People who use sacred texts have often found ways of selecting passages appropriate to their needs. Disciples of Confucius used a complex system of hexagrams, chosen by lot, to find images and comments suitable to their time, place and situation. In classical and medieval times, the writings of Virgil and Homer were used in a similar way. Sometimes the Bible was accessed by lot or dice or random procedures. The Church responded to the need to select appropriate wisdom from the Bible, by the daily lectionary, a selection of readings for every day in the year, which was originally used in monasteries, but has for some time been used in daily mass in the Catholic Church, and for private devotion in others. Obviously the choice of passages reflects a theology and the Christian calendar, but it also has an arbitrary element. It asks the reader, “Can this wisdom be applied to your soul, your community, your place, today?” This blog follows the daily readings and hopes to uncover some wisdom.
Reading 1, James 1:12-18
12 Blessed is anyone who perseveres when trials come. Such a person is of proven worth and will win the prize of life, the crown that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
13 Never, when you are being put to the test, say, ‘God is tempting me’; God cannot be tempted by evil, and he does not put anybody to the test .
14 Everyone is put to the test by being attracted and seduced by that person’s own wrong desire.
15 Then the desire conceives and gives birth to sin, and when sin reaches full growth, it gives birth to death.
16 Make no mistake about this, my dear brothers:
17 all that is good, all that is perfect, is given us from above; it comes down from the Father of all light; with him there is no such thing as alteration, no shadow caused by change.
18 By his own choice he gave birth to us by the message of the truth so that we should be a sort of first-fruits of all his creation.
Gospel, Mark 8:14-21
14 The disciples had forgotten to take any bread and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.
15 Then he gave them this warning, ‘Keep your eyes open; look out for the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.’
16 And they said to one another, ‘It is because we have no bread.’
17 And Jesus knew it, and he said to them, ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not understand, still not realise? Are your minds closed?
18 Have you eyes and do not see, ears and do not hear? Or do you not remember?
19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of scraps did you collect?’ They answered, ‘Twelve.’
20 ‘And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many baskets full of scraps did you collect?’ And they answered, ‘Seven.’
21 Then he said to them, ‘Do you still not realise?’
The letter of James is written “in the person” of James the Just, brother of Jesus, who led the Jerusalem Church in its earliest years. He himself was killed because of his faith, and is therefore a suitable person to speak of “trials”. Few people, even in the rich world, are fortunate enough to go through life without harsh trials, while those in the poor world are subjected to them all the time. “James” wants to insist that all testing comes from wrong desires, rather than from God, but it’s hard to attribute, for example, the despair of some Haitian survivors to their own wrong desires, when they have suffered from a) a natural disaster and b) the injustice of poverty. Perhaps James is speaking exclusively about those who are tested (tempted) by the desire to do wrong. My Spanish Bible commentary refers the issue to the fragile nature of humanity, made from dust, and open to death, yet filled with the breath of life by God. In testing, we can choose dust and death, or the life that God gives, even if it is harsh. Our wrong desire “gives birth” to death (!) but through the gifts of God which come from above, especially through his word of truth, we are “born” to a life which holds a promise for all creation. The crown of life (v 12) is often seen as our reward in the life to come, but it is also an appropriate description the character of people who have endured with courage and hope.
The misunderstanding of the disciples in the Mark passage is to take Jesus words too literally. He is using “leaven” and “loaves” etc, to make a contrast between the way the Herodians and the Pharisees nourish people, and the way He nourishes them. Food stands for teaching and care. Jesus’ food is freely given, and nourishes the lives of both Jews (=12 baskets) and Gentiles (=7 baskets) whereas Herod feeds on his people (read the story of his feast in Mark 5) and the Pharisees refuse what God gives. Their “ways” can grow in people’s hearts, so the disciples must be watchful. They must develop a taste for the bread of life.
A Prayer for Lent
God of the desert, as I follow Jesus in deprivation, may I recognise the tempter when he comes. Let it be your bread I eat, your world I serve, and you alone I worship. Amen.