Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time, October 24, 2021
Jeremiah confidently predicted the return of exiled citizens to their homeland. He calls the people by various names of their ancient patriarchs.
For Jewish converts to Christianity, this passage compares Jesus to the priests of Judaism. Jesus is like them in some ways, and different from them in other important ways.
Here a blind man on the roadside, by the title he gives to Jesus, shows that he recognizes Jesus more clearly than those who have been traveling with Jesus for a long time.
The Historical Background: This prophecy is set in the ruins of Jerusalem, at a time when its leading citizens have been exiled in Babylon. Jeremiah confidently predicts their restoration to their homeland. The returnees will include not just the powerful, but the blind and lame, vulnerable mothers and their children. The name Jacob in "Shout with joy for Jacob," means the whole nation; remember that Jacob was the grandson of Abraham and was renamed "Israel." It was common usage to call a tribe by the name of its patriarch. Similarly, Ephraim was a grandson of Jacob.
Proclaiming It: Of course the lector's voice should express the prophet's joy, confidence, and awe at what God is about to do. A good way to bring these to expression is to contrast with tone of voice the "before and after" states of the people. For example, "They departed in tears" deserves a low tone of voice, but "I will console them and guide them" should sound brighter, happier.
Brief homiletic excursus: Today's gospel shows that Jesus welcomed companions like the blind and lame, as he marched to Jerusalem. His followers today are that diverse, imperfect, inclusive band, nagged by a feeling of exile in the world as we know it, longing for a homeland we have yet to reach.
Jeremiah, were he alive today, would be predicting our success. So the lector's tone of voice should express confidence, joy and excitement, like the prophet's.
The addressees of this letter had been kicked out of their synagogues when they accepted Jesus as the fulfillment of their ancient Jewish hopes. The writer tries to comfort them by depicting Jesus as the superior replacement for the priests they formerly depended upon.
Proclaiming It: To convey that with only the text in hand is a challenge, because the word's "Christ" and "son" appear only once. But that's where the lector's emphasis belongs.
Brief etymological excursus: Some are wont to accommodate (I use the word advisedly) Hebrews 5:1-3 to derive a datum about contemporary priests. But the ministers whom we call priests today hold an office derived from a different origin, with a title derived from a different word. In the Greek original of the letter to the Hebrews, and of other Christian Scriptures where the word appears, what we translate as "priest" is the word "hierus" (ἱερεὺς) (pronounced he er OOS). It means the man who did the rituals and, sometimes, the teaching, for the people. Our modern word "hierarchy" comes from this root. It's applied only to Jewish priests and, in Hebrews, to Jesus, for the reasons given above.
In their descriptions of the church aborning, the Christian Scriptures name no minister "hierus." The ministers named are the apostles; then their successors the overseers (in Greek, "episkopoi", literally "over seers"), who became modern bishops; deacons; deaconesses; and "presbyteroi," literally "elders," who each served a local congregation. An overseer would supervise (from the Latin version of "oversee") several local congregations. The English word "priest" comes from the Greek root "presbyteros" (singular). Over the years, many functions of pre-Christian "hierus" were added to the job description and the self-understanding of the Christian presbyter. By the time English came along, and Christianity came to the English speakers, one word covered both callings.
Slightly broader excursus: The English word "Presbyterian" comes from the same Greek root. There it serves to distinguish a denomination by its form of governance. Presbyterians choose to be governed by presbyters, or elders, rather than by bishops. What churches are governed by bishops? Episcopal churches, of course. What do you call churches governed by neither? Congregational. All three, when they were aborning, distinguished themselves from each other and from the Roman church, whose governance they might have called "papal." While we're at it, what are Methodists? Well, John Wesley was an Anglican (Episcopal) leader who gave people a spiritual discipline, or "methods," for being good Anglicans; how the users of the methods became a distinct denomination is beyond the scope of even this excursus. What's accurate in this brief history of mainline Protestant derivations I owe to the late Allen O. Miller, a distinguished teacher, preacher and ecumenist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA. What's inaccurate is due to my faulty memory, and I welcome corrections from the knowledgeable. While Doctor Miller would probably also agree with what I say about the presbyters, he wouldn't take credit for it. That goes to several of my other teachers.
A liturgical suggestion: A preacher who wants to do justice to this passage will have to place it in context. And the context includes last week's gospel passage, the preceding verses, Mark 10:35-45, about the ambition of James and John. As Roger Karban pointed out in 2009, Mark expected his audience to hear the gospel not in bite-size chunks over successive Sundays, but all at once. So here the evangelist clearly wants the church to compare the self-serving sons of Zebedee with the humble, blind beggar.
So, proclaim outside the box a little bit. Put another ribbon/bookmark in the lectionary at last Sunday's page. Tell your listeners you want to preface today's gospel with last week's passage. And do it. Read them continuously. Catholics wanting to be precise about the rubrics should know that the preface of the Roman lectionary permits one to extend any lectionary passage with contiguous verses before and/or after the prescribed verses.Your proclamation: By all means, use your tone of voice to contrast the behavior of the begger with that of James and John.
Detail from a stained-glass image of the prophet Jeremiah. The original is in the Burrell collection in Glasgow, Scotland. GlasgowMuseums.com says of the piece:
This page updated September 2, 2021