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.

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.

Catching souls for God

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Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Jan. 23 (Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17-18; Matthew 4:12-23)

Walking in darkness and thirsting for a great light take on a special meaning during the long winter months. The many coloured lights of the Christmas season are but one attempt to roll back the gloom and compensate for the long hours of darkness.

Thoughts of spring and long summer days are helpful during these months. But there is another kind of darkness: the sense of hopelessness and gloom that occur after a great disaster or tragedy. We can think of wars and natural disasters of our own time. Darkness and the absence of hope are often the daily bread of those whose homes, cities, families and lives have been devastated. Although light, hope and joy are in short supply they top everyone’s wish list.

Take away the sin of the world

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Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Jan. 16 (Isaiah 49:3, 5-6; Psalm 40; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1:29-34)

What does it mean to be a servant? The word has been tarnished a bit in our own time for it conjures up the images of class and privilege. But in the spiritual sense being a servant means nothing more (or less) than doing the will of God consistently.

The mysterious and nameless Servant that Isaiah portrays is one who has been marked out for this mission from the moment he was conceived. He is addressed as “Israel” in a couple of instances, signifying that his actions and the fate of Israel are inextricably bound. His job is overwhelming: He is to restore and renew the people of Israel, who have been broken and spiritually compromised by the long exile in Babylon. But his mission goes far beyond that. In Isaiah the vision of a universal mission for Israel begins to unfold. Israel’s call from God is on behalf of all humanity. The servant is the model and paradigm for all who seek to love and serve God. It defined the life and ministry of Jesus and it should define the life of all who claim to follow Him. One’s response in faith to God’s call goes far beyond “getting saved” or going to heaven — it is a commitment for service to the world and to humanity. True religion is about service and compassion. Being a servant of God finds its finest expression in being a person for others.

God will reward us in His good plan

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Epiphany (Year A) Jan. 2 (Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12)

Singing a song of hope and a bright future is very difficult when all of the visible evidence paints a different picture. Incredulity and ridicule are often the rewards for the prophetic individual who dares to swim against the current.