Other Sunday and Holy Day Readings
20TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle C)
Abbreviations: NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation). CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).
God's divine plan for mankind is revealed in the two Testaments and that is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy. The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).
The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: Perseverance in Adversity
It is part of human nature to want avoid what is unpleasant in life, whether it is undeserved suffering or deserved suffering to adjust bad behavior. We want to hear our priests preach against the consequences of sin, but we do not want them to challenge us about personal sins in our lives. It is also difficult for some of us to stand up for our faith and defend the teachings of the Church when those teachings are not "politically correct" according to the judgments of modern society. God asks us to persevere in adversity and to take a stand for with is righteous according to His Word. He promises that the eternal reward will be greater than the temporary discomfort.
In the First Reading, the prophet Jeremiah was imprisoned in a cistern as a punishment for prophesizing Jerusalem's impending conquest and telling the people not to resist the Babylonians. Their coming destruction was God's divine judgment on Judah for her people's many sins, including their acts of injustice, oppression of the poor, and disobedience to Yahweh's covenant. Despite his many persecutions, Jeremiah remained true to his mission to preach repentance and the acceptance of God's judgment.
Our psalm reading is a prayer that might have come to Jeremiah as he prayed, lying in the mud deep in the pit of the cistern. The psalmist's cry of thanksgiving is combined with a lament, and acknowledges that God takes action in extreme situations. The "pit of destruction" and the "mud of the swamp" are poetic metaphors for the world of death that the psalmist sees opening before him. He has faith that God will rescue Him, and he describes his rescue in terms of being "raised up" or resurrected, as he praises God in a "new song" of praise in response to the new action of God in coming to his deliverance. The message for us is that the psalmist's ability to give thanks even in his suffering is not purely a human response to God, but is itself a divine gift when we endure suffering with faith and perseverance.
In the Second Reading, St. Paul uses the metaphor of a race to encourage us not to follow the easy path but rather to make, if necessary, the painful decisions to follow the Gospel of salvation. Paul tells us that life is like a sports arena, and we are those who participate in the race. Our audience is "a cloud of witnesses," those who are numbered among the Communion of Saints, watching us from Heaven and urging us on, praying for our victory over the forces of evil in the world as we complete the contest that will end in the victory of salvation for the faithful.
In our Gospel Reading Jesus gives a difficult teaching. He says that He has not come to bring peace but division—division in families and in nations. One must choose, there is no middle ground. Jesus makes the dramatic statement that He has come to set the earth on fire! In the Old Testament, fire is sometimes used as a means or symbol of purification, of discernment, as a symbol of judgment, and as a manifestation of the presence of God. St. John the Baptist warned that the Messiah was coming with the Holy Spirit and fire (Lk 3:16), and in Scripture, fire is one of the most expressive symbols of the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit. In this case the fire Jesus speaks of may be the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It might also be the refining and purifying fire that Jesus will light in His suffering, death and Resurrection that will ignite and transform the New Covenant people of God who pick up their crosses and follow Him in bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth (the Church).
Today's readings are relevant to us because we are making the same choices as Jeremiah, St. Paul, and Jesus' disciples in bringing obedient to the mission to serve God despite personal suffering. Are we willing to commit ourselves to Christ and His Church at the cost of our family relationships, or do we deny Christ by valuing what is material and temporal rather than eternal? The decision to submit to Christ may be painful for us in this life, but that pain and suffering will count toward our salvation. Our Divine Father will reward us and our heavenly brothers and sisters, will approve as they welcome us into eternal beatitude.
The First Reading Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10 ~ The Suffering
and Imprisonment of the Prophet Jeremiah and his Salvation
In those days, the princes said to the king: 6 "This man [Jeremiah] ought to be put to death [the princes said to the king]; he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such things to them; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin." 5 King Zedekiah answered: "He is in your power"; for the king could do nothing with them. 6 And so they took Jeremiah and threw him into the cistern of Prince Malchiah, which was in the quarters of the guard, letting him down with ropes. There was no water in the cistern, only mud, and Jeremiah sank into the mud.
8 Ebed-melech, a court official, went there from the palace and said to him: 9 "My lord king, these men have been at fault in all they have done to the prophet Jeremiah, casting him into the cistern. He will die of famine on the spot, for there is no more food in the city." 10 Then the king ordered Ebed-melech the Cushite to take three men along with him, and drew the prophet Jeremiah out of the cistern before he should die. [..] italics = literal translation.
Jeremiah was God's prophet to the covenant people prior to the conquest of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians in 587/6 BC. The prophet had been detained in the quarters of the guards (Jer 37:21; 38:13). His imprisonment was a punishment for prophesizing Jerusalem's impending doom and telling the people not to resist the Babylonians since the coming destruction was God's divine judgment on Judah for her people's many sins including their covenant disobedience. The princes of Judah went to King Zedekiah complaining that Jeremiah's continued utterances of destruction were demoralizing the soldiers and must be stopped. They were evidently fearful of deliberately shedding the blood one of God's prophets, but they saw letting him die of starvation in the cistern as a viable solution to their problem. The king was too weak to oppose them; therefore, he agreed.
It is significant that Jeremiah's savior, Ebed-melech, whose name means "servant of the king," is a Gentile eunuch who is an official in the court of the king of Judah,. Eunuchs were the court officials who usually served the royal harem. It was forbidden to physically alter a male covenant member to make him a eunuch. This man may have been purchased as a slave. He is also identified as a Cushite. In Scripture "cushite" is a term used to identify Midianites (Num 12:1; Hab 3:7) and in ancient literature also Ethiopians. The term "cushite" probably identifies someone with darker skin. In this Biblical period, it is more likely that the man is an Ethiopian.
Ebed-melech took three men along with him, and drew the prophet Jeremiah out of the cistern before he should die. Jeremiah persevered in faith and Ebed-melech risked possible persecution by speaking up to save God's prophet. That he took "three men" with him should not be ignored. The number three in Scripture usually signifies some significant act in God's plan for man's salvation. Just as Jeremiah was rescued from "the pit" so will Christ's sacrifice rescue mankind from the "pit" of sin and the corruption of the grave (see the document "The Significance of Numbers in Scripture" and "The Significance of the Third Day").
It is ironic that the king of Judah and the covenant people rejected God's holy prophet but a Gentile eunuch was willing to risk his life to save him. His courageous act in saving Jeremiah will be rewarded. God will send Jeremiah to Ebed-melech with the promise that his life will be spared when Jerusalem destroyed by the Babylonian army (Jer 39:15-18). According to the Law of the Sinai Covenant, foreigners who were non-covenant members and eunuchs were forbidden from entering or offering worshipping within the Temple's inner courts. Eunuchs were damaged in the same way an animal with the same deformity was not suitable for sacrifice (Lev 22:24), nor could a descendant of Aaron who had the same physical defect become a priest (Lev 21:20). The reason for this prohibition was that one who approached God in the inner courts of the Temple had a share in God's sanctity in a special way. A physical defect would be an affront to God who created the physical world without imperfections.
However, through the prophet Isaiah, God promised that in the Messianic Era Gentiles and eunuchs would become purified and welcomed to offer worship and praise to Yahweh: No foreigner adhering to Yahweh should say, 'Yahweh will utterly exclude me from his people.' No eunuch should say, 'Look, I am a dried-up tree.' For Yahweh says this: to the eunuchs who observe my Sabbaths and choose to do my good pleasure and cling to my covenant, I shall give them in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I shall give them an everlasting name that will never be effaced (Is 56:3-4). And that name is Jesus Christ: Only in him is there salvation; for of all the names in the world given to men, this is the only one by which we can be saved (Acts 4:12). Ebed-melech was indeed a "servant of the king" but not of the human king of Israel. His action in taking the risk to save God's prophet demonstrated that his true allegiance was to God the Divine King.
Responsorial Psalm 40:2-4, 17 ~ The LORD is our Help
The response is: Lord, come to my aid!
2 I have waited, waited for the LORD, and he stooped toward me.
3 The LORD heard my cry. He drew me out of the pit of destruction, out of the mud of the swamp; he set my feet upon a crag [upon a rock]; he made firm my steps.
4 And he put a new song into my mouth, a hymn to our God. Many shall look on in Awe and trust in the LORD.
17 Though I am afflicted and poor, yet the LORD thinks of me. You are my help and my deliverer; O my God, hold not back!
Perhaps this is the psalms that came to Jeremiah as he prayed, lying in the mud deep in the pit of the cistern. This psalm a cry of thanksgiving (verses 2-13) is combined with a lament (14-18) that also appears in Psalm 70. It is an extension of the prayer contained in the previous psalm and acknowledges that God takes action in extreme situations (Ps 39:12-13). The "pit of destruction" and the "mud of the swamp" are poetic metaphors for the world of death that the psalmist sees opening before him. He contrasts that imagery with his feet being set upon firm ground, symbolizing security and strength. The psalmist describes his rescue in terms of being "raised up" or resurrected, and he can now praise God in a "new song" of praise in response to the new action of God in coming to his deliverance (verses 2-4).
In verse 17 the psalmist expresses confidence in God who remembers him and loves him in his affliction and poverty. He makes the petition that in such circumstances that His God not "hold back" His divine help. The message for us is that the psalmist's ability to give thanks even in his suffering is not purely a human response to God but is itself a divine gift when we endure suffering with faith and perseverance. Note: Verses 6-10 of this psalm are used by the Church on the solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord to show the dedication of the Blessed Virgin Mary to her mission as the Mother of the Savior.
The Second Reading Hebrews 12:1-4 ~ Perseverance when
faced with Suffering
1 Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us 2 while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. 3 Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.
Sports events have always been popular, in ancient times and today. The inspired writer, who most of the Church Fathers identify as St. Paul, uses sporting language and the metaphor of a race to encourage us not to follow the easy path but rather to make, if necessary, the painful decisions to follow the Gospel of salvation. St. Paul had a fondness for athletic metaphors in his letters. He often mentions the Greco-Roman sports of wrestling, boxing, and racing as examples of Christian perseverance and endurance:
In this passage, he tells us that life is like a sports arena, and we are those who participate in the race. Our audience is "a cloud of witnesses," those who are numbered among the Communion of Saints who watch us from Heaven, urging us on.
St. Ephraim and other Church Fathers recognized that the call for perseverance in the face of suffering must be accompanied by the hope that faith can sustain the Christian in any trial. Christians must divest themselves of anything that can hold them back like the love of material goods, or pride, or selfishness in order to have the strength to persevere. And Christians must also remember that not all trials and sufferings are the work of men but also the work of the great adversary, Satan. St. Ephraim wrote: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" about the weight of our life, that is, about the fact that we have ahead of us a cloud of sad afflictions, which lead many who trust in Christ and die for him to honor, "let us lay aside everything" from us.... And "Let us run with perseverance the race that is set for us: not only by our persecutors but by the devil himself.
It is interesting that the inspired writer uses both the Greek words nephos, "cloud," and martyroi, "witnesses." The Greek words martureo, marturia, martus, martyroi, which in English are usually transliterated as "martyr" or "martyrs" are also translated as the word "witness/witnesses." In the Greco-Roman world martus/martyroi referred to:
It is a definition which, during the periods of Christian evangelism and persecution, is applied to Christians who witness to their faith in Jesus Christ either verbally or by shedding their blood. Witnessing their belief in their suffering and death, they become witnesses/martyrs for Jesus Christ (i.e., see the use of martyr/witness in Mt 24:14; Acts 1:22; 5:32; 22:15).
The cloud of witnesses in verse 1 are the saints who have completed their "race" and are now "witnesses" to the struggles and victories of their younger brothers and sisters who are completing their "race" to enter the gates of Heaven. Dr. Craig Koester notes that the word nephos, "cloud" was a common Greco-Roman metaphor for a large group of people (Anchor Bible Commentary, Hebrews, page 522), but biblically the word "cloud" is often associated with a form of the visible manifestation of God: Yahweh then said to Moses, 'Look, I shall come to you in a dense cloud so that the people will hear when I speak to you and believe you ever after'" (Ex 19:9 NJB). Cloud imagery associated with the presence of Yahweh is found in numerous Scripture passages, for example:
The word "cloud" is also frequently associated with the visible manifestation of God in the Shekinah or Glory Cloud that is the revelation of God's heavenly throne and His "chariot" by which He makes His glorious presence known to man. Therefore, in this passage it is reasonable to assume that the martyrs (a Greek word used by Christians to mean the "witnesses" of Jesus Christ), along with the heavenly angels (Gen 28:12; Dt 33:2 in LXX; Ps 68:17-18; Jn 1:51), form the "Glory Cloud" as those who live in the presence of God.
1b let us rid ourselves of every
burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies
before us 2 while keeping our eyes
fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy
that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame...
The inspired writer encourages his audience that Jesus Christ is the leader and perfecter of faith. He is the beginning and the completion of our faith. In His Resurrection, our victory has already been achieved because He "perfects" us by imparting to us, through Christian baptism, His divine life and sonship. Our journey of faith, the inspired writer suggests, is very like a running contest in the Greco-Roman arena in which strength, endurance and discipline are necessary for victory. To persevere and endure to the end of our "race" we must be certain to follow Jesus' example: For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. In the mid-5th century, during a period of Christian persecution, Bishop Theodoret urged his flock to remain faithful in the midst of sufferings by following Jesus' example. He admonished his congregation by reminding them: "He [Jesus] could have avoided suffering, he is saying, had he so chosen; but he put up with the suffering for the benefit of all. The Savior's joy is the salvation of human beings; for it he endured the suffering, and after the suffering he is seated with the Father who begot him." (Theodoret, Bishop of Cry c. 393-466, Interpretation of Hebrews 12). Bishop Theodoret's point is if Jesus could endure the shame and disgrace of the Cross for us so that He could have joy in giving the gift of salvation to human beings, can we not endure our sufferings for the sake of the same joy of receiving His gift and joining Him in the Father's heavenly Sanctuary?
The Catechism warns believers that we should expect that our faith will often be tested on our journey to salvation: "Even though enlightened by him in who we believe, faith is often lived in darkness and can be put to the test. The world we live in often seems very far from the one promised us by faith. Our experiences of evil and suffering, injustice, and death, seem to contradict the Good News; they can shake our faith and become a temptation against it. It is then we must turn to the witnesses of faith: to Abraham, who 'in hope...believed against hope'; to the Virgin Mary, who, in 'her pilgrimage of faith,' walked into the 'night of faith' in sharing the darkness of her son's suffering and death; and to so many others: 'Therefore, since we share surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith'"(CCC# 164-65).
We often forget that the crucifixion was intended to shame and disgrace Jesus. Crucifixions were public events in which the victims were subjected to scourging and torture prior the crucifixion. In addition to scourging and ridicule in the crucifixion procedure, the victim was stripped naked and nails were pounded through the wrists or hands and ankles so that the victim hung suspended from his own torn flesh. The victim was tormented and reviled as he hung on the cross, but the duty of the executioners was to prolong the victim's life for several days until the victim died from blood loss or shock. The goal was to achieve the greatest horrific effect on the public at large as a lesson to submit to the power of the state and to avoid such a punishment. In the case of a Jewish victim, there was the added disgrace that those "hung on a tree" were considered to be cursed by God under Jewish Law and rejected by the covenant people (see Dt 21:22-23). Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, and in His humanness He despised what was done to Him. Yet in His divine love, He fully submitted to the degradation that was inflicted upon Him.
...2b and has taken his seat at the right of the
throne of God.
This is the 5th time the inspired writer of Hebrews has either quoted or referenced this passage from Psalm 110:1 (Heb 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2), the Psalms passage most often quoted by Jesus. He quoted this passage coupled with Daniel's vision of the divine Messiah in Daniel 7:13 to the Jewish Law Court (the Sanhedrin) when He was tried. It was the combination of these two Messianic quotes from Sacred Scripture that condemned Him: Then the high priest said to him, "I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God." Jesus said to him in reply, "You have said so. But I tell you: From now on you will see 'the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power' and 'coming on the clouds of heaven.'" Then the high priest tore his robes and said, 'He has blasphemed! What further need have we of witnesses? You have now heard the blasphemy; what is your opinion?" They said in reply, "He deserves to die!" (Mt 26:36-66 emphasis added; also see Mk 14:61-64).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies the significance of this reference: "Being seated at the Father's right hand signifies the inauguration of the Messiah's kingdom, the fulfillment of the prophet Daniel's vision concerning the Son of man: 'To him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. After this event, the Apostles became witnesses of the 'Kingdom [that] will have no end'"(147, CCC# 664).
3 Consider how he endured such opposition
from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.
in Hebrews 12:3 the inspired writer asks his audience to remember Jesus' ministry during which He was opposed by the Jewish authorities and challenged on His teaching. They demanded to know by what authority He taught since He was not trained in theology and held no official religious office. There was also the "opposition" from the sinners who lied at His trial and pagan Gentiles who crucified Him. The reason the inspired writer gives for Jesus submitting to such abuse is that He provided an example for us: in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.
4 In your struggle against sin you have not
yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.
Jesus' example of persevering in doing God's work through the suffering of His rejection, in the pain of His Passion, and in the victory of His Resurrection is to give Christians courage when they face suffering. If Christians unite their suffering and death to Christ's suffering and death, their suffering becomes meaningful. It becomes redemptive suffering. It becomes the kind of suffering that counts toward their salvation, and they too are promised Resurrection if they remain faithful. However, the inspired writer reminds his audience in Hebrews 12:4 that they have not yet resisted to the point of bloodshed. The emphasis is on the "yet." If Jesus endured to the point of shedding His blood, who are you to complain when you have not yet offered such a sacrifice?
The message for us is that sins and the lure of the material world are what hinder us on our way to the finish line of eternity, and we must shed and discarded those burdens that weigh us down if we are to finish the race. We must keep our focus on Jesus who inspires us and perfects our faith and self-confidence. He gives us the reason for our efforts which is the promise of Heaven. Jesus endured suffering to finish His mission so that He could prepare a home for us when we cross the finish line of life. Now we must take up our crosses and follow Him in both suffering and glory: The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, provided that we share his suffering, so as to share his glory (Rom 8:16-17).
The Gospel Reading Luke 12:49-53 ~ Jesus' Mission a Cause
49 Jesus said to his disciples: "I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! 50 There is a baptism with which I must be baptized and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52 From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law."
In a series of teachings on His ministry in verses 36-40, 43 and 45-46, Jesus made symbolic references to the "coming of the master," a "burglar" and the "Son of Man." Now He speaks openly about His own coming in verses 49 and 51.
In verse 49 Jesus tells the disciples that He has come to set the earth on fire! In the Old Testament, fire is sometimes used as a means or symbol of purification (Lev 13:52; Num 31:23; Mal 3:2-3;), of discernment (Jer 23:29; Is 33:14), as a symbol of judgment (Gen 19:24; Ex 9:24; Ps 66:12; Is 43:2; Is 66:15-16; Lk 3:9; 9:54), and as a manifestation of the presence of God (Ex 3:2; 13:21-22). St. John the Baptist told the Jews that the Messiah was coming with the Holy Spirit and fire (Lk 3:16). In Scripture, fire is one of the most expressive symbols of the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit (CCC# 696; Acts 2:1-4).In this case, the fire Jesus speaks of might be the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is also possible He is referring to the refining and purifying fire that Jesus will light in His death and Resurrection to ignite and transform the New Covenant people of God and bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth (the Church).
50a There is a baptism with which I must be
baptized and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!
The baptism by which Jesus must be baptized is His death on the Cross for the sins of mankind.
50b ... and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! The Greek word can also be translated "fulfilled," "finished," or "completed." Jesus told the Jews in His Sermon on the Mount that not one part of the Law of the Sinai Covenant would become invalid until "all these things are fulfilled in Matthew 5:17-18. Jesus will announce to the world that His mission and the Old Covenant Law is "fulfilled" or "accomplished" just before He gives up His life on the Altar of the Cross when He announces: "It is fulfilled" in John 19:28-30.
The word "baptism" in verse 50 means "immersion" and was a part of the old Sinai Covenant rituals of purification for what is "unclean" that made one bodily impure and unfit for worship. When St. John baptized people in the Jordan River, he immersed them in the water as they symbolically died to their sins and then arose from the water restored and purified. This same "immersion/baptism" is symbolically demonstrated in Jesus death on the Cross. Jesus calls His death on the Cross a "baptism" because He will fall into physical death, but He will also arise victorious never to die again! In Romans 6:4 St. Paul makes a similar comparison to Christian baptism. He tells us that in the Sacrament of Christian baptism we are immersed in Christ's death as we die to sin and are raised up to a new life of victorious grace.
The Jews were looking for a Messiah like Moses or like David who would unite Israel and lead the people to victory against the Roman oppressors. Jesus' warning in this difficult teaching is that His Gospel message will not unify. His message that is met with either acceptance or rejection will be a source of conflict and division for the covenant people even within families. What Jesus was bringing was "liberation" from sin and death by opening up a fountain of baptism to all mankind. He opened that fountain of baptism to all men and women in His self-sacrificial offering on the altar of the Cross. The blood and water that flowed from the pierced side of the crucified Jesus are types of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. They become "the sacraments of new life" in which Christians are "born from water and the Spirit" in order to be purified to become sons and daughters of God and citizens of the Kingdom of God (CCC 1225; Jn 3:3-5; 19:34).
This teaching is relevant to us today because we are making the same choices: do we commit ourselves to Christ and His Church at the cost of our family relationships or do we deny Christ? The decision to submit to Christ may be painful for us in this life, but that pain and suffering will count toward our salvation and will be rewarded by our Divine Father and approved by our heavenly brothers and sisters.
Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2013