Friday, March 4

Proverbs 13: Wisdom is not something that a young man can discover on his own. He either has the good sense to receive it as an inheritance or he will simply never have it. He must, therefore, listen and pay attention. It will be difficult, however, to listen and pay attention if he is forever running his mouth (verse 3). Custody of one’s tongue, then, is absolutely required for the attaining of wisdom.

This habit of guarding one’s tongue, in order the better to hear and learn instruction, can become a life-long habit, a distinguishing characteristic of the wise man even when he grows older. We see this phenomenon in a special way in the traditions of ancient Egypt, where the “silent just man” became a moral ideal of Egyptian culture, exemplified in The Instructions of Ani in the second millennium before Christ all the way to the ascetical literature of the Christian monks of the Egyptian desert. The "silent just man” maintained strict control over his tongue, and in order to maintain control over his tongue he was obliged to keep guard also over his emotions. His speech, when he did speak, would bear wise counsel and insight. Such a man could be trusted. To him could be given responsibilities over serious matters, even the destiny of nations.

It was proverbial in antiquity, and not only in Egypt, that no man could safely govern anything outside of himself until he had learned to govern his own soul (16:32). And a man began to learn this discipline in his youth, by not opening his mouth except to ask questions and to seek instruction.

Romans 15:14-21: Paul now proceeds to introduce himself more completely to the congregation at Rome, a city he plans to visit in the near future for the first time. In the present verses he says a bit about himself and his ministry, evidently feeling that such information is necessary, given the strong and authoritative tone that he has adopted in this epistle (verses 15-16).

Paul commences these remarks with a polite and positive sentiment about the congregation at Rome (verse 14), an approach he employs elsewhere in his letters (2 Corinthians 8:7; 9:2-3; Philippians 4:15). In the present case such an approach is particularly appropriate, because he is conscious of writing to a church that he had no hand in founding (1:5,13). Because of this latter circumstance, Paul does not enjoy the advantage of immediate paternity and familiarity that he enjoys in the churches of Syria, Asia, Macedonia, and Greece.

He feels compelled to write to the Romans, however, because he senses a responsibility that he has toward all the Gentile Christians (verse 16 [Note the Trinitarian structure]; 1:5; 12:3; 1 Corinthians 4:6; Galatians 2:7-8).

Like Jesus preaching in Galilee (Mark 6:6), Paul has maintained a preaching "circuit" (kyklo, the Greek root of "cycle"—verse 19), first centered in Antioch and later in Ephesus. (Observe that the churches of Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, and Colossae form a sort of semi-hub around Ephesus.) We note here that the bishops of these large metropolitan areas in due course became known as archbishops and metropolitans. This was a natural development, since the outlying cities had been evangelized by missionaries from the larger ones. This historical circumstance is what accounts for the immense authority of the bishops of Ephesus, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome in early church history.

Up to this point in his ministry, the extreme limits of Paul’s evangelizing have been Jerusalem in the southeast and Illyricum, or Dalmatia (Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo), in the northwest. It has ever been Paul’s goal to preach Christ where He has not been hitherto preached (verse 20; 2 Corinthians 10:15-16; 1 Corinthians 3:6).

Miracles and wonders have frequently attended Paul’s preaching (Acts 12:22; 2 Corinthians 12:12; Hebrews 2:4).

Paul describes his ministry with a liturgical and sacerdotal term, hierogounta to Evangelion tou Theou, "serving the Gospel of God as a priest," or even "priesting the Gospel of God" (cf. Isaiah 66:20). This is one of our first instances of a specifically priestly term used to describe the ordained Christian ministry.

Saturday, March 5

Proverbs 14: Wisdom is the foundation of homes and households (verse 1). This is the inherited wisdom of the ages, conservatively handed down in the tradition of “families and villages” (to borrow Aristotle’s coupling).

Since the experience of family necessarily involves the transmission of identity, the tradition or inherited wisdom is not peripheral to family life. Unassailable tradition, based on perceived absolutes, is not something with which a family can dispense. It is of the essence, and it is this sense of tradition’s essential character that injects a note of urgency into the rhetoric of the Book of Proverbs. The exhortations in Proverbs are matters of life or death. Hence, this sense of urgency goes far to account for the toughness of discipline inculcated throughout the book.

Consequently, moral indifference or relativism, based on skepticism and an overly critical spirit, spell the death of wisdom and therefore the death of family life (verse 11). Nowhere does the Bible tolerate the relativism and despair (including a sympathy for suicide) that characterized some primitive writings of Mesopotamia, such as the ancient Dialogue of Pessimism. The latter work, written over three thousand years ago, reads today like a work of recent Existentialism. If such attitudes were characteristic of the philosophy of Mesopotamia, it is no wonder that Abraham insisted that Isaac should not go back there (Genesis 24:5-6).

The Book of Proverbs, in mighty contrast, represents the voice of moral and metaphysical absolutes, a wisdom based on the sense of the scrutiny and presence of God (verses 2,26-27; cf. 13:14; 15:39,11,29).

Romans 15:22-33: Paul now discloses his further plans.

First, he will travel with some companions to carry the collection of money that the churches of Galatia, Macedonia, and Greece have assembled for the relief of the Christian poor at Jerusalem. This collection has been in process for several years (verses 25-27; Galatians 2:10; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:1—9:15. We know that Paul eventually did make the delivery (Acts 24:17).

To assist in carrying this money Paul has gathered a group of sturdy Christians who will bear and defend it. These men would have to be strong and efficient. After all, this money was in coins only, not bills or travelers’ checks. The moneybags were heavy, and armed brigands were everywhere, so Paul was obliged to choose the biggest, toughest, and perhaps scariest Christians he knew. The list of them is contained in Acts 20:4, where we see that they were drawn from Macedonia, Asia Minor, and Galatia. At Troas they would be joined by Paul himself, Luke, and some others whom we may be able to identify from Colossians 4:7-14.

Second, after delivering these financial resources to Jerusalem, Paul plans to sail west and visit the church at Rome, a place that he has long wanted to visit (verses 22-23,29,32; 1:10-15; Acts 19:21). In fact, Paul would arrive in Rome a bit over two years later.

Third, after visiting Rome, it is Paul’s intention to expand his missionary work to include Spain, at the far end of the Mediterranean (verses 24,28).

Did Paul ever reach Spain? In spite of the testimony of the Muratorian Fragment, it would seem that he did not. That anonymous testimony is fairly weak, given the absence of any other records of Paul’s life after his two years of house arrest in Rome in 60-62 (Acts 28:30). Indeed, the few testimonies to Paul’s alleged ministry in Spain come from outside of Spain. If Paul had actually established churches in Spain, as he had in Galatia, Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece, it is inconceivable that Spanish history would have preserved no records on the matter. A Pauline succession of Spanish bishops would certainly have been preserved and cherished in the official testimonies of the Spanish churches.

Indeed, there is no clear and compelling evidence that Paul lived past his house arrest in Rome, so it is reasonable to conjecture that he did not live past the year 62. This would also explain why there is no mention of him in Peter’s First Epistle during the next year or so.

Meanwhile, still in Corinth and writing this epistle in early 58, Paul asks the Roman Christians to pray for three things: First, his safety in Jerusalem, where he knows he has many enemies; Second, that the aforesaid collection will be well received by the church at Jerusalem, where he fears that some Christians were not especially enthused about the Gentile ministry anyway; Third, that he will find his way to Rome after all this is done. The account in Acts 21-28 narrates the irony with which this last prayer was fulfilled.

Sunday, March 6

Proverbs 15: This chapter contains several references to the acceptance of correction (verses 5,10,12,31,32). Among a young man’s worst enemies is his innate resistance to correction, a resistance spawned of rebellion and an independent spirit. Giving in to such a spirit generally produces three results, all of them bad: First, it strengthens a man’s spirit of rebellion. (A rebel’s spirit is useful in the face of oppression; otherwise, it is a counterproductive trait in a man. A sustained spirit of rebellion, a spiritual chip on the shoulder, renders a man useless for any purpose.) This leads to hardness of heart and self-absorption.

Second, refusal to accept correction deprives a man of instruction about some point on which at least one other person thinks he needs instruction. Third, it discourages that same person from making some attempt at correction and instruction in the future. Thus, many valuable lessons will be lost if the young man does not early recognize and deal with these inner impulses of rebellion. Following such impulses is not the path to wisdom.

A Christian reading of this theme in Proverbs should see more in the Sacred Text, not less, than a merely Jewish reading of it. Even the simplest, plainest reading of Proverbs, based on the most literal sense of the Text, shows the importance of being open to correction. The Christian reader, however, reading the Scriptures through the lens of Christ, will recognize God the Father as the True Parent who speaks in these lines.

Thus, the submission that all children owe to the discipline of their parents becomes the symbol of a greater docility that God’s children owe to their heavenly Father. That is to say, the Christian reader should see more in the meaning of Proverbs in this regard: “Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them reverence. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live?” (Hebrews 12:9)

Matthew 17:1-9: In Matthew's account of the Transfiguration, Simon Peter does not address Jesus as "Rabbi" (as in Mark), but as "Lord"—Kyrie (17:4). Let me suggest two ways in which this change is significant. First, it conforms to a pattern found all through Matthew, who avoids the title "Rabbi" with respect to Jesus. While Jesus was surely called "Rabbi" ("teacher) during His earthly time with the apostles, and although we do find Him addressed this way in Mark and John (never in Luke), Matthew is more circumspect in his use of this title. Indeed, in Matthew the only person to address Jesus with the Semitic title "Rabbi" is Judas Iscariot, and then only in the context of the Passion (26:25,49). Matthew's consistent usage here is probably related to Jesus' injunction not to use the title "Rabbi" among Christians (23:8).

Thus, when Jesus is addressed at "teacher" in Matthew, it is always through the Greek word didaskalos (8:19; 12:18; 19:16,24,36). This is likewise the title by which Jesus refers to Himself (26:18). Here in the Transfiguration scene Matthew avoids the term "teacher" altogether.

This brings us to our second consideration: In this Transfiguration scene Jesus is vastly more than a teacher. He is the "Lord," ho Kyrios, the name signifying the Church's fully articulated faith in the risen Christ. As Kyrios, Jesus is the object of worship, and Matthew describes the Transfiguration as a scene of worship, which is why Jesus is addressed in His full, post-Resurrection title (Acts 2:36; Philippians 2:11).

Monday, March 7

Proverbs 16: Proverbs deals with more than human effort. This book shares, rather, the conviction of the Bible’s historians and prophets (including the author of Job) that God reigns over human history and has plans of His own with respect to human destiny (verses 1-4,9,25,33). Man is not in charge of history. The “big picture” is not man’s responsibility. Consequently, God does not generally let him see the big picture. God’s governance of history is unfathomable. (Even those prophets to whom the Lord gives a panoramic view of history are often unable to see even one step ahead in matters of their own lives. Jeremiah is an example.)

This is not to say, of course, that human choices count for nothing in the course of events. It means only that man should restrict his concerns to those aspects of life that he can actually do something about, and these are determined largely by the circumstances in which Divine Providence places him. Each man must do his duty, as determined by those responsibilities, leaving to God the outcome of events. Man must be content to do right “as God gives us to see the right” (Abraham Lincoln).

At the same time, God’s loyal and obedient servant takes strength from the remembrance that God holds governance over the whole historical process. Even as men struggle to remain faithful, while not seeing the larger picture of which their own efforts are but a part, faith in a ruling God offers the proper basis for a sane, holy, and rational hope. This truth has special pertinence for those charged with the rule of nations (verses 10,12-15).

Matthew 17:10-21: We may look at some other features of Matthew’s version of this encounter of Jesus with the distressed father.

First, when the man approaches Jesus (verse 14), he kneels down—gonypeton, literally “bending the knee”—before Jesus. That is to say, he assumes before Jesus the posture of prayer (contrast Mark 9:14-17). Like Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, he kneels before Jesus in prayer. This is the second time in two consecutive scenes in Matthew where kneeling is the proper posture in the presence of Jesus. In Matthew, then, the scene is one of worship and prayerful petition. And what does the man say to Jesus when he kneels down? Kyrie, eleison! — “Lord, have mercy!”

Like Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, then, the man kneels before Jesus in prayer. Here we have the second of two consecutive scenes in Matthew (the first being the Transfiguration in 17:6) that portray the believers before Jesus on bended knee.

This kneeling down, or prostration, in prayer is not simply a generic act of worship. It is specified by its Christological reference. Indeed, in the former scene, the Transfiguration, the disciples fall into this posture when they hear the voice of the Father identifying Jesus as His Son. Their posture is a theophanic response (cf. Revelation 1:16-17). Here in Matthew (verse 15) the man bends the knee Avton–“towards Him.”

And in kneeling down he addresses Jesus as “Lord”–Kyrios. We should contrast this with Mark’s account, which addresses Jesus here as “Teacher”–Didaskalos. Matthew, that is to say, uses the full confessional word of the Christian faith (cf. Philippians 2:11; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 12:3).

And just what is wrong with the man’s son? He is “moonstruck”–seleniatai, from the Greek noun selene, which means “moon.” This original sense is preserved in the ancient Latin form of this verse, lunaticus est.

“Lunatic” is the way that the ancients described someone mentally or emotionally unstable, meaning that such a person waxed and waned like the moon, up one day, down the next. Such a person was given to radical changes of mood, like the moon. He changed shapes, as it were, even to the point of disappearing sometimes. Such a person showed the instability of the moon, going through cycles. (The Old Testament’s description of Saul is a useful example to recall.) In the present case the little boy seemed sometimes to attempt to kill himself, flinging himself into fire or water.

If we compare Matthew’s account with that of Mark, we easily see that the latter is longer and much more colorful and dramatic. Matthew’s version is not only shorter; it is greatly simplified. Although the father tells of the boy’s violent behavior, in Matthew this behavior does not take place in Jesus’ presence. In Matthew this is a scene of worship, as we have observed, and the tone is one of serenity, prayer, and divine grace.

The father remarks, however, that Jesus’ disciples were unable to effect a cure–therapevsai, and when Jesus does drive out the demon, Matthew says that the boy was “cured”–etherapevthe.

Tuesday, March 8

Proverbs 17: Wisdom is learned and practiced in the home and the community (or the village, as Aristotle would say). It has to do with simple, quotidian experiences, both domestic and immediately social. Consequently, a number of these maxims are concerned with man’s life in his home and in society: the blessings of a quiet household (verse 1), the raising of children (verses 21,25), dependable servants (verse 2), reverence for the younger and older generations (verse 6), the maintenance of friendships, even the friendships of others (verses 9,17), the resolution of conflicts (verse 14), and respect for the poor (verse 5).

The perfect man, we are told, is the one who “does not stumble in word” (James 3:2). Because a man’s speech is his chief means of associating with his family and his community, his ability to govern his tongue will chiefly determine the quality of his social relationships. It is a man’s speech that will make or break him in the moral and social orders. Without proper control of his tongue, a man is of no decent use to either God or his fellow men. It is not surprising, therefore, that this chapter on man’s domestic and social life should contain several references to the power of speech, not only good speech (verse 7) and controlled speech (verses 27-28), but also perverse speech (verse 20) in a number of forms, such as mendacity (verses 4,7), ridicule (verse 5), and gossip (verse 9).

Matthew 17:22-27: This story, found only in Matthew, once again shows a special solidarity between Jesus and Peter, inasmuch as the taxes of both are paid by the same coin.

In spite of his being called “Satan” by the Lord, then, Peter did not really fall from the Lord’s favor; the Apostle was warned and reprimanded, not rejected. Indeed, even after those stern words in chapter 16, Peter was still chosen as one of the three disciples who witnessed the Lord’s transfiguration at the beginning of this chapter.

In the present text, as in every other New Testament text that speaks of his fishing, we may wonder about Peter’s skills as a fisherman. In every single gospel account, whenever Peter catches a fish, the event is regarded as a miracle.

This text also serves to instruct on the obligation of believers to pay taxes to the government.

Ash Wednesday, March 9

Proverbs 18: Many commentators have spoken of the “pragmatic” motive in much of the Book of Proverbs. That is to say, very often what are recommended in this book are things that have been proven to work; these things get good results. Or, to borrow the expression of William James, they have “cash value.” Such things have been tried for generations, and only a fool would abandon them.

We should be cautious about this approach to Proverbs, however, because the pragmatic motive in this book is not identical to that of William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, and their kindred spirits. The pragmatism of these men rested on a fundamental agnosticism with respect to ultimacy. Persuaded that the correct answers to ultimate questions (“Does God exist?” “Is man’s willed activity free?”) must remain unknown to the human mind, these pragmatists recommended that human endeavor, including human thought, should follow only such lines of action as would prove to be useful and productive, such lines of action as would “get good results.” That is to say, human beings should do and think only such things as really work. If a thing or a thought does not work — if experience shows a thing or a thought to be unproductive — prudence dictates that it should not be pursued. (Thus, for instance, William James rejected the theory of atheism because it does not lead anywhere. Atheism promises nothing and delivers nothing. It is not a useful idea. The idea of God’s existence, on the other hand, has proved itself a very useful and productive idea.)

The problem with this brand of pragmatism is that it separates human activity from human knowledge. It is based on agnosticism with respect to the most important philosophical questions ever posed to the human mind, and it attempts to formulate a manner of life and thought divorced from real answers to those very real questions. How, after all, can I know whether something really “works,” if I have no idea what it is supposed to do? How can I know whether or not I am making “progress” (John Dewey’s favorite word), if I do not know where I am going? How can I seek the human good, if I have no idea what “good” means or the purpose of human existence?

Quite different is the pragmatism of the Book of Proverbs. It does not rest on an agnosticism about the fundamental questions in life, but on discerned and solid answers to those questions. For Proverbs it is not the case that (to use William James’s expression) “truth happens to an idea.” Truth abides, rather, in the structure of reality, and a truthful idea is not the creation of the human mind at all. It is an idea created in the mind by the very truth that inheres in reality. Men are said to live wisely if their minds and activities are shaped by the truth that God placed in the structure of reality.

At the same time, this discernment of truth in the structure of reality does not come solely from theorizing about reality. Sometimes, and perhaps frequently, it comes from the godly effort to deal with the concrete exigencies of human life. For this reason, perhaps, the deepest insights into the reality of life in this world often come to very practical men as they grapple with the shape of history by making godly decisions in difficult and trying circumstances. It may be the case that sometimes a philosopher/king must first be a king in order to become a philosopher.

Thursday, March 10

Proverbs 19: Circumspection, not haste, is the way of correct action (verse 2); this is a warning against precipitous and impassioned reactions (cf. 18:13; 21:5; Romans 10:2). When swift action is called for in circumstances that do not permit the taking of adequate counsel, such action will be more safely and prudently taken by the man who normally does not act precipitously. That is to say, a person who normally takes adequate counsel before acting on his decisions is the one most likely to react wisely when he does not have opportunity to take counsel. He is the one who will not lose his head under pressure. He will keep his emotions at bay and not act on the basis of them (verse 11), knowing that acting on passion tends to become a habit (verse 19).

Verse 7 should not be understood in a sense that would treat all friendships with skepticism. It is simply a realistic warning that not all friends, after all, can be relied upon all the time. The person who believes otherwise will soon be embarrassed (cf. 25:19).

A gift given to the poor is a loan to God (verse 17; cf. 14:31; 17:5; 22:9; Matthew 10:42). We do well to bear in mind that God pays a generous interest on such loans.

Perhaps the Book of Proverbs contains no more important a sentiment, a conviction strongly to be maintained in the heart, than “a prudent wife is from the Lord” (verse 14; cf. 18:22).

Matthew 19:11-15: This section on celibacy is proper to Matthew, but its content is consonant with the general New Testament thesis of the superiority of consecrated celibacy over marriage (cf. Luke 14:20; 18:29; 1 Corinthians 7:25-35).

From a discussion about marriage Jesus passes to the subject of children (verses 13-15), in which He repeats the injunction indicated in 18:1-4. The subject arises when children are brought to Jesus to receive His blessing (verse 13), a scene found in all the Synoptics (Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17). All of them likewise include the objection of the disciples against what they evidently regarded as an unwarranted intrusion on the Lord’s time and attention.

It has been suggested that the early (pre-Scriptural) Church preserved the memory of this scene because it answered a practical pastoral question about infant baptism. Read in this way, Jesus is affirming the practice of infant baptism: “Let the little children come to Me.” Indeed, the verb that Matthew uses here, koluein, “forbid them not,” is identical with the expression used with respect to the baptisms of the Ethiopian eunuch and the friends of Cornelius (Acts 8:36; 10:37; 11:17).

I do not think this interpretation of the passage to be likely, because there is simply no evidence in the New Testament that infant baptism was a problem. On the contrary, the reader should presume that baptism, as the Christian replacement for circumcision, was available to infants, just as circumcision was. In each case it was admission to the covenant. It would be strange indeed, if Jewish children could belong to the Mosaic covenant, while Christian children could not partake of the Christian covenant.

Friday, March 11

Proverbs 20: This chapter contains sound counsel about the avoidance of useless problems. It is folly, for example, to provoke those in authority (verse 2). It is equally imprudent and useless to engage in unnecessary strife (verse 3).

Especially to be avoided is the exacting of revenge (verse 22; cf. 25:21-22). Of all human pursuits, revenge is the most unprofitable, seldom or almost never to the advantage of the one who exacts it. There is, moreover, a distinct likelihood that the one seeking revenge may be putting himself secretly in the place of God. This truth does not deny, of course, the valid claims of justice, exacted by proper legal authority. Still, the wrath of man is not to be identified with the justice of God (James 1:20).

The Bible’s condemnation of revenge pertains less to the valid claims of legal and civil justice than to the emotional sense of satisfaction derived from inflicting personal retribution. The latter, let it be said, is a pursuit devoid of blessing. Much better is it to leave all vengeance to the God who neither deceives nor can be deceived (verse 24). For this reason, vengeance is strictly discouraged in both the Old Testament (24:29; Sirach 28:1) and the New (Matthew 5:39; Romans 12:17,19; 1 Peter 3:9).

This chapter also devotes attention to the importance of steady labor and the sustained application of effort (verses 4,13), as well as integrity in commercial dealings (verses 10,23).

Matthew 19:16-22: The third subject in this chapter—money—is introduced by a man that comes to our Lord, seeking counsel on how to attain eternal life (verse 16). This scene is paralleled in Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23.

If we are to look for another link between this section and the preceding theme of children, perhaps we find it in the fact that the question is asked by a “young person” (neaniskos). Indeed, this feature is unique to Matthew. Both Mark and Luke suggest, in fact, that the man may not be young, because he claims to have kept all the commandments “from my youth,” an expression that Matthew’s account does not contain.

In authentic Deuteronomic style the man is told to “keep the commandments” (less explicit in Mark and Luke) if he wishes to enter into life (verse 17; Deuteronomy 4:10; 30:6). This hypothetical clause is proper to Matthew, as is the next hypothesis, “if you would be perfect” (verse 21).

From this hypothesis regarding perfection, the Church in due course came to distinguish the monastic vocation from the vocation of other Christians. This was a reasonable inference drawn from the Sacred Text. Just as not everyone is called to consecrated celibacy (verses 11-12), so not everyone is called to consecrated poverty, and these two things have always been recognized as pertaining to the monastic dedication.

The literary and theological relationship between these two passages in Matthew was noted back in the 4th century by St. John Chrysostom, On Repentance 6.3.12-13. While neither celibacy nor poverty is commanded to all Christians, their double consecration indicates a special calling extended to some Christians whose charismatic way of life will stand as a prophetic witness to the Church and to the world.

As a point of history, therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that this chapter of Matthew is one of the biblical texts most responsible for the institution of Christian monasticism. It was on hearing this text read in his parish church in Egypt back in the 3rd century that young Anthony, determined not to follow in the footsteps of the rich man, sold all his possessions and went into the desert to spend the rest of his life in celibacy, poverty, and prayer.

As for the man who declined the Lord’s invitation to be “perfect,” he left himself vulnerable, nonetheless, to a great deal of sadness (verse 22).