Scripture notes – 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – 8th October 2017

Today one of the three parables in Matthew which are set in a vineyard and aimed at those who rejected Jesus. The first reading gives the Old Testament background for today’s gospel. The Psalm response also picks up the vineyard image, and only St Paul has something different. Continue reading Scripture notes – 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – 8th October 2017

A brief Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew

In Year A of the liturgical season, the gospel readings at mass highlight Matthew, the first book in the New Testament as we find it now. Since the liturgy can present only short selections, an overview of the book itself and what is found in current scholarship about its background, the author and the meaning, can be helpful for a fuller understanding. Some of this will be taken up in the weekly notes I make available, but here is an overview. Continue reading A brief Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew

Mercy in the Bible

‘In the name of God, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate.’

Although we will be considering only the Hebrew and Christian Bible, I have taken these lines from the first words of the Qur’an, because as Pope Francis wrote in his Bull opening the Year of Mercy: ‘There is an aspect of mercy that goes beyond the confines of the church. It connects us with Judaism and Islam…. I trust that this year of Mercy will foster an encounter with these and other noble religious traditions.’ The Jubilee Year is one of openness to all. Continue reading Mercy in the Bible

Reading the Gospel of Luke in the ‘Year of Mercy’ 2015/2016

On December 8 2015, Pope Francis opened the ‘Year of Mercy’. During this time, the mass readings have mostly been taken from the Gospel of St Luke, which fits very well with the Pope’s theme. Although God’s mercy is stressed throughout the Bible, it has a special emphasis in the third gospel. In the first chapter, Luke presents two ‘songs’, the first of Mary (‘The Magnificat’) in which she is aware of the blessing of God to her personally, but also ‘his mercy from generation after generation’. In the song of Zachary (‘The Benedictus’), he also recalls the past where ‘God showed mercy to our ancestors’ and looks forward to the ‘tender mercy of our God who from on high will bring the rising Sun [Jesus] to visit us….’ Continue reading Reading the Gospel of Luke in the ‘Year of Mercy’ 2015/2016

Scripture Reflections – Reading John

John is the only Gospel that does not have a year of its own; selections are heard in all three years, but especially in Year B. Mark is the shortest of the four, leaving more Sundays to be filled out. As Mark is now thought to be the first written, John is the last, and is a result of a long reflection on the events of Christ’s life and his teaching. There is evidence in the work suggesting it has been edited over a period of time, perhaps more than once. The characteristic style of the Gospel is found throughout and some speak of a ‘Johannine school’ or community sharing the ideas of the first writer. (The three Letters of John in the New Testament are in a different style, but have a similar vocabulary with the Gospel.)

Nicholas King comments: ‘As soon as you open John’s Gospel you are aware that you are breathing a different air from that which you encountered in Matthew, Mark and Luke…. My sense of it is that it is a journey into the mystery of who Jesus is, inviting us ever deeper, as the story unfolds.’ John repays careful study and prayerful reflection. ‘The reader will do well to remember that this is a very rich Gospel, whose meaning emerges slowly, over a lifetime of reading.’ Since we have short selections from the Gospel, I would urge you to find some time, maybe as part of Lent, to spend with this writer.

It is the one of the four that best shows Jesus as the Son of God existing from eternity – this is stressed in the opening words. Jesus shows a majesty in this Gospel with less emphasis on his humanity – in contrast with Mark who does not hesitate to show human limitations of Jesus during his ministry. The author always has the resurrected Christ in mind, and projects this back into the life of Jesus.

There is no clear agreement among scholars as to who ‘John’ was and where the Gospel was written. The early Church writers thought he was John the son of Zebedee, but there are reasons this seems unlikely. As it happens, that John is never named in the Gospel, although ‘sons of Zebedee’ are mentioned in the last chapter, which looks like an addition. A ‘John the Elder’ was also known in the early Church but we know little about him either.

One aspect of the Gospel is that it includes the reflections of the Evangelist, but since the Greek manuscripts do not have punctuation marks, it is sometimes a guess when the words of Jesus blend into that of the author. It is written with a limited vocabulary but in very good Greek. Certain words/ideas have prominence, such as light and darkness, life/eternal life. John speaks much of ‘Signs’ – and sees the miracles of Jesus as having significance for telling who he is. Jesus saying ‘I am’ is an expression rare in the other Gospels, but often appears in John, sometimes symbolically, (I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Bread of Life) but also as an absolute: ‘Before Abraham came to exist, I AM’. This picks the meaning of God’s special name in the Old Testament – ‘I am who I am’.

John makes much use of irony, often something will be said which is shown to have a deeper meaning. Misunderstanding is used frequently as a way of opening out Jesus’ teaching. In dialogues, the person will take the ‘ordinary’ meaning of a word (as Nicodemus on ‘being reborn’) and Jesus will then draw out the deeper meaning (as not from the mother’s womb but ‘born from above’).

Characters are well drawn, and John excels in dramatic scenes. Many of these are long, which makes them harder to use in a liturgical setting. Characters may have both a historic identity as well carry symbolic meanings. One of these is ‘the Mother of Jesus’ – who is never given the name Mary, but appears in two sections related to the ‘hour’ of Jesus’ glory. One character has caused much puzzlement: ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. Various identities have been suggested, the earliest being John son of Zebedee, and more recent suggestions include a woman, Mary Magdalene. The ‘Beloved Disciple’ is the one who has the clearest vision about Jesus in the Gospel, and this shows the possiblity he/she represents the ‘ideal disciple’ and could be entirely symbolic. This disciple helps the reader penetrate more deeply into the meaning of Jesus’ identity and ministry.

Women have important roles in John, in addition to his Mother and Mary Magdalene, there is the unnamed Samaritan woman who carries on a theological discourse with Jesus at Jacob’s well (Chapter 4) and the two sisters of Lazarus, Martha also being led in dialogue to understand Jesus’ power (Chapter 11).

In John, Jesus speaks often in long ‘discourses’ explaining aspects of his life and the meaning of it. (The Bread of Life in Chapter 6 is one example.) There are two chapters at the Last Supper which give what might be called Jesus’ ‘last will and testament’. Because of the length and the complexity of these discourses, like the dramatic scenes they do not fit easily into the usual space of the liturgical gospels. An exception is the Passion and last days of Jesus life. John’s account is given ‘pride of place’ on Good Friday, and his resurrection stories feature in the readings of Easter time.

One problem in John is the use of the term ‘the Jews’ for Jesus’ opponents, where the other three gospels have the historical accuracy of ‘scribes, Pharisees and high priest.’ John treating ‘the Jews’ as separate from Jesus and his disciples has come into the gospel from the later time when the Christians had separated from the synagogue and when there was opposition felt on both sides. Of course Jesus and his disciples were ethnically Jews as much as the temple authorities. Biblical scholars emphasise that John’s term does not justify any prejudice against the Jews of our time – something all the more important at the present with so much violence in many places against people of differing religions.

Because of the complexity of John, commentaries can be very helpful, but the longer ones require some dedicated study. I will be using especially in my notes, what has been called the ‘gold standard’ commentary, two volumes of Raymond E. Brown. Recently I found Written That You May Believe by Sandra M. Schneiders, with whom I had the privilege of studying when I did my MA in the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California. This book has the added advantage of giving a good introduction to feminist biblical insights. There are a variety of other commentaries of differing lengths. For a simple guide to John, I would recommend The New Testament Freshly Translated by Nicholas King, quoted above. He gives short but useful notes to each section.

The great focus in John is on the union that disciples have with Jesus, and as well, the Father and the Spirit. This is much clearer in this Gospel than in the other three. It appears in various ways, from the opening of ‘dwelt among us’ and especially in the ‘last discourse’ which John sets the night before Jesus’ death. This has made it an important message for all Christians and one to read on our own in all the liturgical Years – A, B and C. May you find it rewarding!

Joan Griffith, 2015

A brief introduction to the Gospel of Mark

In the three year cycle of Gospels read at Mass, we start Year B with Mark on the First Sunday of Advent. Because Mark does not include any stories of Jesus’ birth as do Matthew and Luke, the Christmas readings will be from the other gospels.

Mark is the shortest of the four gospels, and most modern scholars believe it was the first one written, although it comes second in the New Testament order. The date is estimated as around 60-70 AD. The tradition that it was written in Rome is supported by the use of Latin words in the gospel, and by the need the Evangelist feels to explain Jewish customs for his readers. From the 2nd Century AD, the author (who never identifies himself/herself) has been named as ‘Mark’, and he has also been described as the ‘interpreter’ of St Peter. Since all these are later traditions, we cannot be sure of any details about his life, location or role in the early community.

Like all the New Testament, it is written in the simplified Greek (‘koine’) that was the common language of the Roman Empire. Mark writes in a rough version of this with many expressions that are called ‘Semitic’ indicating that Greek was not the first language of the writer. (The various but related Semitic languages had been spoken in the Middle East areas, and they include the Hebrew of the Bible, and Aramaic which had taken over as the everyday language of Palestine.) Mark’s less-than-smooth style is covered up by most translations, which want to sound like good, even elegant, English. This obscures some points that are useful for study, and I will note these when they occur in the liturgy. As Mark wrote in a language widely understood in his time, the ‘improved’ English versions can make it easier for us today.

Although the style may not seem sophisticated, the theology is profound and there are a number of techniques that show a thoughtful author. Mark often uses some literary effects of that time which are not common in ours, like the end echoing or closing off the opening (technically called an ‘incluso’). He also makes ‘sandwiches’ by breaking an account and putting another story in the centre. When this happens, it is worth noticing what the middle story says about the outer layer or vice versa.

Mark makes no claim to being a witness of Jesus ministry or resurrection, nor does he ever explain his relation to those he wrote for. [Compare the opening of Luke, and the closing of John.] Mark must have had some sources, but we can’t be sure what they were. It is most likely that stories of Jesus, his life and teaching, were memorized and widely shared and collected – what is called ‘oral tradition’ and still common in societies less literate than ours. These memories are probably one source for all the gospels. Mark in the Greek reads as if he was telling a story, rather than writing, with the constant use of the connective ‘and’. He often uses the present tense, another way the account becomes lively. Over 40 times he uses a Greek word which can be variously translated, as ‘immediately’, ‘right away’, ‘straightaway.’ This makes the story almost breathless in its forward movement. Another speech-like feature is that he often puts in explanations like a speaker who forgets an important point at the beginning of the story and adds it later.

Mark, unlike the other gospels, sometimes gives us the words of Jesus in the Aramaic which brings us close to the original situation and thus to Jesus himself. Mark occasionally quotes the Jewish scriptures, but much else of what he writes reflects this tradition. Some of these are subtle and easily missed until pointed out.

Mark has far fewer parables than Matthew and Luke, though he often speaks of Jesus teaching. He shows Jesus almost constantly in action, and always in relationship to those who listen and respond, and also those who refuse his call and eventually plot his death.

Mark, more than the other evangelists, pictures Jesus in his full humanity, with a wide range of emotions, including being angry, tired, and not knowing everything. Mark does not try to explain everything and often leaves us to draw our own conclusions. This will be especially true when he shows Jesus as something other than an ordinary human being. At times he leaves us with an unanswered question; for example 4:41: ‘What kind of man is this that the wind and sea obey him?’

Mark also depicts the humanity of the disciples and apostles, showing them struggling to understand but misunderstanding, too sleepy to stay awake and watch with Jesus, fleeing when he is arrested. But he also notes their immediate commitment when called, and he assumes their important roles in the community after the resurrection. Mark stresses how Jesus taught them a new kind of leadership of service and how he predicted they would have to suffer as he himself would. So there is a sombre note to much of the teaching in this Gospel, though it is based on promises of ultimate joy.

Mark’s gospel ends abruptly at the empty tomb, seemingly unfinished. (Our Bibles include an ending written by another writer, summarizing the appearances of the risen Jesus.) We can’t tell the reason for this now, but can guess he might have shown Jesus appearing in Galilee as is promised in the gospel – compare the ending in Matthew. But he may have left the story ‘open’ for us to draw our conclusions, and to live our own experience of Jesus.

Much of the flow of the Gospel as written may be missed when we have short selections at mass, especially when they are out of order. (The first verses of Mark are divided between Advent, the end of the Christmas season, and the beginning of Lent and so unconnected.) Sometime during Year B, I recommend finding the time to read through the whole Gospel from beginning to end – it is not long – and see how it all fits together and what impression the whole makes on you. You may see if you learn anything about the writer ‘Mark’ from reading what he has written.

In these notes and discussions, I will bring in some of the background points from such studies as I have at home – close to a dozen on Mark – which are pertinent to each gospel selection. If you want to do more study on the gospel, there is a wide range of guides available, from short ones for beginners to long scholarly commentaries. They can be found in bookstores and on the internet: some book sites allow you to ‘Look inside’ which can indicate whether that commentary suits you.

Above all, read Mark and reflect on the Gospel for what it tells you about ‘The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’.

Joan Griffith

The four animals of the Apocalypse

The final book of the New Testament whose title in Greek means ‘unveiling’ is written in a genre popular at the time not easily understood today. It uses many symbolic images, some are hard to visualize, and better taken as directed to the mind rather than the eye. One example of this are the four ‘living creatures’ or ‘animals’ first mentioned in 4:7-9 (and later in 7:11, read on All Saints.) They occur in a ‘vision’ of heaven pictured as a regal court, with God on a throne. God is not described directly as beyond human power to express (John 1:18) but the details give a sense of awe and power. He takes natural examples to illustrate supernatural reality. The four creatures around the throne are such hints. They are ‘covered by eyes, before and behind’ – perhaps showing that nothing is hidden from God. The first had a face like a lion, the second like an ox, the third a human face, and the fourth a flying eagle. They each had six wings, and continually sang: ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’

John, the author of the book, does not explain the animals any further, nor give a hint of what they symbolize. I see as one possibility: the lion – which we still call King of Beasts – as the fullness of power, while the strong ox is power at the service of humans. The eagle in its free flight joins earth to ‘heaven’. The man may represent intelligence. These features could be aspects of God as experienced in relationship to humanity. But like all poetry, they are more evocative than explained.

As so much in the Apocalypse, there are echoes or references to books in the Old Testament. God on his throne, the ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ and six winged ‘seraphim’ are in Isaiah’s ‘inaugural vision’, 6:21-3. In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, which has a lot of apocalyptic passages, his inaugural vision has a more elaborate picture of very similar creatures to John’s, with the wings and eyes and four different faces but with many other features as well. These occur in 1:4-21 and are said to be the ‘chariot’ of God. If you look up this passage, prepare to be confused! The grammar itself is not clear, and the commentator Lawrence Boadt, CSP, suggests the confusion may have been meant to suggest these four are in motion and that may mean not easily discerned. They are all controlled in movement by the One in this strange vehicle.

However bizarre they to moderns, these descriptions would have had some familiarity to people of that time. Winged human headed bulls and lions were huge statues of guardian demigods before the Babylonian/Assyrian temples. Carved reliefs also show eagle headed figures, and wings are common. (Examples of all these may be seen in the British Museum, and some online.) The Hebrews adopted winged creatures as ‘cherubim’ and they were carved for the Ark of the Covenant in the Jerusalem Temple (Exodus 37:7-9). (Our more familiar ‘angels’ are mild descendants of these.) The adapted pagan creatures are, however, not considered by the Hebrews as having supernatural powers of their own; rather they are shown at the service of the one true and truly powerful God.

The four creatures have a later life, as they were used by early Christians as symbols of the four evangelists, based on how each opened his Gospel. Matthew is the man, for he begins with the human genealogy of Jesus. Mark is the lion, for he starts with John the Baptist preaching (‘roaring’?) in wilderness. Luke begins in the Temple, and as the ox was used in sacrifices that represents him. John, whose Prologue starts in ‘the beginning’ with Jesus the ‘Word’ of God, ‘soars’ above the earth as an eagle. These ‘attributes’ have been a gift to artists through the ages. (Wikipedia has some examples.)

Joan Griffith

Brief introduction to the Gospel of Matthew

matthewMatthew’s gospel is the first book in the New Testament, but many modern scholars doubt that it was the first one written. Priority goes to St Mark, and it appears that Matthew made use of Mark at least as an outline. Commentaries differ in suggesting how much more he may have taken; some sections are the same word-for-word. Matthew is considerably longer, mostly because he puts in long sections of Jesus’ teaching. When he narrates a story, however, it usually is less detailed and sometimes less vivid than Mark’s. For an example of this, compare Mark 5:1-20 to Matthew 8:28-34.

Matthew and Luke also share some material that is not in Mark and probably have got it from the same sources. No written record has turned up for these passages, which are mostly sayings, and appear in differing parts of the two gospels. Some books use the designation ‘Q’ for these shared texts.

Each of the four gospels has its own theological take on the life of Jesus, and each writer shows a distinct personality. Matthew is the ‘most Jewish’ of all four. This is shown even in the language. Where Luke and Mark have ‘Kingdom of God’, Matthew usually has ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ – as generally translated but literally ‘heavens’ which is a Semitic way of speaking. Jews tried to avoid using ‘God’ out of reverence and in line with the Second Commandment. All of the gospels use allusions to the Old Testament to show how they foreshadowed Jesus, but Matthew has more direct quotations, ten of them using the formula, ‘This happened to fulfil the words….’ There are many passages which suggest this more subtly.

But while noting the continuity of Jesus to the past, he also stresses that in Jesus there is something entirely new and unexpected. This appears from the opening of the Gospel in which Matthew gives his legal descent though Joseph from David and Abraham, but signals first some oddities in the past with the women in the genealogy. Then we read that Mary is with child by the power of the Holy Spirit and not by a human father.

Matthew sometimes shows Jesus using the rabbinical style of debate and perhaps it is another Jewish feature to argue with other Jews. In his commentary on the gospel, Daniel J. Harrington takes the viewpoint that at the time Matthew wrote, he was contending with the followers of the Pharisees to be the rightful successors to the faith of the Old Testament, and this explains both why he stresses lasting parts of the Jewish Law but does not hesitate to show Jesus at other times making changes. ‘You have heard it said… but I say to you…’ is used a number of times in Matthew 5:17-48. Gentiles play an important part from the visit of the Magi on to the last words of Jesus. Harrington thinks that Matthew had in mind, as the recipients of his work, a mixed community of converted Jews and Gentiles.

Matthew takes a special interest in St Peter. Although he recounts Jesus rebuking him (16:21-23) and the denial during the Passion as does Mark, this is the only gospel with the ‘commission’ that on Peter Jesus will build his church (16:16-19). Matthew is also the only one of the four to use the word ‘church’.

Matthew makes a point of noting geographic locations, often tying them to an Old Testament prophecy, as Galilee in 4:12-16. Thus he gives them symbolic value.

A major feature of the gospel are the five sections of Jesus’ teaching, and these instructions for living as a disciple made it a favourite in the early church. Many of these words have also entered even into common speech. The best known of the five is ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ which takes up three chapters. It is Matthew who gives us our version of the ‘Our Father’ or ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and the ‘Beatitudes’ (5:1-10). Only in this gospel is the Last Judgement which has inspired so much Christian art. Although punishment for sin is part of Matthew’s faith, the parable of the Last Judgement is far more about how Jesus identifies himself with all those in need to the point where anything done for them is done for Jesus himself.

Besides the discourses, we see Matthew’s concern to show the preparation of the disciples and their need for discipline as part of Christian living. In this gospel, immediately after Jesus starts to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, he calls the first disciples (4:18-22). In this passage, which is very close to the words in Mark, we see Matthew’s curious fondness for twos: Mark has noted ‘Andrew the brother of Simon’ and ‘John the brother of John’ – presumably the oldest first. But Matthew while keeping these adds twice, ‘two brothers’. At other times, he doubles the number of those healed. Perhaps this comes from the Jewish Law that requires two witnesses.
The presence of Jesus even after his death is an important point for Matthew. Early in the Gospel, Matthew tells us Jesus is ‘God-with-us’ and the last words are ‘I am with you through all time.’ Also he records Jesus saying, ‘When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them.’

Who is ‘Matthew’ the writer? The name comes from early tradition, and could be no more than a deduction from the fact that the name ‘Matthew’ is only in this gospel, in the call to the tax collector to ‘follow’ and as an Apostle, where in both cases Mark and Luke have the name ‘Levi’. It is possible that the tax collector is the author, or maybe the authority, behind the gospel but if so it is odd that so little seems to come from personal experience rather than so much from sources like Mark and those shared with Luke. Although we may not have biographical details, we can sense something of the writer by living closely with his work – he is careful, reverent, reflective and completely dedicated to Jesus and his teachings.

Date and location of the writing of the gospel are educated guesses, often suggested to be in the years 70-80 and in either Palestine or Syria both of which had a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles. There is some stress on Galilee in the gospel that may come from a community in that area.

For the liturgy, selections are chosen predominantly to fit into the feast structure of Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter season and therefore do not follow the book sequence as it appears in the Bible. At some time during the year I suggest reading it consecutively to have a sense of its form and development. For reflective reading, especially in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ it is better to take short passages, and see how they speak to you. (These verses seem to be collected rather than represent a talk given at one time, so they are not always related in topic or our idea of logic.)

There are numerous guides or commentaries with varying levels of scholarship and comment, and I find it hard to make a recommendation for everyone. There are good notes in the Jerusalem Bible. Books and pamphlets are at the Catholic book shops near Westminster Cathedral and online. I have a number of commentaries which I will be drawing on for the weekly notes, including R. T. France which is over a 1000 pages. It may be a challenge to finish a study in his detail study in Year A but I look forward to living more closely with Matthew in 2014. I hope all of you will also find the experience rewarding, comforting, and inspiring –and also at times challenging as that I believe that is one of the purposes of scripture.

Joan Griffith

You may also wish to look at Joan’s introductions to the gospels of Mark and Luke and her comparison of Mark’s and John’s gospels