Commentary on the Readings
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B – January 14, 2018
Vocation: The Discovery of one’s identity
Among the titles which the Bible attributes to God, there is also: he who calls. With his right hand he stretches out the heavens, calls them and “they all stand forth together” (Is 48:13), listen to his orders and fulfill their vocation, whirling in the universe and singing his praises: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the work of his hands the expanse proclaims” (Ps 19:2). Nothing and no one is anonymous before the Lord who “counts the number of stars and calls each one by name” (Ps 147:4).
The name that God gives to every person corresponds to an identity, a vocation, a mission.
Nothing intimate, nothing external to the person, nothing that looks like an election prize for a previous loyalty. Vocation is but the discovery of that for which we were created, the place we are called to fill in creation and in God’s plan. It is not revealed through dreams and visions, but it is found by looking inside ourselves, listening to the word of the Lord that is heard, not seen, which is manifested in the events and speaks through the angels who stand beside us: the brothers in charge of interpreting to us his thoughts and his will.
To correspond to the vocation does not mean to get involved in a cumbersome undertaking, externally imposed but to realize ourselves, to be faithful to our identity and, therefore, to achieve interior balance and joy.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Lord, reveal to me the name with which you have called me, before I was conceived in my mother’s womb.”
Samuel, one of the leading figures of the Old Testament, lived in a time of great political, social and religious upheavals. For over a century the Philistines who came from the islands of the Aegean, had settled along the coast. They had occupied the fertile plains of the land of Canaan, and forced Israel to live on the mountains where the land is arid and rocky. How to deal with these increasingly aggressive and intrusive neighbors? The undertaking seemed desperate because the Jewish tribes were divided and “everyone did what seemed good to him” (Jdg 21:25).
It was during this time of transition, social and political confusion in the advent of the monarchy, that Samuel was called by God to lead the people. “The word of God—the preceding verse of our reading recalls—was rarely heard; visions were not seen” (1 S 3:1). Samuel was in charge to seize the Lord’s plans and communicate them to Israel.
Today’s passage presents him as a teenager quietly growing at Shiloh, in the temple of the Lord. One night he was called. He heard a voice not knowing where it came from. He was not dreaming and it was not a vision. He needed the help and suggestions of someone capable of interpreting to him the meaning of what was happening.
He had the foresight to ask the right person, to the priest Eli. Sensitive to the word of God, Eli realized at once the source of the call. He pointed to Samuel what disposition to take. If you hear the voice—he suggested—answer: “Speak, Lord, your servant listens” (v. 9).
The story is presented in a format and language characteristics of biblical vocations. The details look very realistic and concrete, yet it would be a mistake to take them literally. The expression God spoke to… is often used in the Bible and should not be understood in a material sense. The Lord does not manifest himself that way. His call is heard within, in the human heart. The calling of Samuel was not different from what today is directed to everyone. For this the passage helps us understand our vocation.
Let’s start from the strange observation: “Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (v. 7). It’s amazing that this person, who had spent several years in the temple of Shiloh, did not yet know the Lord. However, in the Bible, to know indicates an intimate experience. It is a convinced and unconditional abandonment in the arms of a loved one. It is, therefore, not surprising that Samuel, while living in the house of the LORD had not yet known him. It means he had not yet given the Lord his full adhesion, his complete willingness to collaborate in God’s work of salvation.
This difficulty to know God is not surprising, because it is not easy to understand the thoughts and getting oneself involved in the designs of the Lord. The people of Nazareth—the Gospels recount—and the same family of Jesus, who for more than thirty years had lived beside him, had not known him (Mk 6:1-6). People may be devout, participate in all religious events without really knowing the Lord. There are pages of the Gospel that we have learned by heart, and yet, at times, we have the impression of reading them for the first time. It is true; it is the first time that we let it penetrate our innermost being, after having been, perhaps for years, insensitive to the voice of the Lord.
This voice is heard at night when all is quiet, when there are no noises that confuse us or make it inaudible. Only solitude and silence allow us to return to ourselves, to reflect on the mysteries of God and of creation and on the meaning of life. Where noise and confusion reign it is impossible to hear and internalize the word of the Lord.
It is not easy to recognize the voice of God. It took four calls before Samuel realized that the Lord had a message to communicate to him.
In the midst of so many voices that resonate, it is difficult to discern which of them comes from above. God is not discouraged in the face of human deafness. He is patient and insists until we decide to pay attention to his word.
He always calls by name.
Vocation, for the Semites, was contained in the name, because the name defined the person called and indicated the mission. To Joseph the angel said, “Mary will bear a son. You shall call him Jesus (= salvation) because he will save his people” (Mt 1:21).
Only God knows the real name of each one and calls from the maternal womb.
The prophet said: “Yahweh called me from my mother’s womb; he pronounced my name before I was born” (Is 49:1). Moses reminded God, “You have said that you know me by name” (Ex 33:12). They had understood that, if God calls us by name, he intends to entrust a task.
“Let’s make a name for ourselves!” exclaimed arrogant men of Babel (Gen 11:1). They rejected the name by which the Lord had called them. They wanted to make one more appropriate to their delusional projects. Theirs is a symbolic gesture, the image of those who reject God’s call and organize life and plans creation according to criteria other than those of the Lord. Such work is destined to collapse, as happens to all the towers built against the will of God.
Each call begins with the discovery of one’s name, the real one, known by God, not the one dictated by ambitions, proclaimed by flatterers, suggested by vanity. Only in silence and prayer one can hear it tenderly pronounced by the Lord.
Samuel does not come to discover the voice of God alone. There is a man, the priest Eli, who helps him. There are some people more sensitive than others to the word of God. They are the ones that can help us discover what the Lord wants us to do.
The reading concludes by saying that, after receiving the message of God, “Samuel grew. Yahweh was with him and made all his words become true” (v. 19).
Samuel faithfully responded to his vocation. He had the courage to condemn the family of Eli that had strayed from the Lord; he was able to give up his political convictions (2 S 8:6) and, conforming to the will of God, anointed king of Israel first Saul and later David.
“Everything is permitted.” “Why abstain from that which gives pleasure. The sexual need, like that of food, must be satisfied, no matter what.”
We certainly have heard similar phrases by those seeking to justify, in a way, “casual” behaviors in moral fields. From the two verses preceding this passage one infers that even in Corinth similar views circulated: “Everything is lawful for me”—someone claimed—“Food is for the stomach as the stomach is for food”—others reiterated (vv. 12-13).
Around the Mediterranean basin, Corinth was known for immoral behavior. City with two ports, it offered to tourists, merchants and sailors all types of distractions. Her reputation as a city of sin is linked to the affirmation of the historian Strabo. He assured that, on the Acropolis, there were more than a thousand sacred prostitutes. He was exaggerating, of course, but the expressions, to behave in the manner of the Corinthians to indicate a libertine life and the a girl from Corinth which was a synonym for prostitute, respond to specific facts.
In this metropolis, it was not easy to behave in a manner consistent with the gospel. In fact, some members of the Christian community succumbed to the lure of the sacred prostitutes and were indulging in immoral behavior.
Upon learning of what had happened, Paul decided to address clearly the issue of sexual abuses.
The reasons put forward in his letter are not perhaps what we expected: no threat of divine punishment, no mention of adverse consequences (although real and often tragic) for individuals and their families. The condemnation of fornication—in the sense of sexual activity outside of marriage—is derived from theological considerations and from the biblical tradition that considers the sexual act like a total involvement of both partners in one flesh (Gen 2:24).
The shamelessness—says Paul—is incompatible with the life of the baptized, first of all because the body of the Christian is the Lord’s. It can be given only to the one to whom he has decided to definitively offer, that is, to the groom and to the bride, in marital institution. A different use of one’s body is an injustice, a theft against God (vv. 13-14).
It is a sacrilege, because who, through baptism, has been united to Christ, forms one body with him and the shameless prostitutes a member of this sacred body (vv. 15-18).
It is also a desecration. The body of the Christian is sacred as a temple for the Holy Spirit dwells in him (vv. 19-20). The Spirit lives, not in the material sense, but is present with his power, with its constant action that animates life, gives rise to new thoughts, feelings and guides the sentiments and leads to acts of love.
Given these principles, we understand that sexuality cannot be reduced to the satisfaction of physiological needs. It is not meant to satisfy selfish whims, but to show love and results in self-giving. Only these sentiments and actions are in harmony with the new life of the Christian.
The calling of the first apostles is narrated by John in a different way from the Synoptics. The fourth evangelist, in fact, does not place the scene of the call by the Sea of Galilee, but along the banks of the Jordan River.
One day the Baptist, who was standing with two of his disciples, watched Jesus walk by and exclaimed, “There is the Lamb of God!” (v. 36). It was not the first time he called him by that name. The day before he had pointed to him in the same way and had added a solemn testimony: “I saw the Spirit coming down on him like a dove from heaven. Yes, I have seen! And I declare that this is the Chosen One of God!” (Jn 1:29-34).
Today’s passage should be read with attention to every detail and every nuance of language. John, in fact, chooses accurately the words and images.
A first particular should be noted: the Baptist was still there (v. 35), in the same place where he was the day before, at Bethany beyond the Jordan (Jn 1:28). Jesus had set himself in motion; he started his journey, he was passing. John on the other hand had stopped; he had finished his mission, that of indicating the Messiah. He handed his disciples over to Jesus and agreed to disappear: “It is necessary that he increases but that I decrease” (Jn 3:29-30).
The Greek word used by the evangelist to describe the perception that the Baptist had of Jesus is significant, emblépein. It does not mean only to stare but to look into it, contemplate the intimate of a person.
The Baptist captured the true identity of Jesus, reading his heart, and he expressed it with a rather strange image. He called him Lamb of God. He had at his disposition other images, that of the shepherd king, stern judge; the latter—according to the Synoptic—he also used it: “the one who is coming will do much more … He comes with a winnowing fan to clear his threshing floor and gather his grain into his barn. But the chaff he will burn with fire that never goes out” (Lk 3:16-17). In his mind, however, nothing summed up his discovery of Jesus identity better than that of the Lamb of God.
Educated probably among the Essene monks of Qumran, he had assimilated the spirituality of his people. He knew its story and was familiar with the Scriptures. Pious Israelite, he knew that his listeners, hearing him mention the lamb, immediately understood the allusion to the paschal lamb whose blood, placed on the doorposts of the houses in Egypt, had saved their fathers from the slaughter of the exterminating angel.
The Baptist saw the fate of Jesus: he would one day be sacrificed like a lamb and his blood would take away from the forces of evil the capacity to cause harm. His sacrifice would redeem man from sin and death. Noticing that Jesus was condemned at noon of the day before Easter (Jn 19:14), the evangelist John has certainly wanted to draw this same symbolism. Indeed, it was the time when the priests began to sacrifice the lambs in the temple.
There is a second reference in the image of the lamb.
Who remembers the prophecies contained in the book of Isaiah—and every Israelite knew them very well—can perceive the call to an ignominious end of the Servant of the Lord. Here’s how the prophet describes his walk towards death: “Like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers…he was counted among the wicked bearing the sins of the multitude and interceding for sinners” (Is 53:7, 12).
In this text, the image of the lamb is linked to the destruction of sin.
Jesus—the Baptist meant to say—will take charge of all the weaknesses, all the miseries, all the iniquities of people and, by his meekness, with the gift of his life, will annihilate them. He will not remove the evil by giving a sort of amnesty, a restoration. He will win it by introducing in the world a new dynamism, an irresistible force, his Spirit, who will bring people to goodness and life.
The Baptist has in mind a third biblical recall: the lamb associated with the sacrifice of Abraham.
While on the way to the mountain of Moriah, Isaac asked his father, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the sacrifice” (Gen 22:7-8).
“Here is the Lamb of God!”—the Baptist now attests. It is Jesus, God’s gift to the world to be sacrificed in lieu of the sinner deserving of punishment.
The details of the story of Genesis (22:1-18) were well known and the Baptist intended to apply them to Jesus.
Like Isaac, he is the only son, the beloved, the one who brings the wood heading to the place of sacrifice. The details added by the rabbis are applied to him. Isaac—they said—had volunteered himself; instead of running away, he handed himself over to the father to be tied on the altar. Jesus also freely gave his life for love.
At this point one wonders if indeed the Baptist had in mind all these biblical references when, twice, turning to Jesus, he said: “Behold the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:29, 36).
He maybe not have but certainly he had in mind the evangelist John, who wanted to offer catechesis to the Christian of his community and to us.
In addition to that of the lamb, in today’s passage we find other significant titles directed to Jesus. The first two disciples call him first rabbi, teacher (v. 38), a not so particularly significant title. After spending a whole day with him, Andrew realizes that he is not only a great character; he reveals to his brother Simon: “We have found the Messiah.”
Then Philip speaks of Jesus as the one of whom Moses and the prophets have written (Jn 1:45) and for Nathaniel he will even be the son of God, the King of Israel (Jn 1:49).
A furtive encounter with Jesus is not enough to discover his identity. It is necessary to remain with him, spend the whole day, that is, every moment of life, in his home.
The words he addressed to the two who follow him: “What are you looking for?” (v. 38) are the first words he speaks in the Gospel of John. They are directed to every disciple who begins his spiritual journey, after someone showed him Jesus as a teacher. He must ask himself what he expects from Christ, because it could be chasing illusions and nourishing vain hopes.
In the second part of the passage (vv. 40-42) the group of the disciples began to widen. The two that went to Jesus, who saw and stayed with him, have come to a deeper understanding of his identity. Now they cannot keep to themselves their discovery. They feel the urge to share it with others.
In the Gospel of John, Andrew is the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. He speaks of him to his brother Simon, and leads him to the Master. Fixing his gaze on him, he exclaims: “You are Simon, but you shall be called Cephas” (which means Rock) (v. 42).
Here emblépein is mentioned for the second time. They are the only two times in the Gospel of John that this verb is used. Before the Baptist looked into Jesus, now it is Jesus, with the eyes of God, penetrates into the heart of Peter, captures the identity and gives him the name that defines his mission. For the fishermen of the lake, Simon was the son of John, for Jesus and for God, he is called Peter, because his vocation is to be a living stone that hold church fast in the unity of faith.