August 29, 2021, 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
These statements on the lips of Moses reflect the national pride that Israel derived from having the law that God gave them.
In the first of a series of readings from the epistle of James, the author corrects the belief of some early Christians that temptations come from God. He bluntly states his major theme about how the faithful person responds to God's grace with good works.
In today's gospel passage, Jesus calls his disciples to a higher form of purity than the mere ritual purity prescribed by the religious leaders. His criticism will lead to their conspiring against him.
On Trinity Sunday earlier this year the first reading was from another part of this speech by Moses. We take the liberty of repeating the introductory paragraphs from that day's Notes.
The Historical Situation: Though it describes events set in the time of Moses, Deuteronomy was written much later, during the Exile, 587-539 B.C.E. (also known as the Babylonian Captivity). Internal corruption and external pressures had brought the people to the brink of extinction. Kings, priests, prophets, and temple had all failed to hold them together. The writers responded to this crisis by re-interpreting ancient legal traditions, putting them in the mouth of the great lawgiver Moses, in the hope of setting the Jews on a viable course for their future. On the surface, it's a story of origins. In its real purpose, Deuteronomy is about starting over, hoping to get it right and keep it going this time, where "it" is national identity expressed through loyalty to God's law.
The Literary Method: Deuteronomy retells history told in other books, punctuating the narrative with powerful speeches by Moses. Just as Deuteronomy's audience was having a very hard time holding on to faith and identity, so, the book reminds them, it was a struggle for their predecessors, ancient Israelites, to achieve or to maintain their strict belief in the one, true and invisible God. Elements of their past and enticements from pagan neighbors combined to tempt them. And we're tempted to say, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
Note Moses' two principal arguments:
Proclaiming It: To prepare to read this, recall when you've had to speak this way to a child or student of yours. Or recall a coach's locker-room half-time talk that motivated you. Think of George C. Scott's speech at the beginning of the movie Patton. Then imagine how much greater were the stakes when Moses first spoke this, and when the Deuteronomists (authors of the book), had to tell the story again. Finally, determine to make your congregation relive the Israelites' experience of hearing this. You want them to feel as proud of their God and of themselves as Moses did.
This Sunday we return to our series of readings from Saint Mark's gospel. Mark is keen to highlight how Jesus challenged and irritated the religious authorities of his day, who eventually had him crucified. Today's gospel sounds that note by showing how Jesus' contemporaries had trivialized the law. Read that gospel, then come back to this passage, about the excellence of the Law as originally given through Moses. With that contrast in mind, proclaim this passage to the assembly with enthusiasm like that of Moses.
The Background of the Reading: Today we begin a series of five Sunday readings from the letter of James. The letter is addressed to Christians in general, rather than to a particular community like Saint Paul's letters. It's mostly about living a good Christian life, with little to say about doctrine or theological questions. In this it has been compared to Old Testament wisdom literature, on which see Lector's Notes of two weeks ago. Better is the 700-word Introduction to The Letter of James at the New American Bible site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The whole letter is a bit episodic, and this selection, skipping verses as it does, is more so. It helps to know that the editors of the N.A.B. entitle this section of the letter "The Value of Trials and Temptation (James 1:2-18)." To get this in context, read all of chapter 1. This explains, for example, why the first verse of our Lectionary selection has to state the obvious, that good gifts come from God. The context was that some believed that temptations came from God. Read all the author's verses to know his opinions on what comes from where and from Whom.
Your Proclamation: The sentences in the Lectionary passage are thus out of context, and some are long, making your task as lector very challenging. The editors kindly compensated by dividing the sentences into four paragraphs. Read them slowly, with significant pauses between the paragraphs. While paragraphs two and three are related to each other, the others are disjoint.
As one who has volunteered to proclaim the word of God to the people, you should relish the lines:
Lichen loving a rock at Pickle Springs (a state park in Missouri, U.S.A.) (detail). Photo by Mike Holdinghaus of Saint Louis, Missouri, U.S.A. Used with permission. Click here for a larger, uncropped version, in a facebook album of Mike's artworks.
This page updated August 7, 2021