Second Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
Today’s liturgy continues the focus on the role of John and his encounter with Jesus. The readings also bring out the role of both of these key characters in the renewal of Israel and its restoration to its God. The first reading from Second Isaiah declares the people of Israel, who had passed through the life-changing experience of the Babylonian exile, to be the servant of God.
In this context ‘servant’ refers to the one who has the confidence of the king or the high official and who can adequately represent the master.
The servant in today’s reading is honoured to carry out the divine plan, which was to bring Israel back to their God. So, the servant acts as a reformer, pointing out where the nation had gone astray and urging it to return to its calling. The hoped-for outcome of this operation is that other nations will be guided by the dedication of Israel and will acknowledge God.
If we read Jesus through the eyes of Second Isaiah, we can see how his role was identical with that of the prophet, that is, to reform Israel and be a driving force in the return of the people to their God. This would be the fulfilment of the divine call we read in the prophet Joel, ‘Come back to me with all your heart.’ We have seen in the readings of the last few weeks a practical instrument of this call in the person of John who devoted his life to inviting people to turn their lives around.
We easily miss the point if we view John as merely exhorting people to repent. In fact, he was encouraging a radical life change by which people would abandon self-interest and focus on quality living nourished by solid relationships and growth to wholeness.
He was advocating a spiritual renewal that called for individuals to undertake a mindful assessment of their life’s direction and their way to God. Isn’t this the kind of change for renewal that Pope Francis is dedicated to?
What good are rules and ritual if there is no compassion?
The responsorial psalm gets down to the heart of the message issued by the biblical prophets of old and that includes the more recent prophets like John and Jesus. The message is this: what good are sacrifices, offerings, rituals and prayers if one does not live in harmony with the divine will?
Speaking on behalf of God the prophet Hosea put it fairly bluntly:
For I desire loving loyalty, not sacrifice And mindfulness of God rather than burnt offerings.
Two chapters later, the same prophet mocks the fact that the people of Israel build temples to God, but their heart is not in cultivating a mature relationship with God. Hosea puts words into the mouth of God saying,
Israel cries out to me ‘O my God we are devoted to you.’
These chapters of Hosea simply drip with irony as the prophet lays it on with a trowel that protestations of devotion and loyalty are fake when lifestyles are not characterised by justice, goodness and care for the powerless and disadvantaged. And we see John and Jesus echoing the same idea: what good are temples, churches, rules and ritual if there is no compassion and no true devotion to justice and growth in the spiritual life?
The second reading is a simple and honest greeting from Paul to the Christian community in Corinth. It is easy to see Paul as a significant figure covering a lot of territory and setting up Christian communities in different parts of Greece and present day Turkey and it is also easy to overlook the fact that he always travelled in company and was part of a team. The reference here to Sosthenes as a co- worker bears witness to that fact.
Charis implies a relationship marked by generosity and support
Dictating this salutation in Greek Paul wishes charis on the community. This word is mostly translated as grace, but it is a Greek term that means gift offered freely and with goodwill. It has overtones of graciousness and regarding a person with favour; it implies a relationship marked by generosity and support. So, charis has a lot more meaning packed into it than the English word ‘grace’. We do well to bear in mind that all Paul’s letters are pastoral communications motivated by concern for the community being addressed. Elsewhere Paul refers to himself as ‘father’ of his people and cherishes the relationship he has with each of his communities.
Today’s gospel reading comes from the fourth gospel and, like the other three gospels, it represents an interpretation of the events it portrays. In this episode John the Immerser metaphorically describes Jesus as the ‘lamb of God’ and the intention is to identify Jesus with the lamb of sacrifice that is offered up to take away the sins of humanity. The writer has John allude to the priority of Jesus, which is a prompt to us, the reader, to recall how John had earlier declared that Jesus ranked ahead of him (John 1:15). John then goes on to refer to his immersion of Jesus in the Jordan. Notice this event is not recorded in the fourth gospel, which is careful to avoid any incident that might suggest Jesus is subordinate to John. However, the writer’s purpose in bringing up the immersion of Jesus is to give John a platform for confirming the Spirit experience that Jesus had. In effect, John testifies that the Spirit ‘rested’ on Jesus as a sign of his appointment as God’s anointed one, as God’s mashiakh (messiah).
To translate the Greek of John’s statement a little more carefully might help us understand what John is affirming in a rich poetic way. He says, the one who has appointed me to immerse people in water has appointed Jesus to immerse people in the Holy Spirit. To paraphrase this we could say, just as you have been washed over with water by me, you will be washed over with the Spirit by him, Jesus.
As committed followers of Jesus Christ we live by the Spirit and are steeped in the Spirit.
What does it mean to be immersed in or washed over by the Spirit? Forget the word ‘baptism’ because that takes us away from the meaning of the Greek words that are transmitting a Semitic or Aramaic metaphor. The words are trying to say that, immersed in the Spirit we are engulfed in the Spirit. It’s like being immersed in the life-giving atmosphere of the Spirit.
Just as we are surrounded by air and we live in it, we breathe it, we need it for life, it makes us function, and without it we die, so, as committed followers of Jesus Christ we live by the Spirit and are steeped, drenched and totally caught up in the Spirit and the values of the Spirit.
Writing to the Galatians Paul drew on this metaphor to encourage the community to live according to the Spirit and not according to the values of the flesh, as he put it. So, his recommendation was to cultivate: Love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. Practising these qualities, according to Paul, was living and walking in the Spirit. Notice how none of these qualities can be brought to fulfilment in isolation, they are all relational qualities that flourish fully when given away in a relationship and in the way we live connected to others. We can’t be fully ourselves and grow to wholeness unless we are in sound relationships where we learn to give graciously and generously.
There is no relationship that is more important than your relationship with yourself – it affects all others and everything that you do in life. Sharon Garell
The fire brigade was called to the scene of a large fire. One truck arrived well ahead of the others with the captain speeding through the streets. He quickly doused the flames.
At a dinner given to honour the captain, the mayor delivered a speech praising the captain and his team for having saved the building and other buildings around it, by getting there so fast and putting out the flames.
‘What can we give you to show our gratitude for your effort?’ asked the mayor. The captain replied, ‘Brakes.’