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 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 and 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 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 that arise 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, 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 spoke 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, the daily reports of 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.

Saturday, September 13

2 Corinthians 6:1-10: In the previous chapter Paul had exhorted the Corinthians to be reconciled to God (5:20), right after proclaiming that God in Christ had reconciled them to Himself (5:18). That is to say, there is a sense in which the reconciling work of God for man does not preclude, but rather calls for, man’s own act of being reconciled to God. Even this latter act, however, is something man can do only under the influence of divine grace. This is indicated by the passive voice of the verb: “Be reconciled.” What God does, then, does not preclude the work of man. On the contrary, it invites and enables the work of man. It is a “cooperation.”

Paul continues this theme of “cooperation” (in Latin) or synergism (in Greek) in the exhortation that commences the present chapter: “In cooperation [synergountes], therefore, we exhort you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (verse 1). The cooperation here appears to be twofold. First, Paul cooperates (literally” works together with”) God, inasmuch as he is God’s ambassador (5:10; 1 Corinthians 3:9); his preaching is authorized and enabled by God. Second, the Corinthians are not to let God’s grace go “for naught” (literally “unto empty”–eis kenon). Not receiving God’s grace in vain is a specification of “be reconciled.” That is to say, what God does for man is not the complete story; man must also do certain things, so that God’s grace will not be “in vain.” In the several verses referring to his own experience, Paul hints at what some of these things may be. They form a pretty tough narrative of what it is may be to “cooperate” with God.

As indicated by the aorist tense of the verb “to receive,” Paul is not thinking of repeated, continuous conversion; he is summoning the Corinthians, rather, to a decisive act made in the “now” of the divine summons (verse 2). It is this act of decision that renders any day “the day of salvation.”

Paul then turns to a description of the conditions and circumstances of his ministry (verses -10). This section, apologetic and given in answer to the critics of that ministry, contains the second such description (cf. 4:8-9), and two more will follow (11:23-29; 12:10. Elsewhere, cf. 1 Corinthians 4:10-13; Philippians 4:12; Romans 8:35,38-39). In all such descriptions we see Paul feeding on his inner communion with God in Christ. That is what separates these “autobiographical lists” from the Stoic and Jewish apologetic lists with which they are sometimes compared (cf. 4:10-11).

Sunday, September 14

Numbers 21:4-9: The Israelites move further east to skirt the territory of the uncooperative Edomites (verse 4). Their recent discouragement leads to the incident of the Brazen Serpent (verses 5-9). The “fiery” (saraph, the root of the word Seraphim, by the way) serpents are so called by reason of the painful inflammation caused by their bite.

It is curious that this incident took place near Punon (33:42), where there were large copper mines at the time (Late Bronze Age), and it is certainly worth remarking that the excavations at Lachish, to the west, uncovered a bronze image of a snake dating from exactly this period! The story in 2 Kings 18:4, however, prevents our getting carried away with respect to this archeological find.

The true significance of the Brazen Serpent is explained elsewhere in Holy Scripture; two texts in particular come to mind. The first is Wisdom 16:5-10 (Douay-Rheims translation):

“For when the fierce rage of beasts came upon these, they were destroyed with the bitings of crooked serpents. But thy wrath endured not for ever, but they were troubled for a short time for their correction, having a sign of salvation to put them in remembrance of the commandment of thy law. For he that turned to it, was not healed by that which he saw, but by thee the Savior of all. And in this thou didst shew to our enemies, that thou art he who deliverest from all evil. For the bitings of locusts, and of flies killed them, and there was found no remedy for their life: because they were worthy to be destroyed by such things. But not even the teeth of venomous serpents overcame thy children: for thy mercy came and healed them.
The second text of this theme is John 3:14-16:

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Monday, September 15

2 Corinthians 6:11-18: The Apostle takes up in this section a very practical matter—marriage. This subject is so unexpected in the context that some scholars speculate that it slipped out of place in the manuscript transmission. This speculation, I believe, is unwarranted. It seems more reasonable to suppose that the harmful effects of “mixed marriages” may lie at the heart of the problems that Paul is having at Corinth. This would explain why the treatment of this subject appears in this apologetic section of the epistle.

In a previous letter to Corinth, a year or so earlier, Paul had been obliged to deal with the problems that arose when a man or woman, after their conversion to Christ, was consequently abandoned by an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:12-17). His directions at that time had concerned only marriages formed prior to someone’s conversion. However, a different sort of problem has since arisen at Corinth. Now there is question of a Christian actually marrying a non-Christian.

Paul perceives a problem already addressed specifically in the Scriptures of God’s People. Although in earlier periods of biblical history relatively little attention had been given to marriage with pagans, especially when a Jewish man married a non-Jewish wife, Israel’s religious leader became more pastorally sensitive to such situations during the Babylonian Captivity (587-538) and the following centuries.

We see this sensitivity at work in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which cover the century and more that followed the Captivity. When, with the rise of Cyrus in 539, the exiled Jews were permitted to return to the Holy Land, it fell mostly to the lot of young, unmarried men to undertake that arduous enterprise. When these returned to restore the fortunes of their ancestors, it was hardly surprising that they began to intermarry with the local heathen population.

Spiritual leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah quickly perceived the danger. Had not such marriages proved to be the spiritual downfall of Israel in times past? Who could fail to see, for example, how King Ahab’s marriage to the Phoenician princess Jezebel had introduced every manner of moral and spiritual decay among God’s People? Indeed,  in the eyes of the Chronicler, who wrote shortly afterwards, this problem could be traced back to Solomon himself and his numerous pagan wives.

This pastoral perception led to a stern reform in Israel, the scribal and rabbinical leadership became tougher on this matter. In the  present text it is clear that Paul  is heir to the tradition of Ezra and Nehemiah on this point. His reasoning in the present text, which requires almost no comment and certainly leaves nothing in doubt on the point, is simply a Christian variation of the thinking of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Nor is it surprising that Paul quotes, on this point, a prophet of the period of the Captivity (verse 16; Ezekiel 37:27), using Israel’s separation from Babylon as his interpretive metaphor (verses 17-18).

In our modern context these biblical standards seem particularly relevant and applicable, and they should be expressed in both the canonical norms and pastoral practice of Christian congregations. To young Christians today it should be made plain, in the home and at the local church, that non-Christians are simply off-limits with respect to courtship and marriage. It is no insult to either oxen or horses to observe that they are not suited to be harnessed together.

Tuesday, September 16

2 Corinthians 7:1-12: The quest for holiness was the reason Paul gave for not being yoked with pagans (6:16-17). The quest of holiness, however, was more general in its nature and applicable to a much greater number of concerns. Holiness, first, is something that grows. It requires cultivation and further cleansing from contaminates. It involves, moreover, both man’s spirit and his body (verse 1).

Paul then turns apologetic, pleading the sincerity of his relations to the Church at Corinth (verses 2-4). In asking that these Corinthians “make room” (choresate) for him, Paul takes up the same metaphor (and verbal root) that he used earlier, when he spoke  of a narrowness of affection (stenochochoreomai–6:12). Even as he defends his behavior, he  is careful not  to blame the Corinthians (verse 3). Perhaps we perceive here a touch of what in recent times came to be known as “pastoral sensitivity.”

Because Paul mentions death before life, using the aorist tense for the first (synapothanein) and the present tense (syzein) for the second, it is clear that the life referred to here (verse 4) is the eternal life that follows death. Paul will be with the Corinthians in his death and in the life that ensues. His subtle expression thus means a great deal more than “in life and death.”

Paul turns next to the recent return of Titus, whom he had dispatched as his apostolic delegate to the Corinthians (verses 5-7). Paul, we remember, impatient at waiting for Titus at Troas, had procured passage over to Macedonia in search  of him (2:12-13). Titus at last arrived in Macedonia from Corinth (verse 6).

Macedonia is a pretty big place. How did the two men find one another in Macedonia? I mean, how would a friend and I simply meet up “in Chicago,” to say nothing of our meeting up “in Illinois”? We should consider here the close and constant connections between the local congregations in Macedonia—at Philippi, at Thessaloniki, at Beroea, and so forth. These active connections are likely what brought the two men together.

Titus brought Paul news of the favorable reception that met his earlier letter, the letter of tears (verses 7-8; 2:1-4), the letter that Titus had carried to Corinth. Now Paul is able to put behind him whatever misgivings he had about the wisdom of sending that letter; it accomplished effectively the purpose for which he sent it (verse 9). The Corinthians have not disappointed him (verse 10). They have appropriately dealt with the disciplinary situation mentioned earlier (verses 11-12; 2:5-11).

Wednesday, September 17

2 Corinthians 7:13—8:7: Now that the delicate and critical situation in Corinth has been settled by the mission of Titus (verses 13-16), Paul brings to the attention of the Corinthians the charitable collection of resources currently in process for the impoverished Christians in the Holy Land. The role of Titus in this collection will be crucial, as we shall see in chapters 8 and 9.

Paul proceeds to tell the Corinthians of the generosity of the churches of Macedonia, partly with the intent, no doubt, of encouraging a like generosity among his readers. Chief in generosity among the Macedonians, it seems, are the Philippians, who have already established the custom of sacrificial giving with respect to Paul (11:8-9; Philippians 4:15-16).

The collection had already begun at Corinth, in fact, during the previous year (8:10-11; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4), and it will continue into the following year (Romans 15:25-27).

Everything about this enterprise is grace, charis (verses 1,6,7,19). It begins with the generosity of God. The Macedonian Christians are poor, after all, and Paul strains his images to express how this poverty abounded in generosity (verse 2). This generosity was spontaneous (verse 2); the Macedonians asked for the opportunity to give (verse 4). Indeed, this giving was the expression of the gift of themselves (verse 5).

Paul is sending Titus back to Corinth as the bearer of the present letter. Hence he mentions now that Titus, on his return to Corinth, will be organizing the collection in that city too (verse 6). This will be the perfecting of the good ministry that Titus had already commenced among the Corinthians.

Thursday, September 18

2 Corinthians 8:8-24: Paul admits that the current admonition, in which much is made of the zeal of the Macedonians, is intended to test the commitment of the Corinthians (verse 8). With respect to self-sacrificial generosity, nonetheless, Paul appeals not only to the example of other Christians but also to that of Christ Himself (verse 9; Philippians 2:6-11).

To facilitate the collection at Corinth, Paul is sending, not only Titus, but two other emissaries to assist him in the work (verses 18-22; 12:17-18). Paul does not name these men, but it is not necessary to do so, because their identity will be known when they arrive with Titus. Moreover, these men are, in part, delegates of the churches participating in the collection (verse 23). Luke provides a list of those who carried the money after the collection, in which list we observe that he mentions the origin of each man: Beroea and Thessaloniki in Macedonia, Derbe in Pisidia, and Asia Minor. It is not unreasonable to suspect that the two anonymous emissaries mentioned by Paul are included in Luke’s list (acts 20:4).

Clearly Paul was much concerned with this collection when he wrote the present epistle. Indeed, the highly artificial character of his style in chapters 8 and 9 seems to suggest uneasiness on his part respecting the reaction of these sometimes-troublesome Corinthians. Paul had only recently quarreled with some of them, and now he finds himself asking them for money! From a pastoral perspective, the situation was a bit delicate. Still, Paul could not neglect this collection, which he had promised to undertake (Galatians 2:10).

Friday, September 19

Luke 8:41-56: Twice in this Gospel reading we hear something about touch in connection with Christ our Lord: First, we read, with respect to Jesus, that a certain woman “touched the border of His garment. And immediately her flow of blood stopped.” Second, we are told, with respect to a little girl, that Jesus “took her by the hand and called, saying, ‘Little girl, arise.’” In each case something physical happened. Touch is, after all, a very physical thing.

Let us reflect, then, on the mystery of the divine touch, and let us consider this subject under three headings:

First, God touches us all the time. It is His touch that holds us in existence. What does Holy Scripture say with respect to our creation? “Your hands have made me and fashioned me,” wrote the Psalmist (119:73). Job tells the Lord, “Your hands have fashioned me and formed me” (10:8).  This image is drawn, of course, from the creation account in Genesis: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” 2:7). All three of these passages use the same verb, yasar, which means to mold, to form, to give shape to. Indeed, in Hebrew the participle of this verb, yoser, is the word for “potter.”

It is important to consider that our first contact with God, in other words, is physical. God physically touches us all the time. If He did not, we would cease to be. Our first contact with God is through our bodies.

It is necessary to stress the point, because this biblical idea is not especially common in much of popular American religion. Most Christians in this country seem to think that their relationship to God is first of all spiritual, non-corporeal. I believe this may be a residual Platonism in our culture, the retention of a cosmological hierarchy in which the material world is the furthest thing from God, who is pure spirit.

This is not the perspective of Holy Scripture, which speaks of God’s hands shaping our very bodies. Notice that Genesis speaks of man’s body before it speaks of his spirit: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” 2:7). We observe here a certain logical priority of the body (not chronological).

Thus, the Psalmist prayed, “For You formed my inward parts; / You covered me in my mother’s womb. . .  . My frame was not hidden from You, / When I was made in secret, / And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.”

How God physically touches us in Creation we do not know. Indeed, it is humanly unknowable, because Creation is a mystery. This is why it is contained in the Creed. We do know, however, that He physically touches us into being and continues to hold us in being, for this is what the Bible teaches.

Second, God’s Son assumed our physical condition. This is the reason the sick woman in the Gospel is able to touch Him. This is the reason He can reach for His hand and touch the daughter of Jairus. In the assumption of our humanity, God’s Son shares the same physical substance as ourselves. He is put together as we are. The divine and the human are joined in His flesh.

That is to say, in the Incarnation God has found the means of touching us in a new way. A desperately sick woman, in touching the hem of Jesus’ robe, receives an infusion of divine power. “Someone touched Me,” said Jesus, “for I perceived power going out from Me.” Yes, power indeed, for according to St. Paul, in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Col 2:9). By His touch, Christ drives out sickness and restores the lady to wholeness.

The touch of Christ drives out, not only sickness, but also death. Thus, when His hand took hold of the hand of the dead girl, says the Sacred Text, “her spirit returned, and she arose immediately.”

This detail is very important, because God’s Son assumed the fullness of our humanity precisely to drive out death. What He does in this Gospel story, raising the little girl to life, is a prophecy of His own resurrection, and also ours. He assumed our mortal flesh in order to confer on it the power of the Resurrection.

Third, the mystery of the divine touching has been incorporated in the Sacraments, because in the Sacraments Christ still touches us physically. He takes bread into His hands, the same hands that raised up the daughter of Jairus, and He identifies this bread with His own flesh. And we receive that risen flesh of Christ physically into our own bodies. If the mere touch of His hand can raise up the daughter of Jairus from the dead, what is the effect of our receiving His whole and entire into the substance of our own bodies?

The Sacraments of the Church are thus extensions of the Incarnation and the Lord’s Resurrection. He first touches our flesh in Baptism, where the water itself becomes the medium of divine power received in faith. He touches our flesh in the anointing with Holy Chrism, which becomes the instrument for the transmission of the Holy Spirit. His hand applies to our bodies the Sacrament of healing, as surely as He healed the woman with the issue of blood. The hands of the bishop are but extensions of the arms of Christ, when a priest or deacon is ordained. It is the hand of Christ that places the crowns on the head of the bride and groom in Holy Matrimony. This double story of the sick woman and the dead girl is an account of what happens among us in the sacraments.