Scripture in Depth
Reading I: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
This passage is obviously a commentary on the fifth (fourth) commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother. It adds the point that obedience to this commandment atones for sins (Sir 3:3, 14), an ideal typical of later Judaism.
This latter point should not be taken with full theological seriousness. The central message of the New Testament is, of course, that atonement for sins is through Christ alone.
The point should be taken merely as an incentive or inducement to obey this commandment, for in a loose, non-theological sense it may well be said that love of one’s parents makes up for many sins.
1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28
Here we have another Old Testament reading that provided a model for the narratives of Jesus’ birth, particularly that in Luke’s Gospel. Samuel’s parents offer him to Yhwh “for ever,” that is, for his whole life.
We moderns would object that Samuel had not been consulted and should have been left to decide for himself when the time came. Such problems were alien to the ancient world.
The parents in any case did not determine the child’s destiny. They offered him for the service of the temple, but instead the child grew up to be a prophet who played a major role in the affairs of state.
Like the birth of Jesus, Samuel’s birth is narrated in the light of his subsequent destiny.
Responsorial Psalm: 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
This wisdom psalm, with its introductory beatitude (“Blessed is every one who fears the Lord”) presents the fear of the Lord as the basis of family, social, and economic prosperity.
On a superficial level, it seems to express a naive, Deuteronomic confidence that obedience to the law will be an insurance against disaster, and a conviction that disaster can always be explained as punishment for disobedience, views seriously questioned already in the Book of Job.
Yet, there is something to it.
Where there is a wholesome respect for God and his will, human relationships do stand a better chance of being well ordered and harmonious. Those who fear the Lord are not tempted to put themselves in the place of God, to boast in their personal achievements.
Such persons are therefore freed to love their neighbor and make it easier for the neighbor to love in return.
Responsorial Psalm: 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10
It is strange that this familiar psalm has not been used before in the Sunday Lectionary. It is a psalm with affinities to the songs of Zion and to the pilgrim psalms, and speaks of the joy of worship in the temple.
It would appear that it was designed for use at the autumn festival (Tabernacles). Its date of origin is sometime during the age of the monarchy (Ps 84:1).
The worshiper envies both the birds that live in the temple their whole lives long, having built their nests in its precincts, and the priests, whose work keeps them in the temple all the time.
Thus, the psalm serves fittingly as a response to the reading about Samuel, who was dedicated to the service of the temple at Shiloh all his life
Reading II: Colossians 3:12-21 or 3:12-17
This is part of the “parenesis,” or ethical section, of the letter to the Colossians. Such exhortations follow a regular pattern that is widely believed to reproduce the structure of a primitive Christian catechism.
The passage begins with a list of virtues, introduced by the imperative “Put on.” This language reflects the vesting of the candidate as he or she came up out of the baptismal font. This imperative may be preceded by another, namely, “Put off,” followed by a list of vices. This recalls the stripping of the candidate prior to baptism.
Following these general exhortations, there is often, especially in the later New Testament letters, a “Haustafel,” or household code, listing the various members of family and society and their respective duties.
Such codes were apparently derived from Stoic teaching via Hellenistic Judaism, whence they passed into Greek-speaking Christianity. That is why they reflect the subordinationist ethic of contemporary society (“Wives, be subject”—not an idea that is likely to appeal to feminists!).
But this subjectionist element, derived as it is from Stoicism, is not the distinctively Christian element in the code. That is found in the words “in the Lord”; in the injunction to husbands to love their wives; in the earlier definition of love as forgiveness; and in specifying the motivation for forgiveness as Christ’s forgiveness of sinners.
Here we should be able to find the raw materials for the formulation of a Christian ethic for a society that is not organized on a hierarchical, subordinationist pattern.
1 John 3:1-2, 21-24
The overall context of this reading is the schism that has recently taken place in the Johannine community (see 1 Jn 2:19; 4:1). Certain members (we will call them “gnosticizing secessionists”) have left the community because of their Docetic Christology and neglect of ethics (see 1 Jn 4:3; 4:20).
The Johannine epistler seeks to assure the remaining members of the community that they, not the secessionists, are children of God. This is a status that has been conferred upon them by God’s love, that is, by his act of revelation and redemption in Jesus Christ.
The secessionists deny the full reality of that act and therefore do not share in that new statusthey are not children of God.
It is noteworthy that the author, contrary to the practice of Paul, distinguishes between “Son of God,” a term that he uses exclusively for Christ as a Christological title, and “children of God,” a term for the derivative status of Christians. If this distinction were universally observed, it would ease the problem that such language causes for feminists nowadays.
Note how the author, in a manner this time closer to Pauline usage, preserves the “not yet” of this Christian status. Our being children of God is a reality, but it is visible only to faith.
Lacking faith, the world cannot see or observe it. Only when the final consummation occurs will the Christian status of divine childhood become visible.
This final consummation the epistle describes as the appearance, not of Christ, but of God. It will consist in the beatific vision of God.
The second part of the reading is the tail end of the most difficult parts of the New Testament. We take the “merciful” as opposed to the “severe” interpretation (see Raymond Brown’s commentary ad loc.).
Our own conscience may accuse us, but God is more merciful than we are with ourselves, and he will forgive us when our consciences accuse us. He will give us whatever we ask (the context suggests that what is being asked for is God’s forgiving mercy).
All this is promised because we—that is, the Johannine community, as opposed to the secessionists—are doing his will. His will is that we should believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God (which the secessionists fail to do, since they deny the flesh of Jesus, the reality of his incarnation), and love one another (which the secessionists fail to do, since they do not love their fellow members in the community). They are cliquish and elitist.
Note here the Johannine form of the double commandment of love. While it is through keeping these commandments that we abide in God, we know that we abide in him only through the Holy Spiri
Gospel: Luke 2:41-52
The form critics classify this pericope as a “legend.” This does not necessarily mean that the incident is wholly unhistorical, as indeed Dibelius was careful to point out.
To call it a legend means that its purpose is not historical. There are many similar stories of the precocious childhood of a great person whose early life showed signs of coming greatness (for example, in the life of Buddha or Josephus).
We recognize certain redactional concerns of Luke: the legal piety of Jesus’ home (see Lk 2:21-22), shown in the devout observance of Passover customs; the effect of these remarkable incidents on Jesus’ mother (see Lk 2:19); and the emphasis on the human growth of Jesus (see Lk 2:40), though the last point may be modeled on the childhood of Samuel and may be designed to portray Jesus as the eschatological prophet. In that case it may even have been a feature of Luke’s source.
That the core of the narrative is pre-Lucan is shown by the absence of any hint of the virginal conception (“his parents,” “your father”). The answer of the boy Jesus in Luke 1:49, with its reference to God as “my Father,” seems to reflect the Church’s Christology.
The basic incident, however, is not only pre-Lucan but may well rest upon an authentic memory. And even the allusion to “my Father” may be pre-Christological, reflecting Jesus’ growing historical awareness of his unique filial relation with God.
This awareness will then be the basis and presupposition for his later submission to the Father’s call and the acceptance of his unique eschatological role in salvation history.
Thus, one hesitates to dismiss this story as entirely without historical worth, even if in the form-critical sense it should be characterized as a “legend.”
Our real concern must be with the evangelist’s purpose in including this story in his Gospel.
It is evidently part of his picture of Jesus’ family and its devout adherence to the Jewish law, which provided the environment in which Jesus developed, as Samuel had developed, so that he could later fulfill his role as the eschatological prophet and the bringer of redemption to Israel.
Reginald H. Fuller