When we hear the story of Jesus facing temptation in the desert, we probably think that Jesus resisted whatever tempted him and then began his public ministry and was never troubled by Satan again. That seems unlikely. Going through life never experiencing temptation is, well, inhuman. And Jesus, for all his divinity, was fully human.
Like us, Jesus would have experienced temptation throughout his life. My guess is that right after leaving the desert he ran smack up against the temptation to go home to Nazareth and live out his days as a happily married carpenter. Why? Because John the Baptist had just been arrested for proclaiming the very words that Jesus intended to proclaim, too. If John was arrested, what would happen to Jesus? As Mark’s Gospel continues, Jesus constantly runs into problems: people misunderstand him, aggressively pursue him, challenge him, and finally seek a way to kill him. Any human confronted with such dangers would have been tempted to react angrily or arrogantly or simply to run away from it all. There must have been moments Jesus longed to return to the desert, where at least he could have some peace.
Perhaps, then, Jesus didn’t so much go into the desert to resist temptation as to prepare to resist it. Perhaps he went into the desert to pray, to ask himself if he could really do what God was calling him to do, and to commit himself totally to the difficult way ahead. Lent is our own time in the desert. We should remember what follows. We are not merely resisting temptations for a season, we are practicing to resist them for life.
Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: Feb. 25, 2018 (usccb.org)
Commentary on Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
This story might first have been told as a statement against child sacrifice, which was sometimes practiced by the people of Canaan (the Promised Land) and the surrounding area. Abraham probably knew of the practice.
The story may horrify us, but Abraham would have been troubled for another reason: God promised to bless him with many descendants, and this promise was to be fulfilled through Isaac. If there’s no Isaac, there can be no fulfillment of this blessing.
God had promised Abraham many descendants without requiring anything in return, sort of like the promise God made after the flood: the promise is unconditional. When God tells Abraham to kill Isaac, Abraham must show that he knows both Isaac and the promise are gifts. Abraham has no real claim on Isaac or God’s promise.
Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the first reading and the Gospel click here: February 25 – Second Sunday of Lent
Every Ash Wednesday we hear from the prophet Joel. Joel prophesied during a terrible crisis: all the crops in southern Israel were being rapidly devoured by huge swarms of locusts. The plague of insects was so severe that God’s people couldn’t even bring their food offerings to God in the Jerusalem temple. Joel compared the calamity to the day of the LORD, the end of the world as people knew it.
It must have been incredibly scary to watch the locust swarms sweep across the land, blocking out the sun and stripping the land bare. One day there was a large, healthy crop, the next day, nothing. All that the locusts left in their wake was famine, disease and death. During this terrifying time people must have been keenly aware of their own mortality, of how small and powerless they were.
In the face of calamity Joel urged his people to meet in one great assembly and cry out to God for help. Young and old, rich and poor, priests and laity — all must raise their voice and beg God to deliver them from disaster, to remember his people and take pity on them.
Today we begin our own season of lamentation. Lent is a time when we admit that we, too, are mortal, small, and powerless. However often we imagine that we are something, Lent reminds us that we are nothing. During Lent we acknowledge how truly weak we are, and we confess our need for God, who alone can make something of us.
I know several people who’ve tried with gusto to read the Bible from cover to cover. They begin with Genesis, wade through Exodus, and then arrive at Leviticus where they read things like, “If someone has on his skin a scab or pustule or blotch…” at which point other things that they could do with their time occur to them. We call the Bible the Word of God, but its many words can so bore and baffle us that we wind up giving whole sections of it a wide berth.
For this reason Dr. Jacob Milgrom, a Jewish scholar, has my undying appreciation. Dr. Milgrom studied and wrote about the captivating Book of Leviticus. He explains that concern about skin ailments isn’t a medical preoccupation but a religious one. The skin conditions described in Leviticus 13-14 make a person unclean because they resemble the skin of corpses. In other words, people with these particular ailments look like death. Because God is the author of life, the Israelites didn’t want death nor even the appearance of death to come into contact with anything that was part of the worship of God.
You may be thinking, The ancient Israelites were so weird! Yet some people don’t come to Mass or confess their sins to a priest because they think they’re unworthy, or God doesn’t want them to “contaminate” the chapel, or they’ll share a sin that the shocked priest has never heard before (unlikely). So they don’t come, when instead they – like all of us – should be running up to Jesus, kneeling down, and saying, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus has conquered sin and death. There’s nothing that can’t be brought into his presence.
Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: Feb. 18, 2018 (usccb.org)
Commentary on Genesis 9:8-15
A second creation
The first story of creation in Genesis (Gen 1) tells how God put form to the abyss, the chaotic water that symbolized emptiness and death. When human beings became sinful and flooded the earth with evil, God used water to cleanse his creation. Sadly, this renewed world won’t stay free of sin, either.
A vow of mercy
God’s promise never to cause such complete destruction is a pledge of mercy in the face of humankind’s persistent sinfulness. God accepts the weak state of his human creation and decides to respond with patience and forgiveness. God will find a different way to renew the work of his hand.
Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the first reading and the Gospel click here: February 18 – First Sunday of Lent
Why must people endure physical pain? Why do people suffer? One of life’s great frustrations is that we can’t answer these questions. Even answers that satisfy us won’t suit someone else. The problem of suffering haunts people of faith. At times we may feel that all we can do is shrug forlornly and shake our heads.
Not Job. Job demanded answers. If we read beyond today’s passage, we would hear Job’s friends offer explanations for his pain. They even try to get him to admit that he’s being punished for something. Job insists that there is no reason for his suffering. He counters every assertion they make, and then he demands a hearing before God. He wants God to show up and explain.
Eventually, God does. Some people think that God intends to silence Job with his divine response. Quite the opposite. God takes Job seriously. Just as Job questioned God, so God questions Job. In addressing Job, God affirms Job’s right to ask his questions, which also validates the seriousness of suffering itself.
God also does something far more unsettling: God invites Job to look at the world through a lens other than his own life experience. God invites Job to look upon the world with divine eyes. Job is startled into silence by the invitation. He has no idea what to say, no idea where to look.
We wouldn’t, either. It’s hard to change our perspective. But it’s worth it. Asking hard questions is better than swallowing silly explanations like “everything happens for a reason” and “God is teaching you something.” These false and empty statements leave us hungry for real answers. The answers will come, though only in part, and only if we keep searching for them. If we listen, if we fall silent, if we bravely set aside our notions about who God is and how God acts, truth will emerge. The truth will not come easily and we won’t entirely understand it, but we will at least have entered into a much more honest and authentic relationship with God. This deeper friendship will help us bear both the questions and the pain.
Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: Feb. 11, 2018 (usccb.org)
Commentary on Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
LORD of life
Laws about skin ailments reflect a theological not a medical concern. Because the LORD was the author of life, nothing that represented death was supposed to come into contact with anything that was part of the worship of God (the altar, priests, holy objects, etc.).
It looks like death
The laws in Leviticus refer to a much broader range of conditions than Hansen’s disease. Certain ailments caused the skin to peel away just as skin rots and peels away from a corpse. Because such skin ailments resembled death, the afflicted people had to remove themselves from the community so that they didn’t “spread death” into God’s holy realm.
Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the first reading and the Gospel click here: February 11 – Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I have a pet demon. He’s about five inches tall, furry, and has tiny wings poking out of his back. He likes to sit on my shoulder, except when I’m driving, when he prefers to run around on top of the dashboard. He’s got a little red water bowl and a food bowl, but he’s a very messy eater. He’s dirty, but he hates baths, so I usually just let him run around looking matted and smelling of something not-so-sweet. He’s also very outgoing: he likes to bite people. I’ve had him for, oh, a long time.
Of course I don’t have a pet demon, and I sure hope you don’t either, but wouldn’t life be easier if we did? If all the evil that’s in us could be plopped into a pet demon, then we could haul his little butt away and be done with him. In our Gospel passage for today we hear how Jesus exorcises a man as if the demon were on a leash: with a word Jesus simply yanks the demon out.
Sadly, our demons are hard to control. They keep to the shadows of our minds and hearts, surreptitiously entangling themselves within us. The grow so stealthily that we get used to them. We wonder what harm they’re really doing. We start to think that having a demon in us is normal. We stop coming to Jesus to yank the evil out.
Strengthened by our permissiveness, our demons grow. They wait and watch for the moment they can seize control of the leash. And seize control they will: demons don’t want to be pets, they want to be masters. By the time they make their move, we might not care. We might not resist. We might have come to love our deadly little pet.
Click here for a link to the Sunday readings: Feb. 4, 2018 (usccb.org)
Sample Commentary on Mark 1:29-39
Healing a future disciple
Jesus has just expelled a demon; now he expels a fever. In both cases Jesus acts effortlessly. Here he simply takes the woman’s hand and helps her up. The Greek word for helps can also be translated as raises. Jesus raises the woman from the evil of suffering.
After Jesus heals her, Simon’s mother-in-law waited on them, that is, she prepares and serves food. Her action shows that she is restored to perfect health, but she also models how every person should respond to a life-saving experience: we should serve Jesus as faith-filled disciples.
The people gather
After the sun sets on the sabbath, people are again able to do the “work” of bringing the sick and possessed to Jesus. Jesus casts out sickness and evil from everyone brought to him. He also continues to prevent demons from identifying him. Jesus doesn’t want people to misunderstand his mission.
Want more? To download discussion questions and commentaries on the first reading and the Gospel click here: February 4 – Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
If we don’t know the story of Jonah well, then our first reading has a happy ending: the people of Nineveh believe Jonah and repent. God forgives them. All’s well that ends well. But the end of this passage is not the end of the biblical story. After the people of Nineveh repent, Jonah is mad. Really mad. He says, “And now, LORD, please take my life from me…” What a drama queen.
Jonah is mad for several reasons. First, he never wanted to go to Nineveh. Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, and Assyria once invaded northern Israel and scattered or imprisoned its inhabitants. Jonah doesn’t want to go hang out with his enemies. Second, Jonah wants the Assyrians punished for their attacks upon his people. He doesn’t want them to get off the hook for the harm they’ve done.
But there’s a third and primary reason. Jonah spells this reason out when he tells God why he initially refused to go to Nineveh: “I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God…” In other words, Jonah knows that God wants to forgive the people of Nineveh, and he doesn’t want to be a part of that. Jonah is angry because of God’s love.
We can be quite like Jonah. We’re often eager to receive God’s love, but there are days we’d rather run, hide and die than have to share such love with others. On those days we need someone from Nineveh to come visit us. We need someone we mistook for an enemy to warn us that we can’t keep what we can’t share. And then we need to fast, reach for the sackcloth, and ask God to overthrow our own haughty hearts.