The Common Good
January 2004

The Good News

by Michaela Bruzzese | January 2004

Matthew, Luke, and John tell us the story of Jesus in their own words.

Matthew, Luke, and John tell us the story of Jesus in their own words, firmly linking him to the Hebrew Testament through scripture and events. The accounts confirm Jesus’ heritage as the true king, the one who will "judge your people with righteousness and your poor with justice" (Psalm 72:2). For Matthew, Jesus is a liberator in the line of Moses (Matthew 2:1-12). Luke assures us that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who is so passionately awaited in Jewish scriptures (Luke 4:18). John insists that Jesus is both flesh and sign; he is the one who transforms ordinary substances into sacrament, so that we may know and taste God’s presence in the world (John 2:11).

They remind us that Jesus is no ordinary king, for his primary concern is for those who, in the world’s eyes, have nothing and are nothing. They are "the oppressed," "the poor," "the needy," "the blind, "the captives," "the weak," and "those who have no helper." Jesus is king of the downtrodden, and he calls us, as his living body, to be the same.

It is Paul who insists that as Christians we be a body—individuals who are equal, treated with mutual respect, and united (1 Corinthians 12:13). Living as one body does not come without difficulties, but Paul reminds us that we bear the Spirit for one purpose only, "the common good" (1 Corinthians 12:7). If we are to follow this Messiah king, the common good, especially of those left behind, is our only goal.

Michaela Bruzzese is a free-lance writer living in Chile.

January 4

The True King

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

The New Year begins with Jesus’ initiation into the long line of Jewish royalty. Matthew’s account of the visit by three wise men echoes the story of another great Jewish liberator, Moses. The infant Moses also was in danger of death, at the hands of the Pharaoh; like Moses, Jesus is kept safe from the murderous intent of a political ruler, King Herod. The theme of kingship plays a strong role in the narrative for—unlike Herod and the Pharaoh of Egypt—Jesus will embody the characteristics of a true king. This king is paradoxically not concerned with his own power, but with the powerless; he "delivers the needy when they call.... From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight" (Psalm 72:12, 14). His cause is not his own betterment, but to defend the needy and to bring justice to the poor.

Though Matthew’s original description of the wise men was based on "magi," a Persian term for high priests or astrologers, the texts were later interpreted to fulfill the Hebrew scripture’s prediction of visitation by kings as described in these readings. Isaiah foretells that "They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord" (60:6), and Psalm 72 prays that "the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts" (Psalm 72:10).

The wise men, who were non-Jews, also allow Matthew to emphasize Jesus as liberator for all of humanity, not just Israel. The magi, unlike the scribes and Pharisees who informed Herod of the location of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:4), recognized the signs of the birth of the Messiah and, "overwhelmed with joy...paid him homage" (Matthew 2:10-11).

Paul, too, rejoices that Jesus’ kingdom is one where all are welcome, proclaiming that "the gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (Ephesians 3:6). Clearly, this newborn king is unlike any other; his birth then and now heralds the promise of a new kingdom in which we may seek justice and liberation for all, especially the most vulnerable.

January 11

Water and Fire

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

As the evangelist most preoccupied with the formation of the church, Luke emphasizes the importance of the bestowal of the Holy Spirit in both his gospel and Acts. In the narratives, Luke is careful to make the distinction between baptism and the receiving of the Spirit. John testifies that, while he can baptize with water as a symbol of the people’s desire to repent, it is only Jesus who "will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Luke 3:16). Ironically, John promises that Jesus will baptize us with the same elements that the author of Isaiah mentions as dangers (Isaiah 43:2). When we follow Jesus, however, the "waters" of our lives that threaten to overwhelm us, and the "fires" that threaten to consume us (Isaiah 43:2) become the initiation by which we are refined and made ready to truly serve God and one another.

At baptism we proclaim our desire to walk with God. When we receive the Holy Spirit, God responds, assuring us that our primary identity has already been decided: "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine" (Isaiah 43:1). Luke confirms this most clearly with Jesus’ own baptism. Jesus’ step toward God is reciprocated with God’s acknowledgement of Jesus: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3:22).

Luke, also concerned with matters of authority, uses the bestowal of the Spirit as a sign of authenticity. As the early church was forming, cities were replete with evangelists, sorcerers, priests, and cults of all kinds. The Christian community had to ensure that those baptizing in Jesus’ name were truly committed followers. Luke is thus careful to note that the Holy Spirit did not come upon the baptized until the full community was present: "Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit" (Acts 8:17). In doing so, Luke reminds us that Christianity is fundamentally communal in nature; the Spirit of God bestowed in and through the joined hands of all believers.

January 18

Signs of the Spirit

Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

As the early Christian community struggled to define itself, countless issues arose that challenged its identity at every turn. The community had to decide, once and again, what it meant to be Christian, in faith, action, and creed. As Paul describes, many concerns arose regarding the charismatic gifts of the spirit. The Corinthian community, apparently overwhelmed by members who spoke in tongues, was excluding other charisms. Paul thus had to reinforce the importance of every gift and contribution to the community, saying that "there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone" (1 Corinthians 12:6). Since the source of every gift is God alone, each must be respected, honored, and practiced in the community equally. His advice also cautions the Corinthians—and us—against making one gift more important or powerful in the community. Preaching is as important as administration, and public representation is as important as counsel. Each gift should be valued and represented equally in our communities.

John, too, treats the issue of signs as a means of revealing the presence of God. For John, it is crucial that Jesus perform a sign at the beginning of his ministry to confirm—for the disciples and for us—that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. Jesus is the one capable of bringing God’s living Spirit directly into human history and into our lives. His first sign, the changing of water into wine, is also his first action following the calling of the disciples, and with it John conveys the transformative power of God.

Jesus’ actions also confirm the words of the psalmist, who describes God’s food and drink as endless, as the very source of life and light: "They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light" (Psalm 36:8-9). The one who makes water into wine also makes human flesh into sacrament, if we, like the disciples, are willing to leave everything and follow Jesus.

January 25

Living the Law

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Luke 4:14-21

Issues of authority arise again, but this time concerning the Jewish community. In Nehemiah, we witness the reading of the law by Ezra, the great religious leader of Judaism following the restoration. The account is attributed to Nehemiah, a lay contemporary of Ezra whose dedication to the community and its faithful interpretation of Torah define his life and writings. For Nehemiah’s community, the law was the ultimate authority and the rule by which all life was structured. Rather than being seen as a hindrance, it was regarded as essential to life itself. The reading of the law is celebrated with great joy and life, for all who have heard the law have also understood it.

The law played the same role in Jesus’ community approximately 500 years later. As an observant Jew, Jesus would have been raised with the same respect and reverence for the Torah. His actions in the synagogue therefore provoked considerable controversy. Luke’s description of the event allows him to place Jesus in the position of a prophet, comparable to Elisha and Elijah. Jesus’ words, confirming the fulfillment of Isaiah’s passage (Luke 4:21) also fulfill the prophecy in Hebrew scriptures about the coming of the Messiah. The claim to authority, to be the one about whom the scriptures and the law spoke, brings controversy and, as Luke will describe in later verses, full rejection by his own community.

Both Nehemiah and Jesus are concerned with bringing life to their communities—Nehemiah through the reading and understanding of the Torah, and Jesus by bringing the good news of the Torah to the here and now. The inability of Jesus’ community to see God’s liberating spirit in one of their own members will result in the opposite of what happened to Nehemiah’s community. Instead of understanding the law and rejoicing in its fulfillment, Jesus’ community remains locked in their own blindness, held captive to their narrow ideas of who has "the authority" to be the bearer of good news and the liberator of the oppressed. Jesus’ actions invite us all to not only hear the law, but to fulfill it by understanding and living the good news. n

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