Friday, June 11
Saint Barnabas: Although the history of icons may give us an idea of what some early saints looked like (the very primitive sketch of Peter and Paul in the excavation under the Vatican, for example), it is generally hard to gain knowledge of this sort from the New Testament. It is true that, unless the expression “of short stature” in Luke 19:3 refers to Jesus (which is grammatically possible), we know that Zacchaeus the tax collector was not tall, and we are probably justified in suspecting that Mary of Bethany was blest with ample tresses (cf. John 11:2; 12:3). On the whole, however, the New Testament is not a copious source for such information.
There is a major exception in the case of Barnabas. We really do have a good idea of what Barnabas looked like, because some ancient devotees of Zeus mistook him for the object of their devotion.
It happened in the city of Lystra, where Paul had just healed a life-long cripple. In immediate response to this marvel, the citizens of the city “raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’” After that, matters got very much out of hand. In the enthusiasm of the moment, “the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of their city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, intending to sacrifice with the multitudes.” Because of the language barrier, which apparently required them to speak through an interpreter, it took several minutes for the two apostles to put a stop to the business, but they eventually did so, proceeding then to preach one of the shortest sermons in history (three verses). Even then, says the text, “with these sayings they could scarcely restrain the multitudes from sacrificing to them” (Acts 14:8–18).
Now the curious point here is that the crowd, persuaded that the gods had just arrived in town, took Barnabas for Zeus. It was somewhat natural, given their premise, that they thought Paul to be Hermes, the messenger god, “because he was the chief speaker.” Indeed, it was Paul who had healed the lame man with a simple command. But why Barnabas as Zeus? It must have had something to do with his appearance. These folks would never have taken an average-looking guy to be Zeus.
Now it happens that we know exactly what sort of fellow those people thought Zeus, should he ever come to visit his temple, would look like, because Zeus is portrayed in dozens of extant old art works and described in scores of ancient texts. This “father of gods and men” was massive in height and powerfully muscular in bulk. His great brow extended broad and serene over clear, far-seeing eyes, and a full majestic beard lay upon his barrel chest. Brother to Poseidon, god of the sea,
Zeus, when he condescended to speak, spoke with the deep rumblings of oceanic authority. Now this . . . this is what the citizens of Lystra saw in Barnabas! No wonder they were impressed.
In fact, they never quite lost their awe in the presence of Barnabas. A few days later, when some Jews from Iconium arrived and stirred up the crowd against the two apostles, it was Paul that they stoned, nearly to death. Nobody dared throw a stone at Barnabas! (14:19–20)
The impressive appearance of Barnabas was matched by his generosity and nobility of soul. He made one of the first large financial donations to the Christian Church, and it was the trusted Barnabas who could introduce the recently converted Saul of Tarsus to the frightened Jerusalem church, oversee the new ministry at Antioch, lead the first mission to Cyprus and Pisidia, and later restore young John Mark to the mission field (4:36–37; 11:22–25; 13:2–14; 15:36–39). Reassured even to be in the presence of this huge, competent, and gentle human being, all Christians knew Barnabas as the “Son of Consolation.”
Saturday, June 12
First Samuel 31: A useful maxim of the life of grace may be this: “I am just as likely to offend God because of my virtues as I am because of my vices, and if ever I am completely undone, my fall will more probably involve my strengths than my weaknesses. Consequently, in the spiritual life it is highly deceptive and even perilous to ‘play to my strengths.’”
Each of us, when we place our lives under the guidance of the Holy
Spirit, brings along an assortment of personal traits, to be regarded as either strengths or weaknesses depending on their compatibility with that guidance. For example, some individuals are already possessed of a certain natural patience and a spontaneous sense of humble deference.
Perhaps they were raised that way in their youth. These qualities are strengths, of course, inasmuch as the Holy Spirit leads us to patience and personal humility. Such a person is less likely to sin by impatience and arrogance.
But suppose that same person, playing to his strengths, concentrates his mind’s attention mainly on patience and deference, which he may do simply because these virtues come more easily to him. Watch for such a one to offend God by failing to be properly impatient and appropriately intolerant in circumstances where impatience and intolerance are the only godly options. This seems to be the fault of which the Apostle Paul accuses Barnabas in Galatians 2:13.
Thus, too, a person naturally given to righteous zeal, when playing to this strength, may sin by making too abrupt a decision (David in 1 Samuel 25). Someone else, with a temperament disposed to gravity of soul, if he overly indulges this strength, may wax morbid in his heart and become despondent (Elijah in 1 Kings 19). Again, someone tolerant by native instinct may fail to impose discipline when it is morally necessary (Eli in 1 Samuel 2). Another, falling prey to a mix-up between divine grace and excessive adrenaline (a confusion common among those possessed of the latter), commits himself beyond his strength (Simon Peter in Matthew 26:33). In King Saul, it would seem, we find a man ultimately done in by that very quality that had initially made him so effective a servant of God. His executive impatience, the charismatic can-do that was his clear strength against the Ammonites in 1 Samuel 11, grew to monstrous proportions throughout the ensuing chapters, until King Saul, unto his own ruin, was completely dominated by it. Far from being improved by playing to his strength, Saul made it an instrument of his destruction.
Sunday, June 13
Acts 9:1-9: We are not free to choose the framework and shape of our repentance—surely this is one of the clearest teachings of the Bible. Jesus “poured water into a basin,” says the Sacred Text, “and began to wash the disciples’ feet” (John 13:5). The Lord determined the basin, the instrument that gave specific contour and dimensions to the shape of His cleansing water. He then came to each of the disciples, one by one, and they understood that they had to put their feet into that basin, so that
He could wash them.
In other words, the Lord Himself chooses the manner and pattern of our washing; how we are cleansed by Christ is not a decision for our personal choice. “Here is the bowl,” the Lord’s action affirms; “put your feet right in here, this specific basin, and I will wash you clean, for if I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.”
This truth was among the most important that Saul of Tarsus had to learn, and God took special care that he learned it well. As he was ruefully to reflect so many times during his later life, Saul had been a persecutor of the Holy Church (1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13,23; Philippians 3:6; 1 Timothy 1:13). “As for Saul,” we are told, “he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison” (Acts 8:3). So when the Lord converted Saul on the road to Damascus, He made an explicit point of obliging that persecutor to submit to the Church that he had afflicted.
Some modern Christians imagine that they can come to God by
“Christ alone and not by an organized religion,” but the Lord would suffer Saul to entertain no such illusion. On the contrary, in Saul’s conversion Jesus most explicitly identified Himself with the Church: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? . . . I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (9:4, 5). It was in this moment that Saul learned that Jesus and His Church are inseparable.
Thus, Saul would never be able to say that he came to God by “Christ alone and not by an organized religion.” Indeed, after Jesus identified Himself to Saul, He gave him not one word of further direct instruction. When Saul asked Him, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” Jesus simply directed him to make that same inquiry of the Church: “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (9:6).
That is to say, not even the Apostle Paul, in the very hour of his conversion, was permitted to deal with Jesus “one on one.” The contour and shape of his repentance had to be determined by a specified “organized religion.” Paul would have no “personal relationship to Jesus as
Lord and Savior” except through obedience to the doctrine, discipline, sacramental worship, and corporate life of the Church; he could not have a “personal relationship to Christ” on his own terms. Apart from the Church, the saving knowledge of God in Christ was not available even to St. Paul. He was constrained, rather, humbly to submit his heart and conscience to the divinely commissioned authority of that same body of Christians that he had hitherto been persecuting.
Paul’s sins were not taken away simply by his “asking Jesus to enter his heart.” There is nothing in the biblical text to suggest that he did any such thing on the road to Damascus. On the contrary, Paul’s sins were taken away by his deliberate submission to the Church’s sacramental discipline: “Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16), because he “who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). Paul was obliged to adhere to the same procedure as every other believer, a prescription enunciated in the
Church’s very first sermon on Pentecost: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins”
(Acts 2:38). Paul was forgiven his sins in exactly the same way required of everyone else—by joining the sole organization in this world that has the authority to forgive sins (cf. John 20:23).
Surely, then, it was in the experience of his conversion that the
Apostle Paul received the seed of all his later teaching about the Church, which he identified as “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Paul knew nothing of any non-institutional Christianity. He was familiar with no Christ except the Christ of the Church—that constituted, organized communion of believers so intimately identified with Christ as to be called His “body” (Ephesians 1:22; 4:15–16; 5:23; Colossians 1:18, 24).
Monday, June 14
Mark 1:40-45: The leper’s hypothesis (“If you are willing . . .”) expresses, not a doubt about Jesus’ ability to cleanse him, but about His
The better and more likely manuscript reading of verse 41 ascribes anger to Jesus in this instance. This is not the response we would expect; in truth, if “moved with anger” were not in the original text, it is nearly impossible to imagine how that expression would ever have made its way into the manuscripts that have it. This most improbable response of anger on the part of Jesus is doubtless what caused later copyists to change the reading to “moved with compassion,” the more expected response.
What, then, causes Jesus to be angry here? Surely He is not angry with the poor leper who kneels before Him. More likely He is angry for what the man has suffered, the years of sustained humiliation that have so reduced the man’s spirit that he even doubts Jesus’ willingness to help him.
In reaching out to touch this leper, moreover, Jesus violates the letter of the Law, thereby assuring His own legal contamination. This is a gripping image of Jesus’ assumption of our fallen state. Jesus, in touching the leper, assumes that contamination. The final verse is this story is telling: “[the healed leper] went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the matter, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places.” This reversal is full of redemptive irony; when the story begins, Jesus can go wherever he wishes, but the leper must stay outside of the city limits. By the end the story, the leper can go wherever he wishes; it is Jesus who must stay outside the city.
Psalm 79: After the four horsemen had appeared, all carried on mounts distinctive in color, and the earth had been ravaged with their fourfold affliction, the Lamb of God reached forth to break the fifth seal of the great scroll. St. John tells us what he saw when that seal was opened: “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony (martyria) which they held” (Rev. 6:9).
These are the souls of the martyrs, which means “witness-bearers,” and they are said here to be “under the altar” because their blood, poured out as in sacrifice, lies uncovered at the base of the altar. In the Bible, that is to say, the “soul [or “life”] is in the blood” (cf. Lev. 17:11, 14; Deut. 12:23). Their holy blood, unjustly shed, cries out to God “with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’” (Rev. 6:10).
This “How long?” finds expression in Psalm 79 (Greek and Latin 78): “Help us, O God our Savior; for the sake of the glory of Your name, O Lord, deliver us, and forgive us our sins for the sake of Your name, lest the nations say: ‘Where is their God?’ Let the vengeance of the blood of Your servants, which was poured out, be known among the nations in our sight. Let the groaning of the prisoners come before You. With Your enormous arm take charge of the children of those who are slain. To our neighbors render sevenfold in their bosoms the contempt with which they have contemned You, O Lord.”
The Bible gives us no reason to believe that a prayer for the vindication of God’s judgment should be a particularly gentle prayer, for the judgment of God really is a judgment. It is not ambiguous or hazy. That is to say, it really does make decisions; it says, clearly and very emphatically, “this but not that.” God’s judgment really does know the difference between sheep and goats. There is no danger that God will mistake Abel for Cain.
Therefore, as our psalm surveys the ravages and wastes of our sinful history, with God’s house laid in ruins and the holy city “reduced to a fruit market,” with the corpses of God’s servants given as food to the fowl of the air and the beasts of the field, and “their blood poured out like water round about Jerusalem,” we join our voices with the martyrs who cry aloud “How long?” to the Lord holy and true.
Tuesday, June 15
Mark 2:1-12: There are three points for consideration in this story:
First, this is a parable about the Church, and, more specifically, about the faith of the Church. The story says specifically that Jesus looked upon the faith of those who lowered the paralytic man into His presence. He forgave and healed that paralytic because of the faith of those who presented him to receive mercy and healing from the Lord.
This man did not come to Jesus on his own. He was carried by a community of faith. The faith that He sees is not the faith of the paralytic. Not one word is said in the Gospel about the faith of the paralytic. Jesus sees the faith of those who are supporting the paralytic, and it is on the basis of their faith that He says to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven you.”
Faith in Jesus is not an individual enterprise. It is the participation in the assent of the Church. There is not such thing as faith in Jesus that does not bind us one to another. The only personal relationship we have to Jesus includes a sharing in the faith of the Church. The Church is not a secondary or unimportant consideration in the Christian life. There is no such thing as a Christian life apart from the Church.
Second, in bringing this man to Jesus, the Church resorts to violence. A family’s home is destroyed in this story. In removing the roof of this house, these men proclaimed that “family values” are not the final criterion of the Kingdom. What does Jesus say about “family values”? “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. He who loves wife and children more than me is not worthy of me.” The destruction of that family’s roof illustrates the description of the Gospel enunciated by Christ our Lord: “The Kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent carry it away.”
Third, Jesus forgives this man’s sins, which is the basis for the charge of blasphemy brought against Him. The most significant thing about the paralytic is not his paralysis, but his “sins.” Consequently, this is what Jesus addresses first. The primary “healing” in this story is the healing from sin, because sin is the more radical problem.
Indeed, even when He heals the man’s paralysis, Jesus does so in order to demonstrate His authority over the man’s sins. In what He does in this scene, then, Jesus inserts Himself between God and the man, speaking to the man with God’s authority. It is not without significance that this story also includes the detail that Jesus could, like God, read His accusers’ inner thoughts.
This story demonstrates that the reason Jesus can forgive sins is that by His death on the Cross He really does take away sins. He can forgive sins because He pays the price for their remission. He forgives sins, because He washes them away in His blood. Jesus is the friend of sinners, not just in the sense that He is chummy with them; He is the friend of sinners in the sense that He alone is able to do something about their sins.
This is why, in our sins, we g
o to Jesus, the real Jesus that we find in the Gospels. We don’t take our sins to a judge but to a Savior, and a Savior is what the paralytic finds in this Gospel story.
Jesus reads thoughts of the human heart, both good thoughts and bad thoughts. His eyes penetrate into the hearts of those who lower the paralytic through the roof, and He sees their faith. Likewise, His eyes peer into the hearts of these critical scribes, and He perceives their animosity. Jesus reads all thoughts. The dispositions of each heart are open to His glance, and the secret thoughts of every mind are laid bare to His sight.
Jesus must know all sins, because He dies for all sins. His knowledge of hearts is commensurate with His love for them. Nothing is concealed from the sight of the Savior. Few men can read very deeply into their own hearts, and nothing is more common in this world than self-deception about our hearts. But the vision of Jesus the Savior goes deeper still. Even if our hearts condemn us, wrote St. John, He is greater than our hearts and knows all things.
Wednesday, June 16
2 Samuel 4: On two occasions, as we saw, David had refrained from taking the life of Saul, and on the second of these Saul himself was asleep (1 Samuel 24 & 6). In the mind of honorable David such an action was considered dishonorable beyond contemplation. We are not surprised in the present chapter at his reaction to the murder of the sleeping Ishbosheth (verses 9-12). Such an atrocity was repugnant to the classical chivalric spirit of the warrior David.
David’s reaction here is of a piece with his response to the murder of Abner in the previous chapter. David, throughout the difficult days during which he was a fugitive in the Judean desert, had placed his trust in the justice of God and refrained from taking matters into his own hands. The present act of treachery, the murder of Ishbosheth, was exactly what could be expected, David believed, if men placed political and military expediency above moral principle.
Prior to telling this story of the death of Ishbosheth, however, the author pauses to insert a single verse on Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan. This quiet insertion, without comment, prepares for the lengthier treatment of this important character in chapter 9. With the death of Ishbosheth, tShis poor cripple becomes the last heir of Saul’s house. This insertion, then, introduces a point of great historical irony.
Mark 2:13-17: Like the previous conflict story, this second one also portrays Jesus as teaching (2:2,13). It is significant that His teaching takes place at the waterside, and it is here that He summons Levi.
This new disciple, because he collects taxes on behalf of the hated Roman overlord, belonged to a class of citizens odious to most Jews (except the Herodians, who favored Roman rule), and especially to Israel’s rabbinical leaders, identified here as “the scribes and Pharisees.” Moreover, when Levi invites all his friends to a party, so that they may meet Jesus, Jesus shows no concern at all for the scruples of those who oppose such things. He comes to Levi’s house and enjoys what appears to have been a jolly good time. It was from this occasion, apparently, that Jesus’ enemies tagged Him as a partygoer (Matthew 11:18-19) and a friend of sinners. The Lord nowhere disowns this latter label. Indeed, He is certainly the friend of sinners.
After all, He has demonstrated that He knows exactly what to do with sins, and in the present scene He gathers the sinners unto Himself as special objects of His mission (verse 17). To the shock of the Pharisees, He insists on being the sinners’ friend who suffers and dies to redeem them, and one of the great ironies of the Markan gospel is that Jesus’ enemies are the very ones who make this redemption possible.
Thursday, June 17
2 Samuel 5: This is a very important chapter of political transition. Abner’s adherence to David, followed quickly by the death of Ishbosheth, prepares the way for David’s assumption of authority over all of Israel. His capital still at Hebron, David had reigned over Judah since the Battle of Gilboah in 1000 B.C. The present scene brings us to about 992, some seven and a half years later, when David assumed complete power over Israel and moved his capital to Jerusalem, a recently captured city, which, because it belonged to no particular tribe of Israelites, would less likely be subject to tribal rule and tribal rivalries. David’s reign at Jerusalem was to last until 961 (verse 5).
David, having great plans for Jerusalem, establishes diplomatic and commercial relations with the Phoenicians to Israel’s immediate north (verses 11-12). It is the Phoenicians that will provide the sundry materials for the construction of a new city on that site, including the Temple that David’s son would eventually construct.
A chief reason prompting the northern tribes to place themselves under David’s rule, surely, was the need for a common defense against the Philistines, who had so soundly defeated Saul’s army at Mount Gilboah. Consequently, dealing with those Philistines, now that he has a larger army, becomes David’s first order of business (verses 17-25).
Mark 2:18-22: Notice how these five conflict stories in Mark (2:1—3:6) are linked to one another. The first two (the paralytic and Levi’s friends) are joined by the theme of Jesus dealing with sin. Now the third of these stories is joined to the second by the theme of eating, which will also be the linking image between stories three and four. (Four and five, in turn, will be united by the theme of the Sabbath.)
Whereas the Lord’s enemies had earlier complained of His eating with sinners (2:16), in this third story they are bothered by the fact that His disciples are failing to keep the Jewish weekly fast days. We know from the Mishnah and the Talmud that devout Jews regularly fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, two days equally distant from the Sabbath, to commemorate the forty days fast of Moses on Mount Sinai (the first of those being a Thursday and the last a Monday). Indeed, the Pharisee in the parable boasted of observing that discipline (Luke 18:12).
In response to their query, Jesus does not denigrate the importance of fasting but directs the structure of the fasting observance to His own person, explaining that His presence with the disciples is sufficient warrant for their not observing the fast (verse 19). Then, aware what His enemies are even now plotting against Him, He foretells His coming death, “when the Bridegroom will be taken away.” Then, says Jesus, fasting will be appropriate. “They will fast on that day,” He declares, in our earliest reference to the traditional Friday fast that Christians maintain to give weekly honor to the Cross of their Lord. By the year 100, and perhaps decades earlier, the Christians added Wednesday as another weekly fast day (the day on which Judas sold Him — Mark 14:1,10), so as not to be fasting less than the Jews did (cf. Didache 8). To the present day the Christian churches of the East maintain this discipline of fasting on Wednesday and Friday each week.
Friday, June 18
Acts 10:34-48: Among the polarities employed in the Bible’s treatment of salvation, that of universality and holiness is perhaps the easiest to describe. Universality is wide, and holiness narrow. We are bidden by the former, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28), while the latter declares, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). The first is inclusive and brims with encouragement, whereas the second is restrictive and hurls out a challenge. Thus, when the principle of universality proclaims that
God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4), the principle of holiness answers that “narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14).
The tension inherent in this polarity is first theological, to be sure, hinting at the mysterious confrontation of God’s freedom with man’s. But because salvation is worked out in history, we are not surprised to find the tension between universality and holiness taking shape in discrete contingent forms. For example, against the backdrop of the Roman Empire’s political universality, the Acts of the Apostles portrays the strain that the early Church felt between her universal call to mission within that world and the stern demand laid upon her to be a people set apart from it. That is to say, the theological tension assumes flesh as a tension of history, and then again, issuing from the pen of St. Luke, a tension of narrative.
Within Luke’s lengthy account of how that theological tension was maintained by the counterweights of history, the conversion of Cornelius and his friends is of central importance. So the story is worth revisiting under the aspect of that consideration.
Cornelius’s entrance into the Christian Church is especially significant, not only because he is a Gentile, but also because, in his military office, he represents the Roman Empire. In this representation Cornelius is prefigured by Luke’s earlier centurion at the foot of the Cross, who pronounced Rome’s final verdict, as it were, on Jesus of Nazareth: “Certainly this was a righteous man!” (Contrast Luke 23:47 with Matthew
27:54 and Mark 15:39.) In this adjudication the representative of a political universality receives the grace to discern, by the light of universal norms of righteousness, that Jesus at least meets the common standards of a moral claim. In this respect he takes Rome’s first step in favor
of Jesus and is, thereby, the forerunner of Cornelius. It is for this reason
that the Acts of the Apostles will end in Rome (28:13–16).
The story of Cornelius is told with great care. Indeed, it is told twice, once by Luke as narrator and once by Cornelius himself. (Peter’s part is also told twice, by the way—once by Luke and once by Peter.) As angelic announcements solemnly indicated the beginning of the Gospel (Luke 1:11, 26; 2:9), so this coming mission to the Roman Empire is announced by an angel (Acts 10:3). The calling of Cornelius is, for Luke, a decisive step in the universalizing of the Gospel, foreseen by the prophetic Simeon’s “light to bring revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). It is Peter’s reception of this centurion into the Church that prepares the universal mission (and trip to Rome) of Paul, himself converted in the previous chapter.
In the tale of Cornelius, even the time frame is easy to find. Since we know that the angel instructed him on one of the weekly Jewish fast days (Monday or Thursday), and since we should presume that Peter would not have traveled from Joppa to Caesarea on a Sabbath, we may be quite sure that the “four days” of the story began on a Monday (Acts 10:9, 24, 30).
These references to fast days (and the maintenance of the “canonical hours” —10:3, 30) are also relevant to our theme, for they indicate the “holiness” pole in the tension of salvation. Cornelius represents, not only the universality of grace, but the restricting efforts of spiritual discipline. Luke describes him as “a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always” (10:2). Praying, fasting, and giving alms are not incidental to the story. Cornelius is told, on the contrary, “your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God” (10:31). Both universality and holiness pertain to the picture.