Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Is It Lawful To Do Good On The Sabbath Or To Do Evil? To Kill Or To Cure?

When I was a lad, every Sunday from September through May, at 3:00 pm, Vespers were chanted at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, and all of the altar boys attended. Four served: two were acolytes, one carried the incense, and the fourth carried the cross. The rest of us sat in the two pews on either side of the main altar. The opening psalm began: Dixit Dominus domino meo, sedes a dextris meis, donec ponam inimicos tuos scabellum pedem tuorum. In English, Psalm 110 begins: The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool.” In verse 4 of the psalm, which is the Responsorial for today, we read, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” The name Melchizedek is also mentioned in the First Reading, from Hebrews: His name (Melchizedek) means “righteous king, and he was also the ‘King of Salem’, that is, the King of peace. Nothing is known about his father, his mother, or his ancestry. In this, he is made to resemble the Son of God, and like Him, he remains a priest forever.

Melchizedek is first mentioned in Genesis 14, when he blesses Abram when he returns victorious from battle. In return, Abram gives the priest a tenth of the spoils of battle. Melchizedek is a Canaanite, not a Hebrew. Nothing is mentioned about his beginning and his end, and he is not bound by the norms for Priests and Levites written in the Books of Moses. That is why the author of the Letter to the Hebrews compares him with Jesus. In Jesus, “no beginning” and “without end” are literally true, since he is the eternally begotten Son of God, and he will reign forever and ever. He is High Priest forever, according to the order not of Levi, but of Melchizedek.

Moving to today’s Gospel reading from Mark, we see Jesus enter the synagogue in Capharnaum on a Sabbath day. In the synagogue, there was a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees were watching Jesus closely, to see whether he would heal the man on the Sabbath. Jesus asked the man to come forward. Then he asked the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or to do evil; to save life or to destroy it?” The Pharisees knew that there is only one answer to that question, and, fearing that their evil intention would be exposed, they remained silent. Jesus healed the man’s crippled hand, knowing that his kindness would around further hostility against him. The Pharisees went out and immediately formed an alliance with the Herodians, whose political philosophy was more different from their own than – for example – ultraliberal Democrats from archconservative Republicans. It was this unholy alliance that eventually brought about the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, and the redemption of the world.

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