Pentecost Sunday (Year B)

Jesus tells us in the gospels that the Spirit blows where the Spirit wills. God can’t be imprisoned. God is in charge

3 young people on a sofa studying the bible together


First Reading: Genesis 11:1-9

  • Notice the physical, anthropomorphic language for God in this passage: ‘the Lord came down to see’. What does this language, in various places of the Old Testament, tell us about the Incarnation and the importance of the physical world?
  • Read this passage in the context of Noah’s story immediately before it; what seems to be the problem here, and why are the tower and a single language considered issues?

Psalm: Psalm 103(104):1-2, 24, 27-30, 35

  • The last two lines of this psalm passage form the basis of a favourite and famous prayer to the Holy Spirit; what does it mean? What does it show about the way the Spirit’s continual presence sustains life?
  • Consider the reasons the psalm gives for why we should bless the Lord: his greatness, his majesty, his glory, his works, his wisdom, and the riches he bestows on the earth. Are these reasons that lead us to bless the Lord? What motivates us to praise?

Second Reading: Romans 8:22-27

  • Romans 8 is, in many ways, the climax of the letter. Paul’s great paean to the Holy Spirit is a high point in Scripture. Here, Paul explains how the Spirit living within each of us supplies for our weakness and prays in the ways that we feel incapable of doing. How does this encourage us in our lives of prayer?
  • The New Testament uses language like “pledge” to describe the Spirit; a promise of the fullness to come. Paul speaks here of possessing the first fruits of the Spirit even whilst we keenly feel the pressures and sorrows of living in the world. What are those first fruits? How do they support us?

Gospel: John 7:37-39

  • The Scriptures have many images of the Holy Spirit: wind, fire, and a dove. Here, Jesus adds water to that list of images; the Spirit is given by Jesus for us to drink and satisfy our thirst. How does this relate to baptism?
  • The gospel here bluntly states that the Spirit was not present until Jesus had been glorified. In what sense is the gospel speaking here? We know that the Spirit was present inspiring the prophets and over the waters of creation. What is the uniqueness of the gift of the Spirit for Christians, and what impact does that have in our lives?


There are many options in today’s set of readings, but I’m going to take a look at one of them: the account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis. Many of us are familiar with the basic content of the Babel story. When we think of Babel, I think one word that probably springs to mind is: pride.

The people wanted to exalt themselves to the level of God and naively thought they could build their way up and up into the clouds and make it all the way to God’s throne. But God wasn’t having any of that prideful nonsense and cast the tower down, scattering the people and giving them multiple languages (dividing their tongues) so they couldn’t speak to each other.

It reminds me of a scene in ‘Blackadder: Back and Forth’, where Blackadder travels back in time and meets William Shakespeare. He promptly hits the famous Bard and remarks: “that is for every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next 400 years!” Is that all the story of Babel is? An explanation for why we go to the trouble of learning French and German at school? Does it make sense?

I want to suggest that we’re coming at Babel from the wrong angle if we look at it that way, and that has implications for how we look at Pentecost and understand what’s going on with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s go back to the narrative in Genesis. We jump in at the beginning of chapter 11. Just before it, chapter 10 gives us the descendants of Noah because it comes on the heels of Noah’s story. Remember, in the narrative of Genesis, the world had been returned to its Edenic, freshly created state. The flood had wiped the slate clean; the only humans left were Noah and his family. Chapter 10 then explains how that family spread out and once again populated the world.

If you glance at some of the names of Noah’s descendants, you’ll be surprised to see names of nations or people groups. The genealogy maps out the known ancient world and explains where the people came from. Moreover, they fulfilled God’s command to Noah: “increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.” Genesis 9:7. I used the word ‘Edenic’ purposefully just now to describe the post-Flood world because there, God reissued the command he’d given to Adam and Eve.

Our reading from Genesis 11, then, immediately presents us with a problem. We have a group, possibly all people (the text isn’t clear), who stop going out and spreading across the earth but instead come together. They found a plain in Shinar (Sumer) and they settled down. At this point we can see hints of the obstinacy and rebellion that so marks human nature.

Worse, though, the people decided to build a tower.

So what? People have always built towers, from the pyramids to the Shard in London. What’s wrong with a tower?

The text tells us that the setting is Mesopotamia. The only towers the Mesopotamians built, and which the ancient peoples of the Middle East were very familiar with, were ziggurats, stepped pyramid temples. Each major city had one. These towers had one purpose: at the top of the steps was a small ‘house’ – a box—which housed the city’s god.

The city’s god had a job: they had to defend the city and its prosperity and success. The god was essentially enslaved, caged, and used for human purposes.

That is what the story of Babel implies; they wanted to build a tower into the heavens to grab the God of the heavens, imprison him, and use him to make themselves prosper, to give themselves a name, permanency, and security.

There’s another problem as well: God had a plan to undo the Fall of Adam and Eve, and it would indeed involve the forging of one people. But the people of Babel were jumping the gun and trying to use God as a divine battery to make it happen on their timeline and on their terms.

Jesus tells us in the gospels that the Spirit blows where the Spirit wills. God can’t be imprisoned, God is in charge.

If we fast-forward to Pentecost, the disciples were in an upper room, but not by their own design. Jesus had told them to be there and to wait.

In God’s good time, the Spirit descended upon them, undoing the curse of Babel: they spoke in languages understandable to one another.

Here’s the reversal, though, that undoing of Babel didn’t lead them to stay put and settle down, as the people of Babel had done, but it thrust them out into the world. They went out and multiplied disciples across the earth in fulfilment of God’s design.

Babel and Pentecost are bookends to a story that grapples with who is in control. The obvious and glorious answer is God.

The Spirit has descended on you and lives within you. You aren’t to settle, though! Go out into the world! Speak the languages, love them, share the gospel! Don’t miss the opportunity.


  • CCC 57 (Catechism of the Catholic Church): Babel
  • Pope St. John Paul II, Dominum et vivificantem: on the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church and the world
  • St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Spirit: one of the great early Church Fathers teaching on the Holy Spirit