Friday, July 18
Mark 8:1-10: Like Matthew (15:32-39), Mark has a second account of the multiplication of the loaves. This account is often called “the multiplication for the Gentiles,” because of several elements in the story suggesting its transmission in a largely Gentile setting. For example, the Lord’s reluctance to send the people away suggests that that have come “from afar” (verse 3), a common way in which the early Christians spoke of the calling of the Gentiles. Thus, Jesus is here portrayed as multiplying for the Gentiles the “crumbs” for which the Gentile woman has just begged in Mark 7:28.
This bread is food for a journey—“on the way,” (en te hodo–verse 3). The Lord feeds His people “in the wilderness” (en eremia–verse 4), as He did after their deliverance from Egypt. This bread, then, is the equivalent of the Manna that fell from heaven.
We also observe that this food—which He “takes” and “breaks” with “thanksgiving” (evcharistesas)—Jesus “gives” to His disciples, that they may feed the multitude (verse 6). This format of activity is a paradigm of the Eucharistic rite of the Church, in which we perceive the importance of the apostolic ministry and mediation.
Saturday, July 19
Psalm 33 (Greek and Latin 31) is the second of the traditional “penitential psalms,” which express the themes of sin, repentance, mercy and forgiveness.
The correct interpretation of certain psalms comes more readily than others, and the task is rendered easier still if a psalm’s meaning has already been made plain in the New Testament. The New Testament is, after all, the key to the full (that is to say, Christian) understanding of the Old. When the New Testament tells us the meaning of some passage in the Old Testament, then the matter of authentic interpretation, for us Christians, is settled.
Such is the case with Psalm 32, which begins: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity.” Saint Paul explicitly quotes these lines 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.”
This forgiveness of God has ongoing implications for how we are to live. Inasmuch as we have been “bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:20), we may no longer live as though we belonged to ourselves: “Do you not know that . . . you are not your own?” (6:19); “He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:15).
Sunday, July 20
Matthew 12:38-42: Both examples given here, the Ninevites and the queen from southern Arabia, are Gentiles, those of whom Matthew has just been speaking in 12:18-21. The figures of Jonah and Solomon should also be understood here as representing the prophetic and sapiential traditions of Holy Scripture.
Jesus is the “greater than Jonah,” whose earlier ministry foreshadowed the Lord’s death and Resurrection and also the conversion of the Gentiles. The Lord’s appeal to Jonah in this text speaks also of Jonah as a type or symbol of the Resurrection. The men of Nineveh, who repented and believed, are contrasted with the unrepentant Jewish leaders who refuse to believe in the Resurrection (cf. 28:13-15). Matthew will return to the sign of Jonah in 16:2. Jesus is also the “greater than Solomon,” who was founder of Israel’s wisdom literature and the builder of the Temple.
The Queen of the South, that Gentile woman who came seeking Solomon’s wisdom, likewise foreshadowed the calling of the Gentiles. She was related to Solomon as the Ninevites were related to Jonah—as Gentiles who met the God of Israel through His manifestation in the personal lives of particular Israelites.
It is a point of consolation to observe that in neither case—whether Solomon or Jonah—were these Israelites free from personal faults!
Monday, July 21
1 Kings 11: Solomon was able to think and act wisely, because his father had bequeathed to him the political stability and security requisite to leisure and habit of reflection: David had placed Solomon “in a broad space,” en platysmo, as Sirach said (47:12). The peace of Solomon’s early reign made possible the completion of his most important effort, the construction of the temple. This temple embodied divine Wisdom. Inasmuch as Israel’s vocation was to teach Wisdom to the other nations, it was arguably best exemplified in the case of Solomon.
Nonetheless, Solomon’s fall from grace also best illustrated the dangers that accompany political success and financial prosperity, and this, too, demonstrated a point of irony: Solomon’s political success and financial prosperity were the fruit of his wise government; he, above all men in Holy Scripture, exemplified Plato’s ideal of the philosopher/king. Yet, this success and prosperity also precipitated Solomon’s downfall. He showed himself to be the sort of man mourned by the Psalmist: “A man being in honor did not understand; He was compared to the senseless cattle, and became like them” (Psalms 48 :13).
A powerful and prosperous king, Solomon in due course resurrected the arrogance of Saul, losing all sense of proportion and discipline. This loss was expressed in his conquest of women. Israel’s later wise men reflected on Solomon’s historical downfall. Kings and Chronicles traced it to the idolatry that these pagan wives introduced into Israel. Sirach, on the other hand, traced Solomon’s demise, rather, to physical lust as an expression of spiritual arrogance. Solomon possessed women as a man might possess any other luxury in life. He was weakened through his body (enexsousiasthes en to somatic sou—Sirach 47:19). Quite simply, Solomon was morally reduced by his lust, which was less a perversion of sex than an abuse of power.
The first result of this reduction, moreover, was the division of the kingdom that followed directly on his death. Solomon’s loss of “good sense” (katanygenai epi te aphronsyne sou—Sirach 47:20) was passed on to his sons, starting with Rehoboam.
Tuesday, July 22
John 20:11-18: This story of a believing woman follows closely on that earlier woman of faith, the Queen of Shebah. Like the bride in the Song of Solomon (3:1–4), which we also read today, Mary Magdalene rises early while it is still dark and goes out seeking Him whom her soul loves, the one whom she calls “my Lord.” In an image reminiscent of both Genesis and the Song of Solomon, she comes to the garden of His burial (19:41). Indeed, she first takes Him to be the gardener, which, as the new Adam, He most certainly is. Her eyes blinded by tears, she does not at once know Him. He speaks to her, but even then she does not recognize His voice. The dramatic moment of recognition arrives when the risen Jesus pronounces her own name: “Mary.” Only then does she know Him as “Rabbouni,” “my Teacher.”
In this story, then, Christians perceive in Mary Magdalene an image of themselves meeting their risen Lord and Good Shepherd: “the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name . . . , for they know his voice” (John 10:3–4). This narrative of Mary Magdalene is an affirmation that Christian identity comes of recognizing the voice of Christ, who speaks our own name in the mystery of salvation: “the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, emphasis added). This is truly an “in-house” memory of the Church; it can only be understood within the community of salvation, for it describes
a wisdom not otherwise available to this world.
Wednesday, July 23
Mark 9:14-28: Of all the sundry intercessions of the saints, there are none so dear to the Almighty as the prayers of parents for their children. There seem to be several reasons for this.
First, when we pray for our offspring, we appeal, in a sense, to those sentiments that lie deepest in the Deity. Begotten of faith, conceived in the profound instincts of the heart, the petitions of fathers and mothers for their sons and daughters appear in a special way to gladden that parental impulse radical to God’s own being. And should it happen, as often it does, that our parental prayers are of the anxious sort, weighed down by fret and freighted with worry, our heavenly Father recognizes in them a reflection of the solicitude He feels for all His children, who frequently wander and are always at risk. When, then, with worried Job we rise early in the morning and offer the daily oblation according to the number of our progeny, in order to “sanctify them,” concerned as we are lest any of them sin in their heart (Job 1:5), this offering is surely received on high by God’s most gracious and paternal favor.
A second reason why these pleadings for our offspring are so pleasing to God is that they tend to be particularly humble and self-effacing. When we implore the divine mercy for our children, the mind offers no asylum to haughty thoughts or an arrogant temper. If a child suffers, if a child is in danger, if a child is threatened or lost in any of the myriad ways that children can be threatened or lost, we rather promptly learn humility. Indeed, we become utterly shameless in our begging. Like the Shunammite, we fling ourselves to the earth and cling to the feet of the prophet (2 Kings 4:27). With the nobleman of Capernaum we cry to the Lord, “Sir, come down before my child dies!” (John 4:49). Maybe more than any other form of petition, then, the intercessions we offer for our offspring take on the quality of abject pleading, accompanied by profound sentiments of self-abasement.
A third reason why such prayer is so dear to God is that, like the love that inspires it, this prayer takes on the quality of self-sacrifice. Even when we do not explicitly say so, the Lord senses that we would willingly suffer in place of our young ones–would hand ourselves over, as it were, on their behalf. Our sentiments in such times are those of David, who would have died in place of Absalom (2 Samuel 18:33). The impulse of such prayer touches the mystery of the Cross, where the Good Shepherd laid down His life for the sheep.
A fourth reason for the special quality of prayer for our children comes from the demand that such prayer makes on the resources of our belief. In today’s Gospel reading a man who beholds his son convulsing, helpless on the ground, is brought up short by the weakness of his own faith. “O faithless generation,” he is told, “how long shall I bear with you?” Even then, nonetheless, he finds somewhere down in his soul the wherewithal to cry back, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:14–24).
Thursday, July 24
1 Kings 15: Asa (913–873 BC) was Judah’s initial “reform” king, in this respect a forerunner to Hezekiah and Josiah. He was the first of those very few kings of whom it was said that he “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, as did his father David” (1 Kings 15:11).
When Asa came to the throne as David’s fourth successor, the realm was not doing very well. During the reign of Asa’s grandfather, Rehoboam, Judah’s financial state had been greatly weakened by incessant war with the Northern Kingdom (verse 6) and by an invasion from Egypt (14:25–26).
Hardly better was the nation’s spiritual state, for idolatry and gross immorality were rife (14:22–23). Rehoboam was followed on the throne by Asa’s father, Abijah, but the latter too “walked in all the sins of his father, which he had done before him” (verse 3).
These problems seem not to have daunted the young Asa, who cleaned up Judah’s idolatry and immorality with such dispatch and efficiency that 1 Kings could account for the work in a single verse (verse 12).
Although the longer description of Asa’s reign in 1 Chronicles 14—16 describes in greater detail some of the more serious problems he encountered, there is reason to believe that Asa’s greatest single headache came from his . . . grandmother!
Had Asa’s accession to the throne followed traditional policy on the point, this grandmother, known to history as Maachah the Younger, would have retired to spend her remaining days rocking and knitting in some quiet corner of the palace, occasionally stopping to dandle a grandchild or take some cookies from the oven. Her role as queen mother, or gebirah, would have been assumed by Asa’s own mother.
As it happened, however, the old lady did not step down, and evidently, on the day that Asa took the throne, no one in the realm was sufficiently powerful to make her step down–not even the new king.
Maachah doubtless enjoyed occupying what was a very powerful position in ancient courts. Since royal sons were hardly disposed to decline reasonable requests from their mothers (cf. 1 Kings 2:17), it was no small advantage for other members of the court to cultivate the favor of the gebirah. Her special place in the realm is further indicated by the fact that the Books of Kings normally list the names of the mothers of the kings of Judah.
The case of Maachah demonstrates that an especially shrewd gebirah, were she also unscrupulous, might manage to maintain her position at court even after the death of her son. A woman so powerful, after all, was able to put quite a number of people in her debt over the years, influential and well-placed individuals on whom she might rely later on to keep her in power. The Bible’s truly singular example of this was Athaliah, the mother of Ahaziah, who actually usurped the realm itself during the years 842–837 BC (2 Kings 11).
Maachah herself never went so far, but she did manage to hold on to her privileged position at court after the accession of Asa (verse 10). She had been around for quite a while and was well acquainted with the ways of power. Named for her grandmother, Maacah the Elder, a Geshurite princess married to David (2 Samuel 3:3), this younger Maachah was a daughter of Absalom. She was still a child during the three years that she spent with her father in his exile in Geshur (2 Samuel 13:38). Doubtless it was there that she first learned the ways of idolatry.
For Maachah was most certainly an idolatress. Raised in the easygoing atmosphere of her Uncle Solomon’s court after the death of her own father, she further learned the lessons of idolatry along with the habits of political power. Given in marriage to her cousin Rehoboam, who would eventually succeed Solomon on the throne, Maachah knew that someday, when her son Abijah became king, she would become the gebirah. She longed for the day.
That day, when it came, did not last very long, for Abijah reigned only three years. It may have been discouraging to Maachah, after waiting so long to become the gebirah. No matter, however, for this determined lady somehow found the means to stay in power for a while longer. Indeed, except for her idolatry, Asa might have left her in place for good. But the king, as his position grew stronger, was in a reforming mood, and Maachah stood in the way of his reforms. “You know, Granny,” he finally said to her one day, “it’s about time for you to take up knitting.”
Friday, July 25
Acts 21:1-14: Luke now carefully traces the stages of Paul’s journey southward, first noting his arrival at Cos that Sunday evening. This island, dedicated to Asklepios, the god of healing, was perhaps special to the “beloved physician” as the homeland of Hippocrates, the father of Greek medicine, who sat under the famous plane tree and instructed his medical students in the art of healing.
Paul’s company arrives at Rhodes on Monday and at Patara on Tuesday. Leaving this coastline vessel, they embark on a sea-going ship on their way to the Phoenician city of Tyre, some four-hundred nautical miles to the southeast, sailing around Cyprus. Finding Christians at Tyre (cf. 15:3), they remain for a week. They then press on to Ptolemais, twenty-five miles to the south, and then Caesarea, forty miles further (or thirty-two miles if they went by land).
One nearly gains the impression that Luke is copying out notes from a journal that he maintained on the trip, and one of the general effects of this listing of ports is to heighten the suspense of Paul’s approach to Jerusalem. Even back at Miletus he had spoken of the prophetic warnings that he was receiving with respect to this trip to Jerusalem (20:23), warnings later repeated at Tyre (21:4). Here at Caesarea, however, such forebodings are intensified by the prophecies of Agabus, whom we met earlier in 11:27, and the daughters of Philip the deacon (21:8-11).
Finally, Luke’s attention to detail, with which he narrates each step of this journey, renders all the more remarkable the omission of Antioch. After both the first (14:25) and second (18:22) missionary journeys, Paul took care to report back to the church at Antioch, but on this occasion, and with only a hint of explanation (20:16), he does not do so. Clearly, Paul is looking elsewhere now; his eyes are on Rome, as he had recently suggested in a letter to that city (Romans 15:22-28).