Fr. Scott Lewis, S.J

Fr. Scott Lewis, S.J

Fr. Scott Lewis is an associate professor of New Testament at Regis College, a founding member of the Toronto School of Theology.

He is a past president of the Canadian Catholic Biblical Association.

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) July 24 (1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119; Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44-52)

What can you give someone who appears to have everything? God solves the problem by giving Solomon a heavenly gift certificate — he can cash it in for anything he wants. God asks what Solomon wants and suggests the usual suspects: wealth, long life and the demise of his enemies. But the burdens of his office of king are weighing heavily on Solomon and he feels grossly inadequate for the job. That alone sets him apart: run of the mill despots would not have felt inadequate and wouldn’t have cared in the first place. Solomon asks for an understanding mind fit to govern others and the ability to discern between good and evil. God is immensely impressed and grants him those qualities to a superlative degree. There will never be another like him.

We can only hope that those in positions of responsibility and authority would make similar requests of God. Being granted wishes (usually three) by some superhuman or divine power is a familiar theme in the stories and legends of many of the world’s cultures. The fascination is seeing what the person will ask for and imagining what we would ask for in similar circumstances. The answer to that question probably reveals more about the individual’s character than we would care to admit. But this is not a story of the fulfilment of wishful fantasies nor is God in the business of granting wishes. It is about focusing on and maintaining a high ideal. Solomon’s ideal was wisdom, sound judgement and good leadership. We can ask God to grant us the grace to fulfill and live by our highest ideals. But this must be kept alive and maintained in the heart and mind consistently.

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) July 31 (Isaiah 55:1-3; Psalm 145; Romans 8:35, 37-39; Matthew 14:13-21)

During hard economic times people usually take a long hard look at their spending habits. Under pressure many things suddenly seem unnecessary, even frivolous, and decisions have to be made: What is really important?

Isaiah wonders at the money people are willing to throw away on relatively worthless things that do not even satisfy. In our own time we might look at the multi-billion dollar industry aimed at making people feel better about their appearance or happier and more content. Isaiah has good news: God has far more valuable gifts than anything we can imagine and they are free. He uses the basic symbol of life — water — and invites all who are thirsty to quench their thirst. It is the same image the Gospel of John uses for the living water (Spirit) that Jesus grants to His followers. But there is more: wine, milk and rich food, again without cost. These are the symbols of the God of Israel as provider and sustainer. They encourage the people to trust in God and not give in to fear.

We can become captivated by the bad spirit that always screams, “More!” The Spirit of God, on the other hand, is the spirit that whispers reassuringly, “Enough!” This spirit also bestows on us a feeling of well-being and gratitude despite whatever struggles may come our way. A covenant or relationship with God is never richer or more satisfying than during “hard times.”

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 7 (1 Kings 19:9, 11-13; Psalm 85; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33)

What would we expect to see if it were announced that the Lord was going to pass by? Nurtured on many of the stories from the Old Testament and years of Hollywood biblical epics, we would be waiting from a spectacular display of power and energy. That was most likely Elijah’s expectation, and sometimes that is how we expect to find the presence of God in our lives — with lots of flair and excitement. When that is not forthcoming it is easy to slip into pessimism and negativity, thinking that God has abandoned us or that God plays favourites.

Elijah witnessed a parade of flashy and powerful earthquakes, wind and fire. But guess what — God was not in any of these. God is not to be identified with natural phenomena — God is much more than that. God is quiet, unobtrusive and subtle; God is non-violent. The Hebrew word is translated in different ways — a murmuring sound, a still small voice, a gentle whispering breeze, and here in this translation “sheer silence.” The “correct” translation can be left to the scholars. They all say fairly much the same thing: quiet, gentleness, stillness, something just beyond our conscious awareness like a dream struggling to be remembered. When Elijah experienced this he covered his face for he knew that he was in the presence of the Holy One.

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 14 (Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Psalm 67; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28)

Who are God’s favourites? Who is “in” and who is “out”? Human beings have always had a distressing tendency to want to possess or control God, making God the champion or protector of an ethnic group, nation, class or religion. People have difficulty imagining God blessing those considered to be enemies or undesirables. And yet the “distressing” message is repeated often in Scripture: God does not play favourites and God is there for all people.

Often it is the encounter with people and groups who are different that acts as a catalyst for rethinking images of God. Those Israelites who went into exile in Babylon had to live among (and at the mercy of) an alien people with very different views of the divine. Although they struggled against this environment they also were affected by it and began to broaden their theology and their image of God. In Third Isaiah (chapters 55-61), which was written at the end of the exile, we begin to see a more universal understanding of God. In this passage an image of a holy mountain and temple in which all the peoples of the Earth are welcome makes a startling appearance. Israel’s God can be everyone’s God — right conduct, desire and worship is the only entrance requirement.

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) July 17 (Wisdom 12:13, 16-19; Psalm 86; Romans 8:26-27; Matthew 13:24-43)

The use of force and violence — despite our denials — is widely admired by many people. Just look at movies and video games, as well as the heroes and idols adored by our culture. Restraint and refusal to resort to force is readily seen as a sign of weakness. And strange as it may seem, there are those who prefer a God who is rather violent and quick to punish evildoers (as long as it is someone else!) in the severest ways. They see God’s wrath lurking behind every natural or human disaster and every personal tragedy.

The author of wisdom does not deny for a moment that God is sovereign and has the power to do whatever He wants. But God’s true greatness and strength lies in His restraint and reluctance to resort to such responses. This patience and mildness is borne of God’s intense concern and care for all people and the fervent wish that all have a change of mind and heart. This does not mean that God is a pushover or just turns a blind eye to our injustice, unkindness and downright cruelty. We live in a moral universe. We will meet ourselves in our experience — what we deal out to others will return to us in one form or another.

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) July 10 (Isaiah 55:10-11; Psalm 65; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-23)

The Word of the Lord is relentless and unceasing. But this “Word” has little to do with the individual words written on a page — even in the Bible.

When we hold the lectionary aloft and say “The Word of the Lord” we must take care not to mistake the book for God’s word. This sort of confusion often leads to literal interpretations and superficial, unthinking applications of the text. The beautiful metaphor in Isaiah’s passage is far richer and deeper. The Word of God is a divine utterance — an expression of God’s will and spirit — and it ripples through the entire cosmos. Everything that reflects the nature and will of God is part of this communication. As the recent papal exhortation Verbum Domini points out, God’s Word can be expressed in creation itself, in nature and the cycle of life. It also finds expression in salvation history — the times and places when God’s guiding hand has moved humanity towards redemption.

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) July 3 (Zechariah 9:9-10; Psalm 145; Romans 8:9, 11-13; Matthew 11:25-30)

What is strange about this picture? The victorious king enters the city on a donkey — the equivalent of a president or prime minister driving an ordinary low-end car. One might expect more flash and panache from a messianic king. But there is something else out of the ordinary.  This king is not bent on conquest or empire but establishing peace. In fact, he will deliberately thwart the efforts of all those dedicated to war and conquest.

All of this confirms that this personage is from God and not a product of human beings. The visitation of God never baptizes the status quo, nor will it give comfort to opinionated, fanatical or controlling people. God will shock most and outrage not a few for God’s ways are definitely not human ways.

It would be wonderful to have a divine figure who would establish peace and justice but this is not going to happen. God will give us the tools — the spiritual principles and guidance — to make this happen. But God will not force this on us, for God respects our free will. Far better for us to follow the example and teachings of the one who rides humbly into the city on a donkey than to just ‘let God do it’ or even worse to pervert the Lord’s teaching into instruments of violence or injustice.  

Body and Blood of Christ (Year A) June 26 (Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14-16; Psalm 147; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; John 6:51-59)

Faith and trust are not all that difficult when all is well and everything is in harmony with our desires. It is easy for people to praise God and pledge devoted service even as they continue to do things their own way. But when everything collapses and the going gets tough it is a different story. Faith — or what passes for it — evaporates as cynicism, fear and doubt take command.

God wanted to cure the Israelites of human game-playing and conditional faith. The people were led into an extremely hostile environment — no food or water, and a host of lurking dangers. It was very simple: they had to trust God and rely on Him or die. They could not call the shots or manipulate God, although on a couple of notable occasions they tried. They had to wait faithfully for the life-sustaining manna that would be given daily. Even gathering more than a day’s supply was forbidden — no room at all for self-sufficiency or stubbornness.

Life itself and every breath is a gift from God. We really own nothing and have control over very little. Our pretentions, however, far exceed this reality.

Trinity Sunday (Year A) June 19 (Exodus 34:4-6, 8-9; Daniel 3; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; John 3:16-18)

What does God look like? What would it be like to be in God’s presence? The Book of Exodus answers the question in several ways. In some passages, the vision of God is so awesome and terrifying that no one can look upon God and live. Another passage relates that Moses spoke with God face to face as with a friend. In this passage God descends on a cloud, passes before Moses and speaks to him. All of these represent different traditions in ancient Israel that are woven into the narrative of Exodus.

God was very real for ancient people, but God does not have human form; God does not walk through the garden in the cool of the evening. We do not speak face to face with God, at least in this life. But the theological truth of these traditions is clear. In the tradition of ancient storytelling these traditions reveal that God is deeply personal and not an abstract concept. This passage also reveals important characteristics of God: merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness. This is the image of God that the Israelites clung to throughout their long history and from which they drew strength. It is the gift that they gave to Christianity. Not only that, it is an image we share with Islam — at the very beginning of the Quran God is described as the merciful and compassionate. It is an image of God to which we should all return constantly and strive to imitate for when we depart from it the results are grim and painful for everyone.

Pentecost Sunday (Year A) June 12 (Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23)

What does the Spirit do? The term is tossed around so much in religious circles, usually as a vague appeal to a higher and somewhat ambiguous authority. Over the centuries it has sometimes been misused to justify questionable ideas and practices.

In the New Testament there is a range of images for the work or action of the Spirit. We are all familiar with the image of the Spirit portrayed by Luke in Acts: rather noisy and flashy but very vibrant. It descended on the assembled followers of Jesus on the harvest feast of Pentecost. In the Scriptures the harvest is often used as a metaphor for the final days. It is time to gather in that which belongs to God. For Luke, the Spirit will be the great unifier. Its first function in Acts was to overcome the barrier of language but it does not stop there. All human divisions and separations must give way to the reconciling and transforming power of God’s Spirit. God is One and humanity must be the same.