Friday, April 20

1 Corinthians 6:12-20: The Resurrection of Christ is the root and principle of bodily holiness. Paul writes

Now the body is not for porneia but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not!”

This is why we take bodily holiness with great seriousness. This is why we eschew the Gnostic pretense that what happens in the body is not important. Those who don’t take bodily things seriously are the people most likely to live sexually immoral lives. Such folk imagine that bodily sins are pretty much like other sins.

But what does St. Paul say? “Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits porneia sins against his own body.” Sexual sins are violations against the power of the Resurrection, which flows from the very flesh of Christ.

Ezekiel 20: This oracle, delivered on August 14, 591 B.C., was occasioned by an inquiry made to Ezekiel by a group of exiled Jewish elders, apparently undeterred by their earlier failure in 14:1-11.

So, Ezekiel answers them: Beginning with Israel’s ancient sojourn in Egypt, prior to the Exodus, idolatry has been an abiding sin of God’s Chosen People. That rebellion against the Lord in Egypt was simply continued during the people’s wandering in the desert of Sinai. During both of those periods God spared His people, so that their enemies (and His) might not take comfort from their destruction.

Indeed, because Israel constantly violated the Lord’s ordinances, these ordinances proved not to be good for them, inasmuch as the very disobedience rendered the people morally worse (verses 23-26). (This is a motif, of course, that St. Paul will later develop in his Epistles: the futility of the Law to bring about salvation.) Then, even after their settlement in the Promised Land, the people continued their ancient infidelities.

Now, after all this, do these elders dare to come and “inquire of the Lord”? They are told that this inquiry amounts to a mockery. They have always known God’s will, yet they have decided to disobey it. Why should the Lord have anything further to say to them? (We should particularly observe here that, among the sins of Israel specifically named, child sacrifice is very prominent. Since the murder of unborn children is one of the most serious offenses of our own society, this oracle seems especially relevant today.)

Even after conveying this oracle, however, Ezekiel goes on in verses 32 to 44 to deliver a prophecy of Israel’s eventual restoration. Although Israel’s kings have brought the nation low, God is still Israel’s true king (20:33).

Saturday, April 21

Psalms 32 (Greek & Latin 31): Saint Paul explicitly quotes the opening line of this psalm near the beginning of Romans 4 to illustrate “the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works” (v. 6). The apostle’s thesis here, as in Romans generally, is that we believers are not justified before God by our own merits, by the effort of our “works,” by a correct and meticulous observance of the Mosaic Law, but by receiving, in faith, God’s gracious justification of us for the sake of Christ our Redeemer. Psalm 32, then, is the prayer of those who, standing at the foot of the Cross and forswearing all righteousness of their own, commit their lives and entrust their destinies entirely to God’s forgiving mercy richly and abundantly poured out in the saving, sacrificial blood of His Son, because “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them” (2 Cor. 5:19).

Such is the key to the proper understanding of Psalm 32; such is the correct context for praying the rest of the psalm: “I acknowledge my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said: ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.”

Our justification by God is no contrivance, no legal fiction. It truly renders us holy, even glorious, in His sight: “whom he justified, these He also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). Thus, Psalm 32 speaks of the justified as “blessed,” “godly,” “righteous,” and “upright in heart.”

Ezekiel 21: The deep, very personal lamentation in this text will remind the reader of Ezekiel’s older contemporary, Jeremiah, who expressed very much the same sentiments during that decade immediately preceding the fall of Jerusalem in 586.

There are four oracles in this chapter (the first oracle actually beginning in 20:45), three of them against Jerusalem, and the fourth against the Ammonite capital of Rabbah (the present city Amman, capital of the modern country of Jordan). Even as Ezekiel speaks, the Babylonian army, with its “well polished sword,” is already on the march toward those two cities.

The imagery alternates between fire (particularly a forest fire, with Jerusalem being the timber) and sword, both images combined in that of the lightning.

The references to the “Negev” in the first oracle (20:45—21:7) should be understood simply as “the south,” which is often the case in Ezekiel. The invading army, marching from Babylon, did not go directly westward toward Jerusalem, a march through the Arabian Desert being quite prohibitive. Instead, it marched up and around the Fertile Crescent, following the course of the Mesopotamian and Syrian rivers, so that now it has turned southward, in the direction of the Negev Desert, tramping toward Jerusalem and Rabbah.

In the second oracle (verses 8-17) Ezekiel addresses the Babylonian sword itself, which is the instrument of God’s vindication. The Babylonians, though they are acting as God’s instrument in history, do not know this, no more than a sword recognizes who wields it.

The third oracle (verses 18-27), continuing the image of the Babylonian sword, portrays another of Ezekiel’s symbolic actions, which must be explained to those who witness it. It pantomimes a fork in the road; which city, Jerusalem or Rabbah, will Nebuchadnezzar strike first?

The final oracle (verses 28-32) addresses to Rabbah the same threats that have been spoken to Jerusalem.

Sunday, April 22

John 5:1-15: The name of the pool was Bethzatha, or Bethdaida, or Bethesda. The pool may have had each of these names at one time or another. Even to this day, one can visit the pool (which, alas, is now completely stagnant and fetid) and see five sides originally covered by porticoes. It is a trapezoid transected into two parts; these are the “five” sides. The pool is near the lovely church of St. Anne.

The important point is that “Jesus saw him lying there.” This “seeing” by Jesus is an expression of prevenient grace. It is the first step toward salvation and blessing, and Jesus is the one who makes it. The important thing is to be seen by Jesus.

Jesus heals the man with simply a word of command (verse 8). The observer does not actually witness the healing.; he witnesses the results of it.

The mention of the Sabbath (verse 9) prepares for the controversy that ensues. This will also be the case later on, in the instance of the man born blind: “Now it was a Sabbath when Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes” (9:14). These two instances of “Sabbath violation” in John remind us of numerous such instances in the Synoptic Gospels.

There was a specific rabbinical prohibition against carrying a bed on the Sabbath. The man had obeyed Jesus. Presumably, if he had not taken up his pallet and walked, then he would not have been healed. That is to say, the man was obliged to choose between Jesus and the rabbinical understanding of the Torah. This is all the more remarkable, in that the man did not even know who Jesus was (verse 13).

Ezekiel 22: This chapter contains three oracular prophecies, joined together by a common theme: ritual uncleanness, understood either literally or as a metaphor. Ezekiel, as a priest dedicated entirely to the correct worship of the true God, was particularly sensitive to this matter of cleanness, or purity, in both the sacrifice and the priest.

The first oracle (verses 1-16), directed against Jerusalem, is full of the imagery of blood, any flowing of which rendered a person ritually unclean. Blood is also, however, an image of violence.

The second oracle (verses 17-22) is directed against all unfaithful Israelites, who are described as dross (that is, metallic impurity), which God will clean away in the coming smelting process of His historical judgment. Ezekiel doubts that any true metal will be found once this process is complete.

The third oracle (verses 23-31) is against the Holy Land itself, which suffers uncleanness because of those who live there. These have defiled God’s land with bloodshed and other forms of impurity, rendering the land unholy and no longer fit to contain the Lord’s true worship.

Monday, April 23

1 Corinthians 7:1-9: Paul’s teaching on marriage presumes, and rests upon, the experience of marriage in the Diaspora Judaism of the day. As synagogues were established in the major cities, serious pagans were impressed by what they saw. The life of the synagogue stood in stark contrast to the cultural and moral decay of the surrounding world, where despair was common.

In the pagan world some of the major cultural institutions, particularly marriage and the family, were in serious trouble. Sex had become increasingly separated from marriage and from child-bearing, and there was some sense that this separation was related to various forms of polytheism.

What the pagans beheld in the local synagogues, however, were communities of great strength and hope, solid marriages and the joys of family, a strict moral code in which all of life was integrated, a firm emphasis on simple labor as the basis of economic life, a rich inherited literature that imaginatively interpreted the life of the community, and the regularly scheduled, disciplined worship of a single, no-nonsense God. All of this proved to be very attractive to those serious pagans who felt distress and discomfort at the popular culture. In these respects, the Christian home was the heir to the Jewish home.

Ezekiel 23: About to see the ruin of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, Ezekiel thinks back to the year 722 B.C., when the Assyrians had destroyed Samaria, the capital of Israel. As Samaria fell then, Jerusalem will fall now. How closely the two cases resembled one another, the prophet reflects, both cities unfaithful to God, like two loose women who could not be trusted. This comparison of the two cities is the basis of the long allegory that fills the present chapter.

Once again, Ezekiel traces the problem back to Egypt, where the Israelites first learned the seductions of idolatry (verse 3). Samaria, having handed herself over to Assyrian seductions, was finally destroyed by Assyria (verses 5-10). Jerusalem was worse, falling under the idolatrous sway of both Assyria and Babylon in turn (verses 11-18). In addition, as a final irony, Jerusalem was now turning once again to the gods of Egypt (verses 18-21), Ezekiel’s reference to King Zedekiah’s recent appeal to Egypt against the Babylonian overlord.

The various nations of the Fertile Crescent (verse 23), all now part of the Babylonian Empire, will attack Jerusalem from the north (verse 24). History, Ezekiel saw, was about to be repeated. Thus, in this chapter the prophet extends the metaphor of marital fidelity that was the theme of Chapter 16.

Tuesday, April 24

Psalms 45 (Greek & Latin 44): “The kingdom of heaven,” we are told by a uniquely reliable source, “is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son” (Matt. 22:2), that marriage’s consummation being the definitive aim of our destiny, and all of history constituting the courtship that prepares and anticipates the yet undisclosed hour of its fulfillment. Thus, the end of time is announced by the solemn proclamation: “Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!” (Matt. 25:6).

This interpretation of history as the preparation for a royal wedding ceremony is so pervasive and obvious in Holy Scripture that we Christians, taking it so much for granted, may actually overlook it or give it little thought. Indeed, in this modern materialistic world there is a distinct danger that we too may forget that the present life is but the preparation for another, its many and manifold efforts only a provisioning for the greater future, its varied blessings but rehearsals for the greater joy.

Ezekiel 24: This chapter is constructed of two quite separate parts, the first being the allegorical oracle of a pot cooking on the fire, the second a prophecy and prophetic action connected with the death of Ezekiel’s wife.

The first oracle (verses 1-14) is dated on January 15, 588 B.C., the day that Nebuchadnezzar began the siege of Jerusalem. This siege is compared to the flames surrounding a pot until its contents are cooked. This pot is, of course, Jerusalem, where the long siege has begun. The rust on this metal pot, which is the same color as blood and is likened to blood, carries forward the image of dross from Chapter 22.

The second oracle (verses 15-27) is occasioned by the sudden death of Ezekiel’s wife. He is not the only biblical prophet whose “home life” becomes part of the prophetic message. Thus, Hosea was obliged to marry a prostitute as part of his prophetic vocation, both Hosea and Isaiah were told to give strange and symbolic names to their children, and Jeremiah is commanded to remain celibate as a witness to the imminent passing of the era.

In the case of Ezekiel, he is ordered not to mourn at the death of his wife, no matter how grieved he feels. He must then interpret this strange behavior to his neighbors, giving him the opportunity to explain why, in their concrete historical circumstances, it would be inappropriate for them to mourn, even though their hearts are broken. Thus, in his grief Ezekiel himself becomes a “sign” to the people who are soon to see their beloved city destroyed.

Wednesday, April 25

1 Corinthians 7:25-40: Although celibacy was unusual in the rabbinical tradition, Paul knew of instances where those devoted to the preaching of the Word remained unmarried. Most memorable of these was Jeremiah, who wrote and preached during the period just prior to the fall of Jerusalem. By embracing a life of consecrated celibacy and asceticism as a prophetic sign of Jerusalem’s approaching devastation (Jeremiah 16:1–5), this prophet provided the model that inspired Paul, in today’s reading, to write, “I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress—that it is good for a man to remain as he is . . . the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none.”

Psalms 53 (Greek & Latin 52): In Romans 3:10–12 the Apostle Paul quotes this psalm (probably by heart, because he spontaneously adds lines from several other psalms in the following verses), with special emphasis on the universal need for salvation. His point is that, strictly speaking, there are really no just men in this world—men who are just in the sense that they are able, by the righteousness of their own works, to attain to the presence of God and stand innocent before him. Thus understood, who is a just man in this world? St. Paul’s answer is emphatic—nobody, absolutely nobody, and he quotes our psalm text to prove the point: “There is none righteous, no, not one; / There is none who understands; / There is none who seeks after God. / They have all turned aside; / They have together become unprofitable; / There is none who does good, no, not one.”

Ezekiel 25: Chapters 25 through 32 of Ezekiel contain oracles directed against the other nations with whom the Lord has reason to be displeased, Israel’s neighbors to the east and west (Chapter 25), the north (Chapters 26 to 28), and the south (Chapters 29 to 32). Chapter 25 is critical of the neighbors to the east (the Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites) and to the west (Philistines).

Those to the east are criticized in order, going from north to south. Since the oracles refer to the unseemly and unconscionable rejoicing of these nations at Jerusalem’s destruction, they should be dated no earlier than the summer of 586. Otherwise, the oracles in this chapter are not dated.

Oracles of this sort, scathing moral criticisms of Israel’s neighbors, go back to the earliest of Israel’s literary prophets, Amos, in the eighth century before Christ. Ezekiel’s references to the “people of the East,” who will punish these offending nations, may refer to the Babylonians, but the reference is perhaps more probably to the marauding Bedouin tribes that frequently attacked from the Arabian Desert.

Thursday, April 26

Ezekiel 26: The dating of this first oracle against the Phoenicians is obviously incomplete; it tells us the year (during the reign of Jehoiakin) and the day of the month, but not the month! Clearly the text has suffered in transmission. That is, some copyist made an error on this text when he transcribed it many centuries ago.

In spite of this circumstance, we can fix the date of this oracle fairly closely, at least within a month or two. Since it indicates that Jerusalem has already fallen (verse 2), we do have an earliest possible period, the summer of 586, when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. Nonetheless, we should bear in mind that the news of Jerusalem’s fall did not reach the exiles in Babylon until the following December (cf. 33:21). Therefore, we should date this text sometime shortly afterwards, between January and March of 585.

Tyre, an ancient capital of the seafaring merchant Phoenicians, was an island off the coast that we now know as Lebanon. The Phoenicians were of far greater mercantile and geopolitical stature than the little nations condemned in the previous chapter. The merchant ships and protecting navy plied all over the Mediterranean and adjoining seas. She placed her colonies (including Carthage) on every coast. Two thousand years before Vasco da Gama, Phoenician ships had passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, turned south, and explored the entire west coast of Africa, down to and around the cape.

Secure on its island, Tyre was not easily threatened by land attack, nor did the Babylonians have a navy on the Mediterranean. (Indeed, Tyre would not be successfully reduced by siege until 332, when Alexander the Great, having already dismissed his expensive mercenary navy, constructed a causeway to Tyre from the mainland, moving his army to besiege the city. That causeway has gradually accumulated a good deal of silt over the years, so that Tyre now sits on the end of a thin peninsula.)

Ezekiel’s complaint against Tyre is this: When Jerusalem fell in the summer of 586, the citizens of Tyre used the occasion to ask themselves a single question: “How can we make money from this situation?” Their reduction of a moral event to a purely economic concern was the substance of their sin.

Moral questions are always “of what sort”: right or wrong, true or false? Moral questions are qualitative. The Phoenicians, however, had become a “quantitative” people, interested only in “how much?” In due course, said Ezekiel, they will pay for it, and the price — the “how much?” — will be very dear.

Although Tyre did not weep for the fall of Jerusalem, other nations will certainly weep for the fall of Tyre. This is the first of several oracles against the Phoenicians, and St. John will later cite some of this material in the Book of Revelation, where he prophesies against the major military and economic power of his own time, Rome.

Friday, April 27

Psalms 40 (Greek & Latin 39): We know from Hebrews 10 that these are words springing from the heart of Christ our Lord and have reference to the sacrificial obedience of His Passion and death.

The sacrificial prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, says Hebrews, possessed only “a shadow of the good things to come.” Offered “continually year by year,” they were not able to “make those who approach perfect” (10:1). That is to say, those sacrifices did not really take away sins, and their effectiveness depended entirely on the Sacrifice of the Cross, of which they were only a foreshadowing. Indeed, “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (v. 4).

In support of this thesis, the author of Hebrews quotes our psalm: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire / . . . In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure” (vv. 5, 6). In fact, this theme appears rather often in the Old Testament itself. Isaiah, for example, and other prophets frequently attempted to disillusion those of their countrymen who imagined that the mere offering of cultic worship, with no faith, no obedience, no change of heart, could be acceptable to God.

Christ’s own obedience to God’s will is the key to the psalm here under discussion, and Hebrews goes on to quote the pertinent verses, referring them explicitly to the Incarnation and Sacrifice of Jesus the Lord: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, / But a body You have prepared for Me. / In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure. / Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come— / In the volume of the book it is written of Me— / To do Your will, O God’” (vv. 5–7).

Ezekiel 27: This chapter continues the theme of Chapter 26. Ezekiel is told to “lament” as though Tyre had already fallen, because it most certainly will fall. Indeed, Ezekiel’s imagery of the fall of Tyre will be taken up in the New Testament to describe the final fall of the “world” itself, that “world” for which Jesus refused to pray (John 17:9), the immense geopolitical and economic empire of man and materialism in intellectual and moral rebellion against God. The final times themselves, then, are prefigured in the fall of Tyre.

A thousand industries and tens of thousands of farms depended on Tyre for their prosperity. Tyre drew the wood for its shipwrights from its native forests of Lebanon and from nearby Cyprus. The textile industry of Egypt and elsewhere supplied its sails. Its mariners were recruited from every coastal city of the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Black, and Aegean seas, and all the waterways from Sudan to India. Direct Phoenician trade held together a vast economic system that extended from the Persian Gulf to as far west as Cadiz (Tarshish) on the distant side of the Strait of Gibraltar. Thanks to Tyre and the Phoenician fleets, the coastal cities of southern Europe received the exports of Arabia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Fittingly, the fall of Tyre is likened to a shipwreck (27:27). When the ship sinks, all of its accumulated wealth is lost. So, when Tyre comes to ruin, it will mean economic disaster for all the many industries that depended on Phoenician shipping. Deeply affected by this catastrophe will be such places as Javan (Ionia, on the Aegean Sea—27:3), Put (Libya, in northern Africa—27:10), Lud (Lydia, in what is now the Turkish peninsula), and distant Persia at the other end of the Fertile Crescent. Because Phoenicia represents the financial unity of three continents, its collapse will have a devastating effect on masses of people who live far from Tyre.