Friday, June 27
Mark 3:31-35: The Lord’s own blood relatives have already been introduced in a negative way in 3:21, where they were said to think Jesus “out of His mind” (exseste; cf. the identical assessment of the Apostle Paul in Acts 26:24 and 2 Corinthians 5:13).
In the present scene these relatives are endeavoring to reach Jesus, but the press of the crowd, as seems often to have been the case (cf. 2:2; 5:31), prevents their entrance into the house where He is teaching. They remain “outside” (3:32). Mark thus introduces the distinction between “outsiders” (hoi exso) and “insiders” (hoi esso), which will function in Jesus’ teaching in parables. The “outsiders” are those to whom it has not “been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God” (4:11). In the present scene the Lord’s own relatives, because they have not yet understood Him, fall into that category.
Jesus’ real family, He says, is made up of those who do the will of God (3:35). Fortunately, as we know, even the Lord’s relatives will become “insiders” to the kingdom in due course (cf. Acts 1:14), but the principle remains that true kinship in Jesus is a matter of the Spirit and not of the flesh.
Saturday, June 28
2 Samuel 12: Probably the most important person in the life of King David was the Prophet Nathan. His very name means “gift,” and Nathan was certainly God’s generous gift to the king. Were it not for Nathan, in truth, we would have no reason to believe that the Bible’s final word on David would be any more favorable than the Bible’s final word on King Saul.
David, himself a prophet (Acts 2:29, 30), had lost his way, not only succumbing to an adulterous passion, but even initiating a cunning plot of murder, so it was Nathan’s divinely appointed task to call him back from sin to the path of repentance (2 Samuel 12). As was noted by Saint John Chrysostom, “one prophet was sent to another” (Peri Metanoias 2.2.8). Nathan was assigned to do for David what the Apostles were appointed to do for all mankind—to preach repentance and the remission of sins (Luke 24:47).
Among the various ways by which to preach repentance to sinners,
Nathan’s inspired choice is that of the parable, a preference evidently
shared by a certain Prophet from Galilee at a later period. Nathan tells David the story of the ewe lamb, a narrative surely to be numbered among the Bible’s finest examples of what T. S. Eliot called “the moral imagination.” By means of storytelling Nathan successfully engages the king’s own sense of decency and justice. He skillfully stimulates David’s return to “the permanent things.”
Nathan’s method is to cloak the king’s sinful actions within the folds of his own homespun. As Nathan’s account progresses, David becomes morally aroused, with no suspicion that he is himself the villain of the narrative. Finally he pronounces the anticipated moral judgment, or, as the Scripture says, “David’s anger was greatly aroused against the man, and he said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die!’” It is at this point, finally, that the prophet’s impeaching finger is thrust at the royal face: “You are the man!” (12:5,7).
It is important to observe that, in preaching repentance from sin,
Nathan does not “preach down” to the sinner. He does not assume the “higher moral ground.” On the contrary, the prophet’s story compels David himself to seize that ground. Nathan does not directly accuse the king until after he causes the king to accuse himself. Nathan’s method is to transform the sinner’s imagination within a drama, until at last David is disclosed in the character of the villain. Again in the words of
Chrysostom, “Nathan wove a dramatic scene, secretly concealing his weapon” (op. cit., 2.2.9).
Moreover, even as David is explicitly condemned, the man himself is implicitly affirmed. That is to say, in order to impugn the very worst in David, Nathan addresses himself to the very best in David—his innate, more deeply abiding sense of right and wrong. As a result of this preaching, the king’s condemnation of his sins springs forth from his own conscience; David becomes his own accuser: “I have sinned against the
Lord” (12:13). Thus, Nathan’s preaching functions very much like the
crowing of the nocturnal rooster that dramatically awakened the sleeping conscience of Simon Peter (Matthew 26:75).
One may further argue that this narrative of Nathan also provides the key for understanding biblical parables in general. Simply put, the parables of Holy Scripture are not to be interpreted “from outside,” but to be engaged from within. These are imaginative stories of the human heart. We do not so much interpret the parables as we permit the parables to interpret us. They are narrative invitations. They summon us hearers of the Word to become parabolic, so to speak. They are mirrors of the soul, stories about our inner selves; we enter them by searching the inner caverns of the heart and mind. Otherwise we remain “outsiders.”
Sunday, June 29
Saints Peter and Paul: From the earliest centuries Christians in both the East and the West have celebrated this double feast day of those two apostles who are linked in a special way by their martyrdoms in the city of Rome. Even though there seem to have been Roman Christians right from the day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:10), the origins of that local church were always associated with the two great men who there shed their blood for the name of Christ. Writing to the Christians at Rome in the year 107, Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch in Syria, could say to them: "I do not give you commands, as did Peter and Paul." With respect to the ministry and martyrdom of Peter and Paul at Rome, the evidence from the dawn of Christian history is overwhelming, nor was there any dissenting voice on this matter from any ancient source._
With respect to Paul, of course, we have the Book of Acts and the Second Epistle to Timothy. With respect to Peter, we are not entirely sure when he did reach Rome, but it must have been in the early 60s. If he were at Rome in the late 50s, it is impossible to understand why he was not mentioned among that long list of Christians who are named in Romans 16.
_However, we do know quite a bit about the place, time, and circumstances of Peter’s death. The fourth century historian, Eusebius, cites testimonies from the second and early third centuries to bolster his thesis that the chief of the Apostles was crucified in Rome during Nero’s persecution (mid-60s): Tertullian, Caius of Rome, and Dionysius of Corinth. From another writer of about 200, Clement of Alexandria, we learn that Peter’s wife was also martyred and that the apostle was a witness to it.
When the African, Tertullian, speaks even more boldly of that crucifixion at Rome, "where Peter equals the Lord’s passion," he treats the information as though it were common knowledge. _Indeed, the early Christians seem to have been so familiar with the circumstances of Peter’s martyrdom that Clement of Rome (writing from that city) and Ignatius of Antioch (writing to that city) had not felt the need to elaborate on the place and circumstances.
The story of the Apostle’s crucifixion was so widely reported among the churches that the Gospel of John, probably written at Ephesus, could simply refer to the stretching out of Peter’s hands as "signifying by what death he was to glorify God" (John 21:18f). John did not have to explain the point; everyone knew exactly how Peter had died. That this Johannine passage ("thou shalt stretch forth thy hands . . . . signifying by what death he was to glorify God") did in fact refer to Peter’s crucifixion in Rome was perfectly obvious to Tertullian. Citing that Johannine verse, he wrote: "Then was Peter ‘bound by another,’ when he was fastened to the cross" (Scorpiace 15.3). Moreover, the symbolic extension of the hands as signifying crucifixion is attested to in early Christian and even pagan writings (Pseudo-Barnabas, Justin Martyr Irenaeus, Cyprian of Carthage, Epictetus).
The Christians at Rome, however, have never clung to this special twofold grace in any jealous or exclusive fashion. Throughout the years they have shared this feast day of the two apostles with all other Christians, and this feast day is observed with equal solemnity throughout the Christian East. Indeed, in recent years it has become customary for Rome and Constantinople to exchange special delegations and greetings on this day, with the intention of maintaining those cordial relationships of charity that may, in God’s time and by God’s grace, bring the Christians of the East and the West back to full communion one with another.
Monday, June 30
Acts 13:42-52: In this scene we discern the context of certain impulses that produced agitation in the early Christian mission. Judaism itself already had an extensive mission in the Greco-Roman world (cf. Matthew 23:15). As synagogues were established in the major cities, serious pagans were impressed by what they saw, because 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, was different: communities of great strength and hope, solid marriages and the joys of family life, a strict moral code in which all of life was integrated and filled with purpose, a firm emphasis on simple labor as the basis of economic existence, 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.
Some of these pagans accepted circumcision and the observance of the Law, thus becoming full-fledged Jews; these were known as proselytes (Acts 2:10; 6:5). Other pagans were unwilling to go so far, because such a decision obviously tended to cut them off from their own families and friends.
This second group simply attached themselves to the synagogues as best they could, bringing certain structures of Jewish piety into their lives, such as regular prayer and fasting and the study of the Scriptures; these were known as “fearers of God,” of which we have already seen examples in Cornelius and his friends. Thus, there were two groups of Gentiles who in varying degrees joined themselves to the local synagogues in the larger cities of the Roman Empire. Now both of these groups felt a spontaneous attraction to the Gospel when they heard it proclaimed in the synagogue by Paul and his companions. In the Gospel they saw a form of religion with all the advantages of Judaism, but with none of the social disadvantages, such as circumcision and the observance of the Mosaic Law.
In the present reading, we observe that these people invite their other Gentile friends to come with them to the synagogue on the following Sabbath (13:44). Now, all of a sudden, the Jews find their own synagogue over-run with all sorts of “undesirables.” They perceive Paul and his companions simply to be “taking over” the synagogue, preaching a doctrine that they themselves cannot control, and, from their perspective, things are getting entirely out of hand. The local Jews react with jealousy and animosity (13:45,50). After all, the Jewish religion had survived pure and intact by preserving those very disciplines that Paul and his friends seem to want to overthrow.
The Gospel, then, they experience as chaos. The very “popularity” of the Gospel becomes a reason for the stricter Jew to feel uncomfortable about it. Trouble breaks out. This sequence of events, repeated over and over again in the synagogues of the larger cities, causes the Christian Church to grow among the Gentiles, who are finally obliged to establish their own local congregations apart from the local synagogues (14:1; 16:13; 17:1,10,17; 18:4,6,19; 19:8; 28:28).
Tuesday, July 1
Psalm 120 (Greek and Latin 119): Today we pray the first several of fifteen consecutive psalms known as the “songs of ascent.” Though the origin of the expression is not entirely certain, a very probable interpretation takes this title to mean that these particular psalms were chanted by pilgrims to Jerusalem as they drew near and began to ascend the heights on which the Holy City is settled. Truly, quite a number of lines in these psalms are readily understood in such a context. In any case, these fifteen form a distinct collection within the Psalter.
Eastern Orthodox Christians will recognize them as the usual psalms at midweek Presanctified Liturgy during Great Lent. In the Western monastic tradition, moreover, the first nine of these “songs of ascent” were invariably among the earliest to be learned by heart. From Tuesday through Saturday each week, these nine psalms, broken into three groups of three, were recited at the third, sixth, and ninth hours of the daily office. As these canonical hours were often prayed by the monks during short “rest breaks” while at work in the woods or fields, it was necessary that they be memorized.
Thus Psalm 120 was on most days the first psalm of the canonical hour of Tierce, or Third Hour, and immediately followed a short hymn to the Holy Spirit, who is most appropriately invoked at the day’s “third hour” (cf. Acts 2:15).
We know that the Church in the upper room, as she anticipated the arrival of “the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13) from on high, “continued with one accord in prayer and supplication” (Acts 1:14), nor is it difficult to hear this psalm arising from her mouth as she waited: “To the Lord I called in my distress, and He answered me. O Lord, deliver my soul from wicked lips, and from a deceitful tongue.”
Lies and deception lay all about the Church on that morning. Already, for instance, the rumor was started that the disciples had stolen the dead body of Jesus from the grave while the soldiers slept (cf. Matt. 28:11–15). And as for the body of believers, already “we know that it is spoken against everywhere” (Acts 28:22). But soon would arrive that Holy Spirit to confront their accusers and “convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8).
Meanwhile the Church answers her calumniators in prayer: “What further would you have, or what more be given you, a deceitful tongue? The warrior’s sharp arrows, with coals of desolation? Ah me, that my sojourn (paroikia) is prolonged, and I have made my home among the tents of Kedar. So much the sojourner (paroikesen) is my soul. Peaceful, I spoke peace to those who hated me. When I addressed them, they warred against me without cause.”
The poetic imagery of these lines is dense. “The warrior’s sharp arrows, with coals of desolation” probably means the incendiary arrows that destroy civilizations. The “tents of Kedar” refers to a warlike tribe in the Arabian desert and should be taken as a metaphor for surrounding hostility.
Used for many centuries by pilgrims marching to Jerusalem, this is a psalm about a “sojourn.” Indeed, the word for “sojourn” in this psalm, paroikia, is the root of our English word “parish,” meaning a congregation of pilgrims. It is the Church that is in exile, on pilgrimage, here in this world, encompassed by calumny and malice.
The First Epistle of Peter may serve as a kind of commentary on Psalm 120. Indeed, St. Peter actually uses the word “sojourn” with reference to the Church; “conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here [or “sojourn” (paroikia); see textual note] in fear” (1 Pet. 1:17), he exhorts “the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1:1). Their situation is exactly that of our psalm. Peter calls them “sojourners (paroikous) and pilgrims” (2:11). He also mentions that these pilgrims of the Dispersion are being tempted, “grieved by various trials” (1:6), and constantly reproached by those outside as evildoers (2:12, 20; 3:16; 4:14, 16). But by doing good, Peter assures them, they will “put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (2:15). For their model, he holds out to them the suffering of Christ, “who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten” (2:23). “Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him” (4:19).
Wednesday, July 2
Psalm 119:145-176: Today, as on most Wednesdays, we pray another section of the longest psalm, Psalm 119 (Greek and Latin 118), which is constructed of twenty-two stanzas of eight lines each. While there are several other psalms that are called “alphabetical,” in the sense that each verse, or pair of verses, begins with the next sequential letter in the Hebrew alphabet, Psalm 119 is alphabetical in a more extreme way. In this instance every verse in each stanza begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Thus, in the first stanza, each of the eight verses commences with the first Hebrew letter, aleph. Each line of the second stanza begins with beth, and so on, through all twenty-two letters of the alphabet.
If the artificiality of this alphabetic arrangement is not the stuff of powerful poetic impulse, it does serve an important theological purpose: Psalm 119 is concerned entirely with the Law of God, the Torah, and its structural use of the alphabet serves here the purpose of asserting that the Law of God is the inner core and essential substance of human language.
This is a very deep reflection. Language is the gift of God. Its primary function, in the Bible (cf. Gen. 2:19, for example), is the formation of thought in accord with reality, and the world’s deepest created reality, according to the rabbis, is the Torah, the eternal Law of God, on which the inner being of all created reality is based. The eternal Law of God, the Torah, reflects in turn the very being of God, and the final purpose of language is to lead man’s thought to the knowledge of God. Language and Torah, thus, are inseparable. In Psalm 119 Law and Word tend to be used interchangeably.
The Christian will, of course, want to assert something further. The Christian will insist that the eternal Law is really derived from God’s eternal thought, and that God’s eternal thought is His Word, that same Word that for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven. The Torah, that is to say, speaks of Christ; the Law of God points to Christ and is fulfilled in Christ. The final purpose of language is that men may know Christ. He is, after all, the Word, the very Word that was in the beginning. He is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end of language (cf. Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13), both human and divine.
Christ, as the Latin Fathers called Him, is the verbum abbreviatum, God’s Word abbreviated, in the sense that all that God has to say is summed up in Christ. Christ is likewise the goal of man’s own language, because the purpose of human language is that men may know the truth, and Christ is the truth, the very truth that makes true all things that are true.
All through this psalm, then, the Law of God is described as the path to knowledge of the truth. It is the Law of God that “is a lamp unto my feet,” that “gives light to my eyes,” “my meditation all the day,” “sweeter than honey to my mouth,” and “better unto me than thousands of gold and silver.”
Thursday, July 3
Matthew 27:3-10: There is ample reason to believe Matthew, when he narrates the suicide of Judas, is not guided by strict chronological sequence. We observe, for instance, that he pictures the chief priests as talking with Judas in the temple at the same time they are talking with Pilate at the pretorium (verses 2-3). We also recall that Luke does not narrate the death of Judas until somewhat later (Acts 1:18-20). It is rather easy to demonstrate, in fact, that both writers tell the story of Judas’s death at a place appropriate to the theological points they want to make. Let us consider the case of Matthew, where the suicide of Judas fits into the larger account of Jesus’ trials.
Thus, by framing the interrogation of Jesus in the house of the high priest within the interrogation of Peter in the courtyard of the high priest, Matthew has in mind to contrast the fidelity of the one with the disloyalty of the other. He intends a similar contrast by framing the suicide of Judas (verses 3-10) within the context of Jesus’ trial before Pilate (verses 1-2,11-14).
In the second case, this arrangement also permits Matthew to compare Judas and Pilate. Each man recognizes the innocence of Jesus (verses 4,18,23-24), but both of them refuse the path of responsibility and repentance (verses 5,24). Both men assume an unwarranted authority of a human life, and in each the reader recognizes the profile of a coward.
Although Judas feels remorse at his treachery (metameletheis), Matthew avoids the vocabulary of repentance (metanoia, for instance) in his description. Indeed, this story, which follows almost immediately on the repentance of Peter (26:75), invites a contrast between these two disciples with respect to their sins: repentance in the one case, despair in the other. “I have sinned,” says Judas—hemarton, but he quickly finds he cannot undo the sin. In fact, his efforts are mocked by men hardened in sin, who feel no remorse. The chief priests, playing Mephisto to Judas’ Faust, have purchased a soul at market price and are quite content with the deal.
In pronouncing Jesus “innocent” (athõos), Judas prepares for the self-assessment of Pilate, who somehow recognizes that he, too, is on trial: “I am innocent [athõos] of the blood of this person” (27:24). When Pilate goes on to tell the Jews, “You see to it” (hymeis opsesthe), he simply pluralizes what the chief priests told Judas: “You see to it” (sy opsei).
Judas finds himself in the state described by St. Paul, when he writes of the Law’s inability to justify the sinner. Judas has fallen under what St. Paul calls “the curse of the Law” (Galatians 3:13). Specifically, the conscience of Judas is faced with the divine judgment, “Cursed is he who takes a bribe to slay a soul of innocent blood” (my literal translation of LXX of Deuteronomy 27:25). Deuteronomy’s expression, “soul of innocent blood”—pyschen haimatos athõou—is obviously the reference Matthew has in mind when Judas says he sinned in his betrayal of “innocent blood”—haima athõon. Judas, then is the man cursed by the Law, and whom the Law can in no wise justify (cf. 26:24).
The suicide of Judas finds its Old Testament prefiguration in that of Ahitophel (2 Samuel 17:23), which we also read today. Similar circumstances attend both cases: Judas betrays the true king; indeed, Jesus’ kingship is the burden of Pilate’s question that immediately follows the death of Judas. With respect to Ahitophel we recall that he, too, betrayed the true king, David, in order to side with Absalom, the usurper. Both betrayers come to the identical fate of suicide by hanging.
Friday, July 4
Psalm 33 (Greek and Latin 32): For the first time, the Book of Psalms uses an important expression—“new song,” shir chadash—which will later appear four more times in the Psalter and once in Isaiah: “Sing to Him a new song” (see Psalms 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Is. 42:10). The praise of the righteous, of the just man to whom the Lord imputes no guilt and in whose mouth is no deceit, is characterized by a particular kind of newness, of renewal, of new life, inasmuch as “He who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (Rev. 21:5). The song of the believers is always a new song, because it springs from an inner divine font. It is the song of those who are born again in Christ and therefore “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). The song of the Lord’s redeemed is a new song, for they adhere to the new covenant in Christ’s blood and “serve in the newness of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6).
All Christian praise of God is a participation in the liturgy of heaven where the saints gather in glory about the Lamb in the presence of the Throne. According to Revelation 5:9, our “new song” has to do with the opening of the seals of the great scroll by the Lamb who gave His life for our redemption: “You are worthy to take the scroll, / And to open its seals; / For You were slain, / And have redeemed us to God by Your blood.” The new song is for those who have been made “kings and priests to our God” (5:10). The new song is “the song of the Lamb” (15:3). The new song, according to Revelation 14:1–3, is sung by the redeemed as they gather about the Lamb on Mount Zion. This is the folk of whom our psalm says: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people He has chosen as His own inheritance.”
Therefore, when the present psalm summons us to the “new” praise of God, it is to a newness that will never grow old. Indeed, it will grow ever newer as, day by day, we “are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18), and our “youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 102:5).