Booby Traps in the Lectionary; or Expelling the Ghost of Marcion

Several years ago I presented a lecture at the Pontifical Gregorian University concerning the presentation of Jews and Judaism in the Catholic Sunday Lectionary (subsequently published here). In the lecture and article I analyzed the relationships between the Old Testament / Gospel pairings, which had been established after Vatican II according to principles of thematic harmonization or correspondence. (That is to say, the Synoptic Gospels were to be read more-or-less semicontinuously over a 3-year cycle and the Old Testament lections were selected to correspond to the Gospel lections.) One finding of my research was that Year B is particularly bad on two counts: it is the least representative of the diversity of genres and content from the Old Testament; and it is the most suggestive of supersessionist interpretations. Far more frequently than the other two years, Year B's pairings portray alectionary discontinuity between the Testaments and a displacement of the Old by the New. To be clear, fulfillment is the teaching of the Catholic Church; supersessionism is not. (E.g., see Cardinal Keeler's 2004 address in Brazil.) Drawing that line is difficult but essential to sound Catholic theology and preaching.Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Year B. The lectionary pairing from last Sunday gets the lowest marks, in my estimation, of any pairing in the entire Sunday lectionary. (If you missed it, here it is.) The pairing of a Levitical law about ostracizing lepers with Jesus' manual healing of a leper almost certainly leaves a listener with a "Nice, Good Jesus" and "Mean, Bad Jews" message. It's a booby trap for anti-Jewish preaching, and many homilists step in it.Texts don't interpret themselves, of course, and I don't mean to remove the agency of the preacher. But lectionary preaching is a difficult form of art, and as pressed for time as today's parish priests are, it makes sense to go in the direction that the lectionary is leading. I'm also not trying to argue the impossible case that the Old Testament doesn't or shouldn't say things like this about lepers--the point is that many different texts from the Old Testament could have been chosen, each of which would correspond thematically to the Gospel in its own way and suggest particular motifs for preaching.

For instance, consider that the most widely-used lectionary in Protestant churches, the Revised Common Lectionary, pairs last week's Gospel instead with the story of Elisha and Naaman the leper (2 Kings 5:1-14). This pairing adds some captivating narrative material from an otherwise neglected (in the lectionary) part of the Old Testament, it doesn't propagate a negative stereotype of Judaism, and it narrates the identity of God as sustainer and healer in the context of an Old Testament prophet. Moreover, Jesus himself cites this story as a foretaste of his own incipient ministry during his synagogue sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4:27).Now, lest you think this is all just liberal hogwash, I'll point out that it's not only those of us who work in Biblical studies and the field of Jewish-Christian relations that find certain tendencies in the lectionary to be problems worth addressing. The issue was raised at the highest levels, in fact, when the 2008 Synod on the Word of God suggested as one of its propositions to the Pope that "that an examination be carried out of the Roman Lectionary to see if the current selection and ordering of the readings is truly adequate to the mission of the church in this historical moment. In particular, the bond between the Old Testament and the pericopes of the gospels should be reconsidered, so that they do not imply an overly restrictive reading of the Old Testament or an exclusion of certain important passages. The revision of the lectionary could be carried out in dialogue with those ecumenical partners who use this common lectionary." (Proposition 16, translated from Italian by NCR). Sunday B-6 is likely one of the pairings that our bishops had in mind.As a final note, Catholics should encourage lectionary reform not only because we care about how Jews and Judaism are presented in our Sunday assembly. We should also do so because the lectionary as it stands can encourage heresy within our own body of believers, namely Marcionism, among the earliest and most seductive of all heresies. The ghost of Marcion--who in the 2nd century taught that the God of the Old Testament was a different, inferior God to the God of the New Testament--has always been with us. Although Marcion's views were rejected by what became Christianity as we know it, his theological denigration of the Shared Testament has never fully been eradicated from the Church. Every time a Christian utters the phrase "Old Testament God" and "New Testament God"-- something which happens all too frequently in Catholic Bible study groups--Marcion is still haunting us. (I myself only discovered that my childhood faith was unwittingly Marcionite when I got to college and took a (required) theology course, but thankfully I had good teachers to counter my previous catechesis in an arch-heresy.)So my question is, if we do acknowledge the difficulty of expelling the ghost of Marcion from Christian theology, why do we make our task more difficult by using a booby-trapped lectionary?Lectionary reform is not exactly a hot topic, I know. The story of a couple dozen nerds gathered around a seminar table in Rome to shuffle Biblical pericopes around is not going to generate a catchy press release. But in the long run, a slightly revised lectionary would result in better teaching and preaching, it would be good for Jewish-Christian relations, and most importantly, it could approach a more proper depiction of God each Sunday morning.PS. If you're reading, Father, this post is not a comment on your homily from last week. :)

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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