human being we are begins in the values of the heart, the place where God dwells within — but the evil we are capable of, the hurt we inflict on others, the degrading of the world that God created also begins “within,” when God is displaced by selfishness, greed, anger, hatred.

In the hurts, indignities and injustices perpetrated against us, what is often worse than the act itself is what the act does do us as persons: we respond with suspicion, cynicism, self-absorption, anger, vengeance.  To be a disciple of Jesus is not to let those things “outside” us diminish what we are “inside” ourselves, not to let such anger or vengeance displace the things of God in our hearts but to let God’s presence transform the evil that we have encountered into compassion and forgiveness.  

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September 9 – 23rd Sunday of the Year / 16th Sunday of the Year [PROPER 18]

They brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him.  He took him off by himself away from the crowd.  Jesus put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; he then looked up to heaven and groaned, and to him “Ephphatha” – that is “Be opened.”
Mark 7: 31-37

THE WORD:

Ephphatha “Be opened!”

Isaiah’s vision of a Messiah who would come with hope and healing (today’s first reading) is realized in this episode from Mark’s Gospel: the deaf hear, the silent are given voice, the lame “leap like a stag.”  The exhortation Ephphatha! is not only addressed to the man born deaf but to his disciples both then and now who fail to hear and see and speak the presence of God in their very midst.

The Aramaic phrase ephphatha literally means “be released” – Jesus “releases” the man not only from his disability but from his sins, his isolation from the community, his alienation from God.

Jesus’ curing of the deaf man with spittle (which, in Jesus’ time, was considered curative) is an act of re-creation.  God’s reign is present in human history in the extraordinary ministry of Jesus.  Throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus insists that his healings be kept quiet in order that his full identity be revealed and understood only in the light of his cross and resurrection.

HOMILY THEMES:

Jesus restores the deaf man’s hearing with the word Ephphatha – “Be opened!”  We, too, can bring healing and life to those who need the support, the affirmation, the sense of loving and being loved that the simple act of listening can give.

In times of grief, despair and failure, we can be “deaf” to the presence of God in the love and compassion of others; or we can become so preoccupied with the noise and clamor of the marketplace that we are unable to hear the voices of those we love and who love us.

Jesus not just cures the man with a fleeting word but, by his touch, he enters into the grit and grime, the struggle and pain of the man’s life and, in doing so, brings hope and healing to the man.

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September 16 – 24th Sunday of the Year / 17th Sunday after Pentecost [PROPER 19]

Along the way Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?”  Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Christ . . . ”
Jesus turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan.  You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Mark 8: 27-35

THE WORD:

In today’s Gospel, Peter is a model of vacillating faith – a model that mirrors our own reaction to the call to discipleship.

Caesar Philippi was a bazaar of worship places and temples, with altars erected to every concept of the divinity from the gods of Greece to the godhead of Caesar.  Amid this marketplace of gods, Jesus asks Peter and the Twelve, “Who do people say that I am? . . . Who do you say that I am?”  This is a turning point in Mark's Gospel:  Until now, Mark's Jesus has been reluctant to have people believe in him only because of his miracles.  Jesus talks, for the first time in Mark’s Gospel, about dark things ahead: rejection, suffering, death and resurrection (concepts that the disciples are unable to grasp).

In this incident (recorded by all three synoptics), Peter immediately confesses his faith in Jesus as the Messiah – the Messiah of victory and salvation.  But when Jesus begins to speak of a Messiah who will suffer rejection and death, Peter objects.  Peter’s reaction is ours, as well:  We prefer to follow the popular, happy Jesus, the healing and comforting Jesus – but we back away from the suffering, humble, unsettling Jesus of the cross.

HOMILY NOTES:

Every moment we live, every decision and choice we make, every good thing we do is our most revealing and telling response to the question, Who do you say I am?   Our love for family and friends, our commitment to the highest moral and ethical standards, our willingness to take the first step toward reconciliation and forgiveness are, ultimately, our true confession of faith in Jesus Christ as the Love and Word of God incarnate.

Only in “denying ourselves” in order to imitate the servanthood of Christ do we experience the true depth of our faith; only in embracing his compassion and humility in our lives do we enable the Spirit of God to renew and transform our world in God’s life and love.  

We cannot belong to the company of Jesus unless we embrace the Crucified One’s spirit of selfless servanthood; we cannot stand with the Crucified Jesus unless we unconditionally and completely love and forgive others as he did; we cannot hope to share in the victory of the Risen Christ unless we “crucify” our fears, self-consciousness and prejudices that blind us from seeing him in the faces of every human being.

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September 23 – 25th Sunday of the Year / 18th Sunday after Pentecost [PROPER 20]

“If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all . . .
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”
Mark 9: 30-37

THE WORD:

Different hopes and expectations of the long awaited “age of the Messiah” collide in today's Gospel.

A somber Jesus speaks cryptically of what awaits him in Jerusalem, while those closest to him argue about their own greatness and status in the Messiah’s reign (that must have been quite a conversation to elicit the strong reaction it did from Jesus!).  The disciples, long resigned to their people’s humiliation and subjugation, dream of a kingdom of power and influence in which ambition is exalted; Jesus explains to them (yet again) that the Messiah’s reign will be a kingdom of spirit and conversion in which humble service to others is exalted.

Jesus articulates the great paradox of discipleship:  Do you wish to be first?  Then become last.  Do you seek to attain greatness?  Then become small.  Do you want to be masters?  Then become the servants of those you wish to rule.

To emphasize the point, Jesus picks up a little child and places the child in the midst of these would-be rulers and influence peddlers.  A child has no influence in the affairs of society nor offers anything to adults in terms of career advancement or prestige enhancement; just the opposite is true: a child needs everything.  To be “great” in the reign of God, Jesus says, one must become the “servant” of the “child,” the poor, the needy, the lost.

HOMILY POINTS:           

For the disciples of Jesus, every child represents the vulnerabilities, fears, and doubts that every one of us experiences in our lives; every child mirrors Jesus’ call to us in baptism to take up his work of reaching out to those overwhelmed by pain, anxiety and hopelessness. 

In their simple joy and wonder of the world they are constantly discovering, in their ready acceptance of our love, in their total dependence on us for their nurturing and growth, children are the ideal teachers of the Spirit of humble servanthood and constant thanksgiving that Jesus asks of those who would be his followers.

To put another’s hopes and dreams ahead of one’s own, to bring forth and affirm the gifts of others for no other reason than the common good, to seek reconciliation at all costs is to be the “servant” Christ speaks of in today's Gospel.

The poorest and neediest, the forgotten and the rejected, the “least” and the “lowliest” – represented by the child in today’s Gospel – are signs of God’s grace in our midst.

“Child-like faith” is never dissuaded or discouraged, never becomes cynical or jaded, never ceases to be amazed and grateful for the many ways God reveals his presence in our lives.  The power of such “simple faith” is its ability to overcome every rationalization, fear, complication and agenda in order to mirror the selflessness of Christ Jesus.

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September 30 – 26th Sunday of the Year / 19th Sunday after Pentecost [PROPER 21]

“Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”
Mark 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48

THE WORD:

As we have seen throughout Mark’s Gospel, the people of Jesus’ time held great stock in the existence of demons: whatever mental illness or physical infirmity they could not understand was caused by some “demon.”  It was also the belief that a demon could be exorcised if one could invoke the name of a still more powerful spirit to order the evil and unclean spirit out of a person.

John tried to stop someone who seemed to be cashing in on Jesus’ growing reputation as a healer by invoking Jesus' name to cast out a demon.  John’s concern, at first reading, appears to have some merit – but recall the on-going battle among the disciples as to who is the greatest among them.  Jesus responds, therefore, by condemning his followers’ jealousy and intolerance, warning against an elitist view of discipleship that diminishes the good done by those we consider “outsiders.”

Today's Gospel selection includes Jesus’ exhortation that it is better lose one’s limb if it leads one to sin.  Two notes about these final verses:

The “millstone” Jesus speaks of is the large piece of stone that is turned by a pack animal to grind grain.  Drowning a criminal by tying him to one of these large heavy stones was a method of execution in Rome and Palestine.

Gehenna was a vile place in Jewish history.  The young King Ahaz (2 Chronicles 38: 3) practiced child immolation to the “fire god” at Gehenna.  In Jesus’ time, Gehenna, a ravine outside Jerusalem, served as the city’s refuse site.  Gehenna became synonymous with our concept of hell for the Jews.

HOMILY POINTS:

Jesus promises us that even the simplest act of love or kindness – the Gospel “cup of water – will one day be honored by God.  Anyone and everyone in need have a claim on our compassion and charity because they belong to Christ.  In whatever opportunities we have, with whomever we meet and are able to help, may we not hesitate to act in Jesus’ name.  

To share our faith with our children is both a great joy and great responsibility of that faith.  Anyone and everyone in some kind of trouble or need have a claim on our compassion and charity because they are dear to Christ. 

Discipleship begins with a spirit of humble gratitude to God for the gift of our lives that trumps our disappointments, regrets and anger over the things that have not turned out as we hope.

Despite his rather harsh images of “cutting off” and “plucking out,” Jesus calls us to realize that discipleship means letting nothing — nothing! — detach or derail us in our search for the things of God, not allowing the pursuit of prestige, wealth, social status or immediate gratification to desensitize us to the presence of God in our lives or diminish the love of God we cherish in family and friends.
  
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October 7 – 27th Sunday of the Year / 20th Sunday after Pentecost [PROPER 22]

“Because of the hardness of your hearts [Moses] wrote this commandment.  But
from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.  For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.  So they are no longer two but one flesh.”
“Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”
Mark 10: 2-16

THE WORD:

The question of divorce was among the most divisive issues in Jewish society.  The Book of Deuteronomy (24: 1) stipulated that a husband could divorce his wife for “some indecency.” Interpretations of exactly what constituted “indecency” varied greatly, ranging from adultery to accidentally burning the evening meal.  Further, the wife was regarded under the Law as the husband’s chattel, with neither legal right to protection nor recourse to seeking a divorce on her own.  In Biblical times, there was little appreciation of love and commitment in marriage –
marriages were always arranged in the husband’s favor, the husband could divorce his wife for just about any reason, the woman was treated little better than property.  Divorce, then, was tragically common among the Jews of Jesus’ time.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus cites the Genesis account of the creation of man and woman (today’s first reading) to emphasize that husband and wife are equal partners in the covenant of marriage (“the two become one body”).  The language of Genesis indicates that the Creator intends for the marriage union to possess the same special covenantal nature as God’s covenant with Israel.  Jesus again appeals to the spiritof the Law rather than arguing legalities:  It is the nature of their marriage covenant that husband and wife owe to one another total and complete love and mutual respect in sharing responsibility for making their marriage succeed.

Today’s Gospel reading also includes Mark’s story of Jesus’ welcoming the little children.  Again, Jesus holds up the model of a child’s simplicity and humility as the model for the servant-disciple.

HOMILY POINTS:

Jesus appeals to his followers to embrace the Spirit of love that is the basis of God’s “law” – that we are called to act out a sense of the compassion and justice of God rather than fulfilling legalisms and detached rituals.

Marriage is more than a legal contract between two “parties” but a sacrament – a living sign of God’s presence and grace in our midst, the manifestation of the love of God, a love that knows neither condition nor limit in its ability to give and forgive.

A child’s marvelous sense of wonder, inquisitiveness and simplicity that deflates adult “logic” and the “conventional wisdom” and make us look at the essence of our actions and our beliefs model for us how to respond in faith to Jesus' call to discipleship.

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October 14 – 28th Sunday of the Year / 21st Sunday after Pentecost [PROPER 23]

Jesus, looking at the rich young man, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing.  Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  At that statement, his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Mark 10: 17-30

THE WORD:

The young rich man in today’s Gospel is one of the most sympathetic characters in the Jesus story.  Clearly, Jesus’ teachings and healings have touched something in him, but his enthusiasm outdistances his commitment.  Assuring Jesus that he has kept the “you shall NOTS” of the Law, Jesus confronts the rich young man with the “you SHALLS” of the reign of God:  “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor.”

And, as Mark describes it, the man’s face fell and “he went away sad.”  He can’t bring himself to do it.  His faith is not strong enough to give up the treasure he possesses for the “treasure in heaven.”  The young man walks away, sad certainly, and perhaps feeling even somewhat disillusioned that his hero Jesus is not what he thought and hoped he would be.

Then Jesus, speaking to his disciples, turns another Jewish belief upside down.  Popular Jewish morality was simple: prosperity was a sign that one had found favor with God.  There was a definite “respectability” to being perceived as wealthy and rich (how little things have changed).  Great wealth, Jesus points out, is actually a hindrance to heaven:  Rich people tend to look at things in terms of price, of value, of the “bottom line.”  Jesus preaches detachment from things in order to become completely attached to the life and love of God.

Throughout the Gospel, Jesus points to the inadequacy of viewing religion as a series of codes and laws.  The young man was no different than his contemporaries in seeing one’s relationship with God as based on a series of negatives (“you shall not”).  Discipleship is not based on NOT doing and avoiding but on DOING and acting in the love of God.  Jesus calls us not to follow a code of conduct but, rather, to embrace the Spirit that gives meaning and purpose to the great commandment.

HOMILY POINTS:                  

To be a person of faith demands not simply a matter of avoiding what is bad (“you shall NOT”) but the much harder work of seeking out and embracing what is of God: mercy, justice, compassion, reconciliation (“you SHALL”).

Today’s Gospel challenges us to consider how we use wealth and the power it has in our lives.  Wealth should enable us to live life to the fullest; but too often what we have can weigh us down, preventing us from moving on with our lives — the prosperity that should enable our journey becomes more important than the journey itself. 

Wealth is seductive: what we consume can consume us – we can be swallowed up in our pursuit of wealth, prestige and power, becoming immune to the joy of the human experience.  Whatever we possess that inhibits us from embracing the love of God to the fullest is a curse, not a blessing.

Wealth should enable us to live life to the full, but too often what we have can weigh us down, preventing us from moving on with our lives — the prosperity that should enable our journey becomes more important than the journey itself. 

Jesus asks everything of us as the cost of being his disciple — but Jesus asks only what we have, not what we don’t have.  Each one of us possesses talents and resources, skills and assets that we have been given by God for the work of making the kingdom of God a reality in the here and now.  

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October 21 – 29th Sunday of the Year / 22nd Sunday after Pentecost  [PROPER 24]

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and asked, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”  Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.  Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized . . . ?
“You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt.  But it shall not be so among you.  Rather, whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”
Mark 10: 35-45

THE WORD:

In the Gospel reading a few weeks ago (just a chapter ago in Mark’s Gospel), Jesus admonished his disciples for their pointless argument among themselves as to who was the most important.  James and John apparently did not get the message. 

In today's Gospel account, the two sons of Zebedee – who, with Peter, make up Jesus’ inner circle – ask for the places of honor and influence when Jesus begins his reign.  James and John proclaim their willingness to “drink the cup” of suffering and share in the “bath” or “baptism” of pain Jesus will experience (the Greek word used is baptizein, meaning to immerse oneself in an event or situation).  Jesus finally tells them that the assigning of such honors is the prerogative of God the Father.

Most readers share the other disciples’ indignation at the incredible nerve of James and John to make such a request (Matthew, in his Gospel, casts the two brothers in a better light by having their mother make the request -- Matthew 20: 20.)  Jesus calls the disciples together to try again to make them understand that he calls them to greatness through service.  Jesus’ admonition to them is almost a pleading:  If you really understand me and what I am about, if you really want to be my disciple, if you really seek to be worthy of my name, then you must see the world differently and respond to its challenges with a very different set of values.  The world may try to justify vengeance rather than forgiveness, to glorify self-preservation over selflessness, to insist on preserving the system and convention for the sake of compassion and justice – but it cannot be that way with you.

HOMILY POINTS:

To be an authentic disciple of Jesus means to put ourselves in the humble, demanding role of servant to others, to intentionally seek the happiness and fulfillment of those we love regardless of the cost to ourselves.

Jesus’ admonition “It shall not be so among you” is perhaps the greatest challenge of the Gospel, calling us not to accept “business as usual,” not to accept injustice and estrangement as “the way things are,” not to justify our flexible morals and ethics with the mantra “everybody does it.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus poses the challenge:  Can you drink the cup I will drink?  Can you immerse yourself in my baptism?  Our first inclination is to say, No, Lord, we can’t.  It’s more than we can do.  What Jesus asks us to take on is not easy: his life of humble service, his emptying himself of his own needs and wants for the sake of others.  But there is also a promise here: that if we resolve to try to imitate Jesus’ compassion, if we seek what is right and good and just, if we are motivated by generosity of heart, then the grace of God’s wisdom and strength will be ours, the Spirit of God’s compassion and mercy will be upon us.  

Discipleship calls us to a sense of gratitude for what we have received from God and a commitment to servanthood, putting the lives God has given to us to the service of others, in imitation of his Christ. 

Authentic faith is centered in humility – humility that begins with valuing life as a gift from God, a gift we have received only through God’s mysterious love, not through anything we have done to deserve it. 

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October 28 – 30th Sunday of the Year / 23rd Sunday after Pentecost [PROPER 25] 

Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sat by the roadside begging.  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me . . . !”
“Master, I want to see.”
Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.”      
Mark 10: 46-52

THE WORD:

Mark’s story of the blind Bartimaeus, which takes place just before Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem, is as much a “call” story as a healing story.  For Mark, Bartimaeus is model of faith.  The blind beggar calls out to Jesus using the Messianic title “Son of David.”  He first asks, not for his sight, but for compassion:  He understands that this Jesus operates out of a spirit of love and compassion for humanity and places his faith in that spirit.  Ironically, the blind Bartimaeus “sees” in Jesus the spirit of compassionate service that, until now, his "seeing" disciples have been unable to comprehend.

HOMILY POINTS:

As Bartimaeus realizes, Christ comes to heal our spiritual and moral blindness and open our eyes to recognize the Spirit of God in every person and to discern the way of God in all things; he opens our eyes as well as hearts and spirits to new images of a world made whole by the grace of God, of lives transformed by the love of God.

As he restores to Bartimaeus not only physical sight but a sense of the reality of God’s love for him, Christ comes to restore our “sight” to see God’s sacred presence in our lives, to heal us of our blindness to the sins of selfishness and hatred we too easily explain away.

Our deepest prayer is the cry of the blind Bartimaeus:  “Master, I want to see”: to “see” with the human heart, to perceive in the spirit, to comprehend in the wisdom of God.  

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