Old Testament Commentaries
OLD TESTAMENT COMMENTARY
The myth of the great flood is a popular one in many cultures and it is thought that the Bible’s version draws on other Ancient Near Eastern ones, in particular those in Babylon. Myth here is understood in the technical sense of a particular story that explores universal questions and truths: hence such stories are often set ‘in the beginning’ of creation or of a nation. It is a storytelling way of doing philosophy/theology. Characters in the story stand for key themes or ideas, such as good and evil, blessing and curse, life and death. There are some basic things to note about the flood story in Genesis. First and foremost, it is not a myth about the battle between good gods and bad ones who are hostile to humanity, as is often the case in Ancient Near Eastern myths. Israel’s monotheistic faith (one God) locates evil primarily in humanity. Nor is the story about God’s destruction of humanity and creation, if that were the case how come we are reading the story? Rather it is about God’s enduring resolve to remove evil from creation. Creation myths are not about the past; they are a storytelling way of covering all time and space. God always acts to prevent evil overwhelming good. Noah and those in the ark represent good in creation, the rest evil (Noah is described as a ‘righteous’ person who ‘walked with God’). The story dramatically heightens the power and threat of evil by describing all flesh as corrupt. God alone is the one who can deliver humanity and creation from such a threat. Another point to note is that the story is not about a return to primeval chaos (the formless void and darkness of Gen 1:2). God is fully in control of the forces of nature: God unleashes the flood, it rises to a particular height, lasts a particular time in order to ensure that all evil is destroyed and then subsides. At no stage in the story is the ark threatened by the flood.
The covenant that God makes with humanity and creation (our reading) conveys the author’s conviction that God is completely committed to both, despite the evil that we almost inevitably perpetrate. Covenants or solemn promises were a standard way of forging lasting relationships between competing powers in the Ancient Near East, particularly between a more powerful nation and a weaker one that submits to it for protection. The powerful king promises lasting protection as long as the vassal state remains loyal, often a sign accompanies the covenant (e.g. a document). Understandably, covenants became a favoured form for expressing belief in the protection a society hopes to receive from its national god. The Bible has God take the initiative and make an everlasting covenant with Noah and his descendants (who represent you and me) and with all creation: the sign here is the rainbow. But the Bible does not stop with this account of God’s commitment to stay loyal to a flawed and prone to evil creation. It goes on to tell the story of the call of Abraham and, through him, of Israel to be the mediator of God’s blessing to all the earth (Gen 12:1-3). This expresses the conviction that with God’s help (we would say ‘grace’) humanity and creation can realise their purpose. God will ultimately triumph over evil as the final book in the Bible, the book of Revelation, claims. Our reading is thus a good one for the first Sunday of Lent, the season of repentance and renewal.
Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
The Responsorial Psalm links up nicely with the flood story, particularly the notion of God’s commitment to sinful humanity. The selection from Psalm 25 commences with the principle that God alone is ‘good and upright’. According to biblical theology, God must be the source of good in whom there is no evil, otherwise who can rescue the helpless human being? The implication is that if we try to do it ourselves we will make a mess of it. The psalm then goes on to outline how our good God acts on behalf of sinners: by providing instruction/teaching (so that we can distinguish between good and evil), by leading us in what is right (with God taking the initiative we are assured that we are in the best of hands). The terms steadfast love and faithfulness express God’s unconditional and utterly reliable commitment to sinners. The one thing required of sinners is to acknowledge their sinfulness and need of God – these are the people who ‘keep his covenant and his decrees’.
In the second strophe or paragraph, the psalmist confesses his or her own need of God’s pardon in accord with the principles outlined in the preceding paragraph, and then calls on all (‘they that fear the Lord’) to accept the teaching. In accord with God’s will, the psalmist desires that all be saved. The final strophe outlines the blessings promised for those who fear the Lord. The term ‘fear’ here carries our sense of ‘reverence/honour’.
© Mark O'Brien
New Testament Commentaries
NEW TESTAMENT COMMENTARY
Who are you?
John 1:6-8, 19-28
A man came, sent by God. His name was John. He came as a witness, to speak for the light.
This Sunday again focuses on John the Baptist and the question continues – who are you? This is the question being asked in the early communities. Who was John? How can we understand his mission and its connection to the mission of Jesus? The questioners put to him the names of key Jewish figures who were expected to come in the final days – the Christ, Elijah and the Prophet. ‘The Christ’ is a Greek translation of the Hebrew title, ‘the Messiah’. This was someone in the line of David who was expected to come at in the end-times to restore the Kingdom of David. Elijah was one of the great prophets who was believed to have been taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot and would return at the end of time. The Prophet refers to a promise made to Moses that God would raise up in the future, a prophet like Moses to lead the people. Some thought John fitted one of these hoped-for figures. But John turns down these roles, and instead speaks of himself as ‘the voice’ and he is described as a witness.
Later in John’s Gospel, John describes himself as ‘the friend of the bridegroom’ (3:28-30). In those days, the friend of the bridegroom was the one who went to the home of the prospective bride and he was the voice and witness of the bridegroom. It was the friend who extolled the virtues of the bridegroom to the bride’s father in the hope that the father would give permission for the marriage. The friend then made all the negotiations about the dowry, the day of the wedding etc. The friend was totally focused on the desire of the bridegroom. This is how John describes his relationship to Jesus – John is the friend, the best man; Jesus is the bridegroom. In this way John reveals one of the earliest images of Jesus in the Gospel of John – Jesus is the long awaited bridegroom of Israel, the manifestation of God’s covenant love and desire. Immediately after John’s witness, the first public action of Jesus is to participate in a wedding and provide abundant wine, which was in fact the role of the bridegroom. As Christmas approaches, we might spend time to consider the coming of God to us through this image of love, desire and anticipation associated with a wedding. Those who have experienced this, as brides, grooms, other participants, may recall that time and consider that this very human experience of love, betrothal marriage, is a glimpse into God’s love and desire that led to the coming of Jesus.
John knows his place in God’s scheme. He humbly attests that there is another, even greater, who is coming. This is John’s greatness, to know and accept the particular role he is given for the Kingdom. For some this can take years of searching and pondering. We don’t know what John was doing before this ministry, and it seems that Jesus only began his mission around the age of thirty. As Christmas draws near, may it be a time of quiet reflection on the particular gifts God has given to me, and what particular way I may further God’s kingdom.
1 Thess 5:16-24
Do not quench the Spirit! (1Thess 5:19). What would it be like if we Christians were known for our enthusiasm, our joy, our irrepressible hope? It seems that the early community at Thessalonica were like this, and yes, in their enthusiasm they got a bit carried away. But I think they would be a community which would support my faith, enrich my life and even challenge me when I began to lose sight of the essentials – like the gospel message that Christ has come, and Christ will come again. The second reading today begins with the word that flavours all the Advent readings today – rejoice. Paul is not a Pollyanna with his head buried in the sand. The world he lived in had its problems – the power of Rome, multiple Civic gods that all in the city were expected to honour, work, taxes – all the usual responsibilities. But Paul’s sense of the power of Jesus in his life and in the life of the Thessalonians enables him to keep a sense of perspective. So in the midst of everything he says, ‘Rejoice and pray constantly… the one who calls you is faithful.’
© Mary Coloe
Uniting the two readings as common theme is, of course, the sense of invitation to a banquet. The First Reading, from Isaiah 25:6-10, speaks of God’s designs for humanity under the image of a splendid banquet to which they are invited. The banquet is to take place ‘on this mountain’, that is, Mount Zion in Jerusalem and so, in first place, Israel is in view. But the banquet is not for Israel alone: the ‘mourning veil’ and ‘shroud’ covering all peoples will be wiped away and the Lord will ‘destroy Death for ever’. Read in the light of the Christian Gospel, what is being promised here is nothing less than human freedom from mortality in an ultimate sense and a pledge that all would share the eternal life of God. Every human life, then, is a life lived in the light of this destiny, in the hope of this ‘invitation’ to the ‘banquet’ of eternal life.
The parable of the Wedding Banquet that makes up the Gospel, Mt 22:1-14 is the Matthean version of a parable that appears in rather different forms in the early tradition (see Lk 14:15-24). Matthew has made the parable a kind of allegory of salvation history, where the wedding feast represents the fullness of salvation, the bridegroom the Son of God (Jesus), and where the series of sendings of servants issuing invitations represent, first, the prophets sent to Israel in the Old Testament era, then Christian missionaries. These go out first to Israel again and then, when the bulk of Israel refuse, are told to invite those ‘on the crossroads’ – the Gentiles. The kind of denouement where the king notices a guest not wearing a wedding garment and orders him to be cast out, brings the allegory to a close with an evocation of the last judgment, when the mixture of good and bad in the Christian community will be sorted out.
Matthew presents the parable in this form to help his community understand and come to terms with unexpected and troubling things that had occurred: the ‘No’ of the bulk of Israel to the message of the Gospel, the existence of bad, as well as good, in the community of the Church. Having Jesus tell the parable in this way shows that all had been foreseen and foretold by him and therefore should not cause too great dismay or loss of faith.
That said, it must be admitted that the parable in its Matthean form has several troubling features. In preaching, we should be wary of allowing our hearers to identify the king in the parable with God or his violent and vengeful behaviour with the way God acts. As in all his parables, Jesus simply takes illustrations from life as it is, neither commending nor deploring the behaviour involved but simply using the way people (including kings) behave to illustrate the teaching he wants to convey.
Hearers of the Gospel will also wonder why a poor unfortunate brought in without warning ‘from the crossroads’ is treated so harshly for not wearing a wedding garment. How could he have had time to procure one – even if it was something he could afford! But once again, allegory has rather spoilt the realism of the story. As noted already, this final episode, like the Parable of the Darnel (Mt 13:24-30, 36-43) has to do with the problem of good and bad in the Christian community. You don’t have to be good to get into the community of the Kingdom: God’s invitation is a great net of grace that envelops all. But, once within, people have to allow themselves to be transformed by the grace they have received and live lives worthy of the high dignity to which they have been called. The man without a wedding garment represents people inside the community who have not so responded to grace but who have continued ‘bad’ as before. The parable makes the point that, though the community may have to put up with such behaviour for a time, it will not be tolerated indefinitely. There will come a time of judgment when such recalcitrants will be called to reckoning and expulsion from the ‘banquet’.
In this way, a parable that originally reflected upon Israel’s failure to respond to Jesus has been given a meaning for members of the Church. All God’s intent for us is to share with us the riches of the ‘banquet’. But God’s graciousness and generosity should not be an excuse for complacency. Our lack of co-operation can exclude us from the banquet of eternal life.
Finally, we should note the Semitic idiom in the concluding comment: ‘Many (= ‘all’) are called, few (= ‘not all’) are chosen’ (= persevere to the end); some can exclude themselves from life.
© Brendan Byrne SJ
Palm Sunday is the first step in our journey into Holy Week. Two gospel passages are read today.
The account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem reinterprets several royal messianic traditions. Like a messianic king, he enters the holy city on a colt (cf. Zech 9:9). He comes over the crest of the eastern hill at the Mount of Olives, a place long associated with the appearance of the messiah (cf. Zech 14:4). The people spread their cloaks on the ground before him just as their ancestors had done in deference to a king (2 Kgs 9:13). They praise Jesus with an acclamation taken from the Psalms (Ps 118:25-26). ‘Hosanna’ is really a cry for help. It means: ‘Save us, we pray!’ All of this points to Jesus' fulfilment of the Davidic messianic expectations.
or John 12:12-16
This account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is quite straightforward and rich in theological meaning. It is the only version in which the people carry palms, a symbol of victory. (Palms were waved during the celebration of the recapture of Jerusalem [1 Macc 13:51]; they were offered in homage to kings [1 Macc 13:37; 2 Macc 14:4]; and they are held by the elect as they stand before the victorious Lamb [Rev 7:9]).
The jubilant waving of palms and the acclamation, ‘Hosanna’ (‘Save us, we pray!’) indicate the kind of nationalistic enthusiasm that frequently surfaced in Jerusalem during major festivals. There is an allusion to the coming of the messianic king, who is righteous and who will bring salvation, but who is meek and riding on a donkey (Zech 9:9).
Isa 50:4-7; Ps 21:8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Mark 14:1-15:47
In the first reading, God provided the prophet with ears to hear God's word and a well-trained tongue to speak that word to others. This prophet suffers physical attack and personal insult. He is beaten; his beard is plucked; he is spat upon, but he does not recoil from his call. He willingly accepts the consequence of his prophetic ministry. He maintains that God is his strength. Although he has been assaulted, he insists that he is not disgraced; he is not put to shame. There are no grounds for making these claims other than utter confidence in God, certainty of the authenticity of his call, and a conviction of the truth of the words that he communicates.
The imagery in the psalm is both vivid and forceful. The opening verses describe the derision that the psalmist must endure from onlookers. Those who mock him part their lips to sneer at him, perhaps to hiss. They wag their heads in ridicule. He is reviled not only because he suffers but primarily because in his suffering he clings to God in confidence. Their taunt throws into question the value of such trust. Does God really care what happens to this pitiful man? Neither the mockery nor the brutality of these onlookers can undermine the devotion of the psalmist. In the face of all of his suffering, he still clings to hope.
The reflection on the nature and mission of Jesus describes his humiliation and his subsequent exaltation by God. Jesus did not cling to his divine dignity; he did not use his exalted status for his own ends. Instead, he relinquished it, emptied himself of it. Though in the form of God, he chose the form of a servant or slave. Without losing his Godlike being, he took on human likeness, humbling himself and becoming obedient. This opened him to the possibility of death. The exaltation of Christ is as glorious as his humiliation was debasing. While Jesus was responsible for his self-emptying, his superexaltation is attributed directly to God. Now every knee will do him homage and every tongue will proclaim his sovereignty.
The major events of the passion seem to be following some prearranged plan. The anointing of Jesus foreshadows the conclusion of the entire passion narrative. Jesus is identified as the Son of Humanity (14:21,41,62), the Son of God (15:39), the Christ, Son of the Blessed one (14:61), yet he associates with those relegated to the margins of society. He respects the authority of the religious and political leaders who seek to put him to death, but he does not cooperate with them. His eschatological preeminence is seen in his statements about the new reign of God (14:25), his resurrection (14:28) and exaltation (14:62), the renting of the veil of the temple curtain at his death (15:38), and the final recognition of his true identity (15:39).
© Dianne Bergant CSS