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.

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) July 31 (Isaiah 55:1-3; Psalm 145; Romans 8:35, 37-39; Matthew 14:13-21)

During hard economic times people usually take a long hard look at their spending habits. Under pressure many things suddenly seem unnecessary, even frivolous, and decisions have to be made: What is really important?

Isaiah wonders at the money people are willing to throw away on relatively worthless things that do not even satisfy. In our own time we might look at the multi-billion dollar industry aimed at making people feel better about their appearance or happier and more content. Isaiah has good news: God has far more valuable gifts than anything we can imagine and they are free. He uses the basic symbol of life — water — and invites all who are thirsty to quench their thirst. It is the same image the Gospel of John uses for the living water (Spirit) that Jesus grants to His followers. But there is more: wine, milk and rich food, again without cost. These are the symbols of the God of Israel as provider and sustainer. They encourage the people to trust in God and not give in to fear.

We can become captivated by the bad spirit that always screams, “More!” The Spirit of God, on the other hand, is the spirit that whispers reassuringly, “Enough!” This spirit also bestows on us a feeling of well-being and gratitude despite whatever struggles may come our way. A covenant or relationship with God is never richer or more satisfying than during “hard times.”

There is no shortcut to God’s kingdom

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17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) July 24 (1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119; Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44-52)

What can you give someone who appears to have everything? God solves the problem by giving Solomon a heavenly gift certificate — he can cash it in for anything he wants. God asks what Solomon wants and suggests the usual suspects: wealth, long life and the demise of his enemies. But the burdens of his office of king are weighing heavily on Solomon and he feels grossly inadequate for the job. That alone sets him apart: run of the mill despots would not have felt inadequate and wouldn’t have cared in the first place. Solomon asks for an understanding mind fit to govern others and the ability to discern between good and evil. God is immensely impressed and grants him those qualities to a superlative degree. There will never be another like him.

We can only hope that those in positions of responsibility and authority would make similar requests of God. Being granted wishes (usually three) by some superhuman or divine power is a familiar theme in the stories and legends of many of the world’s cultures. The fascination is seeing what the person will ask for and imagining what we would ask for in similar circumstances. The answer to that question probably reveals more about the individual’s character than we would care to admit. But this is not a story of the fulfilment of wishful fantasies nor is God in the business of granting wishes. It is about focusing on and maintaining a high ideal. Solomon’s ideal was wisdom, sound judgement and good leadership. We can ask God to grant us the grace to fulfill and live by our highest ideals. But this must be kept alive and maintained in the heart and mind consistently.

God expects the righteous to be kind

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16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) July 17 (Wisdom 12:13, 16-19; Psalm 86; Romans 8:26-27; Matthew 13:24-43)

The use of force and violence — despite our denials — is widely admired by many people. Just look at movies and video games, as well as the heroes and idols adored by our culture. Restraint and refusal to resort to force is readily seen as a sign of weakness. And strange as it may seem, there are those who prefer a God who is rather violent and quick to punish evildoers (as long as it is someone else!) in the severest ways. They see God’s wrath lurking behind every natural or human disaster and every personal tragedy.

The author of wisdom does not deny for a moment that God is sovereign and has the power to do whatever He wants. But God’s true greatness and strength lies in His restraint and reluctance to resort to such responses. This patience and mildness is borne of God’s intense concern and care for all people and the fervent wish that all have a change of mind and heart. This does not mean that God is a pushover or just turns a blind eye to our injustice, unkindness and downright cruelty. We live in a moral universe. We will meet ourselves in our experience — what we deal out to others will return to us in one form or another.

Spiritual maturity in Jesus

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16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) July 18 (Genesis 18:1-10; Psalm 15; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42)

Having houseguests isn’t always a joy even for close friends and relatives. Inviting strangers to stay over under one’s roof is almost unheard of today. In the ancient Middle East, offering hospitality to travellers and strangers was serious business — in fact, it was a life and death matter. Once hospitality had been extended, the host was responsible not only for the comfort and well-being of his guests but their very lives.

There is no limit to God’s Word

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15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) July 10 (Isaiah 55:10-11; Psalm 65; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-23)

The Word of the Lord is relentless and unceasing. But this “Word” has little to do with the individual words written on a page — even in the Bible.

When we hold the lectionary aloft and say “The Word of the Lord” we must take care not to mistake the book for God’s word. This sort of confusion often leads to literal interpretations and superficial, unthinking applications of the text. The beautiful metaphor in Isaiah’s passage is far richer and deeper. The Word of God is a divine utterance — an expression of God’s will and spirit — and it ripples through the entire cosmos. Everything that reflects the nature and will of God is part of this communication. As the recent papal exhortation Verbum Domini points out, God’s Word can be expressed in creation itself, in nature and the cycle of life. It also finds expression in salvation history — the times and places when God’s guiding hand has moved humanity towards redemption.

Live in the Spirit and you will be transformed

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14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) July 3 (Zechariah 9:9-10; Psalm 145; Romans 8:9, 11-13; Matthew 11:25-30)

What is strange about this picture? The victorious king enters the city on a donkey — the equivalent of a president or prime minister driving an ordinary low-end car. One might expect more flash and panache from a messianic king. But there is something else out of the ordinary.  This king is not bent on conquest or empire but establishing peace. In fact, he will deliberately thwart the efforts of all those dedicated to war and conquest.

All of this confirms that this personage is from God and not a product of human beings. The visitation of God never baptizes the status quo, nor will it give comfort to opinionated, fanatical or controlling people. God will shock most and outrage not a few for God’s ways are definitely not human ways.

It would be wonderful to have a divine figure who would establish peace and justice but this is not going to happen. God will give us the tools — the spiritual principles and guidance — to make this happen. But God will not force this on us, for God respects our free will. Far better for us to follow the example and teachings of the one who rides humbly into the city on a donkey than to just ‘let God do it’ or even worse to pervert the Lord’s teaching into instruments of violence or injustice.  

Finding nourishment through Christ

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Body and Blood of Christ (Year A) June 26 (Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14-16; Psalm 147; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; John 6:51-59)

Faith and trust are not all that difficult when all is well and everything is in harmony with our desires. It is easy for people to praise God and pledge devoted service even as they continue to do things their own way. But when everything collapses and the going gets tough it is a different story. Faith — or what passes for it — evaporates as cynicism, fear and doubt take command.

God wanted to cure the Israelites of human game-playing and conditional faith. The people were led into an extremely hostile environment — no food or water, and a host of lurking dangers. It was very simple: they had to trust God and rely on Him or die. They could not call the shots or manipulate God, although on a couple of notable occasions they tried. They had to wait faithfully for the life-sustaining manna that would be given daily. Even gathering more than a day’s supply was forbidden — no room at all for self-sufficiency or stubbornness.

Life itself and every breath is a gift from God. We really own nothing and have control over very little. Our pretentions, however, far exceed this reality.

Through mercy, love, we dwell in God

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Trinity Sunday (Year A) June 19 (Exodus 34:4-6, 8-9; Daniel 3; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; John 3:16-18)

What does God look like? What would it be like to be in God’s presence? The Book of Exodus answers the question in several ways. In some passages, the vision of God is so awesome and terrifying that no one can look upon God and live. Another passage relates that Moses spoke with God face to face as with a friend. In this passage God descends on a cloud, passes before Moses and speaks to him. All of these represent different traditions in ancient Israel that are woven into the narrative of Exodus.

God was very real for ancient people, but God does not have human form; God does not walk through the garden in the cool of the evening. We do not speak face to face with God, at least in this life. But the theological truth of these traditions is clear. In the tradition of ancient storytelling these traditions reveal that God is deeply personal and not an abstract concept. This passage also reveals important characteristics of God: merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness. This is the image of God that the Israelites clung to throughout their long history and from which they drew strength. It is the gift that they gave to Christianity. Not only that, it is an image we share with Islam — at the very beginning of the Quran God is described as the merciful and compassionate. It is an image of God to which we should all return constantly and strive to imitate for when we depart from it the results are grim and painful for everyone.

Divine light shines within

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Pentecost Sunday (Year A) June 12 (Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23)

What does the Spirit do? The term is tossed around so much in religious circles, usually as a vague appeal to a higher and somewhat ambiguous authority. Over the centuries it has sometimes been misused to justify questionable ideas and practices.

In the New Testament there is a range of images for the work or action of the Spirit. We are all familiar with the image of the Spirit portrayed by Luke in Acts: rather noisy and flashy but very vibrant. It descended on the assembled followers of Jesus on the harvest feast of Pentecost. In the Scriptures the harvest is often used as a metaphor for the final days. It is time to gather in that which belongs to God. For Luke, the Spirit will be the great unifier. Its first function in Acts was to overcome the barrier of language but it does not stop there. All human divisions and separations must give way to the reconciling and transforming power of God’s Spirit. God is One and humanity must be the same.

God prepares us for our glorious inheritance

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Ascension of the Lord (Year A) June 5 (Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20)

Angelic figures floating on clouds and playing harps — that is the image of heaven portrayed in many cartoons, stories and works of art. In an ancient worldview it makes perfect sense — God is “up there” in the sky from where He dispatches thunderbolts, rain, sun, plagues and so on. But this view came unravelled with the arrival of modern science and the growth of human knowledge. One of the first Soviet cosmonauts remarked smugly to a believer that he hadn’t seen any God during his trip into space.

But our encounter with the transcendent, God, is not spatial or temporal. It is relational, and relationship begins on Earth through our relationships with one another, with the created world and with the deepest part of our own soul. Jesus is about to reveal this to the assembled disciples. First of all, they want a quick fix: are you going to throw the Romans out and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel now? But He rather brusquely dismisses their concerns, in effect, it is none of their business but God’s, and God has other plans. Their mission is to sit tight and wait for the bestowal of power from on high — the gift of the Holy Spirit.

God is love

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Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year A) May 29 (Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; Psalm 66; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21)

What happens when the Holy Spirit descends on a community? The passage from Acts is very explicit: evil is expelled, people are healed and joy and hope take the place of despair and negativity.

The spread of the faith to Samaria is a concrete example of the universal mission of the Spirit as described in the Pentecost account. There was certainly no love lost between Samaritans and Jews, just as the relationships between various Christian churches today are characterized by negative stereotypes and attitudes. But they responded eagerly not only to Philip’s proclamation but to the dramatic manifestations of the Spirit’s power. Although the community in Jerusalem was delighted with the news of their acceptance of the Good News, there is the curious observation that they had not yet received the Spirit, having been baptized only in the name of the Lord Jesus. In the early decades of the Christian movement the gift of the Spirit was separate from baptism and was conferred by the laying on of hands — on everyone, not just office holders. As the Samaritans eagerly embraced the Good News the apostles called down the Spirit on them and they received its gifts. Great things happen when the Holy Spirit is permitted to be more than a theological term or concept. Allowed to do its work, the Spirit can enliven and enlighten individuals, churches and communities. But if it is regarded with fear and suspicion or kept tightly controlled it is emptied of the power that it bears. More joy, life and spiritual energy would certainly not hurt any religious body.

Why should we sanctify Christ as Lord? Isn’t He sacred or holy enough? But the biblical meaning of “holy” or “to sanctify” is to set something aside and keep it pure and uncontaminated. It is not permitted to become diluted or ambiguous. Sanctification of the Lord in our hearts helps to ensure that faith is kept alive and well regardless of what may come our way. The author of the letter insists that this inner sanctification will also give us a joyful hope that will be noticeable to others. When they ask for the cause of our hope and joy we can tell them of our faith in Jesus — that is the only sort of “preaching” that is convincing in a rather sceptical and cynical world, for all search for reasons to hope. The letter also assures us of the privilege of suffering for our faith but warns of the danger of spiritualizing our own sins and errors. People and institutions cannot wrap themselves in the cloak of religious language of crucifixion and suffering when it is due to their own mistakes, infidelities and shortcomings. In those instances only the language of repentance will do.

How can we know God? How can we communicate with God? How do we know truth? In his usual convoluted manner, the author of the fourth Gospel sums up the answer to these questions with one word: love. Love is what impels the believer to walk in God’s ways, and God’s ways are love — in fact, God is love. Through this bond of love one can receive the spirit of truth, which is a stand-in for Jesus Himself. And this Spirit continues to teach and reveal God to the believer personally. But it is clear that all of this depends on love — if there is no love, there is no revelation or guiding spirit. People tend to look everywhere for God except where God can be found — deep within the individual heart and soul. John’s Jesus invites His faithful followers to enjoy the same relationship that He has with the Father. Through the bonds of love they will abide in Him and by so doing they will experience the interior presence of both Jesus and the Father. In effect, they will be people through whom the divinity shines.

In our own time many experience the absence or disappearance of God and feel a great sense of insecurity and emptiness. John offers a solution: the one who abides in Jesus can never claim to be alone nor can they say that God is distant or absent. God dwells within them in a rich, life-giving and transforming way and they can truly say that they know God.