The liturgy returns to Ordinary Time after the long period of seasonal readings from Lent through all the feasts of Easter time. ‘Rejoice’ is a theme in the readings and joy has been emphasised by Pope Francis as a mark of a Christian.
These words come from the end of the varied prophecies collected in the long book called ‘Isaiah’ though obviously much was written after the life of Isaiah of Jerusalem. The author of this section is sometimes called Third (or ‘Trito’) Isaiah, as the context is a later date in the history of Jerusalem than the first and middle sections (‘Second Isaiah’) of the book. It is largely an exuberant hymn of joy.
We are familiar with the idea of God as Father, but God as mother was another Old Testament image, especially in Isaiah. It has overtones of tenderness and intimacy as well as nurture. (Jesus also uses a mother image to speak of himself: as a hen who gathers her chicks under her wing – Luke 14:34). In this reading, the poet-prophet first sees Jerusalem personified as the consoling parent, then compares God comforting his people to a mother.
Psalm 65/66:1-7, 10, 16
A joyful song of praise which the liturgy takes as a response to the call to ‘rejoice’. It begins with the community remembering the past saving actions of God in the Exodus, followed by a verse of personal thanksgiving for answered prayer. The pairing suggests our need to be part of a redeemed community but also our need for a personal relationship with God
A good explanation of this reading is by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, SJ, in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary. St Paul wrote this letter when he heard that ‘some agitators’ had come to the community in Galatia that he had founded. They claimed Paul was without proper authority to preach and further objected that his failure to insist that converts should observe Jewish circumcision invalidated Paul’s right to evangelise. Our selection today comes from the end of the Letter and is a conclusion to Paul’s self-defence, but also corrects the mistakes he saw among the Galatians. In place of their boasting as observers of the Law, Paul places his reliance on ‘the grace and favour of God’. The ‘world’ to which he is crucified, Fitzmyer says, means ‘all that stands at enmity with God, the sphere of pleasure and ambition related to the flesh’ – which could be summarised as “human weakness and sinfulness’’.
Paul’s final protest is that instead of boasting of the marks of circumcision, he bears other ‘marks’ on his body – those of Jesus. Since the Greek word here is ‘stigmata’, there has been speculation on whether Paul carried the physical wounds of the crucifixion as did later saints like Francis of Assisi. Or he may refer to the various sufferings he had at the hands of authorities opposed to his preaching These he details in First Corinthians as ‘beatings’, fighting with ‘beasts’ and other ‘afflictions’. ‘Stigmata’ or ‘brands’ were used at the time for slaves as well as animals to show ownership, and the image therefore can be: one who belongs to Jesus.
Luke 10:1-12, 17-20
As we pick up the Gospel of Luke, some background for the present selection is helpful. In Luke 9:51 the evangelist says, ‘When the days drew near for him to be delivered up, he set his face to Jerusalem.’ Luke stretches out this journey in a long section, in which he collects some accounts that are found in different contexts in the other gospels, but also some that are only in Luke. Such is the one we hear today.
The focus is participation in ministry, with Jesus sending out a large group of disciples. Previously in all three first gospels, we were told of Jesus’ sending the Twelve Apostles, but now many more – vaguely described as ‘others’ with a possibly symbolic number of 72– are given the task of announcing the Kingdom and calling for a response from the listeners. Luke is probably also writing for his contemporaries in mind– and indeed all succeeding ministers – reminding them of the importance, the urgency even, of evangelizing.
‘Those sent out go from Jesus and return to Jesus, and it is their status as representatives of Jesus and the One who send him (v 16) that is of more importance than any geographical details, which Luke passes over in silence.’ (Andrew F. Gregory, in The Fourfold Gospel Commentary.) While giving them their task, Jesus first stresses that prayer and reliance on God is part of their work, and both seem equally important for all preachers to remember.
The restrictions on what not to take and the commands not to move around for better accommodations or meals tell them they travelling for a purpose and in some haste. It is not like a pleasure trip. They are to rely on God’s care rather than spending time planning and packing up supplies, as people do for holidays. ‘Salute no one along the road’: G. B. Caird says this is ‘to avoid the time-consuming futilities of oriental wayside etiquette’ – no idle chatter or distractions should take precedence over their task. ‘Peace’ (Shalom in Hebrew) was a common greeting, for the Hebrews meaning more than absence of conflict, but total well-being. The words of Jesus have the image of peace being almost a ‘thing’ which can be returned. It is a gift of God, which the disciples will not lose themselves even if it is rejected by those they call to receive it.
The disciples return in great happiness, having found success in their mission. Jesus responds with an image that may recall the picture of Satan in the book of Job, as a doubting member of the court of heaven. The picture of falling like lightning vividly describes the victory of Jesus – shared by his disciples – over all the powers of evil, further symbolized as poisonous and much feared insects.
His final words tell them that this, however, is less important than that they are destined for heaven themselves. ‘Written in heaven’ is an image drawn from the practices of that period of keeping records in palaces or large households of who lives and belongs there. Heaven is meant to be our home. As our liturgy opened with a call to rejoice, we end on another summons to be happy in confidence of God’s promise to take us up into his presence.
The verses following this in Luke (10:21-24) are not used in the liturgy, but they are good to reflect on, as they show Luke’s way of describing the Trinity.
At the same time, Jesus rejoiced in the Spirit, ‘I thank you, Father Lord of Heaven and earth…. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal him.’