Moving Through the Readings and Finding One’s Path

It must be admitted that sermons can be awfully boring. I know that my heart sinks when I hear a priest begin, “In the first reading. . . .” After summarizing what we have already just heard, he moves on: “And in the second reading. . . .” Finally, when he says, “And in the Gospel . . .” there’s a collective sigh of relief: he’s rounded third and is heading for home. I mention this because today I shall deliver just such a boring sermon.

And so . . .

In the first reading[1] we learn that the Jewish people wept when the book of the law was read to them. And why? They wept because they had not observed its multiple commands. Surely each one of us can share their distress when he reflects on the commandments of the new law, that seem impossible to put into practice: love your enemy; turn the other cheek; sell what you have and give to the poor; take up your cross. . . . And yet Ezra says, at the close of today’s passage, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” If we apply that statement to ourselves, we can say that we too have the strength to observe the new law, not on our own, but because, as Saint Paul has said, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”[2] In this, Saint Paul is echoing a theme ubiquitous in the Old Testament, as in Isaiah: “The Lord gives strength to the weary and . . . power to the weak.”[3] Thus, that first reading from Nehemiah assures us that, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we are empowered first to comprehend and then to fulfil the obligations of our Christian calling.

And in the second reading I have a surprise for you, in that it’s not, as you are no doubt expecting it to be, that passage from Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, but rather the most neglected text of Sunday Mass: the responsorial psalm. Today’s psalm, 18/19, is particularly appropriate in that it provides a motive for observing God’s law: “The ordinances of the Lord,” as the psalmist says, “are true and altogether righteous.” And what right-minded person would refuse to accept what is both true and righteous? In other words, God’s will for us is something beautiful, towards which the rightly disposed heart is irresistibly drawn.

This observation brings us to the third reading,[4] a.k.a. the second reading in ordinary parlance, that selection for first Corinthians that I mentioned a moment ago. And what is its attraction today? Saint Paul reminds us that we are not in this alone. There are others who have gone before us on the path of the Gospel or who accompany us even now, what the letter to the Hebrews called “a great cloud of witnesses.”[5] Here’s Saint Paul’s list: “First Apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.”[6] Can you recognize yourself among these gifted Christians? Perhaps you qualify under the heading “forms of assistance.” There are two consoling truths highlighted here: first comes the knowledge that others have accepted and acted upon the teachings of Jesus. If they were able to succeed, there is nothing preventing me from doing the same; the good example of the saints can act as a spur to our lethargic spirits. And secondly, we have the consolation of companionship, like a group of pilgrims moving together towards a shrine, which in this case is the kingdom of heaven, encouraging and helping one another.

And in the Gospel[7]—we’re almost finished. Here we discover what happens to anyone who has, in progressing through today’s readings, been made uneasy by the demands catalogued in the first reading—about God’s law—and then heartened by the beauty of that law as it is described in Psalm 18/19. Next, he will have become aware of the setting for his Christian life, in the Church, the body of Christ. Thus, an attentive response to these biblical texts will have prepared you for the message of the Gospel that describes the visit of Jesus to the synagogue in Nazareth. When you think about his words, you can recognize them as springing from the two great commandments, the first of which is to love God with all your heart, and the second “which is like it, is to love your neighbour as yourself.”[8]

Jesus, in this as in everything else, is our model. For he loved the Father, and that was ultimately the motive that brought him among us “as one who serves.”[9] Luke’s Gospel captures the movement from the love of God to the love of neighbour by showing Jesus as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah: “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recover of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”[10] And Our Lord’s final words, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,”[11] apply not only to himself in his great messianic action, but to each one of us here and now. We should repeat that phrase over and over again, every time we hear or read the Bible: “Today this Scripture is being fulfilled,” as it will be if we not only listen, but act upon it.

[1] Neh 8.2-6, 8-10.

[2] Phil 4.13.

[3] Is 40.29.

[4] 1 Cor 12.12-30.

[5] Heb 12.1.

[6] 1 Cor 12.28.

[7] Li 1.1-4;4.14.14-21.

[8] Matt 22.39.

[9] Lk.22.27.

[10] Lk 4.18.

[11] Lk 4.21.