Ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

18th Sunday of Ordinary Time, August 2, 2020

Before the first reading:

For Judeans about to be released from exile in Babylon, and about to return to a devastated homeland, a prophet speaks words of encouragement.

After the psalm, before the second reading:

Earlier in this letter, Paul has shown that God saves us by unearned grace, out of pure love, without measuring our merits. Now he answers the implied question, "Why are we still suffering?"

Before the gospel acclamation:

Disturbed by the death of John the Baptist, Jesus withdraws. Followers pursue him anyway. Jesus again exceeds the expectations of his close disciples.

First Reading, Isaiah 55:1-3

Today's gospel, Matthew 14:13-21, is the familiar story of Jesus feeding a crowd of thousands from a small supply of bread and fish. Read it first, then you'll see the appropriateness of today's first reading.

The Historical Situation: In their original context, these were encouraging words for very discouraged people. Chapters 40-55 of Isaiah record prophecies spoken at the end of the Babylonian captivity of the people of Judah, when they were returning from enslavement far away, to a devastated homeland. The words were meant to give them hope and to keep them from losing faith in God.

Like today's passage, the whole chapter 55 promises both material and spiritual relief. Today we hear of abundant water, grain, milk, wine and bread. We also hear of a renewal of God's covenant with people's great ancestral King David; that's a comforting reminder of good old days. (Just three weeks ago, on the Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, we read verses 10 and 11 from this chapter. They promise that God's word will create spiritual fertility just as today's verses promise fertility of crops and livestock).

The Theological Background: Note the ways the prophet insists repeatedly that poverty is not a barrier to the people's enjoyment of God's bounty: "You who have no money, come." "Come, without paying and without cost." "Why spend ... your wages for what fails to satisfy." To people ashamed of the sins that led them to be exiled in the first place, this is reassurance. It's a subtle way of saying that they don't have to restore themselves or pay their own ransom, but rather God is doing it out of undeserved mercy and love.

Proclaiming It: Sound magnanimous, like a hearty host, proud of his cooking, receiving guests much loved and long awaited. The words themselves demand that.

Pause before the second last sentence ("Come to me heedfully ...") and assume a more solemn tone, because you're switching the emphasis from material abundance to spiritual richness.

Second Reading, Romans 8:35, 37-39

The Theological Background: The early chapters of Saint Paul's letter to the Romans are about how to get right with God. The original audience of the letter was divided on this question. Some, while acknowledging the importance of Jesus, insisted that one needed to observe at least some aspects of the (Jewish) Law of Moses. Paul, on the other hand, insisted it was enough to put one's faith in Jesus and let God save us by pure, unearned and undeserved grace. Paul asserted that Gentile converts to Christianity had no obligation to keep any aspect of Jewish law, although Jewish converts could do so if they wished. Paul spends the kernel of the Letter to the Romans proving this with complex and profound theological arguments, to which this summary cannot do justice.

Proclaiming It: Chapter 8 of the letter seems to address the implied question, "Well, if God loves us so much as to save us by unearned grace, why is everything still so difficult? Why are we suffering?" Today's passage is a rousing rhetorical summation of Paul's response, like a lawyer's dramatic closing argument in a hard-fought trial.

Now it's unlikely that your congregation will hear these verses with this sense of context. Our Sunday-by-Sunday selections have been too short and discontinuous to allow this. (Click here for survey of our selections from Romans from the 9th to the 24th Sundays of Ordinary Time, year A.) But at least you know the context. With that knowledge and your own sense of the dramatic, you can proclaim the passage with the vigor that it deserves.

There are two long lists in the passage which you should proclaim carefully, not tediously. In the second, mark the end of the list with a more emphatic tone: ". . . nor height, nor depth, NOR ANY OTHER CREATURE [pause ...] will be able to separate us . . ."

 
 

Links to other smart commentaries on this week's readings

Credit for the picture at the top:

Loaves and Fishes by John August Swanson, American, born 1938. Click here for a brief introduction to the work from the Lectionary site of the libraries of Vanderbilt University.

Click here for the artist's own website.

Click here for a large (1200x800 pixels) version. It's much more attractive than the thumbnail above.

This page updated June 26, 2020