Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Short Forms of the Readings: Distorting the Gospel?

As chance would have it, this last Sunday (OF: 28th Sunday per annum, Year A; EF: 19th Sunday post Pentecosten) the Gospel reading was the same in both forms of the Roman Rite: the Parable of the Marriage Feast from Matthew 22:1-14.

Or, in some places at least, it was nearly the same. For this particular Sunday is one of the over 40 occasions in the three-year Sunday cycle of the reformed lectionary where there is the option of reading a shorter form of one of the lessons. Suffice to say, there are no conditions laid out by the reformed books for when it may or may not be suitable to use any given short form aside from “pastoral reasons”, and the (somewhat deceptive) observation that “In the case of certain rather long texts, longer and shorter versions are provided to suit different situations. The editing of the shorter version has been carried out with great caution.” (General Introduction to the Lectionary, 75; cf. GIRM 360)

In this case, the short form of the Gospel misses out the last four verses of the parable (in bold):
And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.’ But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the streets, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Mt. 22:1-14, RSV2CE)
Previous to this Sunday in Year A, the 15th, 16th and 17th Sundays per annum have also had an optional short form for the Gospel readings. Criticisms can be levelled at each of these short forms, particularly for the 17th Sunday per annum, but though it is not much of a defence, it can at least be said that one parable is preserved in toto for each Sunday. [1] Here, though, it is part of the parable itself that has been edited out of the short form, with the consequence, intentional or not, of distorting its message. It is much easier, for example, to force an heretical universalist or annihilationist viewpoint on to the short form, or to emphasise the happier aspects of the parable to the practical exclusion of anything that could be perceived as negative (as most of that material is omitted). And, given that this parable is read every year in the Extraordinary Form in its totality, [2] it is difficult to see the existence of this short form as anything but an impoverishment - liturgically, biblically and homiletically.

In future posts, I hope to explore in a little more detail the many liturgical and theological problems with both the theory and praxis of the lectio brevior in the Ordo lectionum Missae. Thankfully, any problems associated with their use can be very easily and instantly fixed, by parish priests resolving never to use them and making sure that other priests, deacons and lectors (instituted or temporary) in their parishes do not use them either. It is also to be hoped for that all short forms of readings are suppressed in any future edition of the Ordo lectionum Missae.


[1] For the 15th Sunday per annum (A), the short form is just the Parable of the Sower, with the disciples’ question to Jesus and the explanation of the Parable omitted (Mt. 13:1-23; short form = vv. 1-9); for the 16th Sunday per annum (A), the short form is just the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, with its explanation along with the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven omitted (Mt. 13:24-43; short form = vv. 24-30); for the 17th Sunday per annum (A), the last of the three Parables of the Kingdom along with the saying about treasures new and old are omitted (Mt. 13:44-52; short form = vv. 44-46).

[2] Indeed, this Gospel lection has been part of the Church’s liturgical patrimony for some considerable time, as homilies on this passage have come down to us from St Augustine (Serm. 90) and St John Chrysostom (Hom. Matt. 69) among others.

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