Lectionary commentary: fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A


A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 58:7-10

ResponsoriaPsalm, Psalm 112:4-9. R/. v.4

A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 2:1-5

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 5:13-16

G.K.Chesterton remarked that there is no such thing as history, merely historians. What he meant was that one historian’s version of the past is likely to be challenged by another historian’s construction of “what really happened”. In other words, you pays you money and takes your pick.

This is, perhaps, a somewhat cynical view. But we need to be particularly alert when we approach the Bible with our history hat on. What really happened, if anything, is always a question to be approached with a cautious mind.

We are aware of the fact that the Bible records that God created the heavens and the earth in six days. We are aware, too, that Charles Darwin‘s The Origin of the Species demands that we pay attention to an evolutionary origin to all that there is

We cannot live in two worlds. We cannot have a religious consciousness that believes that all the we read in the Bible is historical fact and, at the same time, have a scientific understanding of “what really happened”.

What we must do is first acquaint ourselves with what is blatantly obvious. There are many different kinds of writings in the Hebrew Bible. There are many different kinds of writing in the New Testament. For ill-informed pilgrims on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho there is a rather quaint building that your tourist guide will point out is the Inn of the Good Samaritan. The very inn in which the good Samaritan lodged the man who had fallen among thieves leaving him half dead!It is of little use explaining that the account in the Gospel of St. Luke is a parable. Or that the so-called inn is a former British police outpost.

In the Hebrew Bible there are prayers, psalms, and canticles These come from faith and express faith. They have to do with eternity and all that binds eternity to those who walk the face of the earth. When I pray The Lord is my Shepherd I do not thereby identify myself as a sheep. We are asked to open our poetics soul to the magic of the words.

When I read the great poetry of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah and the rest, I know that I am called to hope and to pray that there will indeed be a better tomorrow. When I struggle with the pain of fictional Job, my imagination is stirred to enter into the pain of humanity, and to confront the most profound of all questions: why do bad things happen to good people?

When I read the Song of Songs, I rejoice in the wonder of human love and wonder whether this love is possible or only realised in our dreams. When I open the story of Ruth, I know I must approach it as I would approach a story from Chekov or Frank O’Connor.

And parables? There are, I think, three great creators of parables in the world: Jesus of Nazareth, Franz Kafka, and Woody Allen. All three are Jews.

But what am I to make of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and King David? What am I to make of Eve, and Sarah, of Leah and Rachel, Deborah, Hannah, Bathsheba, the nasty Jezebel, and the prophet Huldah? Did these people exist and do we have a true record of their place in the history of God’s people?

When we come to the Gospels how are we to regard them? Were they written by people whose first concern was to ensure that their accounts were an accurate record of events? If that were true how do we account for the fact that an angel of the Lord spoke to Joseph, to the Magi, and to Joseph again to warn him “to take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt” (Matthew 2:130) and never a word to Mary? Yet in Luke’s story of the conception and birth of Jesus the angel Gabriel spoke only to Mary and an angel of the Lord spoke to shepherds and choirs of the heavenly host praised God. But no angel spoke to Joseph.St Mark (15:34) and St. Matthew (27:46) record that Jesus died with a cry of despair on his lips:

My God, my God why have you forsaken me?

But when we turn over the pages and come to the account of the death of Jesus in St. Luke’s Gospel (23:46), this is what we read:

Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.

We are concerned with St. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount for a number of weeks at present. We may be surprised if we turn chapter 6 of St. Like. There he records his version of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49).We are told that Jesus came down the mountain in order to deliver Luke’s version of the sermon. The geographical details are not there to beautify the scene. They are there because they carry, in each case, the deepest theological significance.

These and many, many more examples, point to an obvious fact. The four people who wrote out Gospels were not writing history. To be sure, they were acquainted historical facts. But they were doing something else other than merely recording the facts of history.

So if our gospel-makers were not writing historical accounts of what happened, what were they doing? A guide to reading the Bible that will serve readers of every book in the Bible is to ask two questions: what does this means? and how does it fit into the grand design of the whole Gospel? This does not mean that we must not ask, Did this really happen? It means that we begin with discovering, as best we can, the intention of the writer in presenting Jesus to his readers and hearers in the way that he does. We must try to unravel what was the author’s intention in writing the way he did.

A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 58:7-10

[Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?]
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually.

The word of the Lord.

[I have added the first verse of this excerpt from Isaiah since the opening verses make clear what the section is about.]

Wherever we are in the long Book of Isaiah we are never far away from a concern for social justice. Isaiah is concerned to point to God’s unceasing determination that care for the poor and the downtrodden must be at the heart of any religious enterprise that hopes to have the ear of God.

What is so persuasive and so powerful in today’s reading is that it is a plea from God. We have God begging us to hear the pain of the world and to realise that what God asks of us is that we pay attention to the pain of every distressed neighbour, to everyone who falls among thieves. For we all share the same humanity and to exclude those in need is to exclude brothers and sisters given into our care by God. God insists that human solidarity is the beginning of true faith. It is not that if we become religious we will care for the poor. It is that if we care for the poor we become truly religious: our lives are in tune with God:

If you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,

then, and only then,

shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 112:4-9. R/. v.4

R/. Light dawns in the darkness for the upright;he is gracious, merciful, and righteous.

Light dawns in the darkness for the upright;
he is gracious, merciful, and righteous.
It is well with the man who deals generously and lends;
who conducts his affairs with justice. R/.

For the righteous will never be moved;
he will be remembered forever.
He is not afraid of bad news;
his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord R/.

His heart is steady; he will not be afraid,

until he looks in triumph on his adversaries.
He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor;
his righteousness endures forever;
his horn is exalted in honour. R/.

Psalm 111 is a song that sings the praises of God’s qualities. Every thing from God’s glory and grandeur to God’s redemption of his people is listed in order to lavish praise on the God who is holy and awesome.

Psalm 112 is a sketch of the virtuous man. He (and she) is the one who fears the Lord who keeps God’s commandments. He is gracious and merciful, lending to the impoverished, acting at all times with justice. His trust in the Lord never wavers; his heart is staunch. Against his righteousness, that is, the godly nature of his actions, the wicked man will not prevail.

Psalm 112 is identi-kit of the one who is faithful to all that God desires. It is a mirror on which we may look to see who it is we are meant to be.

A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 2:1-5

And I, when I came to you, brothers and sisters, did not come proclaiming to you the revelation of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

The word of the Lord.

Paul is trying to convince his Corinthian congregation that he did not come among them with the erudite and persuasive speech of the professional orators in Corinth. His words were plain but they were strong for through him what they were hearing was the voice of the Holy Spirit. What the Holy Spirit conferred on them was not human wisdom but the very power of God. Their faith does not rest on platitudes of street wisdom but rather in the power of God.

The very heart of Paul’s proclamation was Jesus, particularly his death on a cross. That is the revelation from God and no matter how weak or fearful Paul may have sounded, his words were empowered by the Holy Spirit. So the faith of his hearers was not founded on the niceties of human speechifying. What they heard from the apostle bore the very stamp of God.

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 5:13-16

Jesus said:
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

The Gospel of the Lord.

The solemn setting Matthew gives to what we call the Sermon on the Mount (the crowds, the disciples coming to him, the mountain, Jesus sitting down, opening his mouth, teaching them) warns his readers and hearers to pay particular attention.

The Beatitudes solemnly proclaim our identity. To belong to the Jesus people is to be one with those,

  • Who are poor in spirit
  • Who mourn
  • Who are meek
  • Who hunger and thirst for righteousness (= who reflect God’s concerns)
  • Who are merciful
  • Who are pure of heart
  • Who are peacemakers
  • Who are persecuted
  • Who are reviled for standing on the side of God.

The purpose of the long sermon is to expand on the Beatitudes, to set out their implications, and to emphasise in detail what they demand. What we have is a clarification of the the precise kind of living that fulfils what the Beatitudes demand.

If disciples have so listened to Jesus on the mountain that they have become a living fulfilment of the Beatitudes, then it follows as night follows day that they will be the salt of the earth. They will enable humanity to explode with all the diverse flavours that God’s creation endowed it with.

If disciples have so attuned their lives in every detail to what the Beatitudes portray, then such disciples will be a light to the world. It is not a light that can be ignored nor hid. It will be a light that enlightens the whole household of humanity. So bright will be the light that people will be convinced that they are seeing the very light of God.

Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.