Familiar texts speak in new ways to discerning ears, so listen closely

Father R. Michael Schaab

By Father R. Michael Schaab

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time/Feb. 26

Isaiah 49:14-15; Psalm 62:2-3,6-7,8-9; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34

All too often in reading Scripture we focus only on the meaning of words. In the readings for the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time and the First Sunday of Lent, there are lots of important words, especially in the second readings, for us to ponder.

From 1 Corinthians this Sunday we read about “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” and are commanded to “not make any judgment before the appointed time, until the Lord comes.” From Romans next Sunday we read about sin, trespass, transgression, condemnation and justification, as well as “the grace of God.” All these great words would lead us to great religious concepts.

But the Bible is also full of images and pictures, signs and symbols. Often when the words of Scripture have faded away from our memories, the images remain crystal clear. We carry most of our beliefs in the form of images, and many of these images are couched in stories.

On the Eighth Sunday, the Gospel says “No one can serve two masters. . . . You cannot serve God and mammon.” That story has great images: “Look at the birds in the sky.” “Learn from the way the wild flowers grow.” “God so clothes the grass in the field.” As wonderful as these images are, the one that stands out for me is in the Responsorial Psalm where the psalmist repeats three times that God is my “rock.” If you have ever been told by someone that you are his or her rock, then you know how powerful that image truly is.

But it’s the First Sunday of Lent that pulls out all the stops when it comes to biblical images. We’ve heard all the stories before and it’s easy for our minds to go on autopilot during the readings, but just listen for the images and let them work on you.

LOOK CLOSELY

In the first reading it’s the story of man’s creation by God combining the “clay of the ground” with God’s “breath of life.” It all takes place in the “garden of Eden” where that most cunning of all animals, “the serpent,” tempts “the woman.” And it culminates in the man and woman realizing “they were naked” and their designing the first “loincloths” recorded in history.

And to pile on more images, the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent presents the story of the temptations of Christ. The first temptation presents the image of stones being turned into loaves of bread. The image conveys the message that we have to respect and care for God’s creation. We are not to alter the natural world simply to please ourselves. It raises the possibility of making Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’” part of our Lenten reading. In it the pope issues an urgent call to respect and care for all creation.

Look for images couched in stories and discover a whole new (and ancient) dimension of the readings at Mass.

The second image is of Jesus and the devil on the top of the Temple parapet. The specific temptation is to “throw yourself down” because the angels will “support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” It’s a temptation to misuse relationships. Jesus is being tempted to use others for his own selfish benefit. It challenges us to look at the quality of relationships in our marriage, family, business, school, etc.

The third image is up on “a very high mountain” where Jesus is tempted to worship the devil in order to get control over the whole world. But God’s way is not to control but to invite. To serve as Christ did means to respect the God-given freedom of others rather than to force our ways on them, no matter how tempting it might be to get our own way. Do I respect others or do I manipulate them?

So look for images couched in stories and discover a whole new (and ancient) dimension of the readings at Mass.

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Father R. Michael Schaab is a senior priest of the Diocese of Peoria who gives retreats and days of recollection, and who fills in as presider at parish Masses on weekends. He resides on a hobby farm in Putnam County.

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