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AUGUST 10, 2008: NINETEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

I Kings 19:9a, 11-13a
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:22-33

Over the last 20 years, more and more students of Scriptures have replaced the familiar, pejorative terms Old Testament and New Testament with Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures. This switch, as we see from today's liturgical passages, was prompted by biblical, not political correctness.

Obviously the historical Jesus never referred to the writings on which he based his reform of Judaism as the Old Testament. He spoke about them as "the Law and Prophets." It was many generations after his death and resurrection - after special writings by Christian authors came into existence and began to be collected - that some Christians began to employ Old and New to distinguish the two collections.

The vast majority of "Christologists" (those scholars who study Jesus' 6 BCE-3OCE ministry) contend that Jesus never used such old/new categories about his faith. Fr. John Meier, for instance, believes that even when Jesus spoke his Last Supper words over the cup found in I Corinthians 11, he simply said, "This cup is the covenant in my blood," The word "new" was added to covenant by his later disciples. According to Meier, Jesus had entered into a unique covenant with God, a covenant all good Jews were expected to enter. It was that covenant which he also expected his followers to imitate, demonstrating they had done so by drinking from the cup of the covenant during the Eucharist.

The concept of biblical covenants and testaments is far more complicated than the terms Old and New lead us to believe. Hans Walter Wolff, flying in the face of common wisdom, often mentioned, "There's no wall between our two collections of sacred writings. A stream of faith runs between them; a stream which constantly changes direction. Each helps us understand the other."

That's certainly the case with today's I Kings passage. All people of faith can identify with Elijah's discovery of Yahweh speaking to him in "a tiny whispering sound." But, on a deeper level, both Christians and Jews can also identify with what Yahweh tells him from that whisper. (For some strange reason, God's words have been omitted from our liturgical reading.) Yahweh demands to know, "Why are you here?" Unbelievably, the God who helped the prophet walk hundreds of miles to Horeb (Sinai) doesn't want him at Horeb! Yahweh sends him -on foot! - back beyond the spot where he originally started his trek.

How often we finally reach a point in our lives where we're certain God wants us to be, only to discover God actually wants us to go back and restart our faith journey, almost from scratch.

This appears to be one of the reasons Matthew makes a big thing of Peter sinking when he breaks concentration on Jesus and starts to notice "how strong the wind is." The evangelist insists his readers understand that just as their ancestors in the faith followed a person, Yahweh, so they follow a person, Jesus. It's far more secure to follow a religion or even a theology; never having to worry about ending up in the wrong place or having to start over.

Paul's lament in our second reading also makes more sense without the old/new dichotomy. He's complaining that many of his fellow Jews somehow never used all the experiences of faith Yahweh has provided them to eventually share in the faith of Jesus. I presume, could the Apostle have foreseen how followers of Jesus would later marginalize the Hebrew Scriptures he so loved, he would have directed that lament to us, not to his fellow Jews. We're often guilty of not taking advantage of God's "full" word. I always remind my students that it was only due to the Vatican II reforms that in 1970 we began to have readings from the Hebrew Scriptures in our weekend liturgies. Before then, the reasoning went, "Why read the Old when you have the New?" The council bishops realized God's word is always New - no matter in which collection of Scriptures you discover it.