In our first reading today, it is clear someone is brimming with excitement, and has a vision of the amazing redemption God wills for the wayward. Speaking to the exiles, Isaiah experienced in his heart the love God had for His people. He could foresee the return to the land, new hope and promise for the people, God’s offer of redemption. When the Maccabees ousted the Greek ruler Antiochus, with his hated efforts to destroy Judaism, it is likely someone used this same message to herald the restoration of home rule, and of the faith.
Read through today’s Gospel. Do you see any camels? Through the centuries, Christian artists have depicted countless scenes from the New Testament and the Old. Their starting point is a given passage and the description it offers. But many other images from the Bible swirl around in the imagination as well, as the artist approaches his or her medium. No doubt Matthew was aware of the passage from third Isaiah that we hear this Sunday, for he sees in the magi a fulfilment of prophecy.
Scripture readings and psalms can serve a variety of ways in our spiritual life. We get glimpses into the human heart; sin as well as grace at work. We see how God works through human history. We encounter teaching, inspiration, challenge, poetry for the soul, even humor. The scriptures can also give direction, words for our prayer; when we struggle to find the right words. The Bible can also nudge us about who to include in our prayer. From our first reading, we can pray for those having trouble getting pregnant.
Remember back in college – there was the syllabus, but the second edition of Organic Chemistry was unacceptable. Got to get the 3rd, or maybe even the 7 th edition. With many books in the Bible, we don’t have the first edition. We have the final edition, often shaped and edited by God over decades, sometimes even centuries. Micah’s first prophecies were uttered in the 8 th century BCE, in the time of Hezekiah and Ahaz. Most were dark, foreseeing the consequences that increasing injustice in the society would have on the nation. His words proved true. Exile came.
Oracles were at the heart of the mission of the prophets. Simply put, an oracle is a message from God, spoken by the prophet. In the Old Testament we find 3 major types of oracles, oracles of judgement, warnings and admonitions, and oracles of salvation. Some oracles of judgement are against Israel’s enemies, ‘oracles against the nations’. Some are judgement upon Israel or Judah. In either case, the die is cast. Admonitions warn about the consequence of the failure to repent, and call for repentance; the disaster can be avoided.
Pope Francis has made “The joy of the Gospel” a commonplace expression. But don’t think this is an innovation! The Old Testament does have genealogies, battles, mayhem, detailed laws and even more detailed descriptions for constructing the Tabernacle, all of which can make for hard reading. Yet along with the prose, there is a wealth of poetry. Not only the psalms, but the prophetic books too have an abundance of spiritual nourishment that is easily accessible, poems filled with hope and joy. The prophets had amazingly sharp vision.
The book of Jeremiah is a complex one, poetic oracles and prose woven together. Quite likely, various collections of oracles were compiled over time. The first chapters often highlight the covenant between God and the people of Israel and Judah, their failure to live the covenant, and the likely fall of the kingdom as a result. The last three chapters are filled with hope, hence the name often used, ‘the book of consolation’. God will do a new thing. From the wreck caused by sin, God will raise up a new leader, who will restore God’s people.
Ordinarily in Hebrew, ‘son of man’, simply means an individual human being. In Ezekiel, God often calls the prophet ‘son of man’. Perhaps it is to distinguish him from the various creatures of his visions, perhaps to point out that when you take an ordinary human being, and add God’s call and the power of the Spirit, amazing things can happen. By the time Daniel is written, the term is beginning to take on additional meanings. It could be a representative of the nation Israel, but also something more.
While it is hard for us to not include an afterlife in our thinking, the idea was not strong in the Old Testament. Most often, life after death was considered to be a diminished state, the deceased becoming ‘shades’ in ‘sheol’, shadows of their former self (as opposed to a glorified body) With Ezekiel there is some notion of a resurrection, but at times the focus was more on the resurrection of the nation than each individual. Daniel is one of the last books written in the Old Testament, and by the time that book was written, the idea of an afterlife had developed quite a bit.
The link between the first reading and the Gospel today is not simply that a widow figures prominently in both scenes. Both widows willingly give all that they had, one to sustain Elijah the prophet, the other to sustain the sacrifices and charitable works of the Temple. In each case, we don’t get the entire story. In the first story, we do hear that the jar of flour and jug of oil don’t run dry. But God’s greatest response to the woman’s trust comes later. When her son, support she would hope to count on in her old age, dies, Elijah restores him to life!