The scriptures or the tickle and tease of a scrap?

Recently discovered 4th c. papyrus

Homily for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
(Scriptures for today's Mass)

Audio for homily

You have probably read or heard about the recent discovery
of a scrap of papyrus, believed to be from the 4th century,
on which is a partially legible text, described by experts
as clumsy handwriting, penned with a blunt instrument.

This fragment of ancient paper is smaller than a standard business card,
and on it can be read only these broken phrases:
not to me. My mother gave to me life…
The disciples said to Jesus…
deny. Mary is worthy of it…
Jesus said to them, “My wife…
Let the wicked people swell up…
As for me, I dwell with her in order to…
my mother… three… forth which…
And for many, and certainly for the media,
these words are enough to raise again
the question of whether or not Jesus was married.

Material like this teases and tickles the imagination
of believers and non-believers alike.
For some it’s a matter of curiosity,
for others it feeds the doubt and mistrust
they already have for the church.

And I suspect that such a story appeals to all of us, at least in part,
because it asks nothing of us;
it’s faith-related but it makes no demands on our lives as Christians.

So the story of this fuzzy fragment, of unproven origin,
makes the front page of the New York Times and the Boston Globe
but the scriptures we just heard,
drawn from relatively intact whole documents,
recognized as true by two of the world’s great religions,
these texts escape the media’s notice and, more tragically,
they may escape our notice as well.

Our first reading was from the Book of Numbers,
written some 1400 years before the time of Christ,
so, 3400 years ago from our own day.

Have we yet understood and absorbed the truth of the story we heard,
of jealousy in the hierarchy of those with whom Moses shared
his power and authority?

Have we yet grasped in the church and in our politics
that priority is due the message and those served by it
and not those who deliver it?

Isn’t it true that in virtually every venue power still tends to corrupt?

The disciples of Jesus, 2000 years ago,
exhibit the same tendency in today’s gospel
when they show their jealousy of others doing good works.

Their own power and authority is threatened by this
and Jesus is clear in reprimanding them, reminding them
that he looks kindly on and will reward everyone
who simply offers a cup of water to someone who’s thirsty.

What jealousies do we harbor in our own hearts
when we see the good done by others we disagree with,
those we oppose politically,
those whose agenda doesn’t completely match our own?

What jealousies do we harbor in our own families,
in our neighborhoods, in this parish, in town?

These are words that make demands on who we are
and how we relate to others –
especially to those whose works in some way mirror
the words and deeds of Jesus.

And if you really want to talk about ancient texts
that make demands on our lives today,
consider what Jesus says here about cutting off our limbs
and plucking out our eyes should they in some way cause us to sin.

It’s not that Jesus wants his followers to blind and cripple themselves.
He exaggerates to make the point that fidelity to him and his message
demands that we remove from our path
anything that keeps us from following him and his word.

Perhaps what we need to remove from our path
is what James talks about in the second reading:
some of our leisure, our wealth, our luxuries,
whatever it is, as James put it, whatever it is
that “fattens our hearts…”

This, too, is an ancient text,
about 400 years older than the recently discovered scrap of papyrus,
and these words ask us to radically examine our lives and our motives
and to change how we live and to open our hearts to all that is good.

These words from scripture don’t tease and tickle our imagination.
They’re meant to do much more than that.
They’re intended to pierce our minds and hearts
and call us to wonder, not whether Jesus was married or not,
but how he calls me and how he calls you
to follow him in our own life’s circumstances.

Another ancient text reminds us that Jesus,
on the night before he gave himself for us on the Cross,
gave himself to us in the Bread and Cup of the Last Supper.

And because of that supper he shared with his jealous followers,
because of words written down nearly 2,000 years ago,
you and I are here today, in this place, to do what Jesus asked to do
and what he asked us to do is recorded on a piece of parchment
some place, in some museum.
But it touches our lives and brings us together today.

May what we celebrate and receive here nourish and strengthen us
to welcome goodness and grace wherever we find it
and to clear the paths we walk
that we might be free to walk with Jesus.


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