Friday, August 31
Philippians 2:1-11: There were forces of disunity active in the Philippians congregation. These seem to have been based on differences of personality and temperament (cf. 4:2), rather than doctrine, but they were nonetheless disruptive and painful. Paul was especially sensitive to these Philippian problems, because he was suffering from similar difficulties, such as jealousies and rivalries, at Ephesus (1:15-17,29-30).
In the present chapter, therefore, Paul exhorts the Philippians to unity. This unity, based on “communion of the Spirit” (koinonia Pnevmatos), is expressed in “the comfort of love,” with “affection and mercy” (literally “heart and mercies”—splanchna kai oiktirmoi, words that the early Christians liked to join. See verse 1; Colossians 3:12; James 5:11). Paul is asking the Philippians to consult their experience of God in comfort, consolation, communion, and mercy, and then to live accordingly.
All the Philippians must cultivate the same set of mind (to avto phronete, have the same love (ten avten agapen), be of one soul (sympsychoi), and “think the same thing” (to hen phronountes). It has long been recognized that all four of these expressions mean the same thing. Thus, in the fourth century St. John Chrysostom commented, posakis to avto legei, “he several times says the same thing.”
Twice in the list Paul uses the verb phroneo, meaning “to think,” or perhaps better “to have in mind,” “to dwell on in thought.” The verb has as much to do with attitude and sentiment as it does with thought or reason. In this epistle uses this verb ten times (cf. also 1:7; 2:5; 3:15,19; 4:2,10), more than in any other of Paul’s epistles.
The attitude encouraged by Paul is opposed to all forms of “selfish ambition or conceit” (verse 3). The first of these words, eritheia, is perhaps better translated as “factiousness” or “party spirit.” In the first chapter Paul had used this same word to describe the problems at Ephesus (1:17), and he writes of the same evil elsewhere (Romans 2:8; 2 Corinthians 12:20; Galatians 5:19-20). Other early Christians warned about this evil as well (cf. James 3:14,16; Ignatius of Antioch, Philadelphians 8.2). It refers to partisan attempts to gain power and control in the Church. The presence of this word (which before Christian times is found in only one pagan Greek writer, Aristotle [Politics 5,1302b4 and 1303a14) in so much earlier Christian literature suggests that this was an ongoing problem.
The opposite of this vice is tapeinophrosyne (recognize here the root we just looked at?), which means lowliness, the internal sense of humility, personal modesty, humbling oneself (thus Jesus, in verse 8, “humbled Himself”—etapeinosen heavton).
It is instructive to note that this word is never found in pagan Greek literature. It conveys an ideal and state of mind alien to pagan culture. It is a distinctly biblical word. Indeed, the word had to be made up by the first Greek translators of the Hebrew Scriptures to express the sense of Proverbs 29:23 and Psalms 130 (131):2.
This humility means self-abnegation in the sight of God, the chief example of which is God’s Son, who emptied Himself and took the form of a servant and then humbled in obedience unto death. This is the model that Paul holds out to the Philippians (verses 5-11).
Saturday, September 1
Judges 8: This chapter records the incident in which Gideon, leading his three hundred exhausted and hungry warriors in pursuit of fifteen thousand escaping Midianites, requested loaves of bread from the cities of Succoth and Penuel. This request was entirely reasonable. Gideon’s small force, by routing the Midianite army by the hill of Moreh (7:19-22), had effectively delivered all Israel, including Succoth and Penuel, from seven years of oppression (6:1). Now there remained only a modest mopping-up operation to subdue the last vestiges of the fleeing Midianite force, led by Zeba and Zalmunna. Providing Gideon’s little army with a bit of bread was the very least to be expected from those cities which benefited from that army’s victory.
Yet, the leaders of Succoth and Penuel refused Gideon’s petition. The Sacred Text tells us why: “Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna now in your hand, that we should give bread to your army?” (8:6) That is to say, the men of those two cities, Succoth and Penuel, were afraid to take the chance. If they were to give bread to Gideon’s forces and then Gideon should lose the battle to Zebah and Zalmunna, the Midianites would retaliate against the cities that had provided the requested assistance. (One recalls the vengeance of Saul against the priests of Nob, who honored an identical request from David; see 1 Samuel 21:1-7; 22:6-19.) In short, until the battle was actually over, the men Succoth and Penuel decided to play it safe. No bread, then, for Gideon’s men.
This story illustrates the difference between those who play it safe and those who play for keeps. By boldly marching his three hundred men into the massive Midianite camp (“as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as the sand by the seashore in multitude”), Gideon had played for keeps. This story emphasizes the fortitude of his army by its contrast to the cowardice of Succoth and Penuel. Gideon won that battle, because the Lord took his side. In some of the battles that men fight on this earth, you see, God does take sides. Never, however, does He take the side of the coward.
This story also illustrates why the virtue of fortitude is necessary for all the other virtues, as a condition and catalyst. The history of moral philosophy insists that no other virtue is possible without the virtue of fortitude, certainly not justice nor charity. The man deficient in fortitude will not measure up in anything else. In the words of Ambrose of Milan, “In the mediocre soul there is no fortitude, which alone defends the adornment of all the virtues” (De Officiis 1.39). ). For this reason, the man least deserving of our trust, on any matter whatever, is the coward. Fortitude, wrote Thomas Aquinas, is “the general virtue, or rather, the condition of any virtue” (Summa Theologica Ia IIae, Q. 123, Art. 2). Thus, the leaders of Succoth and Penuel, falling short in fortitude, failed in an elementary duty of justice and charity.
Sunday, September 2
Luke 3:15-22: Those few years called “the public life” of Christ our Lord began with the ministry of John the Baptist, during the course of which Jesus too was baptized. This is the reason why the narrative of the primitive apostolic preaching tended to begin with John’s ministry (Acts 1:21-22; 10:34-37; 13:23-25). The earliest of the Gospels, Mark’s, also begins there.
John’s baptism of Jesus has been the subject of some strange interpretations in modern times. Whereas the Church Fathers and the ancient Christian liturgical texts treat that event as the instance in which “the worship of the Trinity was made manifest” (Troparion of Theophany), some recent interpreters see in it the occasion on which Jesus of Nazareth became conscious of His special vocation. Others go further, regarding the Lord’s baptism as the instance in which he became aware of His identity as God’s Son.
From the perspective of exegesis this latter view seems improbable, simply because there is nothing in the biblical text to support it. From the perspective of psychology, this view strikes me as . . . well, absurd. While the doctrine of the Incarnation certainly implies that God’s Son, as man, “increased in wisdom” (Luke 2:52), there is nothing in the biblical text to suggest that this increase in wisdom was so egregiously put on hold that Jesus was unaware of His identity until He was “about thirty years of age” (3:23). Human growth in self-identity is rarely so sluggish. We all grow in knowledge throughout the entire course of our lives, so we are certain that this was the case for Jesus as well (indeed, confer Hebrews 5:8). On the other hand, most of us have a pretty good idea who we are, long before age thirty. The dogma of the Incarnation means that God’s Son became a human being, that is to say, not a moron.
What about the other view, however, the opinion of those who regard His baptism as the event in which Jesus became conscious of His special vocation? From the perspective of exegesis, this notion likewise strikes me as difficult to sustain. It appears, rather, that the Gospel writers themselves regarded the event of the Lord’s baptism very much as it was regarded by the Church Fathers and the traditional liturgical texts, namely, as a revelation, not to Jesus, but to those who were present . . . and to the Church.
Is there no sense, then, in which His reception of John’s baptism meant nothing new to Jesus? Yes, I think there is, but I believe it has to do chiefly with a determined resolve on the part of Jesus Himself. This idea, though it suggests an initial problem, points to a solution that touches on the very mystery of Redemption.
The supposed problem is this: Jesus came voluntarily to be baptized by John, even though John’s was a baptism of repentance (Acts 19:4). Why would Jesus do this? After all, the entire witness of the New Testament declares that He was the “lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:19), “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” (Hebrews 7:26), “the Holy One and the Just” (Acts 3:14), who “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Moreover, Jesus was conscious of being sinless, for He challenged His enemies, “Which of you convicts Me of sin?” (John 8:46) Why, then, did the unoffending Jesus seek a baptism of repentance?
The answer to this question has to do with the very motive of the Incarnation. God’s Son, in the assumption of our humanity, took upon Himself a radical solidarity with fallen mankind. Even before His saving Passion, in which “He poured out His soul unto death,” we already find Him “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). The voice from heaven signified God’s acceptance of that redemptive resolve.
And this, I believe, is why Jesus approached John, seeking his baptism in order “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). It was not as a private citizen, so to speak, that Jesus came to the waters of the Jordan, but in order to present Himself to the Father as the representative of the human race in this great symbolic act of repentance. Jesus thereby expressed His resolve “to be made like His brethren” (Hebrews 2:17).
Jesus declared in the baptism of repentance His determination that no distance should separate Him from us.
Monday, September 3
Luke 3:23-38: When the New Testament treats of the relation between Christ and Adam, the accent is largely on contrast. We are told, for example, that whereas Adam introduced sin and death into the world, Christ brought justification (Romans 5:12-21. Whereas corruption came from Adam, incorruptibility came from Christ (1 Corinthians 15:20-49). Disobedient Adam succumbed to temptation in the Garden, whereas the obedient Christ submitted to God’s will in the garden.
These contrasts would not be possible, however, unless the early Christians had already recognized between Christ and Adam some structure of analogy that prompted them to compare the two. It is not difficult to discern those earlier points of comparison.
Thus, an early story transmitted in Mark, precisely in the context of Jesus’ temptations, preserved the tradition of our Lord’s companionship with the animals (1:13). This story, of course, puts the reader in mind of Adam in the midst of the animals in Genesis. Jesus’ victory over His temptations by Satan thus inaugurates a new state of Paradise, as it were, in which the friendly relations of men and the beasts, disrupted since the Fall, are restored.
In Luke the Adam/Christ analogy is subtler, and we discern it in the way the Lord’s genealogy is arranged. To detect this, we may observe two differences between the genealogies in Matthew and Luke.
First, unlike Matthew, Luke traces the Lord’s lineage all the way back to Adam, not just to Abraham. This format emphasizes Jesus’ relationship to whole human race, and not just the Jews. For this reason, in citing the famous Isaian text that begins the ministry of John the Baptist in all the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:2-3; Luke 3:4-6), Luke alone quotes the words, “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Second, whereas Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus comes at the beginning of his Gospel, Luke places it after the Lord’s baptism and right before the account of His temptation. This arrangement prompts the reader to make the comparison that Luke has in mind to infer, the temptations of Jesus and the temptations of Adam.
Tuesday, September 4
Judges 11: Jephthe is a mixed man. He is personally ambitious and clearly wants to be chief over Gilead. At the same time, he is a believer and a God-fearing man, as we see in his response to the Gileadites: “if . . . the Lord gives them before me.
God does, in fact, used mixed people to accomplish His purposes, Perhaps the Lord would have chosen someone better to defeat the Ammonites, but He too makes the best of what He has. This fact suggests that if God does not wait around for ideal conditions, neither should we.
Jephthe’s first act (verses 12-13) demonstrates that he is really a man of peace. He appeals to the Ammonites in the hope averting war. His first thought is to avoid bloodshed if possible, so he seeks a discussion with the Ammonites. He is not a rash nor violent man.
Indeed, Jephthe’s overture to the Ammonites may be taken as sort of foreshadowing of the Gospel of peace proclaimed to the Gentiles. It calls on the Ammonites to forsake the ways of war, to reconsider and repent of the paths of violence.
The Ammonite response, however, was to argtue back. They rehearsed their historical grievance as best they could remember it: “Because Israel took away my land when they came up out of Egypt, from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok, and to the Jordan. Now, therefore, restore these lands peaceably” (verse 13). Perceiving a misunderstanding on their part, Jephthah went to some pains to spell out for the Ammonites several points on which his memory of the matter differed from theirs.
First, he said, Israel had always been careful to respect the territorial integrity of its neighbors east of the Jordan (verses 14-18).
Second, the land under dispute had not belonged to the Ammonites anyway, but to another group called the Amorites. Moreover, the territory in question had been seized from the Amorites when the latter attacked Israel, not the other way around (verses 19-23). In this reference to the ancient events narrated in Numbers 21:21-26, Jephthah also gently reminded the Ammonites that they themselves had formerly lived under Amorite rule, from which Israel had delivered them and restored them to their ancestral property (verse 24; cf. Numbers 21:29-30). With this they should be satisfied. For this they should be grateful.
Third, three hundred years had elapsed since all these things had happened (verse 26). Why had the matter never been brought up before?
The Ammonites, in short, were engaged in an exercise of historical revisionism, which consisted in treating old events with a new theory. Viewing history under the lens of a “fresh interpretation,” the Ammonites concluded that three centuries earlier they had suffered an injustice that now needed to be set right. Thus, having lived in peace with Israel for three hundred years, they were now commencing a war for the purpose of correcting an alleged wrong from a time before even their grandparents were born.
It came to pass, of course, that the Ammonites failed in this endeavor. Their historical revisionism brought upon them only further suffering-indeed, “a very great slaughter” (verse 33).
Wednesday, September 5
Judges 12: Jephthe is not the first Judge to have trouble with the Ephraemites (verses 1-7). We recall Gideon’s earlier difficulties with them.
Here they threaten to burn down Jephthe’s house, the very house from which he recently saw exit his now mourned daughter. This is the house that the Ephraemites threaten to burn down. This threat was not a proposition crafted to bring out the gentleman in Jephthe. It showed bad judgment.
It was also bad timing. Not having gone to battle before;, the Ephraemites are ready to fight after the fight is over. The Lord had given victory anyway, and the Ephraemites had not been part of the victory. Now they threaten the very man through whom the Lord gave the victory. They are the classical troublemakers, itching for a fight after the fighting is done.
Ever the man peace, by preference, Jephthe endeavored to reason with these fools, as he had earlier attempted with the Ammonites. The Ephraemites, however, under the impulse of an irrational jealousy, refuse to act moderately or listen to reason.
The Jordan River, which divides the Ephraemites from most of Israel, is also the place of a linguistic divide, which will prove to make it, in the present context, a place of judgment. It is as a place of judgment that the Jordan River will later be the site of the preaching of John the Baptist.
Ephraem never learned its lesson. Never. Having resisted Gideon and Jephthe, it would later resist David and rebel against Solomon. The Lord would later use the Assyrian army, under Sargon II, to take care of the problem.
And then Jephthe dies (verses 8-15). Why does Holy Scripture tell us that he died? Obviously it is not something that we doubt, so why mention it? Indeed, of some of the Judges we know pre cious little more than the fact that they died, so why bother with saying so?
The reason is theological. Each of these men was a deliverer of his people. Yet each of them died. Their deliverance, therefore, was temporary. In each case, death got the last word. That is to say, death still ruled. The mortality brought into the world by Adam’s offense still prevailed. Of not a single one of these men was it said that they rose again. In every instance, death was finally victorious over life. That is the real difference between the New Testament and the Old.
It is also the reason why burial sites are mentioned. Tombs are memorials. Men look upon them and are reminded of that supreme humiliation called death. This is why tombs are prominent in the Bible. They stand in eloquent testimony that something is very wrong in human life. Tombstones are the standing reminders of, the perpetual witnesses to, the fall of Adam. This is why, like the Ten Commandments, they are normally made of stone. They are stone because they testify to a hard fact, a fact you and lean on and it will not give way.
But tombstones are also witnesses to man’s hope. Besides the past to which they refer, they point to the future and the Resurrection.
Thursday, September 6
Judges 13: Up till now, whenever the Book of Judges spoke of the political oppression of the Israelites, the text invariably went on to say that Israel repented and turned to the Lord. Not here, however. There is no mention of repenting or turning to the Lord. Israel no longer has the ability even to repent. Israel has hit rock bottom, and all human hope is gone verse 1).
In this chapter we observe that God speaks to the woman first, not Manoah (verses 2-7). Earlier, we recall, God spoke first to Rebekah, not Isaac (Genesis 25).
The message of the angle to Manoah’s wife touches on the biblical theme of the barren woman (cf. Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, et aliae. The introduction of this theme continues the note of despair with which the chapter began.
We bear in mind that all three of the “permanent Nazirites” in the Bible (Samson, Samuel, John the Baptist) were born of seemingly barren women. Each of these mothers is a kind of new Eve, receiving God’s promise in the midst of her own sense of inadequacy.
The second visitation (verses 9-10) reinforces the fact that the message was for the woman. The angel ‘deliberately’ appears when Manoah is absent. When questioned by Manoah (verse 12), the angel responds that he has already said all he has to say—to the woman! (verse 13) Manoah is the nervous questioner, but all the needful information had already been conveyed in the first apparition. There is nothing to add. The angel simply repeats what he had said before, and this time with less detail (verse 14).
The angel is not going to explain himself. He was sent to earth to convey a promise and a command, not to give a news flash. He was proclaiming God’s plan of redemption and man’s place in that plan. The salvific initiative is God’s. The proper response to the message is obedience, not curiosity for more details.
Manoah, that is to say, is like the rest of the Israelites. None of them have been serving God and seeking His will. But now that God proposes a plan for deliverance, Manoah is full of questions and curiosity. He wants a more active role in the plan. There isn’t one. God does not need Manoah. God is not intere3sted in Manoah’s questions and curiosities.
Manoah is a curious combination of audacious, inquisitive, controlling, and superstitious. Only such a man will get out of line with an archangel. (Compare Zachary in Luke 1)
Manoah is also not a quick learner (verses 15-23). Having heard the Lord’s message, he now wants to deal with the Lord’s messenger. Manoah is spiritually insensitive. Indeed, given how dangerous it can be to deal with the biblical God, Manoah is let off pretty easy. He is not struck dead like Uzzah!
But what does Manoah accomplish? At the end of the scene he knows no more than he did at the beginning. God had given as much information as was required. This second apparition of the angel served only to point out Manoah’s limitations more clearly.
Manoah’s attitude was not unique. On the contrary, he was typical of his own culture, which was shallow, audacious, recklessly inquisitive, and deeply superstitious.
In these respects, Manoah’s inherited religious culture was a great deal like our own. Our own culture too knows very little of the biblical God. It is highly subjective, pretentious, and insensitive to the presence of holiness. It craves quick and easy answers to deep and impossibly complex questions. It is a generation disposed to wear its shoes at the Burning Bush. And what does God do with such a generation? He sends someone like Samson to knock some heads together.
The name Samson (verse 24) is a derivative of shemesh, meaning “sun.” Indeed, Samson resembles the sun as described in Psalm 19: “as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; he rejoices as a giant to run his course.” The very next chapter will describe Samson as a bridegroom. In fact, after strong man, bridegroom is the description of Samson most easily remembered.
Friday, September 7
Judges 14: It is significant, surely, that all three stories about Samson have to do with women. His addiction to women is Samson’s tragic flaw. It would be easy enough to blame the women, I suppose, but tht would be missing the point. The problem is Samson’s.
This first story about Samson (verses 1-4) concerns his projected marriage to a Philistine woman, and we recall that the previous chapter began by describing Israel’s bondage to the Philistines. Samson’s fascination with this Philistine woman, then, symbolizes Israel’s fascination with the surrounding paganism, a fascination that in each case leads to blindness and death.
As a consecrated Nazirite, Samson represents Israel’s higher calling to dedication to the true God in true worship. His failure to live according to that higher calling is symbolic of Israel’s failure.
Samson’s parents mention that Israelites are not supposed to marry pagans, but the inspired author speaks of God’s own plan, even in this deviation from the Law. All of Samson’s career, including his sins, will be under the influence of Divine Providence. Through all of it, God will bring good out of evil.
A strong man, but also a very weak man, Samson is an ironical figure. Ultimately his victory over the Philistines will involve both his weakness and his strength.
The blindness of Samson, however, begins very early in the story. In a sense, indeed, Samson starts out blind, long before the Philistines gouge out his eyes. Through this whole account Samson seems to be walking in the darkness. No matter. God knows where the story is going.
The story of the lion (verses -9) invites a comparison between Samson and David., both of whom fought against Philistines. The latter are symbolized in the lion. David, before he killed the Philistine Goliath, first killed the lion. Samson, before he takes on the Philistines, kills a lion with his bare hands.
This is why the Spirit of the Lord came down on Samson, as the Spirit of the Lord will descend on him in the next chapter. The roaring of the lion will be matched by the shouting of the Philistines. Samson will tear the binding cords apart, just as he tore the lion apart.
The killing of the lion, then, symbolizes Samson’s vocation. Indeed, Samson’s own tribe, Dan, was liked to a lion: “Dan is a lion’s whelp that leaps forth from Bashan” (Deuteronomy 33:22).
Once the lion is dead, the bees build their hive in its carcass. This symbolizes the Holy Land itself, flowing with milk and honey. What is this honey? It is the tasting of God’s Law, which the Psalter describes a sweeter than honey. This honey is the fruit of Samson’s victory over the lion. It is the result of his combat with the lion.
Samson will use this incident to stump the Philistines. That is to say, he perceives the incident to involve a riddle, or mystery. There is a mystery in the lion and the honey that lies beyond the comprehension of his enemies.
The honey in the carcass is symbolic also of Samson himself, who will be victorious in his defeat. Sweetness will come from his death.
Samson’s first contest with the Philistines (verses 12-14) will not be a test of muscles but of brains. He will attempt to outwit them, as Moses had done with the Philistines.
Alas, Samson the riddler does something not very bright. He is deceived by the woman, and this is Samson’s first experience of betrayal. The real treachery, on the other hand, comes from Samson’s own emotions. He loses control. He is betrayed by his feelings. Had he maintained control over his emotions, the woman would never have deceived him. The man who cannot control himself can hope to control nothing else.
The wedding feast ends badly.