You may have noticed that the ‘blesseds’ are just a little bit different from the way you remember them being. What happened to ‘poor in spirit?’ What happened to ‘the meek?’ Where’d they go? And where’d these ‘woes’ come from instead? In order to understand today’s gospel, we have to understand how the gospels were created.
During St. Paul’s lifetime, by the time he and Peter were executed by Nero in Rome, in the mid-60s, almost all Christians, small little communities dotted here and there around the Mediterranean, almost all Christian communities knew about Jesus and basically what He said and did. They knew it by word of mouth. First Jesus’ inner circle, then other people, spread the word from town to town and person to person. So, the gospels were written, beginning with St. Mark, after those events. They were written for a purpose. Each gospel writer wanted to retell and already-known story to add more detail and to make a specific point that he thought was essential to the spiritual life of his community.
Have you ever tried to build a house of cards? You know what happens, right? Bump the table slightly, or a breeze comes along, a bottom card falls, everything collapses. Today, in the second reading, St. Paul builds us a house of cards. He deals us four cards. Two of them are fact cards. Two of them are interpretation cards.
The first fact card is this – He was seen. That’s why I had us read the long version of the second reading this morning, so that you would hear all of the names and situations where the risen Jesus was seen by somebody or a bunch of somebodies. And St. Paul says that his experience on the road to Damascus was equivalent to all those other experiences of seeing the risen Jesus.
I noticed during the past week that the TV station is promoting the 20th anniversary season of American Idol. Twenty years. And you may recall, if you ever watched the series on a regular basis, that the week before the finals begin, each of the finalists go home. And the camera crews follow them to their hometown, where there’s almost always the same set of things. There’s a parade through town, if weather allows, in an open car, and they are followed to their parents’ homes, and to meet a couple of their friends here and there. It’s all very carefully rehearsed. And finally it ends with a concert, usually in their high school gym. Every now and then, people are interviewed who say nice things about the candidate. And we’ll never know if that candidate was really that beloved in the community or not. The whole thing is very carefully staged.
That’s kind of the same thing that we have in Luke’s story this morning. Very often, when we have our Sunday reading, for the sake of making it a little bit shorter, they cut out the connections. But, in ancient writings, the connections between one story and another are very important. So this is what it says in the gospel just before I began to read. “And so Jesus came to Nazareth, where He had been raised. And, as was His custom, He entered a synagogue on the Sabbath day. And when He was handed the scroll of scripture to read, this is what He said.” Now, that connection is extremely important because it tells us an awful lot of things. First of all, He’s coming to His own home town. He’s been out on the road preaching and working miracles ever since He picked up the fallen mantle of John the Baptist, who had been arrested. And He is beginning to change the content of John the Baptist’s preaching. So, when He gets home, it says, on the Sabbath He went to the synagogue. Which means He got home before the Sabbath. Where did He go?
Enthronement of the Word of God is all the readings we have today. Enthronement of the Word of God. Nehemiah, with a red face, had to tell us the story of what happened in exile, fifty years of exile. Where Nehemiah himself was in the king’s court as a cup-bearer in that place. And so he was somebody who was known in the place. Ezra himself, as a scribe and a priest was also, almost at the same time, over there. And, you know, the Persian kings were powerful people in those days. Artaxerxes, himself, was a very powerful king. But there was another small king rising up to become somebody we call Cyrus the Great, who overtook and defeated Babylon. So, when he came to Babylon, and as their king, he told the Israelites, who had been in bondage for fifty years, they can now return to Jerusalem. That was the handiwork of God anyway. So, Nehemiah, when he heard that the city was in ruins, he decided to go there to rebuild the city walls, to fortify the place. His intention wasn’t to stay there, but he had to stay there for so many years, rebuilding, and then trying to help the people for twelve years and more.
Ezra, himself, acted like Moses. Moses read the Law of God, the Commandments, to the people at an elevated area. You know, when they got annoyed, he threw the Commandments at them. But Ezra had to do that for a long, long time. And people listened. They didn’t complain. Rather, they cried after hearing the Word of God. He read from the Torah. The Torah is the first five books of the bible, we call it the Pentateuch. He read from there for so many hours. So, instead of the people complaining about, “Oh, the preacher was so long, what now are we going to do? Why does he expect as if we have nothing to do at home.” They didn’t. Rather, they cried after hearing it. And he told them not to cry because, “Today is not the day of crying. It is the day of worshiping, honoring, glorifying God through His words. It’s the day of the Lord, the “Yom Yahweh,” the day of the Lord,” he said. And the people were happy after that because now they have decided to listen to the Word of God. They have decided to come back to God. They have decided to come back and reconcile with their God. That was the joy created by Ezra, the priest and the scribe.
I want to show you something. This is just about a gallon. It’s actually four liters, but it’s like a gallon-point-something. If we put this here, and put another one next to it, and another one next to it, right across, and then start putting them down the center aisle, we would get to here with gallon jugs of wine. That’s how much wine Jesus made. Do a little bit of math. It says six jars holding twenty to thirty gallons. So let’s split the difference, and call the jugs twenty-five gallon jars, ok? Six twenty-five gallon jars is one hundred and fifty gallons of wine. The average serving of wine in a restaurant or bar today is five ounces. So, if you multiply… First you divide five ounces into each gallon, and you get thirteen servings to a gallon, times one hundred and fifty gallons, means that Jesus made one thousand nine hundred fifty servings of wine.
Historians tell us that there were probably about four hundred people living in Cana at that time. Most weddings in villages at that time would have involved most of the village; everybody was welcome to drop in at the wedding ceremony. And so, if you divide the number of drinks of wine Jesus made by the number of people in Cana at the time, everybody would have gotten five more drinks of wine out of what Jesus made. That’s a lot of wine.
So tell me if this is the story you just heard. Three wise men follow a star from the East to Jerusalem. Stop off a Herod’s palace to get directions. Go to see the Christ child. And because Herod is plotting to kill Jesus, they go home another way. Pretty much sums it up right?
Nope, every single detail of the story that I just told you is not in the gospel. It’s not there. The gospel does not say how many magi there were. Magi are not kings. They don’t follow the star from the East. They saw the star only at its rising and, because they were interested in astrology, believed that when a new star appeared it portended the birth of an important person. Herod does not reveal to them the reason why he wants them to go and search diligently. And so they have no understanding that Herod means to do Jesus harm. All those details I gave you have been added to the story over the years. You have to understand whose writing this gospel, and who it’s for, and the fact that the first line would have caused scandal to its readers.
My goodness, there are more people at this Mass than we’ve had in an entire weekend since Covid began. Merry Christmas to all of you.
Now, a question for you. Show of hands. How many of you have ever held a baby? Almost everybody. So I jotted down a few of the things you might have said, or at least thought, when you held that baby. “You came from me?” “I will always love and protect you.” “I made you?” “This was not in my plans.” “This changes everything.” “Will my parents still love me?” “He’s so tiny.” “She’s so little.” “I can’t wait until you’re old enough for me to play with you.” “Oof, kid, you need a diaper change.” “You are so beautiful.” “What will you grow up to be?” I’m sure almost everybody here has said or thought one or more of those things.
Today is called Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of joy. It’s why we switch from wearing purple vestments to wearing rose colored vestments. But joy is an elusive thing. Most of the time now when I hear the word “joy” I think of is “Jeremiah was a bullfrog. He was a good friend of mine.” In that song, joy is equated with pleasure. The singer sings about the pleasure of getting drunk and the pleasure of sexual intimacy. But joy and pleasure are not always the same. Pleasure gives us joy, but joy doesn’t necessarily give us pleasure.
When I was growing up, one of the most famous poems that people would recite on special occasions was “Casey at the Bat.” And it ends with the line “... somewhere men are happy, and somewhere people shout, but there is no joy in Mudville - mighty Casey has struck out.” If that doesn’t seem like an issue for people, just look at the success of television show “Friday Night Lights,” in which an entire little village, or town, in Texas is consumed with what happens on the football field among high school boys on a Friday night. Sometimes you get all caught up in things that are ephemeral. And joy is one of those things that seems to be ephemeral.
Why do people write? Sometimes they write because they have a story to tell. Sometimes because they have a creative itch. Sometimes, like with textbooks, to inform, to provide facts. Sometimes to motivate people, whether in enthusiasm or in anger, or with some prejudice. And, almost always, to make money. So you have to ask yourself why each of the New Testament books was written. With the letters of St. Paul, sometimes it's obvious. Someone has written to him from a church, and he is writing back to answer questions or to provide guidance.
But it’s very different with the four gospels. Everybody already knew the essentials of the story of Jesus and, most importantly, His passion, death, and resurrection. Everybody knew that. But each of the four gospel writers feels the need to tell the story again. Each one has a particular focus responding to the needs of the people in his community at that time. The gospels are separated by almost a half-century from the first one to the last one.
When people get around to telling stories, whether it’s your family sitting around the Thanksgiving table or a bunch of friends out for the evening, the stories don’t often come in chronological order. What happens is this. Someone tells a story about something that happened at the lake, which prompts another story about something that happened at the lake, and then a third story. Or maybe someone tells a story about a memorable birthday celebration in a child’s life, which recalls another story about birthdays, then another story about birthdays, and so on. We connect our stories in very many different ways. And only rarely do we set out to tell a story – this, and then this, and then that, and then that.
The same thing is true of the gospels. While they follow a rough chronology, from the baptism of Jesus to the crucifixion and resurrection, the stories in between are frequently grouped in ways that are not automatically obvious. And so, if we had Mark open in front of us, we would notice that today’s first story came right after last Sunday’s reading. In last Sunday’s reading, a scribe – that’s the key person, a scribe – asked Jesus about the greatest commandment. Jesus gives the answer that we all know, and the scribe compliments him on the answer. Then Jesus says to the scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of heaven.”
So what do you think? Are you more of a ‘keep the commandments’ sort of person or a ‘go to Mass’ sort of person? Do you gravitate toward the worship life or the sacramental life of the church? Or do you gravitate toward the way of life that we propose for people? Today's readings land heavily on both sides of that question.
We’re going to look at the second reading first, simply because it's the more complicated. The situation that prompted the Book of Hebrews - which is not really a letter, but an essay - was the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. All Jews, including Jewish Christians, who lived in that area, continued to go to the temple for the great holidays and to offer sacrifice in the temple. And they would gather in people's homes for Eucharist. The elder, the person we now call the priest, would gather in a large public space - some rich person's hall or courtyard - and the dinner would be held there. During the dinner, the elder would take the bread, speak the words of consecration. Take the chalice, speak the words of consecration. And then this is the dinner. And they truly believed that Jesus was present, body and blood, soul and divinity, as we would say today, in that transaction. But it wasn't apparent to them there was a sacrifice.
So, it looks as though Facebook has gotten itself into a bit of trouble. An internal memo has revealed that the company knew its algorithms were targeting teenagers, especially teenage girls, in such a way as to create controversy and havoc. And, pursuing that line of thought, it’s come to light that the algorithms are manipulated to draw us into controversy as much as possible, because the more hits the website gets, the more advertising dollars it can make. It's a difficult world that we live in, where people are encouraged to be at the height of tension.
I think today's gospel helps us to navigate through that. That's why I asked you to listen carefully to a couple of things in the story. The first thing to talk about is the strange way that the man is introduced. It said, “Bartimaeus, blind man, the son of Timaeus...” Now, most translators assume that Mark, because he wrote in Greek, was telling an audience that did not speak Hebrew that “Bartimaeus” simply meant the son of Timaeus. But, if he meant that, he would have said, “Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, that is, a blind man.” But that's not what he said.
So, Mark says that the other ten became indignant at James and John. I don’t know. Indignant is like when someone cuts in front of you in the grocery store line. So, I looked up the word in the Latin translation of the bible, and it says, “Indignus.” Some lazy translator simply translated indignus into indignant, because that’s where the word comes from. But if you examine the roots of the word, we use the word dignus in English in the Mass, just before the Holy, Holy. That dialogue, “Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God.” “It is right and just.” The Latin for that is “Dignum et iustum est.” So, if something is right, or worthy, then indignus is unworthy. What the ten felt was that they were calling James and John unworthy. They were dismissing them from their company. How come? What’s going on here?
A little background probably is in order. When Mark begins his gospel, he tells us how Jesus chose His disciples. He says, “He walked along, by the seashore, and he saw Peter and Andrew, and they were fishermen.” He said, “Come after Me and I’ll make you fishers of men.” And He walked along a little farther and saw two other fishermen, James and John, in their boat with their father, Zebedee, mending their nets. Because we think of the twelve apostles as a homogenized group, we assume that Peter and Andrew must have been friends of James and John. But not necessarily.
I asked you how old you thought the person was who came up to Jesus and asked Him that significant question. I asked you that because one of the other gospel writers, when he tells this story, changes the story, and says, “A young man came up and approached Jesus.” But Mark, the earliest gospel, doesn’t say he was a young man. In fact, if you noticed the answer the young man gave, when Jesus proposed the Ten Commandments as the way to eternal life. The man said to Jesus, “I have kept all these things from my youth.” Which suggests that, maybe, instead of being someone just starting out, he might be someone who is middle-aged, who’s reached that time in life where there have been some accomplishments, when you begin to feel satisfied with yourself. He may feel dissatisfied with where he is in life, and be wondering what else he should do. Or maybe, maybe, he’s an old person feeling the loss of things in life, and saying to himself, “Is that all there is? Is that all there is to life? What I’ve done? That’s it?” So we don’t know what the motivation was.
And did you notice that Jesus treats him harshly? He’s very polite. He came up and said, “Good teacher…” How much more polite could he have been? And Jesus throws the word ‘good’ back in his face unnecessarily, provoking him in a sense, putting him off and allowing the crowds around him to see the harsh interchange. Because sociologically, in that time, there was no middle class like we have today, who are fairly comfortable and settled in their lives. There are a few people who are very, very wealthy, like this man, and everybody else was in poverty. It’s a different kind of poverty than ours, for almost everybody had a place to live, but everybody eked out an existence with some sort of trade, or else they went begging. And so, the audience that Jesus has would be innately hostile to this man, and Jesus echoes that hostility, revealing the man’s weakness, by causing him, eventually, to turn away and not go on the journey with Jesus. What does this mean?
Jesus’ primary concern in this gospel reading was to point out an injustice being committed against women. In his religious tradition, a man could give his wife a gett, a bill of divorce, for the slightest reason, trivial reasons, really, but she could not do that to her husband. And if he did that, unless she had a son, a father, or a brother to run home to, she became a non-person in that society. And that is Jesus’ concern as he teaches this morning.
So, I asked you, when you listened to the first reading, to pick out what you thought was the most important sentence. There's only one place, in the passage that we read, where God actually speaks. He says one simple statement, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Now, when we read our scripture in English, the word man is used throughout the story. “... and so the Lord brought to the man” and “The Lord placed the man into a deep sleep” and so on and so forth. But in the original languages in which our scriptures appeared, there are two different words being used for man. All the time that the writer is talking about the man, and when God says “It is not good for the man to be alone,” the word that’s being used, in Greek, is anthrōpos, from which we get the English word anthropology, which is the study of human beings. That word means “It is not good for the human being to be alone.” But, when the man sees his image in the woman, the language changes, and instead of being called an anthrōpos, he’s called an andros, which represents the male sex, as opposed to the female sex. It’s the same thing in Hebrew. In Hebrew, the man is called ha adam - recognize in there the word Adam. Ha adam is something taken from the earth. One of our scripture scholars jokingly said that, basically, we can translate that Jewish word as “earthling.” It is not good for the earthling to be alone. But when he wakes up from his sleep and is confronted with his mirror image in the woman, the words that are used are ish for man, and isha for woman. They’re the same word - masculine ending and feminine ending - ish and isha.