32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B (2)

All three of today’s readings present us a simple question: if everything was on the line, what would you give? Our Lord blesses those who trust in him and exceed expectations.

In today’s First Reading Elijah asks for a handout while Israel is suffering an extended drought. The widow doesn’t disagree, she simply thinks she’d has to choose between her, her son, or Elijah: one would starve to death for the sake of another, and ultimately as well. Elijah gives her an opportunity in faith to trust in the Lord’s Providence: she’ll be provided for until the drought ends for her generosity. She provides for her son and helps the Lord through helping Elijah and everything works out. For the widow helping Elijah put everything on the line—her life, her son’s life, and the last of her livelihood—and the Lord blessed her for it.

In today’s Second Reading the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that unlike other high priests, who sacrificed over and over without personal risk, the Lord sacrificed himself completely, once and for all, when everything was on the line for us. Our salvation was on the line. There was no expectation that the Lord would do anything about it whatsoever. We’d made the mess. As divine he had all the prestige and recognition in the world and no need to prove it. We spurned him through sin and brought all its consequences on our heads.

He assumed human nature and became one of us in a fallen world, with the hope that we would let him lead us back into the good graces of Our Heavenly Father, but his hope and our expectations were not on the same page: he hoped we’d welcome him as the Messiah saving us from sin, we’d hoped he would clean house socially and politically without any effort on our part other than cheering him on. He put his whole humanity on the line for us and showed us that when it comes to salvation we have to put our whole selves on the line too.

In the Gospel Our Lord is moved by the generosity of a poor widow who gives all she has to the Temple treasury. She sacrifices her livelihood for the sake of giving alms, and no one notices her because the amount seems so insignificant in the eyes of the world. It’s not insignificant to her, which is why it is so generous. She’s not doing it for good public relations, as the rich men are doing out of their surplus. She’s not even negotiating like Elijah and the widow in the First Reading. Little does she know that God himself is looking upon her sacrifice with contentment through the eyes of the Son and making it an example for the disciples to follow. She put her whole livelihood on the line for the sake of others.

We all know the expression “give ’til it hurts,” and we all know the thought of it makes us wince to one degree or another. If we put a little of our comfort and livelihood on the line in giving, whether time, talent, or treasure, Our Lord sees it and will bless us, even if the world doesn’t. Let’s be generous today in sharing what we have with others, knowing that if we take care of others Our Lord will take care of us abundantly.

Readings: 1 Kings 17:10–16; Psalm 146:7–10; Hebrews 9:24–28; Mark 12:38–44. See also 9th Week in Ordinary Time, Saturday.

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B

In today’s readings we’re reminded that beyond the laws our faith proposes is the love with which we observe them and to which we’re called. Even if we begin simply observing them for other motives they pave the way for us to go beyond them and achieve what the Lord truly wants from us.

In today’s First Reading Moses promises the Israelites that if they are observant the Lord will bless them with a prosperous life. A running theme throughout the Old Testament is that Israel is blessed to the degree that it is faithful to the covenant they made with the Lord. Moses exhorts them today to see this as the secret to their success. Yet at the same time he takes it a step further: he exhorts them to love the Lord with everything they’ve got: unconditionally. The Law that comes from the covenant has the potential to pave the way to a deeper relationship with the Lord and with each other, if they have the right attitude in observing it.

In today’s Second Reading the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that without Our Lord we are weak in maintaining a good relationship with God. The greatest representatives of Israel before God, the high priests, were limited by their mortality and their frailty, both consequences of sin. Our Lord brought a new representation and mediation with God unflawed by humanity’s past mistakes. He brought a redeemed humanity into the equation. As high priest he triumphed over human mortality and frailty by conquering sin and death, continuing in his priestly office forever. That mediation and strength pave the way for us to go beyond the law and achieve what the Lord really wants from us, the God who has it all: our unconditional love.

Today’s Gospel reading brings us to the end of a series of debates in Mark’s Gospel with the chief priests, scribes, and elders, and it ends on an encouraging note. After various attempts to exploit discussion on God’s word in order to score political points or discredit Our Lord we find a refreshing change of pace: a scribe who is actually interested in seeking the truth and who acknowledges when someone has helped him find it.

The scribes at the time were debating about what the hierarchy of all the precepts were within Mosaic Law. They had already determined 613 precepts of the Law: 248 commands and 365 prohibitions. Which were the most important? This debate was an inheritance of the expectations in today’s First Reading: faithful observance of the covenant with the Lord was the secret to success and prosperity. Yet they didn’t consider the fine print: Moses was describing a process, not just a fact: the Law was meant to take them somewhere, and to help them achieve something: love for God and for others. Our Lord responds to the scribe today with the fundamentals not only for the Jews, but for us. When he tells the scribe that the Lord must loved above all else he is repeating the first words of the Jews’ profession of faith, the Shema, taken from the book of Deuteronomy (part of which is today’s First Reading) and prayed by them every day. Their faith, and our faith, revolves entirely around the love of God. But Jesus connects this to another teaching from Leviticus (Leviticus 19:18): to love your neighbor as yourself. Connecting the two may have been a novelty for the Jews, but as Christians we know the two are closely linked: you can’t love God and not love your neighbor, or vice versa (cf. 1 John 4:20–21). Unconditional love for God and neighbor put every other precept into perspective.

It is achieving a deeper understanding of the love God has for us that enables us to love him with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and to truly love our neighbor. Loving is the greatest appreciation we can show to God for his love for us. The scribe in today’s Gospel rightly sees the superiority of love over many other religious practices. In fact, religious practices become exactly that due to the love behind them. When Our Lord encourages the scribe by saying he is not far from the Kingdom of God he is also encouraging us to remember that if we achieve love, often an arduous conquest, we’re one step away from every good thing Our Lord wishes for us and for the world.

Readings: Deuteronomy 6:2–6; Psalm 18:2–4, 47, 51; Hebrews 7:23–28; Mark 12:28b–34.

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B (2)

In today’s readings the work of redemption, which is ultimately a work of reconciliation with God and with others, is described as a new Exodus where no one should be left behind.

In today’s First Reading Jeremiah describes the gathering of the scattered Israelites in exile as a sort of new Exodus, a new pilgrimage, where even the weak, sick, and helpless will not be left behind. Yet not everyone makes it. The language of this reading refers to the exiles Israel underwent, always involving exile to the “north” of the Promised Land. Jeremiah is addressing the Babylonian exile in particular.

The Israelites were exiled due to their sins, just as sin alienates us from God and from others. Not everyone returns from exile, only a “remnant,” and that’s not due to the journey being too hard. The Lord makes a point of saying that even those who’d have difficulty making such a journey—mothers with their children, the pregnant, blind, or lame—will be able to make the journey. They’d have a smooth journey and abundant water, not like the harsh conditions of the first Exodus from Egypt.

Those who don’t come are those who didn’t want to. They let an opportunity pass them by. He also describes the remnant returning as an immense throng. The faithful remnant of Israel was the seed from which the new People of God, the Church, began. This prophecy does not just refer to the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile; it also looks forward to the Church assembling and heading in pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

In today’s Second Reading the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that the Lord, our High Priest, in becoming man took up the human condition in order to make it easier for us to identify with him in his humanity and turn to him as our priest. In assuming human nature through his Incarnation Our Lord knew first hand the “weakness” of living in a fallen world. The Church, like her High Priest, has striven to imitate this “outreach” of Christ’s humanity to the world so that it can regain the sense of what is truly means to be human. The Heavenly Father called the Son to become our High Priest so that he could mediate between us and God. In his human nature Our Lord has bridged the gap between us and the Father left by sin. We gather around human because he restores our humanity to its full potential.

In today’s Gospel we see the prophecy of Jeremiah taking shape. Our Lord starting to gather together everyone, heal them, and lead them. Yet there is still some blindness, some weakness and ignorance, to overcome. Crowds are starting to follow Our Lord, and in Biblical symbolism moving away from Jericho is often considered as moving away from sin, especially when heading from there to Jerusalem. In the midst of all the excitement we find poor and blind Bartimaeus, who is stuck. He ekes out an existence begging and knows with his blindness that going anywhere on his own is difficult if not impossible. He hears the commotion and doesn’t know it is Jesus of Nazareth passing by, but when he does, he starts to beg Our Lord for mercy. He may be physically blind, but spiritually he is seeing things more clearly than those who are following Our Lord.

The people in the crowd try to silence him, probably thinking he’s giving the same old line he uses for begging from others. They are spiritually blind to what’s necessary: no one who wants to come should be left behind. Jeremiah in today’s First Reading said the blind would not be left behind, and Our Lord is fulfilling that prophecy and curing the crowds from a spiritual blindness toward another’s needs. Jesus restores Bartimaeus’ sight and Bartimaeus joins the pilgrimage too: the Lord leads him to a more joyous life.

If we get lost on the way to the Promised Land, Heaven, it’s not Our Lord’s fault: he always gives us a chance to come along, whether we recognize it or not. Bartimaeus did, the crowd didn’t. It’s very salutary in prayer to go over those things, reasons excuses that prevent us from following Our Lord and imagine on the day of our Judgement whether they would hold water. No matter how many opportunities we’ve squandered, Our Lord as long as we live on this earth always gives us another chance. Take it.

Readings: Jeremiah 31:7–9; Psalm 126:1–6; Hebrews 5:1–6; Mark 10:46–52. See also 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B.

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B (2)

In today’s Gospel James and John want glory, and Our Lord wants to show them the path they did not expect would achieve it: suffering for the sake of others. Our true glory comes from the degree in which we give ourselves to others, just like Our Lord.

Today’s First Reading speaks of the Suffering Servant and the fruits of his suffering for himself and for others. The Suffering Servant is a prophecy of Our Lord, and the “cup” to which he refers in today’s Gospel is the suffering he knows he must endure for us. Suffering has a purpose in this case: through Christ’s suffering, his “descendants” will receive a long life, the Lord’s will is accomplished, and many are justified. Our Lord too shall “see the light in its fullness”: the light of eternal glory. No one likes needless suffering. We seek to alleviate it, but it is not needless if it has a purpose.

In today’s Second Reading we see the glory that Our Lord received for drinking the cup of suffering: he became our High Priest by sacrificing himself. Although not mentioned in today’s passage, the Letter to the Hebrews explains that Our Lord, in sacrificing himself, is consecrated a priest. A priest mediates between God and others and offers sacrifice to God on their behalf. In imitation of Christ, a priest also sacrifices himself for others, the greatest sacrifice. Suffering and trials are the path to glory for a disciple of Christ, but not senselessly: through suffering and trials we too serve others and give our lives for them to be “ransomed” from sin.

In today’s Gospel James and John are seeking glory, but they don’t entirely understand the path to it or the kind of glory to be won. Our Lord works with them; he doesn’t simply tell them they’re being ambitious and should focus on other things. Followers of Christ will be glorified if they persevere in the faith, but it’s the Lord who sets the terms as to what that glory consists of and how to get there.

We can contemplate earthly glories and they pale in comparison to what awaits us in eternity. James and John think they know exactly what they want, but it is a vision of glory tainted by their ignorance and by visions of earthly glory. Yet they are eager. When Our Lord asks them if they’re prepared to do what it takes to achieve glory, he speaks of a cup to drink and a baptism to receive: both refer to his Passion.

James and John were bold in seeking glory, and we have an advantage over them: we have seen the path to glory that Our Lord has traced out for us. Let’s seek the glory that not only benefits us, but others as well: a glory only won through suffering and trials for the sake of others in imitation of Christ.

As the other Apostles started to complain about James and John’s ambition, Our Lord taught them that they should serve and give their lives in ransom for many. All believers are called to do this. Through our service and sacrifice we help others. Make an extra effort this week to serve others.

Readings: Isaiah 53:10–11; Psalm 33:4–5, 18–20, 22; Hebrews 4:14–16; Mark 10:35–45. See also 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B.


28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B (2)

In today’s Gospel Our Lord gazes upon the Rich Young Man with love before he asks something of him that he knew would be difficult. The Second Reading today reminds us that God’s word has the sharpness of a sword, and, we can add, the precision of a scalpel: it finds exactly where the tumor is, knows where to make the necessary incision that makes our delusions fall away, but we must choose to go under the knife.

We too need to contemplate the words of today’s First Reading. The Wisdom of God is what we need; everything else is an investment in that for which we’re truly searching. The Wisdom of God is described like discovering the love of your life; everything else pales in comparison. Wisdom is more valuable than political power. Wisdom is more valuable than material wealth. Wisdom is more valuable than physical health or beauty. Wisdom is the true path to success.

In today’s Second Reading the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that nothing is hidden to the eyes of the Lord, and he can reveal things within us to which even we are blind. If the Wisdom of God in the First Reading is described as a splendor with which light itself can’t compare, the Word of God in the Second is described as a sharp sword that cuts through any pretensions or illusions we may have about ourselves or others. The Word of God is always meant to reveal something, expressing the Wisdom of God so that we see ourselves, the world, and others in its light.

Our Lord doesn’t see himself offering the Rich Young Man in today’s Gospel pain and sacrifice; he is offering him the path to a deeper love for God in exchange for the love he’s already received and shown. When the Rich Young Man tries to flatter Our Lord a little Jesus is quick to chide him about his motives for such praise, and redirects his thoughts to God. Our Lord is telling him that it doesn’t matter how rich he is, or whether he is good or bad; God’s love for him is constant.

If success and moral living don’t help us grow in our love for God, they don’t go far enough; they will not satisfy us. If the Rich Young Man had taken today’s First Reading (which did exist in his time) and replaced the expressions “prudence” and “Wisdom” with “the love of God,” everything would have snapped into clarity. The wisdom he was truly seeking from Jesus was an awareness of the love God had for him, in which every other good thing would pale.

He may have seen Our Lord as asking a costly sacrifice, but Jesus was asking him to invest the fruits of his success and goodness into something greater and for something greater. Our Lord looks upon us with love no matter what we do, but he also invites us to follow him, draw closer to him, and love him more. Many times we see that through a filter of losing something, sacrificing something. We too need to contemplate the words of today’s First Reading. The Wisdom of God is what we need; everything else is an investment in that for which we’re truly searching.

Today’s Gospel reminds us that if we try to please God and seek eternal life a moment will come when we ask a potentially scary question, like the Rich Young Man did today, “What do I still lack?” If the spiritual life is easy, it’s a moment to ask, like the young man, what we are lacking. We know Our Lord teaches us that we must lose our life in order to save it, and to take up our cross every day and follow him. The cross implies that tough choices for the sake of Our Lord must be made. If something separates us from God, it separates us from eternal life and any true happiness we could have achieved. Under the weight of this idolatry it’s no wonder that the Rich Young Man went off sad when he didn’t opt for Christ: deep down he knew eternal life was at stake, and he blew it.

Don’t be afraid to ask Our Lord the question today in your own spiritual life: “Lord, what do I lack?” No matter how costly it appears, it will lead to eternal happiness for you and for others. Take the next step and trust in Our Lord’s help.

Readings: Wisdom 7:7–11; Psalm 90:12–17; Hebrews 4:12–13; Mark 10:17–30. See also 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B, 8th Week of Ordinary Time, Monday8th Week in Ordinary Time, Tuesday, and 20th Week in Ordinary Time,Tuesday.