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Proper 26, Year B, (Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time), November 4, 2018

First reading, Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Our Liturgical Setting: Today's gospel, Mark 12:28b-34, is the climax of a series of contentious conversations between Jesus and the enemies who would soon conspire to kill him. The lector should read the gospel, and would do well to read it in context, beginning with Mark, chapter 11. You'll see that, by late in chapter 12, the stakes in this argument have become very high. Now the dispute is about the Law, historically Israel's most sacred institution, the foundation of every other institution. Mark's gospel traces Jesus' inexorable path to the cross; this climactic argument, after which "no one dared to ask him any more questions," is the last milestone on that journey.

The Historical Background: 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.

Proclaiming It: All that said, the lector can understand the solemnity and gravity with which Moses speaks about the Law. He's initiating the people's reverence for the Law, centuries before later leaders trivialized it. Moses is giving this band of runaway slaves something that will bring them dignity and purpose, stature and distinction among the nations of the world, a unique place in history. This gives Moses great pride and hope. But at the same time he worries that the people don't "get it." All these feelings are present in his declaration. Let them be present and audible in your proclamation.

Second Reading, Hebrews 9:11-14

The Theological Background: Among the earliest Christians were some Jews who, rather promptly after accepting Jesus, were kicked out of synagogue. The Letter to the Hebrews was written for their benefit, to help them cope with the loss of things Jewish like priesthood, tabernacle, sanctuary and ritual sacrifices. The letter's strategy is to convince the reader that Jesus and our relationship with him take the place of, and are superior to, the older Jewish institutions.

In the first ten verses of chapter 9 the letter details the worship space and priestly rituals of the old covenant. Then, in the verses of our selection, it contrasts Christ's role as unique priest in the heavenly temple of the new covenant. Every sentence bespeaks a difference between what Jesus has established and what had gone before.

Proclaiming It: So to do justice to this passage in your proclamation, use strong contrast in your voice to show how our covenant in Christ contrasts with the old covenant. The sentences are complex and call for careful rehearsal. You might try reading this aloud to a friend or family member. Don't let your hearer read the passage; they should hear it from you first. Then ask him or her what they heard. Their incomprehension should spur you to try again, slower, with more contrast and expression.

Here are specific contrasts in this reading:

A Homily Starter, based on today's second reading:

The Letter to the Hebrews is about being stripped of the things that made you comfortable, and finding how Christ takes their place. The argument in today's verses is, to be frank, tortuous. But we accept it as inspired. Maybe that means we have to be very creative in figuring out how to let Christ take the place of the now absent comforts in our life as a church.

Segue to the Eucharistic meal: Jesus could have made any ritual the sacrament of communion with him. He could have said "In memory of me, tie blue ribbons around your heads, hold hands in a circle, and chant my name. Then I'll be truly present in your midst, body and blood, soul and divinity." Had he said so, we would believe it, and do it, and it would work. It would only seem strange to the first generation, just as Jesus' presence in the ritual meal seemed strange to the first generation who tried to comprehend it (remembered in John 6:41-69).

So why did he choose the meal as the sacramental sign of his union with us? Well, when you're stripped of anything to eat, you begin to miss it pretty quickly. Physical hunger, with its debilitating effects when it's prolonged, is a most vivid sign of what it's like not to have God in your life and to be excommunicated from the community of believers. When you're really hungry, that's the only thing you can think of. Just as the meal is the perfect relief from hunger, union with Jesus and the community of believers is the perfect relief of our spiritual ills. And the Eucharistic meal is the perfect sign of that satisfaction. (This is the reason that fasting before communion is, or could be again, part of the ritual action.)

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. The Text This Week; links to homilies, art works, movies and other resources on the week's scripture themes

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Last modified: October 5, 2018