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 firstname.lastname@example.org
MONDAY February 8th
1 Kings 8. 1 – 7, 9 – 13
The chapters missing since Saturday describe the Temple and Solomon’s palace. This dedication of the Temple marks a new era in Israel’s history. The final version of the Books of Kings was produced during the Exile, and so in a sense it is now downhill all the way.
Mark 6. 53 – 56
The word translated as “were healed” literally means “were saved.” It would have been understood primarily in the first sense, but the early Church would have been conscious of the second as well.
TUESDAY February 9th
1 Kings 8, 22f, 27 – 30
The reading omits the prayer for the dynasty with its key condition: “provided that your sons are careful how they behave”. Today’s reading is a summary of the faith of the Old Testament.
Mark 7. 1- 13
The carping of the Pharisees is in contrast to previous readings about the welcome by the people generally. “The tradition of the elders” included injunctions given by rabbis in addition to the requirements of the Torah. There were also laws which applied to the priestly caste which the Pharisees wanted to apply to all Jews, to create an awareness of them as a priestly people. It is a tendency to which the Church has not been entirely immune. The overall impression is that Jesus is the authoritative interpreter of the Law.
LENT: ASH WEDNESDAY + 3
Joel 2. 12 – 18
The prophet focuses on Temple worship but emphasises that the cult is no substitute for personal conversion. God cannot be manipulated by sacrifices but responds to sincere repentance.
There is an apparent contrast between the teaching of Joel and the way it is commonly interpreted today. For Joel repentance is very much a communal action, a plea for God’s mercy towards his people; the modern take is largely on the individual, neglecting the teaching of Vatican II on the unity of the Church. We could well be motivated by seeing our Lenten discipline in a more communal way.
2 Cor 5. 20 – 6.2
That Christ should be made sin for us is a startling expression: the New Jerusalem Bible attempts to dilute it by the expression “victim (sacrifice) for sin” with all the baggage that the phrase brings with it in the history of the doctrine of atonement. But the original expresses the teaching of Christ’s solidarity with humanity especially in our fallen state.
The day of salvation was seen as the intermediary period between Christ’s coming and his return, a time allowed for conversion.
Matthew 6. 1 – 6, 16 – 18
The reading omits the Lord’s prayer. Although as it stands, the Gospel reading seems to refer to the private almsgiving, prayer and fasting of individuals, it has to be remembered that it comes from the sermon on the mount, addressed to the crowd of disciples. Out of habit it is easy enough to read it in terms of the individual; an effort of the imagination is needed to see Our Lord’s teaching as referring first to the community, and secondly to the practice of its individual members.
Deuteronomy 30. 15 – 20
The two ways.
Our Lord takes the teaching on the two ways to its extreme.
Isaiah 58. 1 – 9
The pre-exilic prophets also exposed the uselessness of outward cultic observance without the practice of justice; the consequence of this is rejection by God. Trito-Isaiah, on the other hand, here celebrates the triumph of God’s righteousness. He centres on fasting. The only fast required by the Law (Leviticus 16) was Yom Kippur although fasting on other occasions and for other reasons became accepted and so it was important to emphasise the associated practice of justice.
Matthew 9. 14f
One key motive for fasting as it was understood by the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees was that their devotion would hasten the Day of the Lord (NJB). For us, fasting cannot have this aim. Now it is a means of opening ourselves to the presence of the risen Christ. It is worth remembering that the Lent fast (whatever form it takes) is not necessary on Sundays. The association with justice, of course, remains and is certainly not seasonal.
Isaiah 58. 9 – 14
This continues from yesterday, with its promise not of condemnation but of fulfilment.
Luke 5. 27 – 32
A striking example of the benefit of combining the first reading and the Gospel. Luke keeps the order of events given in the other synoptic Gospels (although the lectionary compilers with good reason have reversed yesterday’s and today’s readings), but Luke emphases Levi’s “great reception” and the extent of his conversion: “leaving everything.” At this stage of Lent the two elements of on-going conversion and triumph through union with Christ are far more important than the caricature of Lent as a period of self-denial for its own sake.
MONDAY February 15th
Leviticus 19. 1f, 11 – 18
This passage comes nearly half-way through a long section known since the 19th century as the Law of Holiness. Almost hidden by the collection of precepts is the key expression, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (v 18). It is clear from the context that this refers to fellow-Israelites. Whether a neighbour is to be interpreted in this narrow sense or in the broader was not settled. The interpretation of Our Lord, of course, is clear.
Matthew 25. 31 – 46
Although this is commonly referred to as the parable of the sheep and the goats, the only part of it which is a parable is the reference to the sheep and the goats; the rest of the passage is apocalyptic.
While St Paul teaches the covenant of unconditional divine commitment, this passage represents the covenant as it is presented by Deuteronomy, involving the response of human obligation (NJBC). Because of this, some have questioned whether it came from Our Lord or from an early Jewish-Christian community. (The other synoptics do not use it.) Either way, it is addressed to Christians, and identifies discipleship as care of the needy.
TUESDAY February 16th
Isaiah 55. 10f
These two verses come in the context of Isaiah’s call to accept God’s covenant. God’s word is personified as active, coming down and achieving the divine will. The passage provides a vivid background for the Gospel teaching on prayer.
Matthew 6. 7 – 15
An expansion of Luke’s version which is more likely to be original. De Caussade cited the businessman with a family whose spiritual life consisted solely of saying the Our Father once a day, slowly. That was what God wanted of him, and he delivered, which put him as near to the vision of God as the nuns who spent the entire day praying, said DC.
WEDNESDAY February 17th
Jonah 3. 1 – 10
The power of Jonah’s preaching. Preaching to the Gentiles was a shade questionable in the Jewish tradition; far more appealing was the time in the belly of the whale, picked up by Matthew and ignored by Luke.
Luke 11. 29 – 32
Luke insists on hearing and keeping God’s word proclaimed by Jesus (NJBC). The real sign here is Our Lord’s preaching.
Esther 4. 17 (check odd numbering in NJB)
The power of prayer.
Matthew 7. 7 – 12
The perennial question of how prayer is answered. For St Luke the answer is that God gives his Holy Spirit; this may be Luke’s way of spiritualising Our Lord’s promise in case it is taken in too materialistic a way. What Our Lord insists on is the need to pray: given that underlying all Christian prayer is “Thy will be done”, the specific result of prayer is not necessarily what is asked for, but it will ultimately be for our good.
The golden rule was well known but often in its negative form (the “Silver rule”): Do not do to another what you would not have done to yourself. The positive form … is considerably more demanding (NJBC).
Ezekiel 18. 21 – 28
The background is Ezekiel’s strong interest in individual responsibility. He is writing for the exiles who now have to take the Torah on without having a territory or even a community that can collectively be held responsible for practising the Law (NJBC).
Matthew 5. 20 – 26
The basic principle is in keeping with the prophets: ethics has priority over worship. The Pharisees too followed this principle but lost the picture through over-regulation. The sin of anger is particularly important because of the place of reconciliation in the Gospel. The first reading is relevant because anger can be an invisible, private matter.
Deuteronomy 26. 16 – 19
This is the end of Deut chs 12 to 26, the Deuteronomic Code, basically the Law discovered in the Temple under Josiah, intended to replace the old Code of the Covenant.
Matthew 5. 43 – 48
The NJB mentions that the Qumran scrolls show a detestation of sinners which amounts almost to hatred. There is of course nothing in the Law which enjoins hatred of enemies.
Loving one’s enemy is given here not as disinterested idealism but a means of winning him or her over.
Be perfect …… Deut 18.13 gives “blameless”, Levi 19.2 has “holy” and Luke 6.36 “merciful.” Greek thought held that perfection was conforming to the divine ideal; Qumran refers to it as complete observation of the Law; Luke emphasises covenant fidelity and steadfast love. Any or all of these characteristics could be in Matthew’s use of the word (NJBC).