Friday, March 25
The Incarnation: The soteriological intent of the Incarnation was expressed very early in the Epistle to the Hebrews. According to this source, the Incarnation provided God's Son with the means of suffering and dying in obedience to His Father. Commenting on Psalm 39 (40), the author wrote with respect to the Incarnation, "Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: / 'Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, / But a body You have prepared for Me. / In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure. / Then I said, / Behold, I have come / -In the volume of the book it is written of Me- / To do Your will, O God'"(10:5-7). That is to say, the obedience of Christ was to fulfill and replace the various sacrifices of the Mosaic Law, and for this task the Son obviously required a body.
Moreover, the Son needed this body in order to suffer and die for the human race. Thus, commenting on Psalm 8, this author described in what way the Son became man for our salvation. "We see Jesus," he wrote, "who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone" (2:9).
In order to "taste death" in obedience to the Father, then, the Son assumed our flesh. In order to die as an act of sacrifice, he had to share the mortality of our flesh. Hebrews goes on to say, "Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage."
In sum, two aspects of the soteriology of the Incarnation are especially to be observed in treatment of the theme in Hebrews. First, God's Son assumed our flesh in order obediently to die in that flesh. Second, His death in the flesh meant the destruction of the devil, "who had the power of death." According to Hebrews, then, God's Son took flesh in order to die, and He died in order to overcome death and the devil. This line of theological reflection—Incarnation, death, victory—continued throughout Christian history, combining with other biblical themes along the way.
Saturday, March 26
James 5:13-20: James speaks of prayer in each of the next six verses (verses 13-18). The link word joining these verses to the preceding section is the verb “to suffer” (kakopathein— literally, “to experience evil”—verse 13), which corresponds to the noun kakopathia (verse 9).
A special form of prayer is that offered by the presbyters off the Church when they anoint the sick in the Lord’s name (verse 14; Mark 6:13). These “presbyters,” from whose name we derive the English word “priests,” were the pastors of the local congregations (Acts 14:23; 20:17; 1 Timothy 5:17,19). Prayer for the sick is a Christian practice inherited from Judaism (Sirach 38:9-10). The reference to the sacramental rite of anointing indicates that it is distinct from the charismatic gift of healing (1 Corinthians 12:9,28,30).
The sacramental rite of healing, inasmuch as it also heals from sins, introduces the subject of the confession of sins (verses 15-16). It is instructive to observe that this text, which is perhaps the New Testament’s clearest reference to auricular confession, is placed in the context of the ministry of local pastors. Like the Old Testament priests, who were obliged to hear confessions in order to offer the appropriate sacrifice for sins (Leviticus 5:5; Numbers 5:7), the pastors of the New Testament are also to be “father confessors,” who absolve from sins on behalf of the Church (John 20:22-23; Matthew 9:8).
As James invoked Abraham and Rahab as exemplars of good works (2:21-25), and Job as a model of patience (5:11), so now he appeals to Elijah as a person to be emulated with respect to prayer (verses 17-18; 1 Kings 17:1,7; 18:1,41-45; Sirach 48:2-3).
The author’s recent reference to the forgiveness of sins (verses 15-16) prompts him finally to speak of the conversion of sinners. No greater favor can we do for a man than to bring him back to the path of conversion (verses 19-20).
The epistle thus ends abruptly.
Sunday, March 27
1 Timothy 1:1-14: As this epistle begins, Paul lays great stress on his own authority as an apostle (verse 1), because Timothy’s authority derives from his own. Here is one of our earliest illustrations of the principle of apostolic succession, in which those men appointed by the apostles (and who were very early called episkopoi, literally "overseers") received their pastoral authority by a direct historical link derived from the first apostles.
Thus, Timothy’s pastoral authority over the church at Ephesus was rooted, not in the choice of the Ephesians, but in his personal representation of Paul. Paul pastored the Ephesians in virtue of the transmission of that authority. (The same held true for Titus in Crete, and so on.)
Timothy’s ministry at Ephesus involved a sacred stewardship of doctrine (verses 3-4), identical to what Jude 3 called "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." Instead of "godly edification" in verse 4, read "God’s economy" (oikonomia Theou), meaning God’s plan of salvation, known by faith.
This faith is not possible except in a "pure heart" and a "good conscience" (verse 5); Paul never separates faith from the moral life. This internal moral quality is what was lacking in certain instructors about whom Timothy is here warned (verses 6-7), their heresy resulting from certain defects of heart and conscience.
The intellectual content of their heresy was a radical misunderstanding of the Holy Scriptures (verses 8-9). Those Scriptures, Paul insisted, can be correctly understood only in accord with "sound doctrine" (hygiainouse ["hygienic"!] didaskalia — verse 10). Holy Scripture, if left to individual and personal interpretations, is the source of all heresy. Holy Scripture comes forth from Christian doctrine; only thus does it become a source of Christian doctrine. In the present text Paul is appealing to "sound doctrine" in order to condemn someone else’s interpretation of Scripture.
Such expressions as "sound doctrine," "sound words," and "sound in faith" appear repeatedly in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus (1 Timothy 6:3; 2 Timothy 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9,13; 2:1,2,8). The source of this soundness is the Gospel itself (verse 11). This is described here as a Gospel of glory, because its essence is the glory of God shining on the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4-6); Colossians 1:27).
Paul realized a providential propriety in the fact that the circumstances of his own life forced him, specifically him, to insist on justification by divine grace, independent of the works of the Mosaic law. He had experienced in his own life the final and deep futility of attempting to be justified before God by a strict adherence to the code delivered on Mount Sinai. After all, Paul had given his whole life to that adherence, and what did he have to show for it? To what did that adherence finally lead him? To blasphemy and persecution (verse 13). He became "the first of sinners" (verse 15), "the very least of all the saints" (Ephesians 3:8).
Monday, March 28
James 1:15-20: In Paul’s own experience, the Mosaic law became the occasion of sin, not the means of righteousness; It led him to persecute Christians. This personal experience of Paul is what prepared him, under divine providence, to become supremely the preacher of justification by grace (verses 14-15). He thus became the "pattern [literally, "hypotype"] of those who are going to believe on Him" (verse 16). This is why he refers so frequently to his own persecution of the Church, as he does here (cf. Acts 26:9; 1 Corinthians 15:8-10; Galatians 1:13-16; Philippians 3:5-7).
This doctrine of justification by grace does not mean, however, that Christians are justified through "faith alone." Indeed, the expression "faith alone" appears only once in the New Testament, and then only in order to refute the formula (James 2:24). "Faith alone" is not only not a biblical way of expressing the correct faith; it is also a very misleading and erroneous way of expressing the New Testament doctrine of justification.
In fact, real faith is never found "alone." As here (verse 14), the word "faith" is normally mentioned with love as its expected companion. Paul never says "faith alone," but rather "faith and love" (Ephesians 3:17; 6:23; Philemon 5) or "faith, hope, and love" (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 1 Corinthians 13:13). Faith, taken by itself—even if it can move mountains—is insufficient without love (1 Corinthians 13:2).
Nor is faith given to us in such a way that it can never be lost ("once saved, always saved"). The present text, in fact, speaks of faith as being lost (verses 19-20). Those two men who lost it Paul "handed over to Satan," that is, excommunicated (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:5). One of them, Hymenaeus, held incorrect views on eschatology (cf. 2 Timothy 2:17), while the second, Alexander, had contumaciously taught doctrines contrary to what Paul was preaching (cf. 2 Timothy 4:14).
Finally, how is the faith handed down? One of the most important ways of its transmission is through the texts used in sacred worship. In the present passage Paul quotes at least two such texts, in verses 15 and 17, both of them apparently lines from hymns already well known to the readers.
Tuesday, March 29
1 Timothy 2:1-15: Outside of the Epistle to the Hebrews, this text from First Timothy (verse 5) is the only place in the New Testament where Jesus is explicitly called the "Mediator" (Mesites). It is very important to remark that the word is a noun, not a verb. That is to say, it indicates primarily who Jesus is, rather than what He does. In other words, the mediation of Christ between God and man is matter of His identity before His activity.
There is no doubt, of course, that Jesus "always lives to make intercession" (Hebrews 7:25), but He is not our Mediator because He makes intercession for us. Rather, He makes intercession for us because He is our Mediator. His mediation is a matter of His being. He mediates by reason of who He is. He is the Mediator because He, being fully divine, fully shares the integrity of our human nature. He, the eternal and consubstantial Son of God, is "the Man Jesus Christ" (verse 5). Ultimately, He is the only joining link between God and man, not primarily because of His intercession, but because of His being.
To the thinking of St. Paul, therefore, this unique mediation of Christ does not preclude other forms of mediation, particularly the mediation of Christians on behalf of one another by their intercession for one another and for the whole world (verses 1-4). It is precisely because there is only one Mediator between God and man that Christians ought to pray for one another. Moreover, it is entirely proper for the saints to ask other saints to pray for them, as in the New Testament we find them doing (Ephesians 6:18-19; Hebrews 13:18). The mediation of Christ is the very reason that the saints pray for one another and seek one another’s prayers.
The mediation of Christ, therefore, cannot rightly be used to by-pass our seeking the intercessions of the other saints, in order to "go directly to God." On the contrary, the unique mediation of Christ is the foundation of the social prayer of the saints, both in heaven and on earth, for there is only one and the same family of God found in both of these two places. The mediation of Christ establishes what theology calls "the communion of the saints." This is why, in Holy Scripture, we repeatedly find some saints acting as go-betweens with Christ on behalf of other saints (e.g., Matthew 8:5-7; Mark 5:22-23; 7:26; John 2:3).
Wednesday, March 30
1 Timothy 3:1-16: The "overseers" (episkopoi) in this text seem not to have been "bishops" as that word came to be used near the year 100 and has been used ever since. That is the say, when the New Testament uses the word episkopos, the word does not appear to refer to the monarchical episcopate as the Christian Church has traditionally designated that office. When the word episkopos (Greek equivalent to the mebaqqer of Judaism) is used in the New Testament, it has the same reference as elder or presbyteros (the term that Paul uses in 5:17-19). Indeed, in Titus 1 and Acts 20, both words, episkopoi and presbyteroi, are used interchangeably to refer to the identical persons. In the present passage, then, Paul was referring, not to "bishops" in the later sense, but to those ministers whom we have traditionally called "priests," a term derived directly from the Greek word presbyteros.
Does this mean that the ministry of "bishop," as we have known it since about A.D. 100, did not exist in New Testament times? Not a bit of it. Indeed, Timothy was an example of what we would now call a bishop, and so was Titus in Crete. We find both men exercising that same level and kind of authority traditionally associated with the office of bishop, namely, spokesman for the apostles. The evolution of the ordained ministry from the first to the second century, then, was one of vocabulary, not of substance. That is to say, the traditional ministry of "bishop" was clearly present in apostolic times, even though the use of the word "bishop" underwent an evolution during the second half of the first century.
The requirement that the "overseer" (episkopos) or "elder" (presbyteros) in the Church be a "man of one woman" was not a prohibition of polygamy. That sort of prohibition would have been unnecessary, since polygamy was forbidden to all Christians. The text refers, rather, to any second marriage, whether a second marriage following one’s conversion (the situation addressed in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16) or a second marriage after the death of one’s first wife. In either case, a second marriage, according to the present text, is a disqualification for ordination. The reason seems to be a practical one, namely, it has to do with the sorts of domestic and social complications often attendant on a second marriage and the establishment of a second family. It is a practical application of the more general principle that a man cannot be expected effectively to pastor a congregation unless his own household is completely in order (verses 3-5).
Matthew 21:28-32: This parable, which has no parallel in Mark and Luke, is a study in contrast between two brothers. Matthew inserts it here as a “link” story, and in fact it serves that literary function perfectly. First, its reference to John the Baptist (verse 32) links the parable to the foregoing discussion in 21:23-27. Second, its reference to the vineyard prepares for the parable that is to follow (verses 33-46). In addition, the parable of the two sons fits admirably into Matthew’s long series of controversial encounters between Jesus and those that are preparing to kill Him (21:23—22:46).
This contrasting story of two brothers is of a kind with which the Bible abounds. We think, for instance, of the contrast between Ishmael and Isaac, or between Esau and Jacob. Indeed, the special place of this motif in Holy Scripture is indicated by the contrast between Cain and Abel near the beginning of it.
Likewise, this was not the only occasion on which Jesus contrasted two brothers. A better-known instance is found in Luke 15:11-32.
Before examining the present parable in Matthew, we do well to reflect the more general significance of these biblical stories of fraternal contrast. Aside from the sense conveyed by any one of them, is there a more universally applicable message common to all of them?
There appears to be. In each such story the two brothers are raised in the same family. They grow up in more or less identical conditions, subject to the same influences, or, as modern behavioral scientists like to say, in the same environment. Neither has a “home court advantage” over the other. Yet, in each instance the two brothers turn out very differently from one another.
This repeated contrast tends to foster a general impression: namely, that the behavior of human beings is not determined—is not fixed—by either nature or nurture. It is determined, rather, by personal choices that each man makes. Men born of the same parents and raised in the same home can grow up very differently from one another, a fact illustrating the truth that men make their own decisions, for good or ill, and set the course for their own destiny.
That is to say, the Bible gives no support to the notion that the fate of human beings is determined by the circumstances of their birth or upbringing. The Bible does not countenance the thesis that human beings are no more than the sum of the influences brought to bear upon them. A human being becomes, rather, what he makes himself to be, and this takes place through his choices.
Moreover, the truth of this assertion is compatible with the burden of the present parable, in which each son makes a personal choice of obedience or disobedience, repentance or hardness of heart.
Jesus begins by inviting reflection on what He is about to say: “How does it seem to you? — Ti de hymin dokei?” The first son in the story “talks a good game.” He assents to the father’s instruction, but he fails to comply. The second son resists and rebels, but he obeys after thinking the matter over more carefully. The answer about which is the obedient son is not lost on Jesus’ listeners (verse 31).
Jesus goes on to apply this lesson to His current situation. These Jewish leaders have already shown their hand by their unwillingness to commit themselves with respect to John the Baptist. Now Jesus brings John the Baptist back into the picture. Sinners—those who have declared that they will not obey—have repented at the preaching of John, whereas the Law-observing Jewish leaders, who proclaimed themselves obedient, have failed to repent (verse 32; Luke 7:29-30). Which group is truly obedient to the Father? This parable was a powerful accusation against the Lord’s enemies, the men currently plotting to murder Him.
The two classes represented in the second son—the tax collectors and the whores—were closely associated with the Romans, whose army occupied the Holy Land at that time. The taxes were collected for the Roman government, and the whores sold their services to the Roman soldiers. Both groups, because they repented at the preaching of John the Baptist, were preferable to the Lord’s enemies, who were plotting His murder.
Obedience to the father is expressed as doing his will (epoiesen to thelema tou patros). This expression, of course, ties the parable to the central petition of the Lord’s Prayer (6:10). It also ties it to the Lord’s imminent Passion (26:39,42).
A derived understanding of this text, common among the Church Fathers, makes the first son refer to disobedient, unrepentant Israel, and the second son refer to the repentant Gentiles, who replaced them in the vineyard. This understanding of the parable is entirely consonant with the meaning that it bears in the context of Jesus’ own life. It may also have been the understanding of the story during the pre-scriptural period of its oral transmission. It may likewise have been in the mind of Matthew himself. Such an interpretation of this parable fits well, for example, with the contrast Matthew makes between the Gentile Magi and the murderous leaders of Israel at the beginning of the story, and also with the contrast he draws between the Gentile wife of Pilate and the Jewish leaders somewhat later in the account of the Lord’s Passion.
Certain discrepancies slipped into the manuscript traditions about which son ended up doing the father’s will and which son did not. Some manuscripts ascribe obedience to the elder son, and some (those that I have followed) to the younger. I suspect this variation arose when some copyists attempted to smooth over the seemingly awkward transition to the parable’s interpretation, in which the disobedient did not repent, whereas the obedient repented immediately (verse 32). This would not be the only time a biblical copyist tried to improve on our Lord’s rhetorical style.
Thursday, March 31
1 Timothy 4:1-8: The opening verses of this chapter are concerned with what St. Paul saw as a general apostasy characteristic of his own times. He believed that he was living in the "latter times" predicted by the prophets (cf. also Acts 20:29-30; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12; 1 Corinthians 10:11; 2 Timothy 3:1-9; 4:3-4), a view shared widely by other New Testament sources (Matthew 24:10-12; Hebrews 1:2; 1 John 2:18; 4:1-3; 2 John 7).
We believe, of course, that they were correct, because the "latter times" are the years that separate the first and second comings of Christ. We Christians do not regard these "latter times" as a period of progress, but as a season of trial, in which the faith of the saints is put to the test. All of this the Holy Spirit foretold through the prophets (verse 1).
It is not surprising that some of the proponents who followed "deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons," such as Marcion, Tatian, and the Gnostics, did not accept the canonicity of First Timothy!
It is important to stress that doctrinal aberration comes from lying spirits, demons of deception and mendacity (cf. 2 Timothy 2:9-11; 2 Corinthians 2:11). Such doctrinal aberrations include prohibitions against marriage and the full range of the human diet (verses 3-5), both of which prohibitions have been common characteristics of some dualisms in all ages. (One thinks of Augustine’s conversion from Manichaeanism, for example, and his subsequent fights with them.)
Matthew 21:33-46: In Matthew, as well as in Mark (12:1-12) and Luke (20:9-19), the parable of the Wicked Vinedressers comes as a climax to a series of controversy stories involving Jesus and His enemies just a few days before His arrest, and each account ends with the comment that this parable is what determined the purpose of the Lord’s enemies to kill him. It is obvious to them that in this parable Jesus is giving His own interpretation of the entire history of the Chosen People, culminating in their rejection of Him and their resolve to put Him to death.
Jesus here identifies himself as the Son, and, as Son, the Heir. The outline of this parable is followed very closely in the opening lines of the Epistle to the Hebrews: "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, hath spoken in times past to the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by a Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things."
This parable is also one of the Gospel accounts where it is possible to discern the Lord’s original, spoken Aramaic clearly shining through the inspired Greek text. He calls himself "Son" rejected by the vinedressers and then goes on immediately to speak of himself as the "stone" rejected by the builders. Actually this was a play on words, the Aramaic word for "son" being ben, and the word for "stone" being eben. The drama of that moment is still preserved in this striking detail.
In Matthew’s version, this parable bears yet another resemblance to the Epistle to the Hebrews, by including the detail that the Son was murdered outside of the vineyard (verse 39, contrasted with Mark 12:8). That is to say, outside of Jerusalem. The Epistle to the Hebrews makes the same point and then draws a moral lesson from it. Speaking of the Mosaic ordinance requiring that the bodies of the animals sacrificed as sin offerings be burned outside of the camp, the author of Hebrews comments: "Therefore, Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore, let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach" (Hebrews 13:12-13).
We may remark, regarding this section, that the preferable manuscripts omit verse 44, which appears to have been borrowed from Luke 20:18.
Friday, April 1
1 Timothy 4:9—5:2: The word "reading" (anagnosis) in verse 13 refers to the public proclamation of Holy Scripture, a synagogue practice (Luke 4:16-21; Acts 13:14-16) taken over by the Christian Church and continued to the present day. Such reading was followed by "exhortation" (called halachah by the rabbis) and "doctrine" (known to the rabbis as haggadah); that is, a sermon or homily that was both practical and expository (cf. Justin Martyr, First Apology 67). For such ministry was Timothy ordained (verse 14; cf. Acts 6:6; 2 Timothy 1:6).
Pastoring a congregation requires not only didactic discipline and skills, such as those treated in the previous chapter, but also social discipline and skills, because a successful pastorate involves dealing with a considerable variety of people and needs. St. Paul speaks of this variety in the present chapter.
Sometimes a pastor must reprimand, but the Apostle forbids him to do it with violence. Older men and women in particular are to be treated with a special deference (verses 1-2), a deference all the more necessary Timothy’s case, in view of his young age (4:12). Young men and women are to be treated as brothers and sisters. In sum, the Christian congregation is to resemble an extended family, and Timothy is to "conduct [himself] in the house of God" (3:15).
Matthew 22:1-14: Comparing Matthew’s version of this parable with that of Luke (14:15-24), we note striking differences:
The first is the historical setting. In Luke the story comes much earlier—long before Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem—whereas here in Matthew it is contained among the controversy stories that immediately precede the Lord’s sufferings and Death.
The second is the literary setting. In Luke it follows other teaching about sitting at table (“When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him”) and inviting the poor to meals (“when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind”). Indeed, the parable of the invited guests is immediately preceded by a verse that reads: “Now when one of those who sat at the table with Him heard these things, he said to Him, ‘Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!’” All this is to say, Luke represents a tradition in which various teachings of Jesus about meals were handed on in a sequence determined by subject.
In Matthew, on the other hand, this parable immediately follows the parable of the servants sent to the vineyard. The link between these two parables is clearly the repeated sending of the servants. There are other similarities between the two parables, as we shall see presently.
The third difference is in the details of the parable. Whereas in Luke this is simply the story of a great supper hosted by “a certain man,” in Matthew it is the wedding celebration of the king’s son. This context, of course, links the parable to the one preceding, which was also concerned with the “son” of the owner of the vineyard.
The present parable, as it appears in Matthew, is tied to the previous parable in other ways. Once again, for example, a series of servants is sent, and in this parable, too, the servants are badly received and ill-treated. The treatment and death of these servants is unique to Matthew’s account and bears the same historical meaning as verses 35-36. These servants are the prophets.
Likewise, Matthew’s version of the parable emphasizes the detailed, meticulous preparations for the festivities (verses 4 and 8, contrasted with Luke 14:18). This thorough, extensive preparation corresponds to the detailed appointments of the vineyard in the previous parable (21:33, contrasted with Luke 20:9).
Similarly, in the present parable the king punishes the offenders and burns down their city (verse 7, contrasted with Luke 14:21), just as the owner of the vineyard punished the offender in the earlier parable (21:41). Both descriptions of the punishment and destruction are prophecies of the downfall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70.
Just as the vineyard is given to new vine-growers in the previous parable (21:41), so here the invitation to the marriage feast, declined by the first recipients of it, is extended to new people that are glad to receive it (verses 9-10). In both cases we are dealing with prophecies of the calling of the Gentiles to the Church (28:18-20).
To continue the allegory that is manifest in Matthew’s version of the parable, this final group of “servants” (verse 10) should be identified with the Apostles themselves, who traveled all the highways and byways of the world’s mission field, extending to all nations the King’s invitation to the wedding. Matthew, then, clearly discerned in this parable a narrative of the history of the Church in his own lifetime, the second half of the first century.
But Matthew is, as usual, especially interested in life within the Church, and for this reason he attaches to the present parable a shorter one (verses 1-13), not found in Luke. This is an account of an unworthy recipient of the invitation to the wedding feast, who is found improperly dressed. As the banquet begins, this unworthy person is mixed in with the rest of the guests, like the tares among the wheat (13:36-40), and bad fish among the good (13:47-50), both parables found only in Matthew. This feature of a “mix” also corresponds to the experience of the Church known to Matthew, which contained, like the Church at all times, “both bad and good” (verse 10, contrasted with Luke 14:23).
When the king approaches the offender, He addresses him as “friend” (hetaire — verse 12), the same word used by the employer to address his unjust critics (20:13) and the Savior to address His betrayer (26:50). In all these cases the address is met with silence.
Those charged with expelling this unworthy person should be seen as the angels of judgment (13:49). Only at the end is the judgment expected, separating good from bad (13:30; 25:32).
The “outer darkness” and the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verse 13) are Matthew’s standard metaphors for eternal damnation (8:12; 13:42,50; 24:51; 25:30).