Short background notes based on the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (NJBC) and the footnotes of the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB), primarily meant for this parish. Not intended as instant sermonettes, simply starting points for a brief explanation of the readings at weekday Mass. Disagreement may be more useful. Contact email@example.com
Week 17 cycle 1
Exodus 32. 15 – 24, 30 – 34
Easy enough to identify worship of the golden calf with paganism, but probably not so simple. A young bull was a symbol of divinity in parts of the ancient world – here, it may have been a symbol of the presence of Yahweh instead of the ark, and been the sign of a movement against Moses’ leadership. The lectionary omits Moses’ slaughter of his enemies. In any case, the reading is a reminder of the dangers of factionalism among the people of God. It is worth mentioning today that this incident is important not for its own sake but as a preliminary to the re-making of the covenant.
Matthew 13. 31 – 35
Two parables of the kingdom coming about from invisible beginnings, moving from the insignificant to all-embracing grandeur. In the last two verses St Matthew says that “Jesus is privy to the divine mind” (NJBC).
Exodus 33. 7 – 11; 34. 5 – 9, 28
The first paragraph makes the point that God dwells with his people. The friendliness between Yahweh and Moses is what might be called incarnational, in contrast to dreams or sacred lots.
The interpretation of the parable of the weeds. The kingdom (hence the Church) is a mixed body and so patience is needed, judgement is to be left to God. On the other hand it seems unlikely that Our Lord envisaged total passivity: the point is that any weeding should not damage the good crop. (Reform is part of the life of the Church.) The parables illustrate rather than define. .
Exodus 34. 29 – 35
Continuing the description of Moses as intermediary with God. This part of the tradition holds that to be in the presence of God is to receive his light – Moses as intermediary with God. By itself this incident has no great significance. For the Church it is a key part of the preparation of the people of God for the transfiguration: Christ as the true mediator.
Matthew 13. 44 – 46
Parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl, unique to Matthew. It is possible that the point is the value of the treasure or the pearl, but it is more likely (NJBC) that it is about the level of commitment needed for the kingdom of God. The joy of the man who bought the field with hidden treasure: a chance of a lifetime.
Exodus 40. 16 – 21, 34 – 38
After the chapters omitted which describe the fulfilment of commands given earlier about the worship in the sanctuary, totally unreal given the position of the Israelites in the wilderness, we move on towards the promised land. A strong reminder that the people of God are on a pilgrimage; the end is the vision of God.
Matthew 13. 47 –53
Parable of the dragnet. Also unique to Matthew, but with the same message as the parable of the field with weeds. Understanding the parables: in Matthew this is the sign of a good disciple (contrast the failure to understand in Mark 8. 17 – 21).
The mini-parable of the householder who brings out things old and new: traditionally this was read as the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus, but it also sounds like an invitation to innovate. NJCB says that Matthew distinguishes between the unchanging substance of moral law, and the possibility of restating it in more understandable terms.
Leviticus 23. 1, 4 – 11, 15f, 27, 34 – 37
This selection of precepts concerning liturgical feasts, probably compiled after the Exile, is interesting because of their origins but important because it points us towards our communal self-offering to God and recognition of our dependence on him. This is a world away from an emphasis on liturgy for purposes of spiritual uplift, the much-proclaimed aim of the literalism of the English translation of the Mass, the product of the biretta brigade (known in one religious house in London as the Taliban).
Matthew 13. 54 – 58
The rejection of Jesus in his home country. This begins a series of moments when Jesus refers the cross and predicts his passion. Matthew changes Mark’s “the” synagogue to “their” synagogue, which suggests a split with the Jewish-Christian communities, and Mark’s “could” not work many miracles to “did” not do that.
SATURDAY 1st August
Leviticus 25. 1, 8 – 17
The year of Jubilee – liturgy linked to social justice, a recurring theme of the prophets.
Matthew 14. 1 – 12
The beheading of John the Baptist. Matthew shortens and changes the details of Mark’s account, e.g. Herod fears the people. The most significant change is that John’s disciples turn to Jesus.
Week 18 cycle 1
The main emphasis of the book of Numbers (in Hebrew entitled “In the wilderness”) is that God dwells among his people. It was probably a collection of traditions about the worship of Israel which focused on the Temple worship which was the means of atonement for sin, the unworthiness of the people to have God so close to them. The wilderness is the place of pilgrimage, which is a figure of our lives.
Although Matthew is said to emphasise the Jewish aspects of Our Lord’s mission, this is not exclusivity. This week’s readings include the understanding of the true restoration of Israel, through whom the races are to be united
MONDAY 27th July
Numbers 11. 4 – 15
The people complain. Here Moses speaks for the people rather than for God.
Matthew 14. 13 - 21 (2011: This and Tuesday’s reading have to be change: Sunday’s Gospel)
The feeding of the five thousand. Two points: first, unlike Mark, Matthew mentions women and children, which takes the numbers to an extraordinary level. Secondly, this is clearly a miracle that has nothing to do with healing, but one which is achieved for the people. it is the people of Israel – hence the twelve baskets of scraps. In ch 15 Matthew gives the doublet, the feeding of the four thousand (not included in the lectionary), and which ends with seven baskets of scraps. The tradition was that there were seven nations of Canaan; and then there were the seven original deacons. Hence seven may well stand for the Gentile mission.
There is also of course the reference to the feeding of the Israelites in the wilderness (which is the reading from Numbers 11 in year 1), and a preparation for the Eucharist.
Matthew 14. 22 – 36
Peter in the storm. See tomorrow's Gospel.
TUESDAY 28th July
Numbers 12. 1 – 13
The rebellion of Aaron and Miriam. Miriam herself was a prophetess. Moses, in contrast to his siblings, was humble. The plural is used for the humble of the land, the seekers of God, sometimes in contrast to the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Insofar that we have a demonstration of human fallibility within the people of God, this incident reminds us of ecclesia semper reformanda.
Matthew 14. 22 – 36
Peter in the storm. The second sentence refers to Our Lord praying alone, the most basic reason for private prayer.
The storm. In Canaanite myth and the Old Testament God overcomes the waves of death. Jesus shares in the divine power to save (NJBC). St Mark’s version describes the disciples as failing to understand. This episode anticipates St Peter’s later confession of faith.
Matthew 15. 1f, 10 - 14
Hand-washing and qorban were oral traditions of the Pharisees, not in the Law. Matthew’s account makes the point that moral impurity is more significant than legal impurity. The teaching of the Pharisees is no longer to be followed. Again, with the abuses in the Middle Ages, the 19th century arguments for the temporal power of the papacy, and the problems with some Vatican officials today, this is relevant for the Church.
WEDNESDAY 29th July
Numbers 13. 1 – 2, 25 – 14. 1, 26 – 29, 34f
Excerpts. After the wailing the people planned to reject Moses and go back to Egypt. Their rebellion is omitted from the reading, inferring that their crime was simply a loss of nerve in the face of their daunting task, but this makes nonsense of God’s anger.
The faith of the Canaanite woman. Matthew changes the focal point of this incident from Mark’s report of it as a miracle to the woman’s faith. Matthew uses the archaic Biblical term “Canaanite” and removes Mark’s reference to her as a Gentile (Hellenis): the woman’s faith makes sense as a pointer to the restoration of Israel. When she came to Jesus she was an outsider: a woman on her own in a man’s world, and not Jewish. Her faith brings her into the community of the faithful. (Rite of reception into the Church: “What do you ask of God’s Church?” “Faith.”)
THURSDAY 30th July
Numbers 20. 1 – 13
The episode which gave rise to Ps 95, commonly used as the introductory psalm in the breviary. The exact nature of Moses’ and Aaron’s offence is not clear: the point is that they would share the fate of the Israelites who were to die before they entered the promised land.
Matthew 16. 13 – 23
Peter’s confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi. The lectionary has skipped the healing of people who “praised the God of Israel”, which implies that they were Gentiles, and the feeding of the four thousand (see above, Monday). The omitted parts of ch 16 concern the Pharisees.
It is only Matthew who uses the term, “the Son of Man” rather than men or the crowd. He also refers to Jeremiah whose rejection and suffering points towards that of the Messiah. And only Matthew includes in Peter’s response, “the Son of the living God.”
The significance of the commissioning of Peter is not as simple as ultramontanists may wish. In the Gospel of Thomas, the key role is given to James, the leader of the Jewish Christians. For the early Gentile Christians, Paul would have been the preferred candidate. Peter would therefore represent a compromise.
The Church, of course, is the assembly of the faithful, rather than simply the hierarchy. The Church exists to mediate salvation between the ministry of Jesus and the future coming of the Kingdom (Rite of Initiation: “what does faith give you?” “Eternal life”); later (next Wednesday) the power of binding and loosing is given to the community.
After these caveats, Peter is given here enormous authority. He is the foundation rock on which is built the Church, with Christ the cornerstone (Eph 2.20), and the one to whom the revelation has been given. He is also spokesman for the disciples, thus for the Church.
This part of today’s Gospel is particularly important for the recovery of the Petrine office for the unity of the Church, to counter-balance an excessive emphasis on authority.
“From that time” indicates a break between Peter’s confession of faith and the prediction of the Passion; there is no break in Mark or Luke. The rebuke: there is clear distinction between Peter speaking for the disciples and his personal response.
FRIDAY 31st July
Deuteronomy 4. 32 – 40
The first clear statement of monotheism: that “Yahweh is the true God and that there is no other.”
The conditions of discipleship. Only Matthew restricts this saying to the disciples. It is the Church that is called to bear witness and whatever the cost. The reference to crucifixion is not to Our Lord’s - it was a fairly common punishment, and crucifixion was shorthand for suffering and pain. The phrase “save his life” refers to avoiding martyrdom, just as “gaining the world” most probably refers to acquiring wealth.
SATURDAY 1st August
Deuteronomy 6. 4 – 13
Not exactly repeating yesterday’s affirmation of monotheism as a creed, but the command to love Yahweh exclusively. What this entails has already been spelled out in the previous omitted verses: to fear him and keep his commandments.
The healing of the possessed child. (The omitted section is the Transfiguration.) In the New Jerusalem Bible the term is lunatic; in the Greek, moonstruck, both actually meaning epileptic. An instruction to the disciples on the power of a trusting faith.