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 13 Cycle 1
Genesis 18. 16 – 33
Two men leave to examine the state of things in Sodom but Yahweh stays with Abraham, and Abraham’s intercession for Sodom follows. Or that is how it is usually described. NJBC points out that he doesn’t actually intercede: he questions Yahweh to find if he is truly just and if the righteousness of a few can win pardon for the many wicked. Behind this dialogue is the belief in collective responsibility. Only with this background does the belief in individual responsibility emerge. It leads to the later belief that God would save Jerusalem if only one righteous person lived there (Jeremiah 5. 1 and Ezekiel 22.30) and from there came the belief in the suffering of the servant who would save the nation (Isaiah 53), fulfilled in Christ.
Which raises questions about state-sponsored violence and the acceptance of "collateral damage."
Matthew 8. 18 – 22
The significance of discipleship for Matthew develops throughout the Gospel. Just as the character of Jesus as prophet is present in the sermon on the mount, so here his demands on prospective disciples is emphasised by the parallel with Elijah's call to Elisha (1Kings 19.19 - 21). This is far greater than, say, of someone who wishes to follow a Pharisee. "Let the dead bury their dead" is a quite shocking exhortation to a devout Jew for whom the burial of the dead was a fundamental obligation.
Tuesday 30th June
Genesis 19. 15 – 29
The lectionary omits the danger to Lot and his family in Sodom and the role of the two angels, a story which should come well after the 9pm watershed. The foolish Lot and his wife are saved by the angels, but at the end of the reading there is the real reason for the rescue of Lot and his daughters: Lot’s closeness to Abraham, the just man and friend of God.
Matthew 8.23 – 27
The significance of the miracle is the divine power of Jesus, not simply over nature but over the powers of chaos and evil, which is how the sea was commonly seen, representing the struggle against God. Matthew changes the incident by putting Our Lord's remark to the disciples before the actual miracle, thus making the disciples' faith the central point. NJBC focuses on the importance of the miracle for the life of the Church in places where after a few generations the faith has grown weak: "you of little faith" rather than Mark's "have you still no faith?" St Matthew's version makes this applicable to the Church at any time.
Wednesday 1st July
Genesis 21. 5, 8 – 20
The birth of Isaac, the rejection of Hagar and their rescue. Sarah’s machinations may look discreditable but they reflect the workings of family power: Isaac’s survival is more important than anything else, and it appears to be threatened by Hagar and her son.
Matthew 8. 28 – 34
The key points for making sense of this miracle is that it occurs in Gentile territory (hence the swine which the Jews would not keep); and that in the period before the Incarnation the belief was that demons were free to trouble humanity until the end-time ("before the time"). Here is the power of God exercised among the Gentiles. The frightened response of the townspeople is not necessarily rejection of Jesus but an expression of confusion and fear, as well as their distress at losing a valuable herd. During the Roman persecutions Christianity was reviled for its disruptive claim that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Thursday 2nd July
Genesis 22. 1 – 19
Abraham is put to the test. At Mamre Abram argued; here he simply accepts the will of God in faith and trust, accepting Isaac entirely as the gift of God, thus showing himself to be the father of the nation.
Matthew 9. 1 – 8
In St Matthew's account of the Passion, it is blasphemy (emphasised by the high priest), as in this incident, which leads to the Crucifixion. Matthew focuses on the authority to forgive sins rather than simply Jesus' power to heal miraculously. Further, Matthew uses the plural for those empowered to forgive sins, the community (Matt 18.18) and perhaps the ministers of the Church.
Friday 3rd July
Genesis 23. 1 – 4, 19, 24. 1 – 8, 62 – 67
The way Abraham procured a burial site for Sarah is important. In the missing section the Hittites want to give it to him, but Abraham insists on buying it, making it legally his and not dependent on the goodwill of the Hittites. This is the beginning of the fulfilment of God’s promise of Canaan to him.
The significance of finding a wife for Isaac from the land of origin is that God’s promise of progeny is being fulfilled, again not with the help of the Canaanites.
For the later Israelites this was a message against alliances of convenience with neighbouring tribes. Even without the religious connotations, cooperation with countries with different outlooks, for example concerning democracy or human rights, is a current ethical and political problem.
Matthew 9. 9 – 13
Yesterday's reading involved the scribes; today's involves the Pharisees. The original purpose of the Pharisees was to restore the Jewish faith after the horror of Hellenisation, but by Our Lord's time the effect had been to marginalise people: Our Lord came to restore them. Matthew's change of the name from Levi to Matthew points to a late recording of the tradition.
Saturday 4th July
Genesis 27. 1 – 5, 15 – 29
Rebecca and Jacob trick Esau out of his heritage. The blessing is irrevocable because it conveys vitality.
Matthew 9. 14 – 17
Finally, a problem with the disciples of John the Baptist. Like the Pharisees, these disciples believed that fasting beyond the requirements of the Law would help to hasten the coming of the Day of the Lord. The rabbis regularly interpreted the bridegroom of the Song of Songs as God himself. Here it is clearly a figure for Christ. Matthew sees fasting as a sign of mourning, a proper activity in the period of tribulations between Jesus and the end of time.
The Greek words for patch and tear also mean fullness and schism; the end of today's reading suggests a hope of continuity between the two group of disciples, and fulfillment.
Week 14 Cycle 1
The first readings describes the end of the patriarchs, cutting large sections of genealogies and some of the more complicated parts.
The readings from Matthew continue the Messianic miracles and then start the great mission discourse.
MONDAY 6th July
Genesis 28. 10 – 22
Yahweh’s covenant with Jacob and Jacob’s reply. The use of standing stones for male divinities (hence the anointing) was normal in the ancient world but later condemned in the Law. Bethel (house of El, the local God) remained a shrine for a long time. It may all sound antiquarian, but the purification of faith in Israel has its equivalent in the development of doctrine in the Church. More trivially, the idea that everything would be better if we got back to the biretta mentality is fallacious. Cardinal Newman’s line, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often” applied to the Israelites as much as to us.
Another approach to this reading is that Yahweh makes an apparently unconditional covenant with Jacob, but his response is full of conditions: a realistic reflection on our flakiness.
Matthew 9. 18 - 26
The common point of these healings is that both women were finished. Matthew, unlike Mark and Luke, describes the daughter as already dead. The woman with the haemorrhage was permanently unclean by Jewish law and thus permanently marginalised. Grasping the fringe was not a search for a magical cure. The fringe of the cloak was the prayer shawl worn by a devout Jew. As in 1 Samuel 15.27 and Zechariah 8.23 to grasp the cloth was a gesture of request. Not just an act of faith but a prayer.
TUESDAY 7th July
Genesis 32. 23 – 33
We skip the more than usually complicated domestic life of Jacob (v 23 is a very pale summary), and move to the mysterious story of the struggle of Jacob. With whom? Jacob says God. The one sure point of the story is the blessing which Jacob extorted from him.
Matthew 9. 32 - 38
Vv 27 - 31 on the healing of the two blind men are skipped; like Monday's and today's miracles that healing focuses on faith. The healing of the dumb demoniac is mentioned almost in passing. What matters here is that the reaction of the crowd points to a faith in Jesus as Messiah (the blind men referred to Jesus as Son of David), which prompts the Pharisees to question this aspect of the miracle.
WEDNESDAY 8th July
Genesis 41. 55 – 57; 42. 5 – 7, 17 – 24
The longest hop, skip and jump so far lands us deep in the Joseph saga in Egypt, at the famine. Not exactly the most edifying story, with Joseph proclaiming his honesty while deceiving his brothers about his identity.
Matthew 10. 1 - 7
Elsewhere Matthew includes the gentiles. Here, the emphasis is on Our Lord's mission to the Jewish people, in particular the "lost sheep". In the Jewish tradition, these are "the people of the land" who simply need to make a living, even disreputably, or who lack interest or education and who are thus cut off from the religious and aspirational elite. It's a focus which is often forgotten but hugely important for the Church in the U.K. today.
THURSDAY 9th July
Genesis 44. 18 – 21, 23 – 29; 45. 1 – 5
Joseph weeps a lot. On the plus side, he has a strong sense of God’s providence.
Matthew 10. 7 - 15
"The kingdom of God is near": obviously the main thrust of preaching in the early Church, the resurrection of Christ, cannot be the teaching of the Twelve, who are commissioned to preach the same message as Our Lord and John the Baptist were delivering. The post-Resurrection faith, on the other hand, is the lordship of Jesus, which is expressed by the healing power that Jesus has entrusted to the Twelve.
FRIDAY 10th July
Genesis 46. 1 – 7, 28 – 30
The encounter of Jacob (Israel) and Joseph
Matthew 10. 16 - 23
This clearly refers to the situation in the early church, although towards the end of today's reading Matthew phrases these last-days sayings to the Twelve during our Lord's ministry. Reasonable enough - there has never been a moment in the history of the Church when there hasn't been persecution somewhere. Awareness of Christians suffering today for the Faith should be normal.
SATURDAY 11th July
Genesis 49. 29 – 33; 50. 15 – 25
The deaths of Jacob and Joseph.
Matthew 10. 24 - 33
According to NJBC the warning about disciples and servants was due to the practice of a disciple getting all he could from his teacher and then moving on. The Gnostics reduced Jesus to one teacher among many. Belief in the Lordship of Jesus, spelled out here, was to safeguard against that.
The authority for the disciples comes from Our Lord's relationship to the Father. The last verses may sound Johannine, but NJBC describes them as coming from the most primitive synoptic tradition.