This Sunday’s readings take us from Old Testament prophecies of the future Messiah to the union of Jew and Gentile in God’s kingdom.
They also bring us to the herald of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the mysterious image of Jesus’ “winnowing fan.”
Here are 9 things to know and share . . .
1) What does the first reading this Sunday say?
The first reading is Isaiah 11:1-10 (you can read it here).
This reading contains the famous Messianic prophesy which begins:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
It continues by describing how the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him.
The passage stresses that the “shoot” (a future king of the line of David) will judge righteously. It also uses language that will be applied to Jesus in the New Testament, stating:
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Then comes the famous passage:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The prophecy concludes:
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
2) What does this mean?
This prophecy may have had an initial fulfillment in the days after it was first given, in Isaiah’s time. If so then, like many prophecies, it has another, greater fulfillment, which is in the Messiah.
The text depicts the ideal king—the Messiah—who will come as a shoot or branch from the stump of Jesse. That is, he will belong to the line of King David, the son of Jesse.
The Hebrew word for “branch” is netser, and this is part of the background to Matthew’s statement that “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matt. 2:23), playing on the similarity in sound between netser and nazoraios (an inhabitant of Nazareth).
The language this passage uses to describe how the Spirit of the Lord rests upon the king was later used by the Church to describe the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Endowed with the Spirit as he is, the Messiah will be the ideal king. He will have powerful authority (“he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth”), but he will use his kingly authority wisely and in the service of justice (“and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked”).
He will not oppress his people. Far from it! Rather, he will inaugurate an era of peace and justice such that it can be depicted as reconciling predators and prey, so that “they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
This will lead to knowledge of the true God spreading all over the world “as the waters cover the sea” and in that day the Messiah—the root of Jesse—shall be a beacon to all peoples, who will turn to him and inquire of him and his wisdom.
These prophecies are fulfilled, in an anticipatory way, with the first advent of the Messiah and the spread of the Christian faith, and they will be definitively fulfilled with the second advent and the eternal order.
3) What does the responsorial Psalm for this Sunday say?
The responsorial psalm for this Sunday is a selection of verses from Psalm 72 (you can read them here).
It is said to be “of Solomon,” the son of David.
It picks up the theme of the king’s son and his relationship with God. It begins:
Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.
It continues with a plea that his reign of righteousness and peace last “until the moon is no more” and that it may extend “from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
It notes that the king’s son delivers the needy and has pity on the weak.
It concludes by stating:
May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun.
May all nations be blessed in him; may they pronounce him happy.
4) What does this mean?
The statement that this Psalm is “of Solomon” may mean that it was written by him or at least about him.
Either way, it is a prayer sung at the Jerusalem temple on behalf of Solomon or the reigning king at the time.
It serves both as reminder of what a good king is supposed to do (provide justice, peace, deliver the needy, show mercy to the weak) and asks God for the blessings appropriate to a good king (long life, extensive dominion, an enduring name, respect among the nations).
On the higher, Messianic level, it describes the realization of all of these things in the reign of Jesus, which was inaugurated at the first advent and which will be consummated at the second advent.
Jesus both provides, in the highest way, the benefits of a good king (including not just earthly deliverance, but eternal deliverance) and enjoys in an ultimate way the blessings appropriate to a good king, including an everlasting name (the name above every name, at which every knee shall bow) and being pronounced blessed among all the nations.
5) What does the second reading say?
The second reading is Romans 15:4–9 (you can read it here).
In this passage, St. Paul states that
Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.
He then urges his readers, by God’s grace, to live in harmony and worship God with one voice.
He says to welcome each other, as Christ has welcomed us, and he reminds his readers that
Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name.”
6) What does this mean?
This passage sums up several themes of St. Paul:
- The conviction that the Old Testament Scriptures were written to provide instruction for us in our day. One frequent way of providing this instruction was to look at them in a Christological light, to read them on a Messianic level, as we did with the first reading and the responsorial Psalm.
- The need for believers to live together in harmony so that their worship of God may be pure and united.
- The need to imitate Christ and be giving and generous in our relationships with others.
- The need for harmony between Jews and Gentiles, since Christ has now brought the Gentiles within God’s community, as hinted at in the Old Testament. (Thus the quotation at the end of the reading, which is from Psalm 18:49; cf. also 2 Sam. 22:50).
7) What does the Gospel reading say?
The Gospel reading is Matthew 3:1–12 (you can read it here).
It describes the ministry of John the Baptist that preceded the public ministry of Jesus.
It identifies John as fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Is. 40:3).
It describes John’s rough manner of life and how the people of Jerusalem and Judea went out to hear him and be baptized by him in the Jordan river.
It also describes his rebuke of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, noting in particular that they should not rely on their status as descendants of Abraham for salvation, for
God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
Finally, it records John’s prophetic statement
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
8) What does this mean?
The discussion of John the Baptist’s ministry would have helped the ancient reader understand Jesus’ ministry by relating it to an already well-known phenomena.
John the Baptist was famous in the ancient world and was popularly regarded as a prophet. Some even wondered if he himself might be the Messiah, though John denied this.
John is mentioned in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, and all four gospels record his ministry as preceding and preparing for that of Jesus.
The statement that God is able to raise up sons for Abraham from stones means that the Pharisees and Sadducees cannot count on their heritage to save them.
It also alludes to the fact that Gentiles can become sons of Abraham through faith in Christ—a theme explored further by St. Paul.
John then predicts the public ministry of Jesus, indicating that he would be greater and would also bring with him a baptism.
The reference to being baptized “with the Holy Spirit and fire” has been variously understood.
From a Catholic perspective, the reference to the Holy Spirit’s action in the sacrament of baptism is clear, though the reference to fire is more open, and perhaps deliberately so.
- On one hand, fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, as we see in Acts 2.
- On the other hand, fire could symbolize the judgment that would come upon Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
- It could refer to the various trials of life.
- It could refer to the fire we will all be tested with at the end of our lives (1 Cor. 3).
- It could contain a reference to the fire at the end of the world.
- It could refer to the fire of hell.
These understandings are not all mutually exclusive.
9) What is meant by the image of the winnowing fork?
This is unfamiliar to most of us today, because most of us do not grow wheat or process it by the means used in Jesus’ time.
Then, after the grain had been harvested, it was crushed on a threshing floor.
The purpose of this was to separate the edible seed from the inedible chaff that surrounded it.
After the grain was threshed, you would have a big pile of edible grain and inedible chaff, mixed together.
To separate them, they were winnowed. A tool known as a winnowing fork (or winnowing fan) was used to toss the mixture in the air.
Because the grain was heavier than the chaff, it would fall in a different place than the chaff, which would be moved by the wind.
At the end, you’d have a pile of grain and a bunch of chaff that had been separated from it. The grain would then be stored for further use and the useless chaff could be burned.
By stating that Jesus’ winnowing fork is in his hand, John means that Jesus is ready to administer judgment, separating the righteous from the unrighteous the way wheat is separated from chaff.
The righteous (the wheat) would be gathered “into his granary” (saved), but the wicked (the chaff) would be burned with fire (lost).
This can be related both to the events of Jesus’ time, to the end of our lives, and to the end of the world.
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