Friday, September 5

Luke 5:17-26: In all three Synoptic Gospels, the healing of the paralytic (Matthew 9:1–8; Mark 2:1–12; Luke 5:17–26) is followed immediately by the calling of the tax collector and the Lord’s eating with sinners (Matthew 9:9–13; Mark 2:13–17; Luke 5:27–32). This common sequence of the two narratives probably reflects an early preaching pattern, explained by the fact that both stories deal with the same theme: Jesus’ relationship to sin and sinners. The paralytic was healed, after all, “that you may know that the Son of Man has power [authority] on earth to forgive sins,” and the point of the second story is that “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Thus, the most significant thing about the paralytic is not his paralysis, but his “sins,” so this is what Jesus addresses first. Indeed, even when He heals the paralysis, Jesus does so in order to demonstrate His authority over the man’s sins. In what He does in this scene, then, Jesus inserts Himself between God and the man, speaking to the man with God’s authority. It is not without significance that all three versions of the story also include the detail that Jesus could, like God, read His accusers’ inner thoughts.

In each of the three Synoptic Gospels, moreover, the Lord’s claim to authority over sin here becomes the first occasion on which His enemies accuse Him of blasphemy. This is significant too, because at His judicial process before the Sanhedrin, blasphemy will be the crime of which He is accused. In a sense, then, Jesus’ trial begins with His healing of the paralytic, because this scene is recognized by even His enemies as the occasion on which He forcefully claims divine authority.

This more dramatic aspect of the account is perhaps clearest in the versions of Mark and Luke, where it is the first of five conflict stories that cast an ominous cloud over Jesus’ activity through the rest of those Gospels (Mark 2:1—3:5; Luke 5:17—6:11).

In all three Synoptic Gospels, the paralytic becomes the “type” of the sinner. He is helpless, carried by others because he cannot carry himself. He is utterly in need of mercy above all things. Indeed, even his forgiveness and his cure are not credited to his own faith. All three accounts mention that the Lord sees the faith, not of the paralytic, but of the men who carry him.

Saturday, September 6

Luke 5:27-39: Since the call of Levi falls in exactly the same sequence in the Gospels of Mark and Luke as Matthew’s call in the Gospel of Matthew, we are surely correct in regarding these two men as identical.

It is also significant that all three Synoptic Gospels treat the call of the tax collector (Levi/Matthew) as a centerpiece bracketed between two stories about sinners: the paralytic being forgiven his sins and Jesus having dinner with notorious sinners. Thus set between these two events, the call of the tax collector represents above all the evangelical summons to repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

The dialogue connected with the meal at his house illustrates this meaning of the tax collector’s call. Jesus, criticized for his association with sinners on this occasion, explains that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” In thus addressing sin through the metaphor of sickness, the Lord strikes again the note recently sounded by His healing the paralytic as proof of His authority to forgive the man’s sins (2:5–12).

Furthermore, summoning sinners to repentance and salvation is not just one of the things Jesus happens to do. There is a sense in which this is the defining thing that Jesus does, the very reason He came into this world. This truth is affirmed at the meal at the tax collector’s house, where He proclaims, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” Again, it is in the context of the call of yet another tax collector, Zacchaeus, that Jesus says, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

Sunday, September 7

2 Corinthians 1:15-24: Paul begins to correct a misunderstanding. He had disappointed some of the Corinthians by failing to visit them at a time when he was expected. Indeed, he had announced plans for such a visit (1 Corinthians 16:5). In fact, he changed his plans more than once. Recently he had planned to stop for visits twice at Corinth, once going to Macedonia and once coming back (verses 15-16). Even these plans had been changed, to the chagrin of some of the folks at Corinth, who thought the Apostle a bit fickle and irresolute (verse 17).

St. Paul defends himself, insisting that these changes of travel plans did not indicate a deeper spiritual problem. In his proclamation of the Gospel to the Corinthians he was not fickle or irresolute (verse 18). His readers, therefore, should not interpret his recent behavior as a sign of irresolution.

Paul uses this occasion to teach a lesson. Steadfastness of purpose, he says, is what characterizes the word that God speaks to us in Christ. It is an enduring affirmation, indicated by the perfect tense of the verb (gegonen–verse 19). That word is the same as when Paul and his companions had first preached it among the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:11), because God’s promises are not subject to changes of plans (verse 20). They are always “Amen,” the same word that Christians speak back to God at the close of their prayers in Jesus’ name.

In fact, God has already sealed these promises in the hearts of the Corinthians at the time of their baptism (verses 21-22). This sealing is already a down payment or “earnest money” (arrabon) of their eternal inheritance (cf. 5:5; Romans 8:23).

Paul then returns to his disputed travel plans, saying that it was for the good of the Corinthians themselves that he had failed to show up when they expected him (verse 23; compare 13:2). Things were not yet right at Corinth.

Monday, September 8

2 Corinthians 2:1-17: Paul saw no value in returning yet again to Corinth while feeling distressed at the situation there. Such a visit, he felt, would only have made things worse (verses 1-2). He sent them a letter instead, the “letter of tears” which seems not to have survived (verse 3). Paul’s decision not to go to Corinth had at least not added further grief to those with whom he ought to share a common joy, and his letter had manifested his love and concern for the Corinthians (verse 4).

These references to their shared distress point to some troublemaker whom Paul had encountered in Corinth on a previous visit (verse 5). The Apostle here presumes his readers’ familiarity with the case, the particulars of which are, of course, unknown to us. Paul is confident that the Corinthians have adequately dealt with the problem (verse 6), inspired by his “letter of tears” and a recent visit by Titus (cf. 7:6-7).

Indeed, Paul has now become concerned for the offender, with whom the congregation had dealt somewhat severely (verses 7-8). In any case, the Corinthians have properly met the trial posed by the troublemaker (verse 9), and now it is time to move on (verses 10-1).

Paul proceeds to tell of his recent missionary trip to Troas (on the western coast of Asia, the region of ancient Troy), thus taking up the narrative broken off at the beginning of this chapter. He had hoped to meet Titus at Troas, to learn from Titus what had transpired in Corinth. Paul’s disappointment at failing to find Titus at Troas caused him, reluctantly, to abandon his ministry there and to sail over to Macedonia (verses 12-13). We readers find Paul’s distress understandable. Until he should meet Titus and learn what had transpired at Corinth, Paul would be distracted, uncertain how the congregation reacted to his “letter of tears.”

But why did Paul go over to Macedonia? This is not difficult to discover. If we think of him languishing at Troas for some days, perhaps even weeks, it would have been natural for him to sail over to Macedonia, from which, after all, Titus was expected. We should bear in mind that the currents and wind patterns between Troas and Macedonia made an eastward voyage longer and more difficult than a westward voyage. Because the Black Sea is normally colder than the Mediterranean Basin (on the average of ten degrees), the faster evaporation in the latter causes a strong southwest current to run through the Dardanelles, seriously influencing the speed of travel between Asia and Macedonia. A trip from Troas required only two days (Acts 16:11), whereas the reverse might take more than twice that long (20:6).

Paul proceeds to bless God for this fortunate outcome (verse 14), typical of the divine solicitude for man’s salvation. That is to say, in the recent difficulties at Corinth, the Lord had displayed the power of the Gospel itself (verses 15-17). For both Paul and the Corinthians the Gospel had become a matter of empirical evidence and concrete experience. God had “triumphed over” them (thriambevonti hemas–verse 14). This note touches the epistle’s major theme: God’s power made perfect in man’s weakness. Paul will speak incessantly of this “manifestation” (phaneroein–verse 14; 3:3; 4:10,11; 5:10,11 (bis); 7:12; 11:6).

Tuesday, September 9

2 Corinthians 3:1-11: The chapter begins with two rhetorical questions, the anticipated answer to both being “no.” Paul speaks of commendatory letters, to which there are other references in the New Testament (Romans 16:-12; 1 Corinthians 16:10-11; Philemon passim; Acts 15:22-31; 18:27). Paul asserts here that his relationship to the Corinthians renders such letters superfluous (verses 1-3).

In the Greek text the expression “not in ink but in the Spirit” is more melodious: ou mélani alla Pnévmati. Paul’s imagery here evokes Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:26-27)

Paul has “confidence before God” (pepoithesis pros ton Theon–verse 4, an expression that has no linguistic equivalent elsewhere in the Bible). He has this confidence “through Christ,” not from any self-sufficiency (verse 5). The infinitive logisasthai is better translated “to claim” than “to speak”: “We are not sufficient to claim anything” (compare 2:17). Paul’s competence comes from the God who commissioned his ministry (verse 6).

The Apostle introduces here his contrast of letter and Spirit (cf. Romans 2:27-29), which he will elaborate through the rest of this chapter.

What is perhaps most surprising in the first six verses of this chapter is Paul’s confidence in the Corinthian church, where he sees the activity of the Holy Spirit as the fulfillment of the prophetic promises in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The Corinthians themselves are a testimony to the power and fruitfulness of his own ministry.

Paul them proceeds to contrast the Gospel ministry–the ministry of the Spirit–with the ministry of the Mosaic Law, a theme that runs through the rest of this chapter. Because “the letter kills” (verse 6), he calls the Mosaic ministry “a ministry of death” (verse 7). For someone that spent all his previous life in the study of the Torah, this is a very strong assertion.

The Apostle also introduces now the expression “glory,” which as a noun or a verb (“glorify”) appears thirteen times in the remainder of this chapter. Even the ministry of the Law, he says, was possessed of glory. How much more the ministry of the Spirit? (verses 8-9. Compare the same form of argument in Romans 8:32).

Wednesday, September 10

2 Corinthians 3:12—4:6: Paul felt the “boldness” (parresia) displayed in what he had just written with respect to the Mosaic Law (verse 12). After all, he had jut referred to the dispensation of the Torah–the ministry of Moses himself–as “the ministry of death” (verse 7) and “the ministry of condemnation” (verse 9). This was certainly bold speech for a rabbi who had spent his whole life in the study of the Torah!

Nor do these words of Paul convey the entire truth. Indeed, Paul was still working his way through this subject when he wrote 2 Corinthians. A year or so later he would give a more developed, nuanced treat of this matter in his dialectical argument in Romans 9—11.

This boldness in speech Paul contrasts with Moses, who veiled his face so that the Israelites could not behold the fading glory of his countenance (verse 13; Exodus 34:30-35). In this context, in which the word “veil” (kálymma) appears four times (verses 13-16), the “unveiled face” serves as a metaphor for boldness.

The expression eis to telos (verse 13) should not be understood as expressing purpose (“in order that”) but as expressing effect (“with the result that”). Otherwise Paul would be accusing Moses of deceiving the people.

The fault, however, was not of Moses but of the Israelites (verse 14). Here Paul has in mind less the Israelites of Moses’ time than the Israelites of his own day, those from whose synagogues, all over the Mediterranean basin, he and his companions had been expelled. These were the Israelites to whom the true face of Moses remained veiled. Satan, “the god of this world” (4:4), continued to harden their thoughts (noemata–verse 14). This veil has become, in Paul’s argument, an internal covering of the mind, which prevents the correct understanding of “the Old Testament.” This is the only place in the Bible, we may note, that uses this last expression.

The “abolishing” (katargeitai) of which Paul speaks here refers to the veil, not the Old Testament. This is clear in verse 16, where Paul refers to the removal of the veil from the heart (verse 15). No part of God’s Word is ever abolished or “out of date” (Matthew 5:17; Romans 3:31).

The Septuagint text of Exodus 34:34 throws light on this removal of the veil. It speaks of Moses taking the veil from his face when he “went in before the Lord to speak to Him.” It was in turning to the Lord that Moses’ veil was removed. Thus, says St. Paul, as soon as a man turns to the Lord, the veil is removed (verse 16). This interpretation is important as it indicates Paul understood Jesus to be “the Lord” to whom Moses went in to speak. The Lordship of Jesus is, in fact, at the base of all Paul’s reflections here (cf. 4:5).

To speak of Christ, however, is concretely to speak of the Holy Spirit. We do not get the One without the Other (verse 17). They are necessarily, or at least practically, concomitant. It is as though a foreign diplomat were to say, “Washington is the United States,” or as if an epicure should remark, “Baltimore is crab cakes,” meaning that the one implies the other. With Christ comes the Holy Spirit; when a man turns to Christ, he receives the Holy Spirit. (Indeed, even this affirmation is oversimplified, because a man cannot even turn to Christ except through the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit.)

Contrasted with the veiled Israelites are the unveiled Christians, beholding and being transformed by the glory of the Lord (verse 18). Like Moses in God’s presence, their faces are uncovered, because there is freedom in the new covenant (verse 17). To Christians, then, it is given to share in the doxological transformation accorded to Moses, as they are transformed progressively into the image of Christ.

Thursday, September 11

Luke 7:1-10: Among those sections that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, independent of Mark, have in common, almost all are directly didactic. That is to say, those sections almost invariably consist of the explicit teachings of Jesus, with no attention to events in Jesus’ life. Those shared sections convey, for instance, the sort of material we find in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5—7) and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (6:20–49). When, on the other hand, Matthew and Luke do tell a common story about Jesus’ life, Mark has that story too.

The clear exception to this pattern is today’s story of the centurion who sought healing for his cherished servant (Matthew 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–10). As an account of a person beseeching the Lord on behalf of someone else, this shared narrative resembles other stories in the Gospels: Jairus and the Syro-Phoenician woman praying for their daughters (Mark 5:23; 7:24–30), another man and a centurion pleading for their sons (9:17; John 4:46–53), Martha and Mary of Bethany interceding for their brother (11:3). These are all accounts of petitionary prayer on behalf of loved ones.

Such stories surely had a great influence on the patterns of Christian intercessory prayer. We note, for instance, that the petitions in these accounts are addressed to Jesus. Although in Jesus’ specific teaching about prayer, the normal emphasis was on prayer addressed to the heavenly Father (Luke 11:2) in Jesus’ name (John 15:16), the emphasis is different in these particular Gospel stories.

One of their singular values is that they unambiguously answer a practical question that might arise among Christians; namely, “If one of your loved ones gets sick, is there some special Trinitarian protocol to follow, or is it all right just to take the problem right to Jesus?”

However, the idea of taking one’s problems “right to Jesus” is surely not to be understood in the sense of forgoing the mediating prayer of others. It is not as though the unique mediation of Jesus our Lord (1 Timothy 2:5) excludes certain saints from mediating on behalf of other saints, and these various Gospel stories are the proof of it. In fact, it is the entire point and the whole business of the foregoing stories to validate such mediation. This is called intercessory prayer.

To see how this works out, let us return to the story of the centurion pleading on behalf of his servant. If we compare the differing accounts of this event in Matthew and Luke, we first observe that Matthew’s is the shorter and simpler version. In this account the centurion simply goes to Jesus, requesting that the Lord speak the commanding word so that the servant will be healed. It takes only six verses.

In today’s reading from Luke, however, the story requires ten verses and is considerably more complicated. First, the centurion himself does not approach Jesus directly. He sends some friends who will speak for him. Now this is interesting, because it introduces another level of mediation. The friends are interceding for the centurion, who is in turn interceding for his servant. We have here the beginnings of what we call a prayer chain.

Then, when Jesus starts moving towards the centurion’s home, the latter dispatches another group of friends, who will speak the famous words that characterize this story: “I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof” (7:6). It is surely significant that the centurion does not speak these words, deeply personal as they are, to Jesus directly. Others say them to Jesus on the centurion’s behalf. In Luke’s version of the story, in fact, there is no face-to-face encounter of the centurion with Jesus at all. The centurion’s faith is conveyed by those he chooses to intercede for him.

Friday, September 12

Luke 7:11-17: In this story of Jesus raising to life the widow’s dead son, it is very instructive to observe the response of the crowd of people who witnessed that exceptional event. When they see the dead man suddenly sit up in his open coffin and begin to speak, “fear came upon all,” writes St. Luke, “and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us” and ‘God has visited His people.’” How is it that Jesus is called a prophet when He raises this man to life? Why this term, specifically, in this context? I suggest there are three considerations to be made in answering this question.

First, in Hebrew Scriptures we observe that only the prophets raised anyone from the dead. We recall the stories. There was Elijah, we remember, who raised the dead son of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17). We likewise call to mind the prophet Elisha, who restored to life the son of the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4). These two instances were well known to the citizens of the village of Nain. They had never seen the like of what Jesus did that day, but they all recalled the stories of the biblical prophets that raised the dead, and they knew that the same thing was happening in their midst, before their very eyes. A son was being carried off to his grave, but suddenly Jesus “came and touched the open coffin.” When the pallbearers stopped, Jesus spoke with authority to the man that lay upon the bier, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” That command, the crowd knew, was given with the voice of utter authority. Death itself could not withstand that authority. It was the voice of prophecy, and. as the onlookers remembered the stories of Elijah and Elisha, they knew that a great prophet had once again arisen among them.

Second, what is the connection between prophecy and the raising of the dead? That there is such a connection is obvious in the stories themselves, but just what is the nature of that connection?

We best address that question, I believe, if we reflect that prophecy is the insertion of God’s word into human existence, turning that existence into salvation history. What is human history, after all, without the structure given to it by God’s word?

Various theories have addressed this question over the years. Arnold J. Toynbee, for instance, viewed history in terms of universal rhythms of rise, flowering and decline. According to Toynbee, history is the account of civilizations rising to meet the challenge of difficult circumstances. It is their response to these challenges that creates the dynamics of history.

Then there was Oswald Spengler, who believed that this process of flowering and decline is cyclical and determinist. Karl Marx did not believe in cycles of history. For him, history proceeds on a dialectical path, with steps forward and steps backward, the whole process moving toward a goal. Henry Ford had an even simpler explanation of history. History, he said, is just one damned thing after another.

This scene in Luke, however, gives us the Bible’s view of the matter—namely, that history without the intervention of the prophet is just a funeral procession. It is the vocation of the prophet to stop this movement toward death. And this is what the prophets have always done. Whether Amos, Hosea, and Micah in the 8th century, or Habakkuk, Nahum, and Zephaniah in the 7th, the prophet in each case speaks to human history with a view to halting a funeral procession. Confronting Assyria’s culture of death, Isaiah proclaimed the good news of God’s reign. When the forces of Babylon encamped about Jerusalem in siege, and just before the city fell to their destruction and fire, Jeremiah purchased a piece of real estate in testimony that life would overcome death. Some decades later, Ezekiel spoke to the Israelites in captivity, describing the Temple that was soon to be constructed. It is the function of prophecy to confront and challenge despair.

And this is what the Jews at Nain beheld that day, when Jesus stepped in front of a funeral procession and caused it abruptly to stop. Prophecy is the insertion of the divine message into the decline and chaos of history, giving direction and purpose to the lives of men. History’s most singular act of prophecy occurred on that day when Christ rose from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the tombs.

Third, the proclamation of the Gospel to the world is the Church’s prophetic mission. This proclamation does not simply convey information; it is the word of God proclaimed in power. God’s word will not return to Him empty; it will accomplish all that He sends it to do.

It seems more important than ever to insist on this matter in today’s extensive culture of death. The ancient funeral processions called Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome were playground activities beside the violent and destructive society in which the Gospel must be proclaimed today. This narrative of the widow of Nain is very sobering in its application to the times in which we live–times of ideologically driven terrorism, the vast international slave trade of women and children, kidnapping and other violent crimes against the innocent and unoffending, and the officially sanctioned slaughter of millions of unborn babies. These are but the more notable evidence of the lengthy funeral procession of modern history. It is a fact that more human beings died of violence in the 20th century than in all of previous human history, and there is good reason to fear that the 21st century may surpass it.

It is the Christian vocation to meet this funeral procession with the force of the prophetic word of the Gospel. Those pallbearers in the Gospel of Luke had the good sense to stop. It is not so clear that they would stop today, and those who would resist the culture of death had best be prepared to be run down by a hearse.

This Gospel story, however, tells what happens when a great prophet arises among us, and God visits His people.