Friday, January 29
Hebrews 13:1-9: Because “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever,” a certain stability should be expected in the lives and conduct of Christians. For example, they should “not be carried away with various and strange teachings [didachai].” That is to say, they must avoid ideas alien (xsenai) to the doctrines handed down from the Apostles. The example given here concerns dietary restrictions based on the kosher rules in the Torah: “foods which have not profited those who have been preoccupied with them.” We recognize this admonition as reflecting the concern of St. Paul.
For the rest, the outline given here for Christian conduct is basic. There is, for starts, the primacy of fraternal love: “Let brotherly love abide”—he philadelphia meneto. This expression suggests that such love should be a constant habit of mind and a sustained pattern of response. Fraternal love, in other words, is the Christian’s “default” preference, the programmatic disposition of his mind and sentiments.
This fraternal love is expressed in hospitality (philoxsenia), described here as the entertainment of strangers. Besides its obvious sense of receiving others into our homes, it also suggests a certain open-mindedness to those who are different from ourselves, the ones designated as xsenisantes. Perhaps we may think of it as a willingness not to impose on others our own cultural and sympathetic preferences. This would mean that Christians, while avoiding “strange doctrines,” should not be necessarily avoid “strange people.”
Our author appeals to the Old Testament examples of those who “unwittingly entertained angels.” The obvious cases are those of Abraham and Tobit, who showed hospitality to angels.
A similar kindness must be shown to prisoners, “as if chained with them”—hos syndedemenoi. This surely refers, in the first place, to those Christians who suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake, but it will include also a compassion and concern for anyone incarcerated (Matthew 25:36). Indeed, it seems especially within our prison population that we may find the largest assortment of “strangers.” It is arguable that there is no more hopeless class of people on the face of the earth.
After speaking of charity toward one another, toward strangers, and toward prisoners, our author speaks of the marriage bond. He does this without elaboration, contenting himself with a simple and stern warning: “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” No discussion, no alternate viewpoint. Just, don’t.
After lust, our author reminds us of the danger of covetousness, the antidote to which is a constant trust in God to take care of our needs. He cites the simple message of Deuteronomy and the Psalter: “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” and “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear what man can do to me.”
As symbols of the stability characteristic of the Christian life, our author reminds his readers of their “leaders,” those who went before them and from whom they have received the inherited faith. This modeled faith is to be their guide, as they avoid novel and strange teachings.
Saturday, January 30
Hebrews 13:10-25: The “altar” of Christians is the Cross, on which the sacrifice of Christ was offered for the sins of the world. The author of Hebrews is implicitly contrasting this altar with that in the temple at Jerusalem. It was not the altar of the temple, wrote Leo I of Rome, but the altar of the world itself: Crux Christi non templi esset ara, sed mundi.”
Nonetheless, we are said to eat from this altar, in the sense that we participate in the sacrifice of Christ by our sharing in the mystery of His body and blood. This corporate sharing is a proclamation of the Lord’s death. According to St. Paul, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim [kataggellete] the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). This proclamation of the Lord’s death is the Eucharistic rite itself. Through it, we become “partakers of Christ” (3:14).
This altar of the Cross, our author says, goes on to say, stood outside the walls of the city, meaning that Jesus became an “outcast” from the perspective of the Jews. In this respect, the sacrifice of the Cross was prefigured by the sacrifices of the Old Testament: “For the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate.” This comment refers to the sin offerings on the Feast of the Atonement, of which we read: “the bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, shall be carried outside the camp” (Leviticus 16:27; cf. 24:14; Numbers 15:35; John 19:17).
Christians must “go out” to Christ, in the sense of leaving behind all other hope. Going outside the gate, to the area of Calvary, they are to share in His humiliation and rejection: “Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.” Inasmuch as Jesus died as a criminal, rejected by the world, Christians should anticipate no better fate in this life. They can expect to be no better received than was Christ Himself. Thus, the altar of the Cross is not only the source of the Christian life; it is also the standard by which Christians live. The blood of Jesus is at once the cause of their sanctification—“that He might sanctify the people with His own blood”—and their call to live a sanctified life.
Hebrews 13:15-19: The author continues the list of very simple obligations and practices that comprise the Christian moral life. In these verses he speaks of four such duties: the constant praise of God, deeds of charity, cooperative docility to the pastoral authority of the Church, and intercessory prayer. We may take these in order:
First, there is the continuous sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God (verse 15). This is specifically Christian prayer, because it is offered through (dia Christ. We recall, in this regard, this work’s teaching on the unique mediation of Christ (8:6; 9:15; 12:24). Prayer in the name of Jesus pertains, of course, to the common teaching of both Paul and John.
In the present context it is clear that this “Jesus focus” pertains, not only to the prayer of intercession, but also to that of praise and thanksgiving. God is to be praised and thanked especially for the gift of His Son, in whom alone we have access to God.
Hebrews thinks of this prayer as audible—the fruit of our lips. His exhortation here resembles one in St. Paul: “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-20).
Hebrews describes this thankful prayer as a sacrifice: “the sacrifice of praise to God.”
This image of sacrificial prayer takes our author immediately to a second expression of sacrifice: Deeds of sharing and charity. “But do not forget,” he writes, “to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (verse 16). The same word for sacrifice, thysia, is used in both verses.
St. Paul also wrote of such sharing as a form of sacrifice: “I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18).
Praise and the charitable sharing of one’s resources are the two forms of daily sacrifice expected of the Christian. To speak of praise and almsgiving in this way was a cu
stom the early Christians inherited from late Judaism, and it probably assumed a special emphasis during the Babylonian Captivity. Deprived of their temple worship during much of the 6th century before Christ, devout Jews endeavored to pray and give alms as forms of replacing the daily sacrifices. We see this effort exemplified in the Book of Tobit, for instance.
A third responsibility of the Christian moral life pertains to the believer’s relationship to the pastoral authority of the Church: “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (verse 17). This exhortation is based on a component of common sense—namely, since those who govern the Church are obliged to render to God an account of the souls entrusted to their care, it is hardly sensible to make the task more difficult for them. That is to say, it is better for that task to be done with joy rather than grief. A joyful pastor is far more likely to be spiritually effective than a pastor suffering from anxiety and spiritual disquiet.
The pastors envisioned by the Epistle to the Hebrews were those whose ministry and witness was derived from the Apostles. Our author indicated this apostolic transmission when he wrote of “so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him” (2:3). By their manner of life, these pastors had “confirmed” the salvation spoken by the Lord. The living “confirmation” of these pastors, some of whom had already died, was recalled in the present chapter, where the author wrote: “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct” (verse 7).
Fourth, our author speaks of intercessory prayer as another component of Christian moral responsibility. Concretely, he requests a remembrance in their prayers: “Pray for us; for we are confident that we have a good conscience, in all things desiring to live honorably. But I especially urge you to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner” (verses 18-19).
This common responsibility to remember one another in prayer is a sustained motif in Christian hagiography and epistolary literature. We find it already in the first extant writing in the Church: “Brethren, pray for us” (1 Thessalonians 5:25). Paul especially requests intercessions for his work of ministry; he writes in the second earliest work of Christian literature: “Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run and be glorified” (2 Thessalonians 3:1). In both of these cases, we observe, this request for intercessory prayer is found in the final chapter of the epistles, just as it is here in Hebrews.
The Church is a communion in prayer. Mutual intercession for one another gives an essential quality to the structure of the Christian soul.
Sunday, January 31
Matthew’s version of this double miracle, the seventh and eighth in the current ten miracles, involves of significant shortening of the 22 verses with which Mark 5 the story. The expression “from that hour” in Matthew 9:22, which is not found in the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke, serves to tie the story back o the account of the centurion’s servant in 8:13.
Matthew is also the only one of the evangelists to mention the flute players already assembling for the funeral of Jairus’s daughter. The raising of the little girl is to be contrasted with the killing of the first-born, which was the tenth of the Mosaic plagues.
Psalm 29: Because its literary style includes some sonorous features dependent on specific Hebrew words, Psalm 2 (Greek and Latin 28) tends to suffer more in translation than is the case with many other psalms. For example, the Hebrew noun found most frequently in this psalm is qol, meaning “voice.” Pronounced with the full glottal shock of the letter “q,” the word mimics the sound of thunder, which is, in fact, what the noun refers to in this psalm. (This rhetorical device, in which a word imitates the thing to which it refers, is called onomatopoeia. Words like “crash” and “bump” and “scream” are examples in English.) The expression qol Adonai, found seven times in this psalm, conveys the impression of a repeated thunder roll, not entirely expressed in the softer English equivalent, “the voice of the Lord.” Nor perhaps does even the canonical Greek phone Kyriou do the thing full justice, though the Latin, vox Domini, may come closer.
The same sort of guttural sonority is likewise exemplified in another Hebrew word in this psalm, kavod, “glory,” which occurs twice near the beginning and then again close to the end. Psalm 29 features several additional examples of this technique, for it is a poem describing a thunderstorm, and in the original Hebrew it really does sound like a thunderstorm. (It has thus always reminded me of Beethoven’s musical portrayal of a storm in the Pastorale.)
The setting of this tempest is a giant cedar forest, whose overarching branches assume the contours of a vaulted temple, and through this lofty sylvan shrine the booming voice of God comes pounding and roaring with a terrifying majesty, accompanied by the swishing of the wind and rain, while flashing bolts of lightning split the very trunks of the towering trees: “In His temple everything speaks glory.”
This is a psalm about God’s “glory” (kavod ) and “holiness” (with a couple of plays on the corresponding Hebrew root qodesh—note, for instance, the “wilderness of Kadesh”). In any language, this is most certainly a psalm to be prayed out loud, allowing its words to come rumbling through the soul. Recited properly, it becomes a literary extension and re-living of that ancient storm which was the psalmist’s original inspiration.
This is a very active piece of poetry. After calling on the sons of God to bring Him glory and honor, the psalmist begins to describe that glory as it is revealed in the storm. Calling all God’s sons to “give glory to His name,” the psalmist immediately speaks of “the voice of the Lord upon the waters. The God of glory thunders.” This is the same thunderous voice that in the Gospel of John tells of the glory of God’s name: “‘Father, glorify Your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.’ Therefore the people who stood by and heard it said that it had thundered” (John 12:28, 29).
This divine and thunderous voice is heard exactly seven times in our psalm, seven being the number of fullness and perfection. These seven thunders of God represent the summation of unspeakable mysteries heard by the Apostle John: “I saw still another mighty angel coming down from heaven, clothed with a cloud . . . and [he] cried with a loud voice, as when a lion roars. When he cried out, seven thunders uttered their voices. Now when the seven thunders uttered their voices, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, ‘Seal up the things which the seven thunders uttered, and do not write them’” (Rev. 10:1–4). Such too was the awesome experience of the Apostle Paul when he “was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (2 Cor. 12:4).
If most of this psalm is rather loud and active, however, its ending is decidedly peaceful, for it closes with God serene upon His throne, reigning eternally over His Church: “The Lord puts away the storm (kataklysmon, “cataclysm,” in the Greek); the Lord thrones as king forever. The Lord will give strength to His
people; the Lord will bless His people in peace.” This people blessed with strength and peace at the ending of the psalm are those very “sons of God” summoned to worship Him back at its beginning. The thunderstorm now come to an end; there remains in the temple of the cedar forest only the everlasting reign of the heavenly throne.
Monday, February 1
Matthew 9:27-38: The healing of two blind men here (verses 27-31) parallels a very similar account in 20:29-34. This earlier healing of the two blind men stands in contrast to the growing spiritual blindness of Jesus’ enemies in these two chapters, terminating in 9:34. The healing of blindness is a manifestation of the messianic era foretold in a number of Old Testament texts, notably Isaiah 29:18; 35:5; 42:7. This messianic note is particularly emphasized by the blind men calling Jesus “son of David.”
The Lord’s answer, “Let it be!” (genetheto), by which the light floods into the eyes hitherto blind, repeats the verb in Genesis 1:3, “Let there be light!” (genetheto phos). It is also worth mentioning that this cure of blindness, which is the ninth of Matthew’s series of ten miracles in chapters 8 and 9, is parallel to the ninth plague of Egypt, the darkness.
The account of the ten miracles terminates with the Pharaoh-like hardness of heart on the part of Jesus’ enemies (9:34). Very much as Matthew 4:23-25 set the stage for the Sermon on the Mount, the closing part of this section, verses 35-38, sets the stage for the calling of the Lord’s first missionaries and the missionary discourse of Matthew 10.
Indeed, Matthew 9:35 repeats 4:23 nearly word-for-word. This early mission-circuit of Jesus (periegen in verse 35, “He went around”) was stern work. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that there were 204 villages in Galilee. It was a foreshadowing of the Great Commission to “all nations” with which Matthew’s gospel ends.
Psalm 56 (Greek and Latin 55) is the prayer of a believer sorely tried but still trusting in God. It may easily be prayed as the prayer of Christ our Lord in the context of His redemptive sufferings, but it also expresses the feelings of those who have, like the Apostles, been counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus (cf. Acts 5:41). That is to say, this psalm is the prayer of Christ, and the prayer of the Church, and the prayer of any disciple of Christ within the Church.
What the Church suffers, after all, she suffers in communion with Christ, and what is suffered by individual members is part of that same mystic communion, of which the Apostle Paul wrote: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24).
The mandate laid on all believers, that they daily take up the cross and follow Jesus, is not a thing light or incidental to the living of the Gospel, for Holy Scripture affirms that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12).
Psalm 56 is a perfect prayer for all such folk: “Have mercy on me, O God, for man has trampled me down; all day long the belligerent man has afflicted me. My enemies trample me all day long, for many have warred against me since daybreak. . . . All day long they have scorned my words; all their machinations are directed to my hurt. They position themselves for ambush, setting a snare for my foot; they prowl for my soul.”
Here in our psalm is described, first of all, the very situation we find with respect to Jesus in the Gospels. Early in Mark, for instance, there is a series of five episodes (2:1—3:6) in which the enemies of Jesus interrogate and investigate Him, spy on Him and finally reach their sinister resolve: “Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him” (3:6). There are five more such stories nearer the end of Mark’s Gospel (11:27—12:34), leading at once to the conspiracy to put Jesus to death (14:1). The present psalm may certainly be prayed as the sentiments of our Lord in that context, revealing His trust in the Father even in the midst of the evil plots against Himself.
But much of this drama in the Gospels is repeated in the experience of the first Christians narrated in Acts and the various Epistles, where we likewise read repeatedly of persecutions, plots, lurking ambushes, false testimony, denunciations, floggings, imprisonment, and even death. In varying degrees, such was the lot of Stephen, James, Paul, and the other Apostles, one of whom wrote: “Rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:13, 14).
The more important sentiment in our psalm, however, is deep trust in God’s abiding mercy and help. If God has numbered the hairs on our heads, how much more has He counted every tear falling from our eyes. Not a sigh uttered before Him will go unremembered: “Lord, I have recounted my life to You. You have placed my tears in Your sight, and in Your promise. My enemies shall be thrown back, on whatever day I shall call upon You. Behold, I know that You are my God.”
Our trust in God is open-ended. It is not just a matter of trusting Him in our present trials, but of confiding to His care all that lies ahead, that future still unknown to us but for which God has already made provision. This is the God from whom nothing can separate us, “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing” (Rom. 8:38, 39).
In this psalm’s act of trust, the future itself becomes a sort of narrative past: “You have delivered my soul from death, my feet from stumbling, so that I may rejoice before the Lord in the light of the living.” Since nothing “shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39), we believers already know the final blessing of our destiny: “Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (8:30). Such is the biblical doctrine of the divine election and assurance, the source of our hope and consolation in every trial that attends our faith. “Finally,” says the believer in Christ, “there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8).
Tuesday, February 2
Luke 2:22-40: Since the presentation of our Lord in the temple is an account found only in the Gospel of Luke, it seems reasonable to look at that narrative through the lens of Luke himself.
It is not hard to do. This is the story, after all, of the Messiah's first visit to the temple in Jerusalem, a site that Luke makes a foundation stone of his literary structure. Indeed, he begins and ends his Gospel in the temple (1:5-9; 24:52-53).
Moreover, near the end of Jesus' first visit to the temple, Luke remarks that the prophetess Anna "spoke of Him to all those who looked for the redemption in Jerusalem" (2:38). The real "redemption in Jerusalem" takes place, of course, in the last pages of Luke, describing the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. These are the events included in what Luke's original Greek text calls Jesus' exodus, "which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem" (9:31).
Luke's story takes for granted the full significance of the temple. He presumes that the reader is familiar with the Lord's assumption of "residence" there shortly after its completion (1 Kings 8), His departure from it at the time of i
ts destruction (Ezekiel 10), and His return there when the temple was rebuilt (Haggai 2:1-9; Zechariah 8-9).
Luke especially presumes the prophecy of the Messiah's coming appearance at the temple, an oracle found near the end of the last prophetic book of the Hebrew Scriptures: "And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming, says the Lord of hosts" (Malachi 3:1).
According to that same prophecy, the purpose of the Messiah's coming to the temple was to purify its priesthood: "He will purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer to the Lord an offering in righteousness" (3:3).
It was those very priests, however, who failed to recognize the Messiah's arrival. On His final recorded visit to the temple, in fact, Luke tells us that "the chief priests and the scribes, together with the elders, confronted Him" (20:1). Their confrontation came in response to the purging of the temple in the scene immediately preceding (19:45-48).
Those sons of Levi wanted nothing to do with any purging. They had no use for what Malachi called the "refiner's fire" and "launderers' soap" (3:2). What, then, resulted from their confrontation with the Messiah? Luke tells us, "the chief priests and the scribes that very hour sought to lay hands on Him" (20:19). The temple was the site where this messianic drama was decided. It is surely significant, therefore, that Luke, in describing Jesus' words about Jerusalem's coming destruction, places that prophecy in the temple itself (21:20-24; contrast Matthew 24:3; Mark 13:3).
Such is the full literary context of Luke's story of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple. It is a prophetic preparation for the redemptive events that will culminate at the end of the Gospel. The Lord is met by Simeon, an elderly man whom Luke describes with references to the Holy Spirit in three successive verses (2:25-27). Cast in the role of a prophet by these references, the inspired Simeon, after a canticle of praise, prophesies the drama that will ensue in the temple toward the end of the Gospel: "Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that will be spoken against" (2:34).
It was "in that instant" that Simeon was joined by "Anna, a prophetess," who spoke of this Messiah "to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem" (2:36-38). This too, as we have seen, was a prophecy of the Lord's death and resurrection, for those things brought about that "redemption in Jerusalem."
Such, at the beginning of Luke, is the small company that welcomes the Messiah on His first visit to the temple. Upon these two old people comes an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, much as Luke describes in the beginning of Acts. Here too the Spirit descends upon a son and a daughter, a manservant and a maidservant, and they prophesy (Acts 2:17-18). Israel is well represented by these two figures who foster in their hearts the ardor of ancient hopes. But Simeon and Anna, even as they gave thanks to God for the Messiah's arrival (2:28-29,38), dimly foretell the drama that will later unfold in the courts of the temple.
Wednesday, February 3
Psalm 72: This psalm (Greek and Latin 71) is often referred to as a “messianic” psalm, in the sense that it is concerned with God’s “anointed” king. Considering only the simplest reading of this psalm, it is difficult to escape the impression that it was composed for use at ceremonies of royal coronation, the ritual point of dynastic transition: “Grant Your justice to the king, O God, and Your righteousness to the king’s son.” The title added to this psalm does, in fact, ascribe it to Solomon, the first successor to the Davidic throne.
Two narrative sections of Holy Scripture readily come to mind in connection with the themes of Psalm 72:
The first text is 2 Samuel 7, containing Nathan’s great prophecy about the royal house of David, which now became the beneficiary of a special covenant to guarantee that his descendants would reign forever over his kingdom. A number of lines of our psalm, especially those pertaining to the permanence and extension of David’s royal house, reflect that historical text.
The second pertinent passage is 1 Kings 3, which describes Solomon’s prayer for the “wise heart” that would enable him to govern God’s people justly. Repeatedly throughout this psalm mention is made of the justice and wisdom that would characterize God’s true anointed one.
Both aspects of Psalm 72, as well as the two narrative texts that it reflects, proved to be more than slightly problematic in Israel’s subsequent history. For example, Solomon’s vaunted wisdom as a ruler, that for which he had prayed at Gibeah, didn’t last even to the end of his own lifetime, and it was displayed among his posterity with (not to put too fine a point on it) a rather indifferent frequency.
Similarly, what is to be said about the permanence of the reign of David’s household over God’s people? More than half of that kingdom broke away shortly after the death of David’s first successor, nor was any Davidic king ever again to reign on his throne after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. What, then, could be said for either the prophecy of Nathan or the prayer of Solomon? How were the promises in this psalm to be understood?
As Christians, of course, we believe that the inner substance of all these prefigurings finds its fulfillment in Jesus the Lord, the goal of biblical history and the defining object of all biblical prophecy.
The Archangel Gabriel announced the fulfillment of these ancient prophecies when he told the Mother of the Messiah that “the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32, 33). Yet other angels announced to the shepherds that “there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ [Messiah] the Lord” (2:11). He was to be at once David’s offspring and His Lord (cf. Mark 12:35–37).
As for Solomon, was he the wise king? Well, in measure, to be sure, but now behold, a greater than Solomon is here. If Solomon’s wish was to rule God’s people wisely and with righteousness (a word that comes repeatedly in our psalm), what shall we say of the One whom the New Testament calls our wisdom and our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:24, 30)?
The liturgical use of this psalm during the festal days of Christmastide suggests still further dimensions of its fulfillment, particularly the anticipated universality of the Messiah’s Kingdom. For example, consider these lines: “The Ethiopians [usually meaning any of Africa south of Egypt] shall fall down before Him, and His enemies shall lick the dust. The kings of Tarses [in Spain] and the islands [Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, Crete, Cyprus, Rhodes, etc.] shall offer gifts, and the kings of Arabia and Saba shall bring offerings. And all the kings shall bow down before Him, and all nations serve Him.” Such lines must put one in mind of those wise kings who came to bow down before the Christ Child, especially in light of the psalm’s later line that says: “And He shall live and shall receive the gold of Arabia” (cf. Matt. 2:9–11).
Thursday, February 4
Psalm 71: As a normal ending to most of the litanies of the Orthodox Church, her herald deacon, his summoning stole lifted before the icon of the Lord, exhorts the worshipping congregation, “Let us commend ourselves, and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.” “To You, O Lord,” chants God’s people in response.
“All our life” we thus commend—every single aspect of our lives—our economy and the labor of our hands, our culture and the striving of our minds, all
that John Keats calls “those flowery bands that bind us to the earth,” and most particularly the myriad mutual relationships (“and one another”) in which we are to be sanctified.
“All our life” we commend—not just the present moment, which is still somewhat within our governance, but more especially those two other chronological blocks over which we have so little say, the past and the future; the past, remembered with both thanksgiving and remorse, and the future, dimly surveyed with hope as well as fear. To Christ our God, we commend “all our life.”
In that brief commendation of our lives, so frequently heralded in our hearing by the Church’s deacon, we are right to find a kind of summary of Psalm 71 (Greek and Latin 72): “For You are my patience, O Lord. From my youth the Lord has been my hope. I have leaned on You from my very birth; since my mother’s womb have You been my defense. . . . Oh, forsake me not as the years advance, nor cast me aside when my strength is spent. . . . From my youth have You taught me, O God, and unto this day Your wonders I declare. And unto old age and hoary head, O God, forsake me not.”
Those who pray the psalms are aware that, in spite of their own infidelities to God over the years, God has nonetheless remained faithful. Were that not the case, they would not be praying the psalms at all.
This sense of God’s lifelong fidelity is at the heart of the Christian experience. In the middle of the second century, put on trial for his faith in Jesus and pressured either to renounce that faith or die a violent death, the venerable Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, responded to his judge: “For eighty-six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme the King who saved me?”
Trial and trouble, nonetheless, shape the context of fidelity in this psalm, as they did in the long life of Polycarp: “My God, deliver me from the hand of the sinner, from the law-breaker and the wicked. . . . For mine enemies have spoken against me, and there is a conspiracy among those that stalk my soul. They say, ‘God has forsaken him. Hound him down and catch him, for there is none to deliver him.’” This is the persecution of which our Lord spoke so often in the Gospels, saying that it would be the constant lot of those who bear His name.
The many trials mentioned in this psalm are well known to the servants of Christ, one of whom described himself as “in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” (2 Cor. 11:23–27).
And what does the servant of God do in the midst of such trials? According to our psalm, he is chiefly engaged in praising God: “I will sing psalms to You on the harp, O Holy One of Israel. My mouth will proclaim Your righteousness, and all day long Your salvation. . . . My lips will exult when I sing to You, and my soul which You have redeemed. And all day long will my tongue meditate on Your righteousness.” Once again the ministry of the Apostle Paul is most instructive in this respect. One remembers how Paul, after being beaten at Philippi, sang songs of praise during the night in his jail cell. One recalls that he uses words for “joy” in a letter that he wrote from a prison cell (that is, the Epistle to the Philippians) more often than in any other of his letters.
Friday, February 5
Matthew 10:16-26: Four animals are mentioned in the first verse, all of them for their symbolic value.
Although this initial mission is only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” it is significant that the “nations” are mentioned in 10:18; again, this foreshadows the Great Commission given at the end of Matthew.
These verses make it clear that the proclamation of the gospel by the Church will be met with resistance, just as we saw to be the case in chapters 8 and 9. Like Jesus, the disciples will be “handed over” to “councils” (synedria). This description, contained here in prophecy, was very much the experience of the Christians whom Matthew knew when he was writing these words. Similar experiences are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.
Psalm 73: While many of the psalms are congregational hymns manifestly composed for public worship, Psalm 73 (Greek and Latin 72) is one of those showing signs of a more private origin, taking its rise in the intimate reflections of the pondering heart. Psalm 73 is concerned with much the same moral problem as Job and Habakkuk—“If God is just and on the side of justice, and if also God is almighty, why do wickedness and injustice seem to prevail?”
Already in this, its most elementary moral presupposition—its basic sentiment of hope, expecting goodness and justice to prevail over evil and injustice—Psalm 73 stands radically at odds with much of our present popular philosophy. Indeed, one of the more characteristic features of the modern world is its growing inability to presume that the moral order, including the social order, is rooted in the metaphysical order, described by Colin Gunton as “the order of being as a whole.” Relatively few people in today’s culture seem any longer able to presuppose that they live in a moral universe where the differences between right and wrong, justice and injustice, are fixed in the composition of reality.
Like the ancient Sophists, those ethical relativists who perceived no essential relationship between objective reality and ethical norm, and thus no necessary association between nature and culture, many thinkers today, not viewing the universe in fixed moral terms, would find no reason for surprise at the apparent prevalence of evil.
For modern man, after all, as for those ancient foes of Socrates, justice is only what a given culture determines justice to be. Justice is configured only as a society decides to configure it. Thus, there is no way for injustice to prevail, for if a society approves or prefers a certain kind of behavior, then the latter conduct automatically becomes just.
Strictly speaking, then, since for modern man correct behavior consists solely in the acquiescence to purely cultural norms, there can really be no such thing as an unjust society. That is to say, whatever prevails in a society is necessarily just, because society is the sole and ultimate arbiter of justice. In contemporary sociology and other behavioral disciplines this presumption rises to the level of an axiomatic first principle, quite beyond academic controversy.
Moreover, in a world whose only presumed rule is the survival of the fittest, why would anyone anticipate that justice and goodness would prevail? In short, a major conversion of mind would be required of modern man even to appreciate the moral problem posed in this psalm, much less to deal with that problem philosophically or, yet less, to make it the inquiry of prayer.
For Psalm 73, however, since it presupposes the identification of the world’s Creator with the Author of the moral law, the prevalence of evil in the world is the stuff of a crisis. Even as the psalm begins, the crisis has already been worked through, so to speak, and the prayer simply reviews the reflective process that brought about its resolution. Even as we begin the psalm, then, we are ready to praise God.
First, the moral problem. There is the scandal at beholding the prosperity of the wicked, in contrast to the suffering of the just.
Second, there is the temptation to envy or even emulate the wicked. After a
ll, evil seems to provide a bigger payoff than good. This was the candid argument explicitly made by the Sophist Thrasymachus, who contended that, because injustice does a better job of “delivering the goods,” only a dunce or weakling would prefer justice!
Third, there is the believer’s awareness that he is actually being tempted; he senses that, in permitting himself even to think such thoughts, he places his soul in moral peril. Thus, the believer takes stock of his thoughts before it is too late.
Fourth, he takes stock of his thoughts by entering into the deeper presence of God: “So I tried to understand this, but it was too difficult for me, until I entered the sanctuary of God.” (One may want to interpret this “sanctuary of God” as the loving intellect; Cicero thus speaks of the “temple of the mind.”)
Fifth, the believer reflects on the judgments of God, who knows how to deal with the unjust, and will, at the last, do so. Finally, the believer commits his own destiny to God, who will never abandon him, ever be with him, and, at the end, receive him into glory.