Sunday Scripture

Sunday Scripture Readings

By Fr. Francis X. Cleary, SJ

twenty-first sunday

in ordinary time,

august 25

Isaiah 22:19-23; Psalm 138;

Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20

OUR GOOD NEWS: Praise God for his gift of the Church, our firm ground and sure guide.

Prophetic sayings directed against individuals (other than kings) are unusual. In the first reading Isaiah described the installation of a royal official. Significant for today's Gospel is the "key," an iron bar of considerable size proudly carried on his shoulder during state occasions. The bearer had power to grant or deny admittance to the royal presence, a decision beyond appeal. Eliakim would prove himself an able administrator, strong and stable like a peg anchoring a tent to solid ground.

The Gospel describes Matthew's account of a major, crucial stage in Jesus' public life. The location - Caesarea Philippi, a pagan city on the northern border of Israel - has symbolic meaning for the (later) Church, authorized to bring Jesus' offer of salvation into the Gentile world. Jesus' asked, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" His question was natural enough, since his disciples regularly moved among crowds whom Jesus taught.

Various answers expressed a portion of the truth. (1) "John the Baptist" had been Jesus' teacher (Jn 3:26). Forcibly removed from the scene, his proclamation reappeared with Jesus, albeit modified (Kingdom as present, rather than just future reality). (2) "Elijah" was popularly expected to return, proclaiming a new and final period of salvation history when God finally triumphed over evil. (3) "Jeremiah" might have come to mind because Jesus, like this great prophet, encountered increasing hatred and rejection.

"You are the Messiah," Simon Peter answered, "the Son of the living God!" By ordinary standards Jesus was totally un-Messianic, since nationalist Jews expected an anti-Roman freedom fighter. "Son of God," one of the most exalted titles for Jesus, deepened the meaning of "Messiah" and introduced a divine element.

Jesus responded with a "confession" of his own. He first pronounced a beatitude upon Peter, the only disciple in the Gospels to receive a personal blessing. "Blessed are you, Simon son of John!" Next, Peter's insight was formally confirmed as a special revelation from God. "No mere man has revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father." Third, Jesus proceeded to structure his Church. Peter (including his successors) was to be the shelf - or "rock" - upon which the foundation stone (Christ) rests. Finally, Jesus proclaimed Peter's investiture with power as vice regent - administrative deputy rather than ruler in his own right, since Christ remains head of his Church. The "keys" symbolism recalled Eliakim's installation as majordomo in King Hezekiah's palace with authority over the whole kingdom (first reading).

Jesus didn't intend for Peter's authority to be burdensome and arbitrary but reassuring and comforting. We can know what God does and doesn't expect from us in the ever-changing circumstances of daily life. Instead of a hard-and-fast list of do's and don't's, Jesus opted for a personal style of governance entailing flexibility and adaptability, solidly grounded in the tradition while open to newness and change. The Church belongs to Jesus ("my Church"), not to the pope or people. He gives solemn assurance that it will survive external persecution and internal infidelity.

Sunday Scripture readings


Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Psalm 67;

Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23; John 14:23-29
alternatives to the second reading and Gospel:

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20; John 17:20-26

This time of year is one of moving on, especially as students end another academic year or graduate. But before they do, most students have to endure final exams.

The readings for these last Sundays of the Easter season present us with a type of final exam. And this exam is really an open-book test. In preparing for this exam perhaps we might follow the suggestion of the late great monk and mystic Thomas Merton, who said that instead of merely regarding the Bible as a book that answers our questions we would do well to allow the Word of God to question us.

The first question many graduates ask as they leave school is what have they really learned. Our Easter Scriptures pose for us similar thoughts as we ponder the mystery of the risen Jesus within the community called Church. In the first of our Gospel passages from John, Jesus is preparing his Apostles for not only his departure but also their mission to be his in the world.

He expects them not only to love him but also keep his word, even when they seem to be alone and overcome.

He promises an advocate, the Holy Spirit. An advocate means one who stands beside us to speak. Jesus states that the Spirit "will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you." No matter how much we claim to know about God’s enduring presence, there is always more to learn. The first lesson is that we are never alone. That is why with the Spirit comes the ultimate graduation gift, "Shalom." This peace is not necessarily the absence of human conflict but is the deep and abiding fullness of all that God wishes for us.

A practical extension of this is in the alternate Gospel passage that can be used. Here Jesus prays for all those who believe in the message of the Apostles. This is his great prayer for unity: "that they may be one." This unity is based upon the very unity between the Father and the Son. But even more, this unity becomes the very sign "that the world may believe." From the very beginning of the Church, remaining united has been an enduring challenge.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles relates how the Church had to come together to deal with the first issue to divide the community, that is, the inclusion of Gentiles without having them undergo circumcision and the Mosaic law. Their pastoral response, born of prayer and listening to the Spirit, preserved the unity Jesus prayed for.

Unfortunately, we know that the prayer that we remain one has not been lived out in the history or practice of the Church. Christians are divided in many serious ways. Thankfully, the modern ecumenical movement that we Catholics officially embraced because of Vatican II has offered all Christians opportunities to realize that despite our differences we remain one in Christ. This is why we need to echo his priestly prayer and recognize that all our brothers and sisters are "gifts" to Jesus as we can be to one another.

A second question often on the minds of graduates is one about where are they going. Many people see the world today in frightening terms and not without good reason. But our two readings from the last book of the Bible, Revelation, offer an alternative worldview. Here John has a vision of a new Jerusalem that literally is "coming down out of heaven from God." This is not a mere spiritual urban renewal project but rather a sign of the very presence of God with and for us.

On its gates were inscribed the names of the 12 tribes of the Israel, reminding us of our ancestors in faith and how we are indebted to them. Beyond this are the foundation stones of the 12 Apostles, who provided the initial witness to the risen Lord.

Two added features are remarkable. First there is no temple in this city. Just as the Jewish temple was considered the very place where God met his people, so now it is fulfilled in God and the Lamb. Even more there is no sun and moon for these have been replaced by the glory of God and the Lamb. What this means is that because of the risen Christ we experience God in an intimacy and brilliance that transforms us beyond anything that we could imagine.

The alternative reading from the final chapter of Revelation offers further hope as well as a challenge. Jesus himself announces that he is coming soon to bring judgment. He expects us to live in and for him. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of all things. And he is the root or branch that looks back to David and his reign yet moves far beyond its Messianic expectations as the true morning star.

Thus those who have graduated in this heavenly process are invited to receive God’s life-giving water by the "Spirit and the Bride." The Holy Spirit and the Church, as bride of Christ, empower us especially through the sacraments. And the good news is that we can realize this not as some far distant pious notion but in the present reality of our daily lives.

Because of the Resurrection of Jesus, the future is now. This is the ultimate lesson for we who have learned and continue to grow to be an Easter people. In joyful expectation we can then join in praying with Christians of all ages who have passed the ultimate test, "Come, Lord Jesus!"

Father Heier is pastor of All Saints Parish in University City and director of the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the archdiocese.

Sunday Scripture Readings



Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; Psalm 23;

1 Corinthians 15:20-26,28; Matthew 25:31-46

When Bishop John Sullivan was bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, he once dialed his auxiliary bishop, Bishop George Fitzsimmons, pastor of Christ the King Parish.

When a voice answered, Bishop Sullivan asked, "Is this Christ the King?" Quick as a flash came the answer, "No, this is George, the pastor."

As we bring to an end one Church year and begin a new one, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, who is the beginning and end of all things. But what kind of king is Jesus?

In our popular imagination, kings and queens represent a time long gone, a remnant maintained in a few countries today or the magical kingdom of Camelot. But Jesus is a different kind of king. His reign does not depend on armies, bombs or missiles but is a kingdom of "truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace" as the preface of today’s Mass says.

His kingdom is not national, but rather crosses all boundaries of class, age, sex, color and religion. It does not oppress but rather lifts and frees people. It is not a geographical or territorial kingdom to be defended but a kingdom in the hearts of people — ordinary people like you and me if our hearts and minds are open to Christ.

Jesus is a shepherd-king, a descendant of David, the shepherd-king. In the first reading, the prophet Ezekiel tells us what a shepherd does for his sheep: he cares for them, protects them, feeds them, heals them and judges or evaluates them. He gathers the sheep from frightening places, offers rest, seeks the lost ones, binds up the injured ones, heals the sick ones.

Jesus is the shepherd who risks His life for His sheep, and then finally gives His life for them.

The second reading reminds us of this. St. Paul says that Christ went before us as the first offering of the whole harvest. He tells us that we are joined with Christ in a union closer and more profound than the union of the parts of our bodies. And because of this union with the risen Christ, we, too, will rise on the last day.

The Gospel is the scene of the last judgment. Jesus, the shepherd-king, judges His people. And the crucial point of that judgment is the identification of Jesus with His followers. What a person does to the least of Jesus’ followers, he does to Jesus for good or for ill.

In our lifetimes we are called to serve and to receive and graciously accept the service of others. We will be called to bind wounds, to lift burdens, to feed the hungry, to satisfy the thirst for God in human hearts. And at one time or another, we will be the wounded, the burdened, the hungry and thirsty. We are called to identify with the compassionate God who reigns and acts like a shepherd.

You may ask, in this concept of king and kingdom, how can such a God condemn anyone to hell? The answer is that God does not condemn anyone to hell. Those people condemn themselves by the choices and actions of their lives. A characteristic of a compassionate God is respect for people’s decisions either to choose or reject Him. We must remember that the kingdom of God is available to everyone who decides to accept it.

Our psalm response today is the "good shepherd psalm," without a doubt the most popular and loved psalm in the Bible. It voices the comfort and consolation that we all seek. It sings of the rest and security we desire, the serenity of the person who knows that he or she is guided and protected by the shepherd-king, Jesus, which has been gained through the hard work of loving God and our neighbor, loving with compassion.

We should be honored to subjects of Jesus, our King and Good Shepherd.

Father Charles E. Miller, CM, in his book, "Sunday Preaching," reminds us that Christ’s kingdom is already present and yet to come. It is present among us in imperfect form, but the way in which we live as faithful people will help to bring it to perfection when Christ will come again in glory, because by our lives we will have proclaimed Christ as our King.

Father Smith is a priest of the La Crosse, Wis., Diocese.

Sunday Scripture Readings



Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 30;

Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

OUR GOOD NEWS: The risen Lord summons and empowers His Church to joyful praise of God, through faithful, worldwide witness that inevitably includes suffering and persecution.

Peter, whom Jesus had called to be a "fisher of men," was fishing in his boat with other disciples (a total of seven, number of fulfillment and perfection — see the seven divine titles of Jesus, second reading). Since without Jesus we can do nothing (Jn 15:5), merely human effort succeeded in catching nothing.

Then suddenly the risen Lord was with them, giving instructions and the support of his presence. By faithfully obeying, the disciples enjoyed astonishing success. So too the Church, Peter’s barque, is empowered to fulfill her missionary charge. Evangelism is divine rather than human achievement and conditioned upon intimate, obedient union with the Lord present and ruling in her midst.

This story has something to say about the extent of the Church’s missionary outreach, but also what should be the constant concern of her internal pastoral ministry. "In spite of the great number of sizable fish — 153 of them! — the net was not torn." "One, holy, catholic and apostolic" implies a truly universal community but also assumes wide diversity. The Church experiences centrifugal pressures. She is impelled outward, to worldwide mission, but must also labor to preserve her unity amid inevitable pulling and pushing.

Another theme of today’s Gospel surfaces in the emphatic eucharistic overtones. Jesus remains with His followers, empowering their efforts as they cast their net according to their calling (evangelization). His presence also enables the many to become one (ministry within the community). We encounter Jesus in His Church through a regular event that celebrates our oneness and makes it grow. Technical verbs used — Jesus "took the bread and gave it to them" — allude to that great sacrament by which we anticipate the Messianic (heavenly) banquet, and through which we become reconciled with God and one another. (This latter grace is ritually acted out during the exchange of peace just before Communion.)

Finally, Jesus commissioned Peter with pastoral authority over His Church. Earlier, Peter insisted on following Jesus even to laying down his life for him, but Jesus had replied by predicting a threefold denial at cockcrow (see Jn 13:37-38). Two of these betrayals had taken place beside a charcoal fire (see Jn 18:18). Now, again at dawn and again by a charcoal fire, Peter the straying sheep returned to his Shepherd with a threefold profession of love, in a solemn ceremony of investiture as leader of the Church/flock. Every disciple seeks to imitate the Master, but Peter was especially privileged, summoned to "follow" Jesus even to sharing the same fate of martyrdom.

Sunday Scripture Readings



Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 85;

2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8

OUR GOOD NEWS: We are all John the Baptist's successors, through word and example hastening Christ's return that will bring a new and perfect world.

The prophet (first reading) sketches an imaginative scene: God enthroned in his heavenly palace surrounded by lesser gods (angels). He commissions his courtiers with a task for Jerusalem, His Chosen People. These had proved unfaithful, forsaking the protection of God's covenanted love. Having lost everything they now languished in exile, slaves to pagan foreign masters and their alien gods. No matter! God returns good for our evil! Heavenly messengers should comfort rather than continue punishment. We can only console each other in loss, but God's "comfort" heals and restores. Human words fail to convince the despondent, but God's prophetic word can speak tenderly (persuasively).

In strict justice it simply wasn't true that Israel "had fulfilled her term of bondage (meted out by divine Judge), her penalty discharged, having received double measure for her sins." In fact, she only got what she richly deserved. Such exaggeration revealed a gentle, caring God eager to forgive, looking for excuses to bless rather than punish.

The scene shifts as God implements His "comforting" through this self-effacing prophet-herald. "Listen! Someone is calling out!" The One who centuries earlier led His people out of Egyptian slavery, across the terrible Sinai desert and into the Promised Land would now outdo Himself in a second and more astonishing exodus. Work gangs would be sent ahead, preparing the road to His majesty's comfort and convenience. For God's royal progress, whole "valleys" and even "mountains" would be leveled!

The third and final scene in Isaiah's imaginative prophecy would take place a thousand miles from Babylonia and the Israelite exiles. Judah's capital city Jerusalem, like a watchman from a hilltop perch, catches sight of her returning children and joyfully heralds "glad tidings" to the whole country: "Here is your God!" God's glory, His privileged self-revelation of might and power, would be manifested in His people on pilgrimage back into the Land of Promise. "He comes with power" - but also "like a shepherd": gentle, peaceful, caring and considerate of the weaker members in His retinue.

This great Advent reading reminds us that God's self-revelation to the whole world occurs not in spectacular inbreakings that awe the bystanders and disturb the natural order but through His all-too-frail Church. In our journey out of sin and into His saving Kingdom, we too witness to the greatest of God's mighty acts and the supreme expression of His saving love.

We hear elsewhere in Isaiah of human infidelity deserving only God's punishment. Instead, here we hear of the greatest of miracles, revealing to one another and to expectant unbelievers God's marvelously accepting love toward those undeserving of forgiveness and blessings.

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