Friday, November 7

Luke 19:41-44: The rejoicing hymnody of the previous verses suddenly turns to lamentation. In foretelling Jerusalem’s conquest by the Romans in the present verses, Jesus uses the language employed by the prophet Jeremiah when he foretold the earlier downfall of that city to the Babylonians (Jeremiah 6:6,13-14,17,21; 7:11). We recall that in Luke’s narrative this is the first time that Jesus has seen Jerusalem since His temptation in 4:9. All through His ministry, however, Jesus’ thought and intent have been directed to Jerusalem (Luke 9:31,51,53; 13:22,33; 17:11; 18:31; 19:11,28). Now He “sees” it and weeps (verse 41). Since Luke does not often portray the emotions of Jesus, this detail is especially striking.

In verse 42 the underlying Semitic word for “peace,” shalom, is part of the root of the city’s own name Jerusalem (cf. Hebrews 7:1-2).
The details of the siege in verse 43 are quite identical to the Romans’ treatment of Jerusalem just prior to its downfall. This fact, however, is not especially significant, inasmuch as all besieged cities are besieged in pretty much the same way, and Jerusalem had been besieged many times.

The reason given for Jerusalem’s coming destruction is identical with the reason given for the city’s earlier destruction at the hands of the Babylonians—namely, its failure to recognized the hour of the visitation of divine grace. The removal of one stone from atop another is a description of its “unbuilding” (cf. Haggai 2:15).

In Luke’s narrative these verses describe Jesus’ first entry into the Temple since He was twelve years old (2:40-50). His purging of the Temple here (verses 45-48) is a partial fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy in 2:34. It is also, of course, a fulfillment of the prophecy in Malachi 3:1-2.
Luke does not, like Mark, specify that this purging of the Temple took place on Monday. It is peculiar to Luke, however, that Jesus’ action prepares the Temple to become a place appropriate for His teaching, which follows immediately (verse 47).

The Temple’s purging is also related to its being a “house of prayer” (verse 46). This theme is especially prominent in Luke (cf. 1:8-11; 2:37; 18:10; 24:53).

In the ensuing days Jesus’ enemies endeavor to destroy Him, in evident reaction to the claims in His “take over” of the Temple for His own teaching ministry. The controversy here has to do entirely with the question of who has proper authority in the Temple. In Luke’s theology, Jesus in due course replaces the Temple, a theme that will be made explicit in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7.

When Jesus drove the moneychangers from the temple, it was the most eschatological of actions. Jesus thereby affirmed that the temple really is a precinct separated from an “outside,” where are found “dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie” (Revelation 22:15). Thus, the Bible’s final book does not portray an afterlife of universal reconciliation, but an everlasting separation of wheat and chaff.

Saturday, November 8

1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Paul prays that the Thessalonians will abound more and more (verses 1-2). This idea of growth is frequent in Paul, for whom the Christian condition of justification is less a "state" than the dynamic possibility of growth in the Holy Spirit. The word "more" (mallon) appears seven times in Romans, eight times in 1 Corinthians, twice in 2 Corinthians, five times in Philippians, once each in Galatians, Ephesians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and twice in the tiny letter to Philemon.

This frequency of a simple adverb suggests something of how Paul experienced the life in Christ. It had no limits, neither in knowledge nor in love. He does not, therefore, attempt to "define" a disciple of Christ, because to "define" means to "determine the limits of." Belonging to Christ is limitless, because Christ Himself is limitless.

For this reason St. John Chrysostom comments on this verse, comparing the soul to fertile soil: "For as the earth ought to bear not only what is so upon it, so too the soul ought not to stop at those things that have been inculcated, but to go beyond them."

The image of the seed sown on the earth is a famous one, of course. The Lord’s parable of the sower is only one of its uses.

Sunday, November 9

1 Thessalonians 4:9-18: The early Christian parishes had a strong sense of identity based on a negative attitude towards the society in which they lived. They realized that what Jesus meant was radically opposed to what the world stood for, and the call to holiness, an essential feature of the life in Christ, required from them a radical break with their pagan past. Often enough this also meant, in practice, a break with their pagan friends (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

Thus, the local Christians congregations served as communities of support, because believers could find with one another a very real solidarity in those convictions that separated them from other people. We find in early Christian literature ample evidence these Christians felt a great gulf between "them" and "us." The New Testament and other primitive Christian literature leave no doubt that the specifics of Christian existence were founded on a position of contrast with, and opposition to, the "world."

Indeed, today’s reading uses a technical expression to designate non-Christians, hoi exso, "those outside" (verse 12). This was evidently a common term among the early believers (1 Corinthians 5:12-13; Colossians 4:5; Mark 4:11; cf. also Titus 2:7-8; 1 Timothy 3:7).

Christians at that period were enormously aware of their minority status among non-Christians, and they were careful how they impressed those non-Christians (1 Peter 2:12; 1 Corinthians 10:32-33; Matthew 5:16).

The picture that emerges of the Christian parishes during that early period is one of communities of sobriety, hard work, and a closely knit bond of fraternal love (philadelphia). In today’s reading Paul stresses minding one’s own business, and doing one’s own job becomingly and unobtrusively. There is no question of evangelizing one’s neighbor’s by aggressive approach or slick advertising. In the words of Tertullian, Non magna loquimur, sed vivimus—"We don’t talk big, but we live."

Monday, November 10

Luke 20:20-26: Among the features that make up the “teaching style” of our Savior, one of the more notable is His refusal to let His hearers and interlocutors define the terms of discussion. It is one of the ways in which He makes it clear that the Gospel is more than simply an answer to a human question. The Good News eludes all attempts to restrict it to a human concern. Jesus sees to this.

For example, when a speculative point is raised, Jesus occasionally turns the inquiry into an exhortation. We observe, for instance, His response to the query, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of God?” Instead of a straightforward reply, He admonishes the disciples to become as little children (Matthew 18:2-4). There is a second level of irony in this answer—namely, little children do not ask such questions. Their query, that is to say, was prompted by the non-childlike ambitions of those who posed it (cf. Luke 9:46).

On receiving a purely conjectural question, Jesus sometimes uses it as the occasion to give a very practical admonition. For instance, asked about how many will be saved, He offers very useful counsel about how to be saved (Luke 13:23-24).

Our Lord frequently responds to a question by posing a counter-question. In some cases the latter device is simply rhetorical. For instance, when asked if it is “lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason,” He appeals to Holy Scripture by employing an interrogative form: “Have you not read . . .?” (Matthew 19:3-4; cf. Luke 6:2-3). Likewise, when Nicodemus inquires, “How can these things be?” Jesus challenges him, “Are you a teacher in Israel and do not know these things?” (John 3:9-10) In these cases the counter-questions serve no purpose beyond their rhetorical force.

On other occasions, the Lord’s counter-question is a direct foil to block a questioner’s malicious intent (cf. Luke 11:53-54). Thus, when His enemies inquire by what authority He does “these things” (cleansing the Temple, withering a fig tree, and so forth), He declines to answer until the questioners should answer His counter-question about the authority of John the Baptist (Mark 11:28-30).

Sometimes, however, the Lord’s counter-question alters the direction and raises the level of the conversation. The most dramatic example of this phenomenon, I suppose, is in today’s reading, the incident involving “spies who pretended to be righteous, that they might seize on His words, in order to deliver Him to the power and the authority of the governor.” In hopes of attaining this goal, they ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Luke 20:20-26)

The questioners here feel they can hardly fail: If the answer is yes, then Jesus will be perceived as taking the side of the Roman overlord. If the answer is no, then He is subject to arrest as a revolutionary.

The Lord recognizes the intent of this question, which is about as subtle as Mount McKinley. He requests the questioners to show the proper coin of the tax. This request accomplishes two things: First, it suggests that Jesus Himself does not have such a coin (cf. Matthew 17:24-27). Second, it proves that the questioners do have such a coin, thus demonstrating their hypocrisy in initiating the interrogation. If Jesus were interested in simply putting these hypocrites to shame, the entire discussion could reasonably end right here.

It is at this point, however, that Jesus asks His counter-question: “Whose image and inscription does it have?” The image on the coin is, in fact, essential to the discussion, and this in two ways: First, the emperor’s image on the coin is what renders it objectionable: It violates the prohibition against images. Second, the image indicates the coin’s basic significance: It belongs to Caesar. That is to say, Jesus does not evade the question about paying taxes to Caesar; He answers it, and the answer is yes!

At the same time, however, the Lord elevates the discussion above the limits of the original question. He uses the latter to distinguish between the relative and legitimate claims of the State and the absolute claims of God. This dominical distinction, which was always at least implicit in the Prophets, thus provides a practical norm in the Christian life. While remaining radically faithful to God, Christians are to support and give their allegiance to the government Providence has placed over them. The debt they owe to the State is not optional. Sharing in the economic and political benefits the State provides, they are under a stern moral obligation to bolster, maintain, and provide for it.

This important theological teaching comes by way of a dialectical response to a malicious question. A misshapen mouse gives birth to a perfectly formed elephant.

Tuesday, November 11

Psalm 80: The situation in this psalm (79 in the Greek and Latin) is pretty rough: “Will You feed us with the bread of tears, and give us only tears as our measure of drink? You have made us a contradiction to our neighbors, and our enemies regard us with scorn.” The problem in this psalm is not private, so to speak; it has to do with afflictions brought upon the Church.

The remedy requested against this plight is the revelation of God’s glory, a theme that appears early in our psalm: “You who sit upon the Cherubim, reveal Yourself to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh; stir up Your might and come to save us.” Then, three times comes the refrain that makes the same prayer: “Convert (epistrepson) us; show forth Your face, and we shall be saved.” The order in this refrain is important, in that God shows His face only to the converted—“when one turns [or “is converted”–epistrepse] to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Cor. 3:16). So the psalm prays for a conversion, a change in our hearts, that we may behold the glory of God and thereby be saved.

But it is important to note that this is a prayer of the Church, a petition for conversion made by those who are, presumably, already converted and already have been enlightened and tasted the heavenly gift, and already were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and already have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the world to come. Even these, our psalm is saying, still need even further to be converted and further to be saved.

Neither conversion nor salvation is a once-and-for-all thing in Holy Scripture, where the often repeated command to “repent” appears invariably in the Greek present imperative tense. This grammatical form means something much closer to “keep on repenting.” According to the sustained exhortation in the Epistle to the Hebrews, those who have already repented should still be careful about “the sin which so easily ensnares us” (12:1). Similarly with respect to “being saved”; in the Bible words about salvation are more often used in the future tense than in a past tense. Thus, this prayer—“O Lord of hosts, convert us; show forth Your face, and we shall be saved”—is always appropriate to our state. The Church is the body of those who are constantly being converted and saved.

In Psalm 80 there are two chief metaphors for the Church: the flock and the vine. First, the Church is a flock. Thus this psalm commences: “Attend, O Shepherd of Israel, You who herd Joseph like sheep.” Holy Church is called “the flock of God,” awaiting the day “when the chief Shepherd appears” (1 Pet. 5:2, 4), who is elsewhere called “that great Shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 13:20). Our psalm is the flock’s prayer for the appearing of that Shepherd. Left to their own devices, sheep have been known to get themselves terribly lost, and, as our psalm suggests, they are vulnerable to many predators.

Second, the Church is a vine: “You transplanted a vine out of Egypt; You drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the way before it; You planted its roots, and it filled the earth.” It is a catholic plant, this vine, for its branches spread everywhere: “Its shadow covered the mountains, and its boughs the cedars of God. It stretched out its limbs to the sea, and its tendrils to the rivers.”

The vine, however, is at least as vulnerable as a flock of sheep: “A boar from the forest has ravaged it, and a wild beast has eaten it up.” Such things do happen to the Church, of course, whether from imprisonment at Philippi, beatings and dissensions at Corinth, heresy in Galatia, the synagogue of Satan at Smyrna, or the deeds of the Nicolaitans at Ephesus and Pergamum. It is against such beastly ravages that the Church prays this psalm.

The victory for which we pray, moreover, is the vindication of Christ our Lord in this world, the one referred to here as “the Man of Your right hand, the Son of man whom You have strengthened for Yourself.” This is the same Man of which Psalm 1 had said, “Blessed is the Man,” and of whom Psalm 8 had inquired, “What is Man that You are mindful of Him, or the Son of man that You care for Him?” This vine, this flock, belongs to Christ, and its cause in this world is His. The enemies of the Church are the enemies of Christ, and their final doom is described in some of the more colorful pages of 2 Thessalonians and Revelation.

(Taken from P. H. Reardon, Christ in the Psalms)

Wednesday, November 12

Second Thessalonians: Near the end of 1 Thessalonians Paul had warned them not to despise prophecy (1 Thessalonians 5:20). Well, as it turned out, they didn’t. Some of the prophetic utterances, in fact, had very much disturbed them, proclaiming the proximity of the Lord’s return. Moreover, the congregation had received another epistle, claiming to come from Paul himself, pretty much to the same effect. Paul was now obliged to write once again, counseling them about these matters (2 Thessalonians 2:2). To prevent any further danger from someone’s composing a fraudulent epistle in his name, Paul began at this point the custom of adding some line or other to the end of his letters in his own distinctive hand, so that there could be no doubt about the authenticity of the letters (thus, 2 Thessalonians 3:17; see also 1 Corinthians 16:21; Galatians 6:11; Colossians 4:18).

In Thessaloniki the major result of these speculations about the Lord’s return was moral: Christians were neglecting their responsibilities in this world because of the supposed imminence of the Lord’s return. Such an attitude, Paul argued, was sheer laziness, and he gave very specific instructions about the Christian’s obligation to work and avoid the evils of idleness.

In this epistle, as in the earlier one, he emphasizes adherence to the authority of Tradition in the Christian life. This Tradition, he said, embraces all the Christian teaching whether written down or by word of mouth (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

Thursday, November 13

2 Thessalonians 2:1-12: In this reading Paul uses the striking expression “the love of the truth,” prompting a later remark of St. Gregory the Great, to the effect that veritas non cognoscitur nisi amatur–“the truth is not know unless it is loved.”

It is worth reviewing the persuasion of the ancients on this point, those who believed that the goal of education was love of the truth. Our modern attitude, by contrast, seems to be that of a true-or-false test, in which the question of a statement’s content pertains solely to the intellect.

This attitude is difficult to reconcile with Holy Scripture, where the opposite of truth is not falsehood but deception. Eve in the Garden was not taking a true-or-false test, which she happened to fail. Eve was deceived by a lie. Jesus later calls Satan a liar from the beginning. In the Bible, the opposite of truth is deception.

Knowledge of the truth always involves an act of judgment, and the act of judgment always depends on the orientation of the heart. Hence St. Gregory’s assertion that the truth is not known unless it is loved. The business of knowing the truth has to do with the quality of the heart, which is why Paul contrasts truth with wickedness (verses 10-12). A few years later he would tell the Corinthians, “Charity does not rejoice in evil, but in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). Similarly he would tell the Romans about those who “disobey the truth and obey wickedness” (Romans 2:8).

Friday, November 14

2 Thessalonians 2:13—3:5: The vocabulary of call and election came naturally to Paul as a Jew, because God’s choice of the Israelites as a special and consecrated people had long been formative elements in the self-consciousness of that people. Abraham had been “called” from Ur of the Chaldees; Israel had been “called” out of Egypt.

What may at first seem surprising is that in these two earliest of Paul’s epistles, those to the Thessalonians (as in verse 13 of today’s reading), both of them written to predominantly Gentile Christians, he expects them to understand what he means by this vocabulary of call and election. Apparently during the three weeks of his oral instruction to them, to which he refers in these two letters, Paul had stressed election and call as central elements in the self-consciousness of the Christian Church. He had established in the minds of these Thessalonians that they too stood in a direct line of continuity with God’s Chosen People of old, with Abraham and with Moses. The Thessalonians too were called and elect.

After all, they had received “the word of God” (verse 13), a biblical expression that normally refers to a prophetic oracle. Paul sees himself as commissioned to speak this word, like the prophets before him. Thus, when Paul spoke, it was God speaking, just as He had spoken through Moses or Isaiah.

Paul feels the need to remind the Thessalonians of this. There is nothing here to suggest that the sense of being called and chosen involved an overwhelming experience not open to doubt. Otherwise it would not have been necessary for Paul to keep reminding the Thessalonians of the truth of their call and election.

It is important, furthermore, to observe that nowhere does Holy Scripture speak of call and election in a negative way, as though God deliberately chose not to call some human beings to salvation—as though some human beings were somehow outside of God’s love and care. Call and election are always spoken of in positive terms in Holy Scripture, never negative terms.