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The Reality of the Christ: Part 2

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Matthew and Luke are the only two Gospel writers who include an infancy narrative in their biographies of Jesus. According to the most widely accepted theory about how the Gospels were composed, Matthew and Luke wrote independently of one another. That is, Matthew did not have a copy of Luke’s Gospel on his desk when writing his Gospel, as it were, and vice versa.

Having said that, it is amazing that these two birth narratives almost never cover the same events! But in the few instances that they do, they are in agreement. The famous biblical scholar Father Raymond Brown pointed out eleven points (reproduced in Monette, The Wrong Jesus, pp. 108-109) at which Matthew and Luke’s accounts are in accord with one another:

1. Mary and Joseph are legally engaged but haven’t lived together (see Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:27,34).
2. Joseph is from King David’s lineage (see Matthew 1:16,20; Luke 1:27,32; 2:4).
3. Angels announce the forthcoming birth of the baby (see Matthew 1:20-23; Luke 1:30-35).
4. Mary becomes pregnant as a virgin (see Matthew 1:20,23,25; Luke 1:34).
5. The child is conceived through the work of the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 1:18,20; Luke 1:35).
6. An angel proclaims that the child’s name will be Jesus (see Matthew 1:21; Luke 1:31).
7. An angel states that Jesus is to be the Saviour (see Matthew 1:21; Luke 2:11).
8. The birth of Jesus happens after Mary and Joseph began living together as spouses (see Matthew 1:24-25; Luke 2:5-6).
9. Jesus is born in Bethlehem (see Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4-6).
10. Herod the Great is in power during the time of the birth of Jesus (see Matthew 2:1; Luke 1:5).
11. Jesus is raised in Nazareth (see Matthew 2:23; Luke 2:39).

The fact that these two independent sources on Jesus’ infancy are in agreement on all these major details gives us greater confidence that we can trust these accounts.

Q and A on this Sunday’s readings: the talents

Can you elaborate on the parable of the talents from this Sunday’s Gospel (Matt 25:14-30)?

This parable is very similar to Luke 19:11-27, and the parable of the “Ten Minas”, or “Ten Pounds”. It is possible that these parables are versions of the same basic parable, or that Jesus himself varied the details of the basic parable when preaching at different times and in different locations. Jesus’ teaching would have incorporated recurring themes (like that of many preachers, even today). Both the Matthean and Lucan parables have much in common with the simple statement of Mark 4:25: “For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away”.

The businessman who entrusts his property to his servants is indeed a “harsh man” (Matt 25:24). Is he supposed to represent God in the parable?

Not really. There is a correlation of course, but it is not exact. In fact, this man would not have been viewed favorably by Jesus’ original audience. He is a cutthroat businessman, who would be quite at home on the modern-day TV show “Dragon’s Den”. Although he is ruthlessly focused on profit, he is nonetheless prescient about his servants’ abilities. Indeed, the one the master trusts the most earns the greatest “ROI” – return on investment. The one who is trusted with the least amount earns nothing with his master’s resources.

So, what then is the lesson for the original hearers of Jesus’ parable, and for us today?

The parable is a warning to those who do not take the Christian life seriously – there will be serious repercussions for those who do not. God has entrusted us all with talents and abilities – some with more, others with less. But all of us are necessary to fulfilling God’s designs in the world. All of us are of equal worth as human persons, but not all have the same skills. There is a lesson here at the natural level, as we should quit comparing ourselves with others, and spend more time determining who God has created us to be, in order to fulfill some unique task in the world that only we can accomplish.

We as Catholics have also been entrusted with the unsearchable riches of the knowledge of Jesus Christ in the Catholic faith (cf. Eph. 3:8). How are we investing those truths in our day-to-day living? Are we studying our faith so that we may apply it better in our lives, our friendships, our families, our workplaces, and in society? “If you don’t use it, you lose it” is a popular saying. Many Catholics have advanced to a Masters or Doctoral level in their educations, or reached the pinnacles of their secular professions, yet have been content to remain at the level of a small child in their understanding of the faith. It is necessary to “grow up”, becoming mature adults in Christ (Col. 1:28), so we do not lose our heavenly reward.

Very often in the New Testament, the image of fire is used to describe hell. But in this parable, it is pictured as “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Are these different renditions compatible?

Indeed, they are. In the Dead Sea Scrolls we read this description of hell from the Community Rule (1QS 4:12-13), which speaks of “everlasting damnation in the wrath of God’s furious vengeance, never ending terror and reproach for all eternity, with a shameful extinction in the fire of Hell’s outer darkness”. This is an example of Jewish thinking, roughly contemporaneous with Jesus, that ties the two images of fire and darkness together.

Craig Evans Responds to Bart Ehrman: How God Became Jesus

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Don’t miss Dr Craig Evans live at The Faith Explained Conference on September 27. Cardinal Thomas Collins will also speak, so grab your tickets here while you still can! Check out Dr Evans’ response to Bart Ehrman in this YouTube clip.

Ascension Sunday Q and A

DP280379Q. What are some things we can learn from this Sunday’s Feast of the Ascension of the Lord?

A. The Ascension affirms in the minds of Jesus’ followers many truths that Jesus had attempted to teach them prior to his Passion. Now, following Jesus’ glorious Resurrection and victory over death, the disciples can finally appropriate these realities.

1. Jesus is Divine. In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 28, we read that, before Jesus Ascends into heaven, the disciples “worshipped him”. Jesus accepts worship, which is due to God alone. The implication is obvious: Jesus is God.

2. Christ will be waiting for us in Heaven. It was fitting that those who had witnessed the humiliation and suffering of the Christ at the hands of sinful humanity would now see Jesus exalted. Prior to his Passion, Jesus had told them: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). That process is now complete. In today’s First reading, we read that, as the disciples watched in awe, Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). The cloud, Scripture tells us, is an image of heaven, the abode of the Almighty (cf. Exodus 13:22; Luke 9:34ff).

Jesus had said previously, “‘Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.’” (John 14:1-6).

Saint Leo the Great, preaching on the Ascension of Christ, said, “Today, we are not only made possessors of Paradise, but with Christ we have ascended, mystically but also really, to the highest Heavens and have won through Christ a grace more wonderful than the one we had lost.”

3. The Ascension spurs us on in sharing our Catholic Faith. Jesus tells his disciples that it is now time for them to begin spreading the Gospel everywhere they go: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
The disciples returned with Mary to Jerusalem to prepare for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Empowered with God’s gifts, let us also seek to reach the people we know with the Good News of the Gospel. Our Lady will help us, too, just as she did those first believers in her Son.

You may also like: Q and A on the Ascension

Jesus: Lawmaker, Not Breaker

Q. In this Sunday’s Gospel, we have the most important section of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. Why is this material so crucial?

A. Matthew is a very Jewish Gospel. It was not the first Gospel to be written (that, in all likelihood, would be the Gospel of Mark), but it is placed first in the New Testament canon because it is a natural bridge between the Old and New Covenants (in fact, the words “testament” and “covenant” mean the same thing).

Matthew highlights the mission of Jesus to Gentiles, to be sure (cf. 28:19-20). But he is striving to show to his fellow Jews that Jesus was not, as he had been accused of being in Jewish circles, a lawbreaker – that is, he did not circumvent the law of the Old Testament. This is why Matt 5:17 is so crucial: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.”

In fact, when Jesus says, “Do not think…” he is referencing the Maccabean martyrs, who also preserved the law, despite hideous tortures at the hands of the pagan tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes: “But do not think that you will go unpunished for having tried to fight against God!” (2 Macc 7:19).

Q. But if Jesus isn’t “changing”, or altering the law, why does he give a series of examples prefaced by the formula, “You have heard it said…But I say to you…”?

A. What Jesus is doing here is bringing out the true meaning of the law – its correct interpretation, contra the erroneous takes on the law given by popular teachers of Jesus’ day. These examples are known as the “antitheses” of the Sermon on the Mount.

Far from abolishing the law, Jesus’ demands are even more strict than what was commonly taught in the Judaism of that time. Jesus deals with the inner attitudes of the heart, from which sins spring (cf. Matt 15:19). In this way, he highlights the true intent of the law, which was to transform the inner person, not simply to outlaw certain behaviors.

In one of the antitheses, for example, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ (Ex 20:14 = Deut 5:18). But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:27-28). Jesus then brings up the topic of divorce and remarriage in 5:31-32 (which Jesus says is adultery). This is very interesting in light of John the Baptist’s criticism of Herod Antipas’ illicit marriage to his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, for which John paid with his life (Matt 14:1-12). Jesus strikes at the heart of the issue by correctly pegging the cause of adulterous divorce and remarriage as lust, from which indeed much sexual sin springs.

The Israel Chronicles: Sepphoris (Part II)

Theatre at SepphorisNote: For much more on Sepphoris, and on other amazing archaeological finds that illuminate Jesus’ life, you will definitely want to grab a copy of Dr. Craig Evans’ excellent book Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence here!

As we continue our tour of Sepphoris, let’s look at some clues in the Gospels that this city may have influenced Jesus’ ministry. We all know that Jesus was a master at pointing out profound lessons from the everyday world that he lived in. Witness his many agricultural parables: having faith as a “mustard seed”, the “lost sheep”, etc. I believe there is a high probability that Sepphoris was a part of that world, and figures prominently in Jesus’ preaching  – especially in the Gospel of Matthew. It is thus a potential boon for understanding and clarifying certain aspects of Jesus’ teachings.

For example, the “city set on a hill (that) cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:14) may have been inspired by Sepphoris, which was indeed elevated. Its evening lights may have been visible to the inhabitants of Nazareth.

One of the most impressive discoveries resulting from the archaeological excavations that took place in Sepphoris during the 1970s and 1980s was its impressive public theatre. It was indeed a splendid structure; its first phase would have been completed in the 20s in the first century AD, carved out of the local bedrock. Its original seating capacity was about 2,500. Could it be that Jesus and Joseph worked on its construction? We will never know. A further expansion of the theatre took place decades later, which enabled it to hold 4,000.

Jesus’ references to “hypocrites” (cf. Matt. 6:2, 5, 16; 7:5; 15:7; 16:3; 22:18; 23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 28, 29; 24:51; Luke 6:42; 11:44; 12:1, 56; 13:15), an originally innocuous word that referred to “actors”, or “play-actors”, may have been expropriated from the theatre at Sepphoris. Jesus used the term “hypocrite” to excoriate the people-pleasing, insincere piety of some scribes and Pharisees of his day.

Jesus admonishes his disciples not to practice their piety “before people, in order to be seen by them” (Matt 6:1). The term translated as “to be seen” is the Greek word theathenai, from which we derive the English word “theatre”. Jesus advises people not to draw attention to their charitable giving: “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do” (Matt 6:2). The sounding of the trumpet signified a change of scene during a play. Jesus further says “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”. Skillful actors coordinated the movements of their hands to match their actions, drawing attention to what was done.
Jesus teaches his followers not to “be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others” (Matt 6:5). This alludes to an actor who stands and performs a soliloquy on stage.

Jesus also encourages his disciples not to “look dismal” when they fast, unlike “the hypocrites”, who “disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by people” (Matt 6:16). Mimes would paint their faces in order to play a role. Overall, Jesus encourages us to live not for the applause of others, but rather for the applause of One: God alone.

The Israel Chronicles: Sepphoris (Part I)

UnknownIn this series about what I learned on my recent research tour of Israel, our next stop is Sepphoris, where an important archaeological excavation has taken place. Sepphoris is located only 6.5 kilometres north of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. Along with with Caesarea Maritima and Tiberias, it was one of the largest and most important cities around the Galilee. This helps to quash the quaint myth that Jesus hailed from a sort of isolated backwater in Nazareth. In fact, a major highway linking Caesarea Maritima and Tiberias was not far from Nazareth. It is also possible that Joseph and Jesus worked in Sepphoris during its period of heavy expansion under Herod Antipas from 4 BCE – 39 CE, though it seems there would have been plenty of work to be had in Nazareth at that time as well. Antipas had originally intended to make Sepphoris his headquarters, and thus had some beautiful architecture installed there in the Greco-Roman style – colonnaded streets, etc.

The Greek word tekton that describes Jesus’ and Joseph’s work as carpenters actually means much more than that. It refers to a highly skilled laborer who would have been proficient in working with stone as well as wood and other materials. In fact, it is likely that Joseph and Jesus would have had architectural abilities as well. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan writes, one might say they were the equivalents of modern-day engineers.

The Sepphoris excavations are also important for quashing the theory of the ex-Catholic priest and scholar John Dominic Crossan that Jesus was in fact a Cynic philosopher. Excavations at the city dump have determined that at the time of Jesus, Sepphoris’ inhabitants kept to a kosher diet. Only in strata postdating 70 CE do we find pig bones and other evidence of Hellenizing influences. This is consistent with Sepphoris’ expanding non-Jewish population following the failed Jewish revolt of 66-70 CE . Coins minted in Sepphoris prior to 70 CE do not depict the image of the Emperor (as deity), which would have offended devout Jews, even though such coins were common elsewhere in the Empire. Post-70 CE, this is not the case. Stone vessels and miqva’ot – ritual bathing pools – used for Jewish purification rites, as well as menorah, have also been found from the pre-70 period.

In short, Sepphoris was in all likelihood an almost, if not completely Jewish city at the time of Jesus.  It is therefore improbable that Jesus would have come under the sway of Cynics during his early life in and around Nazareth.

 

Q and A on Trinity Sunday

Holy_TrinityQ. This Sunday is the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, and we Catholics are used to hearing about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But some Australian priests got a bit “creative” with the liturgy a few years ago, and began opening the Mass in a different way. Instead of saying, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, they said this: “In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier”. They were severely reprimanded by their bishop. Why was this such a big deal to the Church?

A. What these priests did was wrong on many levels. The biggest problem was that creating, redeeming and sanctifying are things that God does, but they are not who he is. Yes, it is true that God created the cosmos, and that Jesus redeemed us, and that the Holy Spirit sanctifies us (makes us holy, provided we cooperate with God’s grace). But creating, redeeming, and sanctifying are God’s activities, not his identity. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (cf. Matthew 28:19).

Q. Why did God not reveal himself as a Trinity of Persons until the age of the New Covenant, in which we are now living?

A. God dealt with humanity as a wise parent deals with a child. This has often been called the “divine pedagogy”. A small child cannot understand trigonometry or quantum physics. One must start with simple concepts, like “2 + 2 = 4”, and build from there. More truth is added when the student is ready to handle it. In the same fashion, God gradually revealed truth about himself to human beings, culminating in the revelation of the Most Holy Trinity.

I actually think that the Trinity is all over the Old Testament as well – God creating the universe by his powerful “Word” in Genesis – the Word that later became flesh, Jesus Christ (John 1:14). God’s Spirit hovered over the waters of creation  – the Holy Spirit (Genesis 1:2). God said, “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26). All of this is less explicit than we might like it to be, but the doctrine is there. I believe that one reason God did not more clearly spell out the doctrine of the Trinity until later in salvation history was the problem of polytheism in the ancient Near East.

In the Old Testament period, God chose to reveal himself to the world gradually through the agency of his people, Israel. The ultimate plan was for all the nations (or “Gentiles”, ethnic groups) outside of Israel to join God’s family. This was promised to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, when God promised him that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through his “seed”  (Genesis 22:18). This finally happened in the age of the universal (the word “Catholic” means “universal”) Church of Jesus Christ, the son (descendant, or “seed”) of Abraham, according to the flesh (Matthew 1:1).

But, in the time of ancient Israel, God’s people lived among many other peoples who were polytheists (they believed in many “gods”). At that time, it was more important for Israel to reveal to the world that there is only one true God. The revelation that there are three persons in the one God would have to wait. If that truth had been fully proclaimed at that point, it may have confused non-Jews, who may have viewed the Trinity as three different “gods”, rather than three Divine Persons sharing one Divine nature.

Being “Abel” to Love God on Valentine’s Day

The Sacred Heart of JesusToday’s Mass readings remind us of the importance of loving God. How appropriate that they happen to fall on Valentine’s Day, for God’s love, poured out in the blood and water flowing from the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is the greatest experience of love we can ever hope to know. And such love can only be repaid with love. But stepping into the arena of love has it’s dangers, and this is even true in the relationship between God and humanity.

Daring to love can incite jealousy. The First Reading, from Genesis, speaks of the offering of Abel, firstborn son of Adam, made for love of God. This gift was far more pleasing to God than that of Abel’s brother, Cain. We all know what happened: Cain, in a fit of jealousy, murdered his own brother. The Church Fathers remind us that Abel was a type, or prefigurement, of Christ: he, like Jesus, was a shepherd (cf. John 10); he offered a sacrifice acceptable to the Lord (Jesus’ offering was his very self on the cross); and his blood was shed on the ground as he was murdered. The jealousy of the religious establishment of his day contributed to Jesus’ death.

Daring to love can also mean risking rejection. Today’s Gospel portrays Jesus as a sort of jilted lover:

The Pharisees came forward and began to argue with Jesus,
seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him.
He sighed from the depth of his spirit and said,
“Why does this generation seek a sign?
Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”
Then he left them, got into the boat again,
and went off to the other shore.

– Mark 8:11-13

Truth be told, Jesus had already given more than enough signs by this point: healings, exorcisms, miracles. Just think of the feeding miracles! Just before this incident recorded in Mark 8, Jesus had fed 4,000 people (not counting the women and children), with seven loaves and a few small fish. Dinner and a show, as it were, perfect for Valentine’s day!

But the constant demand for miracles caused Jesus to sigh with deep disappointment. I’m sure at that point he felt a lot like a lover who is being used by his beloved. We have to love Jesus Christ for who he is, not what he can do for us. The constant demand for the miraculous indicates a selfishness and superficiality in the relationship, always asking for more proof of love when more than enough evidence exists already.

In the parallel account of this event in Matthew, Jesus says, “An evil an adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt 12:40). “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). That Jesus died for our sins and rose again should be proof enough of his love for us. For our part, we only need to remember that love can only be repaid with love. And love is deeds, not words.

On the Feast of Saint Matthew

The readings for today’s Feast of the Apostle Matthew remind us of what the Church is (a hospital for sinners), and what it does (mission).  As to the former, in the Gospel from Matt 9, Jesus reminds us of  “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do...I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” So, once we’ve been healed by the Great Physician, what happens next? We are sent out ourselves to seek the spiritually sick, and bring them to Jesus. That’s where the latter, the call to mission, comes in.

And whose responsibility is this mission? The first reading, from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, tells us: “But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. And he gave some as Apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4). The role of the hierarchy (bishops, priests, and deacons) is to “equip the holy ones (the laity) for the work of ministry”. The hierarchy sanctifies the people, who then go forth to sanctify the world.

That is, we can’t expect Father to go out and evangelize the world, although no doubt he will do more than his fair share of faith-sharing. Evangelization is our job – and we must “preach the Gospel at all times, and, if necessary, use words”, as St Francis of Assisi urged. Undoubtedly, we must use words to explain our faith, and we must know something about it to communicate it to others – you can’t give what you don’t have. But to gain a hearing, the “salt” of our Catholic Christian way of life must first cause others “to thirst” for what we have.  Come to think of it, just like a certain carpenter-rabbi from Galilee once did with a house full of spiritual seekers, friends of a tax collector named Matthew.