Friday, November 6
1 Thessalonians 3:1-13: The two verbs "strengthen" and "encourage" (sterixsai, parakalesai) (verse 2) are used fairly often in the New Testament to describe what Christians are supposed to do for one another. Indeed, in the pastoral work of the early Christians, these are practically technical expressions for matters of duty. In addition to being used separately, they sometimes appear together in the writings of the two great missionaries who traveled together, Paul and Luke (Romans 1:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:17; Acts 14:22; 15:32).
Probably we should not try to find a distinction between the two verbs, as they are employed in such contexts. Their union is more likely a hendiadys, a way of saying something twice (as in "will and testament"). Strength and encouragement are the same thing, and it is very necessary to Christians (Luke 22:32; Revelation 3:2).
In the present text Paul relates this "strengthening" to faith (as also in Romans 1:11), because he is aware that our faith is always weak. To gain some idea how little faith we have, it is useful to recall that faith the size of a mustard seed could move a mountain. In any case, it is imperative to strengthen the faith of others by our own faith. John Calvin remarked on this verse: "The fellowship that ought to exist among the saints and the members of Christ surely extends to this point, that the faith of the one proves the consolation of the other."
According to Paul's thought here, the Christian who encourages and strengthens other Christians is God's "fellow laborer," because he is doing God's work. This also implies, of course, that the Christian who discourages or weakens the faith of other Christians is really working against God.
We may list any number of ways by which we Christians encourage and strengthen one another: a kindly disposition, magnanimity, generosity, genuine and sympathetic interest in the lives of others, good example, a willingness to listen to others when they tell us their troubles. Likewise, there are all sorts of ways to discourage and weaken the faith of others: bad example, excessive criticism and pickiness, unwarranted challenging of the good will and intention of others, being mean minded and selfish.
Saturday, November 7
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.
2 Chronicles 21: The reign of Jehoram (849-841) was what one might expect from a son-in-law of Ahab and Jezebel (vv. 1–6). Inasmuch, however, as this reign will lead to the hour of greatest danger for the house of David, the Chronicler once more explicitly reminds his readers of the divine promise that guaranteed the stability of that dynasty (v. 7).
To Judah’s southeast the Edomites, subdued by Jehoshaphat in the previous chapter, rose again in rebellion, this time successfully (vv. 8–10). Things were looking bad.
The letter sent to Jehoram from the prophet Elijah (vv. 11–15) is our first example of “literary prophecy,” a full century before the writings of Amos and Isaiah. As it happens, however, an historical problem connected with this message raises an intriguing question. That is—since 2?Kings (chs. 1–3) seems to imply that Elijah disappeared in his fiery chariot before the death of Jehoshaphat, how do we now find Elijah writing a letter to Jehoshaphat’s successor?
Ah, this is the sort of problem that invites an effort of imagination (and perhaps a bit of playfulness). Did Elijah actually write the letter to Jehoshaphat much earlier, but it only arrived after Jehoshaphat’s death? An interesting suggestion this, if only for what it indicates of mail delivery in the ancient Holy Land.
Or did Elijah write the letter to Jehoram ahead of time, knowing by prophecy the sort of king Jehoram would be? This suggestion, advanced by some of the ancient rabbis, has the merit of honoring Elijah’s knowledge of the future.
Or is it the case that Elijah, having gone up to heaven in his fiery chariot, returned to the earth for a short period to take care of his unfinished correspondence? Now there’s a thought. (I warned you about playfulness.)
And, if so, might not this same earthly solicitude on the prophet’s part argue that Elijah has in mind to make other return trips in the future? In fact, we know that the prophet Malachi (Mal. 4:5) believed this to be the case, nor was he the last (Matt. 11:14; 17:11–13). Indeed, the angel Gabriel, who by the time in question had shared the heavenly company of Elijah for nearly a thousand years (speaking in earthly time), dropped a remark on this subject when speaking to our Blessed Lady (Luke 1:17).
Whatever the circumstances of Elijah’s letter to Jehoram, the present writer suspects that this incident, like most things touching that famous Tishbite, is not open to normal, unimaginative analysis. When we are dealing with Elijah, anything may happen. All possibilities should be considered. Whatever else Elijah represents in Holy Scripture, he surely stands as a reminder that there is always room for one more surprise up the divine sleeve.
Finally, then, came the Philistines and their friends, leaving the royal progeny reduced to a single prince (vv. 16–17). In the following chapter, that prince too will perish along with all his sons except one. Judah is about to enter a very dark hour.
Sunday, November 8
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 that 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 Christian 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:
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 9
Psalm 80: The situation in Psalm 80 (Greek and Latin 79) 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 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.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11: In this passage Paul deals with, among other subjects, the theme of vigilance. This was not a theme peculiar to Paul, but part of he common catechetical inheritance of the Church, going back to Jesus Himself (Mark 13:33-37). Being common, it is found in other New Testament writers as well (1 Peter 5:8; Revelation 3:2-3). When Paul speaks on this subject, therefore, he is saying something Christians generally expected him to say (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:13; Colossians 3:2).
The life in Christ includes a vigilant, heightened consciousness, a stimulated awareness, a certain kind of mindfulness, clear and sharp thinking, intelligent questioning. This vigilance will have some trouble with the general sense of stupor common in contemporary culture, where piped-in music prevents a person from hearing his own thoughts, and great efforts are made in the advertising world to prevent us from seeing the complications of things. Every single project—from the offering of a new deodorant on the market to the construction of a new bridge or road—involves an underlying philosophy and a set of metaphysical presuppositions. The alert mind will search out these things, for the simple reason that its adversary, the devil, goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.
Tuesday, November 10
2 Chronicles 24: Joash was a mere child when the throne was given to him after the violent deposition of his grandmother Athaliah, and we may be sure that the government in those early years fell largely to the strong, influential figures who had been responsible for that overthrow. Chief among these was the priest Jehoiada (v. 2).
In fact, Jehoiada’s major hand in the restoration of a Davidic king to the throne at Jerusalem touches a strong motif of the Chronicler himself—namely, the reliance of the Davidic monarchy of Judah on the priestly house of Levi. In the present case, moreover, it is the priest who chooses the wives for the king (v. 3).
Young Joash, raised in the temple from infancy until he was seven years old, felt a special veneration for the place, a veneration that inspired his desire to see it refurbished and kept in good repair. For this work he sought the cooperation of the Levites (vv. 4–5). After some difficulties and negotiations on the matter, a collection box was placed in the temple itself to receive the necessary resources (vv. 6–11), and the required repairs were made (vv. 12–14; Josephus, Antiquities 9.8.2)
After the death of Jehoiada (vv. 15–16; Antiquities 9.8.3), however, the moral tone of the nation declined, including the wisdom and character of the king. An invasion of Syrians (vv. 23–24; 2?Kings 12:17–21), after an initial battle in which Joash was severely wounded, constrained Judah to pay tribute.
Prior to narrating this story, however, the Chronicler concentrates
on the spiritual decline that preceded that military and political defeat (vv. 17–19). Jehoiada’s son, Zechariah, prophesied against the national apostasy, apparently including the king’s part in it (v. 20). This Zechariah, we should recall, was of royal blood, for his mother was an aunt to King Joash (22:11). Thus he was a first cousin to the king himself, the very king who conspired in his murder (v. 21).
Furthermore, in the description of this murder we observe a striking irony: Joash had Zechariah stoned to death within the temple precincts, whereas Zechariah’s own father, Jehoiada, would not permit Joash’s grandmother, Athaliah, to be killed in the temple.
This Zechariah seems to be the one referenced in Luke 11:51, called “the son of Berechiah” in Matthew 23:35, perhaps under the influence of Isaiah 8:2.
King Joash, wounded in the battle with the Syrians, was then slain by two of his own citizens, themselves angered over the murder of Zechariah (vv. 25–26). Again, there is a notable irony in the story: King Joash was not buried among the kings of Judah, whereas the priest Jehoiada was buried among the kings. Josephus (9.8.3) explains that this latter honor was conferred on him because of Jehoiada’s restoration of the Davidic throne.
The Chronicler ends the chapter by referring to special sources he has used. This reference explains why his account differs in several particulars from the corresponding story in 2?Kings 12.
Wednesday, November 11
Luke 18:9-14: Virtually from the beginning, it would seem, Christians sensed that the Lord’s account of the “two men who went up to the temple to pray” (Luke 18:9–14) contained some of the most important lessons they were obliged to learn. The parable’s teaching about humility and contrition of heart embodied the major characteristic of a true disciple of Christ.
The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican bears striking affinities to other passages in Luke. For example, its closing statement, about the humbling of the self-exalting and the exalting of the humble, is identical with the final verse of the Lord’s exhortation about seeking the lower place at table (14:11). It is a theme that Luke establishes early, with the song of Mary in 1:52. Again, the differing features and fates of the two men in the temple readily put the reader in mind of the opposition between the Rich Man and Lazarus in 16:19–31; each story has to do with the divergence of the divine judgment from the human.
Even clearer, perhaps, is this parable’s resemblance to the story of the Prodigal Son in 15:11–32. Both stories elaborate differences between a self-righteous keeper of the law and a miserable offender pleading for forgiveness and grace. Similarly, the humble contrition of the Publican resembles that of the repentant woman in 7:36–50, while his gentle confidence in the divine mercy is like that of the chronically bleeding woman in 8:43–44. Most of all, however, the petition of the Publican in the temple closely resembles the prayer of the Thief on the Cross in 23:42; since neither man could bring to God anything but a plea for divine mercy, their cases are precisely parallel.
Within Luke’s Gospel, chapters 11 and 18 are concerned with prayer in a more concentrated way. The former begins with Jesus at prayer, a scene that prompts the disciples to request that He teach them also the proper way to pray. Thus is introduced Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which is promptly followed by two further dominical teachings on the subject. The first (11:5–8), specific to Luke, is the parable of the importunate seeker who repeatedly bothers his friend for help. This emphasis on repetition introduces the next dominical teaching on prayer, the famous “ask, seek, knock” sequence (11:9–13).
The teaching on prayer in Luke 18 also emphasizes indefatigability and persistence. Beginning with the exhortation that Christians are to “pray always” (18:1), an ideal also found in St. Paul (Romans 12:12; Ephesians 6:18; Colossians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:17), Luke 18 gives three models of persevering prayer: the two parables of the Widow and the Judge (vv. 2–8) and the Pharisee and the Publican (vv. 9–14), and also the story of the blind man of Jericho (vv. 38–39). Each is a case of sustained, relentless, and repeated petition. The characters in each of these accounts pray without ceasing by making the same request over and over again. In the teaching of Luke, then, constant, uninterrupted prayer means ceaselessly repeated prayer. In Luke, the Publican’s petition became a major feature in the Christian quest for steady, persistent, and constant prayer.
Following an historical development not fully documented in the sources, the prayer of the Publican was gradually joined to the blind man’s prayer in Luke 18:38—“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me”—and augmented with more ample Christological affirmations. It thus became “the Jesus Prayer”: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Above all else, this ancient prayer, rooted in the biblical text, is an affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus as the defining revelation of God in human history: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God.” It is a proclamation of faith in the form of a direct address, an interpersonal prayer in which the believer invokes the Savior of the world. Since only in the Holy Spirit can we proclaim that Jesus is Lord, this is a prayer permeated with the divinizing grace of the Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, the Jesus Prayer is a confession of one’s sinfulness, designed to place a broken and contrite heart continuously in the Presence of the living Christ and under the bounteous mercy of His blood:
“Have mercy on me, a sinner.” One may think of this prayer as the biblical doctrine of “justification by faith” shaped into a petition, enshrined in the form of a confession of Jesus’ lordship.
Thursday, November 12
Revelation 1:9-20: John’s vision comes "on the Lord’s Day" (verse 10), Sunday (1 Corinthians 16:2), the very day when the seven churches of Asia Minor were celebrating the Lord’s Supper, "the breaking of the Bread." This service of worship normally began on the night when the Sabbath came to a close and Sunday began; it lasted through the night and ended on Sunday morning (Acts 20:7,11).
John describes himself as being "in the Spirit," a technical term referring to prophetic inspiration (Numbers 11:25; 2 Samuel 23:2; Ezekiel 2:2; 3:24; Matthew 22:43). Like Ezekiel, John "fell as one dead" (verse 17), a description of the biblical phenomenon known as being "slain in the Spirit." Such was John’s response to this inaugural vision (comparable to the inaugural visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel) of Christ in glory, standing in the midst of the Menorah (verse 12), clothed as the High Priest (verse 13; Exodus 28:4; 39:29; Sirach 50:5-12). The versatile "right hand" of the Lord can simultaneously hold the Pleiades (verse 16) and still be laid gently on the downfallen John (verse 17).
In this vision Christ is otherwise frightening, with His white hair (verse 14; Daniel 7:9), the sword of the Word issuing from His mouth (verse 16; cf. 2:12,16; 19:15; Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12), His feet like refined brass (verse 15; Ezekiel 1:7). Here He is twice called "the First and the Last" (verses 11,17), an expression that will also appear in 2:8 and 22:13. Drawn from the Book of Isaiah (41:44; 44:6), this expression corresponds to "Alpha and Omega" (verses 8,11), the first and final letters of the Greek alphabet. Christ is, then, the beginning and end of language, the defining content of all intelligible meaning. He is, in short, the Word. He died and rose again and lives forever (verse 18; Romans 6:9). Hence, He holds the keys of death and the underworld (verse 18; cf. 9:1; 20:1).
Friday, November 13
Luke 18:18-23: This account, which Luke shares with the other Synoptics (Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22), is often referenced as the story of “the rich young man.” In fact, however, only Matthew says that the fellow was “young” (neaniskos–Matthew 19:22). Bearing in mind that references to youth are always relative (I now find myself using that reference to men in their thirties, for instance), it would be pointless to think of this as an inconsistency among the Evangelists.
The emphasis is different in Mark and Luke, however; indeed, these two quote the fellow to the effect that he had kept all the commandments “since youth” (ek neotetos), which may suggest that the man in question thought of himself as somewhat older. Luke, moreover, specifies that the man had been around long enough to have become a “leader” (archon–verse 18).
This difference among the witnesses is perhaps significant in one respect—namely, whatever his age, the wealthy person was certainly immature in mind. Otherwise, how explain his inability to assess the value of “eternal life” (zoe aionios–verse 17) in comparison with his current wealth? It was surely a sign of immaturity that he counted his present possessions (verse 23) more valuable than a “treasure in heaven” (verse 22).
More alarming to the average reader, perhaps, is the story’s message that a man can observe all the commandments (verse 21) and still come up short (eti hen soi leipei–verse 22) with respect to eternal life. One recalls, in this respect, the parable of the rich man in 16:19-31. In that case too, the rich man lost eternal life by living solely for the sake of this life. In both instances, as well, an insouciance about the higher value of heaven was accompanied by a lack of concern for the poor.
What, after all, did the man really lose? Or, to put the question in another way, what alone constitutes what is desirable—what alone is good? The present story contains the answer to this question as well: “No one is good but God alone” (verse 19 RSV). This is what the “leader” has lost—God, the sole source of eternal happiness. No wonder that his sorrow sets in immediately.