Fr. Scott Lewis is an associate professor of New Testament at Regis College, a founding member of the Toronto School of Theology.

He is a past president of the Canadian Catholic Biblical Association.

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Aug. 26 (Joshua 24:1-2, 15-17, 18; Psalm 34; Ephesians 4:32-5:2, 21-32; John 6:53, 60-69)

Bob Dylan’s song “Gotta Serve Somebody” would have made perfect sense in the context of Joshua’s meeting with the Israelites. They had weathered the 40 years in the desert and had just entered the Promised Land to begin their permanent sojourn. Joshua first called for a commitment on the part of the Israelites to serve the God who had brought them out of Egypt, sustained them in the desert and given them the land they were entering. He gave them a choice: serve one of the many pagan gods you will find here or the God who brought you here. Choose — and don’t say that you will serve the Lord unless you intend to do so.

The people declared enthusiastically that they would serve the Lord but their subsequent history bore sad witness to their infidelity and frequent lapses into idolatry. Joshua made no move to control them but just affirmed that he and his entire household would serve the Lord. He left them free to serve whomever they chose.

We all serve somebody, even if it is just our own ego. We make the choice every day when we are put in situations in which our principles and ideals are challenged. Many choose country, corporation, culture, different ideologies or charismatic leaders and demagogues. Some allow themselves to be led by anyone but even that is a choice. We are absolutely free but our lives will be measured in the balance by the choices we have made. We live in an age in which many have chosen to serve a variety of “gods” and many more no God at all. We should respect their choice and make the same resolution that Joshua did: I choose, along with others of like mind and heart, to serve the living God.

There is much to praise in the reading from Ephesians. The exhortation to love one another, to be tender-hearted and forgiving and to imitate God is every bit as important today, perhaps even more so. This is a way of life that never grows old and is valid in every time and place. It should be lived out in the family, at work, in the public sphere and in interpersonal relationships, and our failure to do so is responsible for much of the world’s troubles.

At the same time, the passage also reflects a bit of the cultural values of the age in which it was written. While it is important for husbands and wives to love and cherish each other, we would not hold up “subjection” as an appropriate expression of this love. Christ does not subject any person to another. We should only be subject to God.

As we have seen the last few Sundays, the teachings of Jesus concerning His body and blood were extremely difficult for many of His followers to accept. Jesus did not back down or waver, saying in effect that they hadn’t seen anything yet! He was actually going to return to His place of origin — God the Father. More shock language followed: the flesh is useless; only the spirit gives life. He was not denigrating the body or the created order but only insisting on the inability of humanity to reach or experience God without something added from the realm of the spirit.

The words spoken by Jesus are spirit and life — not the literal words but the message contained in them. These words spoke of the need for faith in Him and for reception of the gift of God’s life-giving spirit. Many of His followers chose to bail at this point — they were confused and angry. Jesus asked Peter and those closest to Him rather wearily if they were going to disappear too. Peter was a bit perplexed — he probably didn’t really understand everything that Jesus had said, but he was convinced that Jesus alone held the keys to a transcendent life with God. They knew that Jesus was the bearer of the light from God. Peter speaks for many in that he did not fully understand everything and had many questions.

It is in being faithful to the path and to the Lord that truth unfolds, hearts are transformed and minds enlightened.

Belief in Jesus is a way of life

By

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Aug. 19 (Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 34; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58)

The Bible has a master metaphor for describing the blessings of God, especially those blessings that focus on sustenance, transformation and inspiration: good food and fine wine. So much for asceticism! We can only wonder if the metaphor works in an age of fast-food or food of questionable nutritional value.

These symbols represented not only the fundamentals of life but also something that would immediately pique the interest of the listener. The seven pillars of Lady Wisdom are portrayed in terms of a lavish banquet but it has a very specific guest list: only those who are simple and willing to lay aside immaturity are invited.

Simplicity is openness and a lack of arrogance and cunning. The know-it-all, the cynic, the zealot or fanatic, the ideologue and those fearful of change or newness need not apply.

Wisdom urges the prospective guest to lay aside immaturity but it is amazing how many people have failed to do that. Brilliance or competence is not necessarily linked to maturity. Living and walking in the way of insight — wisdom — is the ability to be patient, just, balanced and compassionate in a variety of situations and to be able to apply spiritual principles to everyday life. In a sense, becoming aware of how much one does not know is the first step to attaining wisdom. As Socrates said, “I know one thing — that I know nothing!” Christianity needs to become less of a religion about getting to heaven and more a path of holy wisdom in this life. Lady Wisdom’s invitation still stands — she is the personification of a divinely inspired and guided life.

The author of Ephesians was well aware of this. His advice was simple: don’t waste your lives! Time goes by so quickly and time is infinitely precious. Once spent, or wasted, it cannot be replenished. He advised his readers to make the most of their time and not squander it on foolishness. Today we might add to that list compulsive overwork and addictive behaviour.

A life of wisdom includes spending ample time cultivating healthy human relationships and virtues as well as one’s relationship with God.

Jesus continued the tradition of Wisdom — indeed, the image of Wisdom virtually merges with the portrayal of Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus offered food and drink, beginning innocuously enough with the image of bread. The image abruptly changed into something jarring and shocking — flesh and blood. We are so used to them that the shock value has worn off, but the words sounded outrageous to His listeners. They were intended to be so — it was John’s habit to use language to separate those who were spiritually astute from those who were clueless. John’s images are meant to be interpreted on a deeper spiritual level rather than a literal and superficial one.

Contrasting that which is temporary and limited with the gift of God that is eternal, Jesus offered His own divine being to all who were willing to receive it. When we eat food we assimilate it and it becomes part of who and what we are. In a similar way, Jesus must be taken in as food and assimilated, He must become part of our very physical, psychological and spiritual makeup. This can come to us through many paths: the Eucharist, prayer, meditation, spiritual study, good works and in what we say, think and do. John is quite clear throughout the Gospel: faith in Jesus is not a mere religion but a total way of life — Jesus must be taken into us with the same urgency and regularity as food, drink and breath.

Just as filling ourselves with questionable food and drink damages our health and can lead to death, so it is with many of the things we use to give us a sense of strength, security and meaning. Nothing less than the sustaining power of Jesus Christ will provide what we seek and need.

Faith brings life-giving spirit

By

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Aug. 12 (1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51)

Everyone has their limit or breaking point, and Elijah had clearly reached his. Elijah had been fleeing from the assassins sent by Ahab and Jezebel and he was convinced that his days were numbered. He was worn out, disheartened and defeated. He just wanted to end it all so he prayed for death.

Many people can probably empathize with Elijah — perhaps they have been there, maybe even more than once. Like most people, Elijah was not fully aware of just how much careful and provident care God was continually exercising on his behalf. He was never alone or without resources and neither are we. The angels provided him with food and drink sufficient for “40 days and 40 nights” — a symbolic rather than a literal number — and the remainder of his journey to the mountain of God. In this case the food and drink was literal but in many cases it consists of the strength, courage and grace to go on. As long as we rely solely on our own powers and efforts we will eventually begin to wear out. The psalm encourages us to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” something we are often reluctant to do. This is more than offering a few perfunctory prayers. It means admitting our own limits and surrendering to the higher power that is God. The tremendous grace that is offered by God can be blocked by our own stubborn efforts to remain in control and make everything happen by our own plans and efforts. God is our sustainer in more than the metaphorical or symbolic sense. God is the power that makes all things possible.

People give the Holy Spirit ample reasons to be grieved. We have been given so much and are offered even more. God’s spirit is poured into our hearts and God shares the divine life with us. And yet the gift is spurned and treated with contempt by everyday human behaviour.

Sharing in God’s life and being a temple of the Spirit requires that we imitate God. The New Testament is very clear on what divine qualities are called for: kindness, forgiveness, gentleness and compassion.

When we display malice, wrath, slander, cruelty and bitterness God is not the one whom we are imitating. The Spirit is shut out of our hearts and we become a temple only for our negative attitudes and emotions. When we fall prey to this tendency we are not walking in the ways of God regardless of how religious or pious we might consider ourselves to be. Holiness does not consist of lip service but in the continual way we respond to the needs and the challenges represented by the world and the people around us.

Imitating God is tricky business but exhilarating and transforming at the same time.

The people listening to Jesus were shocked and scandalized. How can Jesus have come down from heaven? The crowd understood the words and the symbols that Jesus used in the most literal and superficial way. This very common human weakness is evident in many of the stories in John’s Gospel. Most people did not comprehend the deeper message hidden in the words. Jesus was speaking of His divine origin and the fact that He had become flesh for the sake of humanity. Jesus went on to insist that anyone who had really been listening to God with an open mind and heart would come to faith rather than finding fault and raising objections.

Faith is a mysterious process and is not something we figure out or put together for ourselves. God is the one who draws us but it remains for us to respond and follow. Jesus pointed out that the manna in the desert was temporary.

The life that it gave was physical and short; the people who ate it eventually met ordinary human death. In His self-revelation as the living bread from heaven, Jesus identified Himself as the divine sustainer. This time the sustenance is on a much higher level, for the life that it will provide is eternal. It was through the sacrifice of His own flesh on the cross that Jesus was able to become the life-giving force for all.  This life-giving spirit is offered to us through faith.

God can be and should be trusted

By

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Aug. 5 (Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15, 31; Psalm 78; Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; John 6:24-35)

Moses had a revolt on his hands. The excitement and wonder of the exodus from Egypt had already worn off. Now boredom, hunger and fear had taken hold of the people. The anguish, tears and suffering of bondage in Egypt were quickly forgotten. The only thing that they remembered was that the food had been plentiful (and the memory may have been very selective) — so why not go back into Egypt? It wasn’t that bad!

People usually disparage their present circumstances and romanticize the past or an imagined future. This was a massive failure in trust on the part of the people. God had brought them out of bondage with great signs and wonders but that was past. What about now? God came through again — this time with quail for meat and manna “from heaven.” The manna was most likely the secretion of two kinds of insects that feed on the sap of the tamarisk plant and it is rich in both sugar and pectin. That does not diminish the presence of divine care — often miracles are natural occurrences that are given precisely in the right moment and place.

The instructions that accompany the miracle (omitted) are interesting — the people were expressly forbidden to gather an abundance of manna or to hoard. This was to be an exercise in trust rather than greed or fear. God would provide just enough — not too much or too little — and the people were to be content and at peace with that. If we would learn to live by this principle the needs of all people would be met. Some of the crowd refused to heed the instructions and the hoarded manna turned putrid before their eyes, a metaphor for what happens when greed and selfishness take hold of us. The consistent lesson of the desert experience was that God could be trusted and should be. The people were not to walk in fear or succumb to negativity and anger.

The author of Ephesians had the same message in a different vein. Being a follower of Jesus does not mean business as usual and is not merely adopting a religion. It involves a “total makeover,” a shedding of all that is so typically human and yet not genuinely human: selfishness, lust, greed and negative thought patterns. Many secular ideologies have striven to create a “new man” but this is usually in pursuit of some political or economic goal. The renewal that we obtain through the spirit of Christ is a cleansing and restoration of the original spiritual image of God in which we were created. Often the only way that we begin to shed the old person is when we face challenges and struggles like the Israelites in the desert.

The crowd that witnessed the miraculous feeding was in need of a bit of renewal. Their pursuit of Jesus was not a faith quest but a desire for more signs and wonders, and maybe a bit more of the free food. They asked the age-old question: what must we do to perform the works of God? What does God want and expect from us? The reply of Jesus was disarmingly simple: just this: believe in Him whom He has sent, referring of course to Himself. Is that all? Faith in Jesus, however, is not a free pass or an occasional venture. It is nothing less than a complete surrender of all of oneself to Jesus and willingness to embark on a whole new way of life. The people demanded a sign from Jesus before making any faith commitments, and they had one in mind. Their ancestors were fed with manna in the desert — can Jesus top this? Jesus corrected their understanding: God, not Moses, was the one who fed them. Manna and other forms of earthly sustenance are fleeting and limited. It is only heavenly food that sustains without end or limit and God is prepared to grant this.

Showing the literal understanding typical of ordinary people in John’s Gospel, they were eager to have this food. Jesus then delivered the shocker: He Himself is this heavenly bread, as well as the source of living water. Only He can grant us nourishment without end, eternal life in God’s presence.

All is possible with faith

By

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B) July 29 (2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15)

Many people are struck by the uncanny resonances between passages in the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, some stories from the Old Testament almost seem to be cut and pasted into the New, albeit with some significant alterations. This is not coincidence but the result of two very important ancient practices.

The first was midrash — Jewish biblical exegesis — that often took the form of retelling a story in new ways in order to respond to contemporary needs and issues. Each retelling brought out deeper and more subtle aspects of biblical truth and did not eliminate or render obsolete earlier versions. There are large bodies of midrashic literature devoted to the prophets and holy people of the Old Testament.

The Lord is the shepherd who will not disappoint

By

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) July 22 (Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34)

“The Lord is my shepherd” — how often we have heard the opening line of Psalm 23 but perhaps we are not aware of its full import. It is a declaration of independence from the disappointments and betrayals of human beings.

Jeremiah, like his fellow-prophet Ezekiel, did not have good words for the shepherds of Israel. They did not do their job. They were corrupt, greedy and self-serving. They were mostly to blame for the disaster that Jeremiah saw looming on the horizon — the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in the early sixth century BC. Speaking in the first person on behalf of God, Jeremiah expressed God’s disgust and disappointment at the poor performance of Israel. God resolved to take personal control of the situation — to gather the scattered children of God together and provide them protection. New shepherds would be found who would fulfill their responsibilities. Looking to the distant future, a leader from David’s lineage would be selected, partly because of this lineage but mostly because of his God-centred righteousness.

The Lord’s plan for mankind is all about blessing, reconciliation

By

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) July 15 (Amos 7:12-15; Psalm 85; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:7-13)

The prophet Amos was not welcome at court or near any of the centres of power in his nation. The priest at Bethel was emphatic: he was to hit the road and get out of town. The sanctuary was a centre of royal power and the warnings that Amos had been delivering were unsettling and irritating.

The priest seemed to assume that Amos was in it for the money and if that were the case, there were richer fields to harvest in the land of Judah to the south. Amos hastened to set him straight by denying that he was a professional prophet — it didn’t even run in the family. He was a simple man — a herdsman and a tree-trimmer and he had been quite content with that. He had not sought or cultivated his calling. It was from God so Amos had very little to say about it. He had no ego investment in the outcome of his mission and no personal attachments whatsoever. He was free to speak the truth that God put in his mind and heart.

Power, privilege, exemptions and wealth are the poisons that often corrupt the purity and integrity of religions. To be stripped of everything except the grace and power of God can be both liberating and purifying.

God’s plan for humanity and the world has been unfolding since the very beginning of time. God has one plan; humans have another. They are seldom in harmony. God’s plan is all about blessing and reconciliation rather than judgment and punishment. We were chosen before the foundation of the world to be in God’s presence and to share in the riches that God intends for us. In fact, God intends to reconcile all creation and all of humanity in Christ — an end to all division and fragmentation. Those called to follow Jesus share in this mission of healing and reconciling the world. As in the case of Amos, it is not something that we dreamed up ourselves and it is not for selfish gain. Alone we are unable to accomplish the task but with God all things are possible.

Jesus ordered the Twelve to be “lean and mean” in the performance of their mission. They were to take no money, food, luggage or even a change of clothes. How many of us would be willing and able to go on a trip under such conditions? Urgency was the issue — Jesus did not want them to be hindered by anything, for the time was short. Generals and leaders who will not act until they have complete control of every last detail are often judged failures by history. They are overtaken by events and by those bolder and swifter than they are.

The Twelve in one sense took nothing with them but in another sense they had everything. They were given authority over the negative forces at work in the world and the Spirit of God worked through them. Jesus wanted them to alert people to the coming of God’s reign so that they could prepare their minds and hearts to receive it. The repentance they preached meant a change of mind and heart — a new way of looking at things. The healings and exorcisms were not merely acts of compassion but signs of God’s imminence.

The erosion of direct Christian influence in the world today might not be a bad thing. We can be too fearful and protective of the institution and its prerogatives. Christianity can and often is embedded too deeply in society, culture and economic systems. This renders it unable to raise a credible prophetic voice. Being stripped of these hindrances can be a gift from God. Perhaps we will rediscover our soul and learn to rely on the power and spirit of God rather than the many dubious forms of security and support that humanity and the world offer us.

Walking in God’s way solves our woes

By

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) July 8 (Ezekiel 2:3-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6)

Few people could have handled Ezekiel’s encounter with God and the realm of the spirit — or would have even wanted to. Ezekiel lived among the exiles in Babylon in the mid-sixth century BC. As he sat by the Chebar River — rivers play an important role in the lives of prophets and visionaries — he had a terrifying vision of the heavens. If this were not enough, a spirit soon entered him and began to speak and to charge him with an important mission.

The Father is a God of the living

By

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) July 1 (Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24; Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8:7, 9, 13-15; Mark 5:21-43)

Since the beginning of time humans have experienced death as a relentless and merciless hunter. Death is a primal fear that is always lurking in the background of human consciousness. Even with modern so-called sophistication, people deny the inevitability of death in various ways: outright denial, endless expensive treatments and therapies to retain the illusion of youth or technological “solutions” such as cryogenics. In the end, however, the morality rate is 100 per cent — no one gets through life alive!

Our work is about the Lord

By

Birth of John the Baptist (Year B) June 24 (Isaiah 49:1-6; Psalm 139; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66, 80)

What will this child become? Many people — especially new parents — ask this question when they gaze upon a newborn baby. In any large group of infants there are a few who will become great, a much larger group destined for relative anonymity and a few headed for frightening notoriety. All, however, enter this world with free will and a wide range of possibilities. No one begins life with a signed and sealed fate from which there is no escape.

The Father determines all human destinies

By

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) June 17 (Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark 4:26-34)

A parable or metaphor plucked from its original time and place is often difficult to understand. At first glance, the image of planting and tending shoots in the reading from Ezekiel seems vague and puzzling. It is only when we study chapter 17 in its entirety and place it in the context of the sixth century BC that it becomes clearer.