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.

Easter Sunday (Year A) April 24 (Acts 10:34, 37-43; Psalm 118; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18)

What was Cornelius the centurion expecting to hear? Although a foreigner, a pagan and an officer in the hated Roman army, he was a thoughtful and just man, giving alms and offering prayers to the God of the people whom he was governing. That prayer was heard — in a vision, a dazzling figure stood before him and commanded him to ask that Peter come to his house. He has no idea who Peter is or what he is going to say. Peter simply relates the story about Jesus that is travelling through Judea: divine anointing with the Spirit, compassionate deeds of power, betrayal and death. But that is not all: God vindicated Jesus by raising Him from the dead, thereby affirming His teaching and deeds. He has transcended death and some of His followers are witnesses.

At this point Cornelius might say, “Fine — great story and a great man, but what does that have to do with me?” The answer is stark and simple. Jesus now stands astride history itself as the judge of the living and the dead but with the desire to grant forgiveness to those who believe in Him.

Jesus’ mission bears witness to God’s Kingdom

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Passion Sunday (Year A) April 17 (Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66)

When people find meaning in their suffering they can endure almost anything. This was the insight of the great philosopher and psychologist Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning and how right he was.

The enigmatic suffering servant figure of Isaiah is a case in point for his suffering had the highest meaning. We do not know who he was or even if he was a particular individual but we do know that he suffered much abuse in the course of his ministry. This is not some sort of masochistic suffering for its own sake nor does it excuse injustice and cruelty. But one thing is clear: he is able to undergo such suffering and abuse because he knows that he is bearing the divine teaching within him and that he is fulfilling God’s mission. As long as he is continually renewed and instructed within he is able to remain focused with a laser-like intensity and purpose. Whatever is received from God is for the sake of others — our teacher continually gives hope and encouragement to the weary and discouraged. This is the model of the great men and women in history who have given their lives over to the advancement of humanity and have often paid a big price. There is so much today that is worth striving and suffering for — we need only listen to the voice of the spirit within us for guidance.

We gain life by living in the Spirit

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Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A) April 10 (Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45)

Death is our greatest fear. People have stood in the presence of death from the primal origins of humans up until the present. They are filled with both dread and wonder — what happens after death? Where does the individual go? Does he or she live again or continue to live in another place? Prehistoric people buried their dead reverently with flowers and grave goods and all human cultures since have surrounded death with memorials, rituals and awe.

The sting of death is even more painful when it is unjust and unfair — especially when visited upon whole communities of people. It can seem like the light of life is snuffed out forever. In the sixth century BC, Ezekiel dealt with these feelings that he shared with his fellow Israelites. Israel lay in ruins with her population either dead or in exile. The temple was destroyed and its worship silenced. Would Israel continue? Was this the end of the line? Ezekiel’s vision (vv.4-6) assures the Israelites of two important things. First of all, God is faithful and has not abandoned them — they are still His chosen people. Secondly, God is the author and giver of life. By human standards, Israel is finished, but by God’s standards, Israel’s life has barely begun. Just as the graphic and somewhat macabre image of bones coming to life signifies a return from destruction and death, so it will be for Israel. God will raise her from the ashes of destruction and defeat and breathe life into her.

Open your eyes to the truth

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Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year A) April 3 (1 Samuel 16:1. 6-7, 10-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41)

What is a person worth? Most cultures teach us subtly and at times blatantly that appearance is everything. A person’s worth is measured by their beauty, the proportion and appearance of their bodies, the clothes they wear and the way their hair is styled, and that indefinable quality that seems to cling to celebrities, sports heroes and entertainers. Lookism even plays out in political campaigns with the advantage going to those with a better media image.

The Lord is with us, in good times and bad

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Third Sunday of Lent (Year A) March 27 (Exodus 17:3-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42)

The experience at Massah and Meribah is a recurring theme in the history of the human race. The Israelites have just been rescued from slavery and led out of Egypt by means of powerful signs and wonders. God has humbled the superpower of that age and made mockery of a pharaoh with divine pretentions. They are free, and God has promised to lead them to a land where they can continue to live in freedom.

But now the adrenalin of the escape has abated and reality has set in. They are in a hostile desert — food and water are scarce — and they have no idea where they are or where they are going. With the onset of fear come the complaining, quarrelling and the testing of God that will characterize their entire journey through the wilderness.

People have notoriously short memories when it comes to the graces that God bestows on them. For that matter, this memory deficit also applies to the good that others do for us. Their cry echoes with those of so many throughout history even in our own day: Is the Lord among us? Does God even exist? The attitude of the Israelites at that point is shared by people everywhere: If I am a believer, why should I suffer? When the going gets tough, faith is the first victim. And the Israelites want to go back into Egypt, their place of slavery, because in their minds the life was easier and more predictable and secure. Forgotten is the pain and bitterness of slavery.

People usually want to go back into their own Egypt. Sometimes they imagine an earlier time in which society was more wholesome and nice and people were more civil and kind. They might remember a previous job, conveniently forgetting how badly they were treated by the boss. Or they might want to return to a romanticized period in the Church rather than face the challenges of the present. All of these reactions are long on fear and short on faith. Faith is not doctrine or creeds but an unwavering trust in the presence and the loving care of God. It does not cut and run at the first sign of adversity, confusion or suffering.

Paul recognizes that it is by means of this faith that we are placed in right relationship with God. With this faith comes reconciliation and peace but even more: the gift of the Spirit of God that is poured into our hearts. This Spirit enables us to be loving and faith-filled people regardless of what is going on around us. It is a sure sign that God is with us and that we share in God’s glory.

In this haunting and rather mysterious story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well we learn that God is still providing for our needs but now the focus is on more than day-to-day survival. Jesus has stepped beyond the ordinary in this encounter: He is in hostile Samaritan territory; He is talking to a woman alone. The conversation gets off to a shaky start with her brusque and sarcastic response to His request for water. Jesus does not help the conversation for He speaks in riddles, symbols and metaphors in His attempt to enlighten her. Just as God provided water for one kind of thirst in the desert, God now provides “living water” for a deeper sort of thirst. The Spirit will quench the thirst for God and transcendence and will never fail or give out.

But with this gift of the Spirit there is a challenge. When the woman asks for the legitimate place of divine worship she is told that from now on it is neither Jerusalem nor Mt. Gerizim. God is now to be worshipped in the human heart and soul through the presence of the Spirit. In a sense, the ground upon which we stand is holy for God is present. Worshipping in spirit and truth describes a personal and direct encounter with God. This personal gift of the Spirit must never be domesticated or given into the control of others for it is the gift of access to God that Jesus Himself gives us. Is the Lord with us or not? Look within!

'Doers' of the Word are righteous

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Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time March 6 (Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28, 32; Psalm 31; Romans 3:21-25, 28; Matthew 7:21-27)

A theologian once insisted that “religion is unbelief.” While this is probably a stark and exaggerated statement in need of much qualification there is also a kernel of truth in it.

There is a human tendency to construct a religion as a buffer or barrier between them and God. In this way they can “control” God and keep God away from the innermost part of their heart and soul where God desires to dwell. Religion then becomes kind of a game — keeping God “happy,” obtaining divine benefits, but continuing one’s life as usual. It is the tendency and danger that all of the prophets railed against and it was at the core of many of the teachings of Jesus.

We will never be abandoned nor forsaken by God

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Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Feb. 27 (Isaiah 49:14-15; Psalm 62; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34)

All God-language is metaphorical and symbolic, for God cannot be described or contained within any word or concept. In the Gospels Jesus routinely employs similes, metaphors and symbols, using everyday images to give hints and suggestions of the nature of God’s Kingdom. Symbolic modes of speech are useful for sketching the divine in very broad terms.

Jesus commands us to share our love with all

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Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Feb. 20 (Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; Psalm 103; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48)

What does it mean to be holy? People often toss the word around carelessly but when pressed to define the term they are at a loss. In the Old Testament the term meant that which is set apart — something special and undefiled.

The Book of Leviticus — certainly not everyone’s favourite book of the Bible — contains some very interesting and challenging commands in its Holiness Code. The passage tells us that holiness is one of the defining descriptions of God. God is holy and God commands the Israelites to be the same. This holiness is manifested in behaviour and attitudes that differ from the typically human and the text is quick to elaborate. Hatred is out, as is the bearing of grudges and the taking of revenge. That alone signals a huge modification of ordinary human behaviour and if practised would result in a very different world. But then comes the big one: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. It should sound familiar for Jesus quotes this passage in the Gospels as part of the greatest commandment.

God's commandments give us guidance in living a good life

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Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Feb. 13 (Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37)

“It’s not my fault!” Humans are experts at placing blame everywhere but where it belongs. When they do stupid or wicked things it is far easier to find something or someone to blame than to accept responsibility.

But Sirach will have none of this. His work is part of an Old Testament theological tradition scholars call the “two-ways” spirituality. People are presented with two ways — one leads to life and happiness, the other to destruction and death. On Ash Wednesday we begin Lent with a two-ways passage from Deuteronomy. We are always urged to choose the first but sadly, as our world attests, many choose the latter. People blame society, their circumstances, other people, genetics or even God. But Sirach is clear: we always have a choice. All of these other influences are certainly present and they can sometimes be very powerful, but in the end nothing can trump the human will.

Light will flow from an awakened heart

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Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Feb. 6 (Isaiah 58:6-10; Psalm 112; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16)

What makes a people, society or nation holy or spiritual? For many it is the visible signs of religiosity: crucifixes, churches and places of worship, liturgical celebrations and a privileged place for religious symbols and practices. There is a certain security and comfort in these traditions but often they amount to little more than identity markers and signs of belonging.

Isaiah — as many of the other prophets — questions the manner in which they are used. He makes it crystal clear that the worship of God is properly expressed in justice and compassionate action. He calls for the zealous removal of all forms of economic, social and political bondage that enslaves people. In addition to that he insists on active and hands-on forms of compassion: sharing with the poor and hungry, even to the point of inconvenience and personal sacrifice. Probably the most difficult command is removing the “pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil” — both are things we love to do, especially if we are convinced we are right or morally and spiritually superior.

Our worth comes from God

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Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Jan. 30 (Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13; Psalm 146; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12)

Most people would not view being poor as something desirable but a misfortune to be avoided at all costs. We do not see any particular virtue in having an empty bank account. But the poor — the anawim — are praised in the Old Testament for they are especially close to God and enjoy His favour.

In this context poverty has a far broader definition than mere lack of wealth. The anawim are cut off from the usual avenues of power in society, disenfranchised, and find themselves with only God as their defender and protector. Part of their isolation stems from their refusal to “play the game” by engaging in the cold and crafty machinations of the power struggles that surround them or the culture of lies and deceit that often accompanies it.