Our very brief first reading is taken from the magnificent fifty-fifth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah. This section of Isaiah—which stretches from chapter forty through chapter fifty-five—is one of the most theologically sophisticated and illuminating passages in the entire Old Testament. Nowhere is Israel’s theology of God more fully and clearly developed. And one of the principal points made in this section is that God is incomparable. Over and over again, Isaiah insists that God is radically other; that he is like no other being, even the most exalted.
Our first reading—taken from the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth chapters of the marvelous book of Sirach, called in older Bibles the book of Ecclesiasticus—has to do with anger, vengeance, and forgiveness, themes that will figure prominently in the preaching of Jesus. “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.”
The Gospel for today addresses an issue of tremendous practical importance—namely, whether and how we ought to engage in fraternal correction. This is the traditional term for constructive criticism of our brothers and sisters. Over and against the modern liberal etiquette of “live and let live,” the Bible does indeed think we should engage in fraternal correction, and the extremely clarifying Gospel passage for today tells us how.
Jesus in our Gospel for today says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Do you want to save your soul? There’s the formula. Find the path in your life that leads you to more and more self-emptying and self-gift, which conforms you to the love that God is. But then the Lord gets even more specific: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Saving one’s life means making filling oneself up and making oneself as safe and comfortable and sated as possible—which leads to boredom, disgust, and despair.
In the twenty-second chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah, we find the prophet’s only criticism of an individual. The man in the prophet’s crosshairs is a certain Shebna, who is described as “master of the palace.” He is a high-ranking authority in the government of the people. This reading forces us to ask a simple and very hard question: How goes it with the power and authority that you have? Do you spend the capital of your authority on projects meant to burnish your reputation or do you spend it to the benefit of others?
One of the most distinctive (and scandalous) qualities of ancient Israelite religion is the insistence that Israel is the specially chosen people of God. Now, especially today, we have a problem with this sort of language; we much prefer the attitude of inclusivity. Well, this tension is not just a mark of our time; it can be found in the Bible itself. And in point of fact, one of the “places” where the play between particularity and universality is most clearly articulated is in the section of the prophet Isaiah from which our first reading is drawn.
Our first reading for this weekend, taken from the first book of Kings, is one of the most beautiful and memorable passages in the Old Testament. It tells of the prophet Elijah, who heard a tiny, whispering voice, which this was the presence of the Lord.
Our first reading for this weekend is taken from the fifty-fifth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah. The “second” section of Isaiah dates from around the time of the return of Israel from captivity in Babylon, and hence it is filled with the language of hope and salvation. And this passage that we read today, which reminds us of the foundational scriptural principle of the primacy of grace, is one of the most magnificent.
Our first reading for this week is from the first book of Kings, and it has to do with Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba, the great Israelite king who built the temple, and who eventually became a problematic figure in Israelite history. This passage puts us right at the very beginning of Solomon’s reign, when he was just a young man—untried, inexperienced, likely beset by all sorts of self-doubt. And Yahweh appears to Solomon in a dream and says, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” This is an extraordinary moment—and let’s attend with some care to Solomon’s answer.
What a privilege we have this weekend to hear from the book of Wisdom. Scholars contend that this is the last book written in the Old Testament, dating from around the time of Jesus. It is a collection of sayings and aphorisms, all testifying to the multivalent truth at the heart of biblical revelation. As one might expect, a major theme of this book is the wisdom of God. But two others, which figure prominently in our reading for today, are power and love.