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Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, March 6, 2011
Lectionary index # 85

Twenty-second digests for the congregation: Arrange with your liturgy committee to have these brief historical introductions read to the assembly before you do each reading.

Who should announce these before the first and second readings, and before the gospel acclamation? They're not Scripture, nor homiletic, so they shouldn't be delivered from the ambo. They're a modest teaching. So let the presider say them from the chair. Let the lector turn toward the presider and listen.
Print this page, cut it at the blue lines, and give the introduction paragraphs to the person who will speak them.

Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, March 6, 2011
Before the first reading:

For a later audience facing various religious choices, this is a story of the ancient Moses. It reminds Jews in a pagan society of the momentous choices made by their ancestors.
After the psalm, before the second reading:

Some Jewish Christians argued that Christians needed to observe the laws of Moses in order to get right with God. Saint Paul says our justice in the sight of God is a gift freely given in Christ Jesus.
Before the gospel acclamation:

For several weeks we have heard Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. He concludes it today with a solemn teaching about its seriousness.

To pay for use of the words above, please subtract an equal number of optional words from other places in the liturgy (click here for some suggestions).

On a new website, read a new essay about these readings for a community responding to the Word as a community.

First reading, Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28, 32 [Jerusalem Bible translation]

The Historical Situation: About 600 years before Jesus, foreigners captured many of the people of Judea and held them in exile in Babylon. Some Jews went over to the religion of their captors, while other exiled leaders struggled to keep their people faithful. The book of Deuteronomy is part of that effort. It retells the stories, at that time about 600 years old, of their ancestors' becoming God's people under the leadership of Moses. Those history lessons, meant to re-inspire the nation's pride and confidence in God's providence, are punctuated with dramatic speeches by Moses.

Today's text in context: The verses of Deuteronomy in the lectionary today are from a rousing speech where Moses tries to make his hearers contrast themselves with the pagans into whose territory they were moving. The Law/Covenant that the Lord had given them made them different from any other nation. They were to adhere to that Law/Covenant tenaciously. (Later Jews took literally the order about binding God's word to their foreheads and wrists; they would put tiny scrolls with some of these words in leather capsules worn on their wrists and foreheads. In their prayers they called the word of the Lord their shield and helmet.) In our liturgical context, these words are a prelude to today's gospel, the conclusion of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, according to Matthew. Jesus makes adherence to his teaching have life-or-death consequences. In the same way the Moses of Deuteronomy makes observance of the Law determine whether the people enjoy blessing or suffer curses.

Your Proclamation: Rhetorically, this is straightforward, but far from unimportant. You just want people to hear Moses' declarations in all their starkness. Speak with the urgency of one who, with your listeners, stands at the division between life and death, between blessing and curse. Remembering this passage is a prelude to today's gospel, listen to the people's reaction to that: "When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes." (Matthew 7:28-29) Your proclamation should have that kind of authority.

Second Reading, Romans 3:21-25, 28 [Jerusalem Bible translation]

You've seen today's second reading, so you know you're a lector facing a paragraph of very complicated theology, and a congregation likely unschooled in any of this (unless they are Lutherans). Frankly, you have a lot of homework to do. The following wordy paragraphs will help. Brace yourself. The lectionary begins today a sixteen-week sequence of excerpts from Romans. In 2011, that sequence is interrupted next week for Lent and Easter, skips four Sundays (five for Catholics in the U.S.A.) and resumes with the 13th (or 14th) Sunday of Ordinary Time in early summer. Stay with this, and by September only the most ambitious preacher in your community will know more than you do about Romans.)

The Theological Background: Much of Romans is a painstaking investigation of the meaning of faith. Paul asks how believing in Jesus allows us to be in a right relationship with God. Why is belief in Jesus better than what others have tried in order to receive God's favor? Paul wants to convince Jewish Christians that their Jewish Law, by itself, had not given them God's favor, and that they had not earned God's love by keeping the Law, however well or poorly. One of his concerns was to prevent Jewish Christians from imposing the Law on Gentile converts to Christ. And for Paul, the alternative to the Law is faith.

A Theological Reflection: What, then, is faith? Admitting one cannot earn God's love, and trusting that God has given it, undeserved and free, in Christ. One faithfully honors God by saying, in effect, "I cannot win Your favor with my good works or my observances of the Law, but I gratefully accept Your gift of life in Christ." How does this honor God? Well, consider the implications of trying to do it the other way. If you have to earn God's love, then you're implying that God is just like everybody else. Most others won't give you a break, will hold grudges, and always expect you to pay for what you want from them. Who needs another god like that? From the time of Moses, prophets have been trying to convince us that the real God is not like the rest of us, and not like the gods that people fashion for themselves. We're to say to God, "We'll relate to you in ways unlike the relationships we've come to expect with others, because You are different. You are generous. We don't have to deserve Your love, You just give it. We recognize You in the indescribable generosity of Jesus, whose death we see as the ultimate gift of self. In grateful response, we'll try to make our relationships with each others like Yours with us, merciful and generous. But we won't fret about forfeiting Your love if we fail."

Sentence by sentence: Just for the lector's sake, let's take the sentences, one idea at a time. In the verses preceding our reading, Saint Paul has turned the question from "How can we make ourselves righteous with God? (We just can't.)" to "God is so righteous that God just wants to share that righteousness freely with us in Christ."

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, though testified to by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

The Law originally manifested the righteousness of God its Author, in contrast with pagan gods, who gave their peoples no such dignifying, humanizing law. The recipients of God's Law had a chance to share God's righteousness, but proved unable to observe the Law. God, of course, remains righteous, whether anyone follows divine Law or not. Now God's righteousness is shared with us in a new way, by faith in Christ. Now we see that we can share that righteousness without having to observe the Law. (Remember that the Law, by the time Saint Paul wrote, was about circumcising males, keeping Sabbath rest, and myriad other religious practices. It's from these that we are exempt, not from more fundamental moral laws like respecting others' right to life, telling the truth, being faithful in marriage, etc.) That's the meaning of the first two sentences.

For there is no distinction; all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.

Whether one belonged to the historical people of God, the Jews, or not, no one earned or deserved a share of God's righteousness.

They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by his blood.

Until now, we haven't seen the word justified. It means "made righteous, or put into a right relationship with God." The first just one is God. If we are just, that is only a participation in the justness of God.

Paul invokes the ideas of expiation and blood sacrifice to explain how Jesus makes the righteousness of God available to us again. (Ancient Israel had absorbed these mechanisms from its neighbors and never fully transcended them, although there are strong prophetic critiques of them in the tradition. Later Christian writers have stretched these problematic analogies even further. They used them to solve problems that we didn't have until we started trying to express our religion in terms of Greek philosophy. It didn't help when they applied to God certain early medieval codes of social status-seeking. Sometimes the result is a grotesque picture of a God who pouts because we can't come up with a sacrifice good enough to undo the dishonor we've done Him by our sin. The God whom Saint Paul describes here didn't take the Divine Umbrage that far, or even in that direction. But I digress.)

For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Emphasize the word faith in this sentence, pause after it for a beat, and finish the sentence rhythmically. Though your listeners might not know what works of the law are, they'll know they're different from faith. That, and your intelligent-sounding proclamation of the prior sentences, may make them question some of their assumptions. That may be as high as you can realistically aim.

Extra! Each Sunday passage from Romans in context: Click here to see a table summarizing the readings from Romans from the 9th to the 24th Sundays of Ordinary Time, this year.

Several other commentaries on these passages. All are thoughtful, all quite readable, from the scholarly to the popular.
Links may be incomplete more than a few weeks before the "due date."
Lutheran pastor and college teacher Dan Nelson's notes for a study group Father Roger Karban of Belleville, Illinois, USA, writes a newspaper column about every Sunday's readings. Here are his essays for today's passages, from: courtesy of The Evangelist, official publication of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, New York, or of The Belleville Messenger, of the Diocese of Belleville.

Read all of Father Karban's recent columns here, at the site of FOSIL, the Faithful of Southern Illinois.

The Text This Week; links to homilies, art works, movies and other resources on the week's scripture themes Saint Louis University's excellent Sunday liturgy site
Most welcome here are Reginald Fuller's commentaries.

The Lectionary selections in the frame at the left, if any, are there for your convenience. The publishers of the page in that frame have no connection, except for membership in the one Body of Christ, with the publisher of this page. Likewise the publishers of the pages on the links above.

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Last modified: March 5, 2011