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 to 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).
Saturday, March 12
Proverbs 21: A wise man will learn, not only when he submits to reprimand, but also when he sees others appropriately chastised (verses 11-12). This truth points us to one of the great advantages of studying history, because history is, among other things, the chronicling of God’s judgments against fools and scorners, and a wise man will take these lessons of history to heart.
We recently learned that a prudent woman is a gift from the Lord (19:14); a contentious wife, on the other hand, is a curse beyond human endurance (verses 9,19; cf. 25:24; 27:15).
God’s assessment of a man’s heart is not to be identified with a man’s assessment of his own heart (verse 2; cf. 16:2). “Feeling good about yourself” (Also known as “It works for me) is the most deceptive of feelings and keeps the soul forever immature and self-centered.
The “king” in verse 1 is any king. Since kings, holding sway over nations, are in an excellent position to influence the paths of history, God may be said to follow a certain economy of effort by using the decisions of kings to bring about His own purposes. God does not have to do this, obviously, but Holy Scripture indicates that He does. On the other hand, while kings have their own projects and programs that affect the lives of many, the Bible (including Proverbs) is persuaded that God’s plans are not identical with those of the king, even when He employs the king’s decisions to bring them about. Ultimately, then, it is not the great men of the earth who determine the destinies of nations, but the Lord, who sees and knows all things, even those events that lie in the contingent future. God’s will prevails (verses 30-31).
Matthew 19:22-30: The young man’s failure to meet Jesus’ challenge now leads to a series of teachings on the dangers of wealth (verses 23-29).
Let alone attaining perfection, says Jesus, it is only with great difficulty that a rich man can even enter the Kingdom of Heaven (verse 23). Thus begins this section of Matthew (verses 23-30), paralleled in Mark 10:23-31 and Luke 18:24-30.
Over the centuries of Old Testament history we can discern a deep transformation in Israel’s thinking about wealth. The ancient Wisdom tradition had associated the accumulation of wealth with the virtuous life, as we see in Proverbs. That earlier literature, while not unaware of the spiritual dangers associated with wealth, had spent little space expounding on those dangers. It was Israel’s prophetic voice, rather, beginning with Elijah’s denunciation of Ahab in the 9th century, that began to elaborate the theme of the dangers posed by too much preoccupation with wealth. This was a major theme, of course, in the great social prophets of the 8th century. Gradually it found its way more explicitly in the Wisdom literature as well, Sirach 31:3-5 being one of its more eloquent expressions. Jesus’ approach to the subject in the present text is of a piece with what we find in Sirach.
Matthew omits the initial wonderment of the disciples mentioned by Mark (10:24), but he does include the Lord’s elaboration of the theme in the hyperbole of the camel and the eye of the needle.
As an image of “great difficulty,” this seems an unlikely hyperbole. It strikes the reader, rather, as a simple metaphor for impossibility. Indeed, there is a clear parallel to it in rabbinical literature, which speaks of the impossibility of passing an elephant through the eye of a needle (Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth 55b). Does Jesus mean, then, “”very difficult” or “utterly inconceivable”?
Since there appear to be no circumstances in which it is humanly possible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, various fanciful interpretations have been advanced to explain away the toughness of the text. One of these, manifestly invented by someone who had no idea what he was talking about, refers to a small gate in the wall of Jerusalem. There is not the faintest evidence of such a gate or such a reference.
On the other hand, since the Lord’s hyperbole contains a bit of metaphor-mixing, others have tried their hand at “correcting” Him. After all, why would anyone try to pass a camel, to say nothing of an elephant, through the eye of a needle? What purpose would it serve? You can’t sew with an elephant. It was apparently to address this difficulty that a tenth century copyist devised a very slight textual change in Luke’s version of the parable. He altered kamelos (camel) to kamilos (rope). A rope, after all, has an obvious affinity to a thread, whereas camel clearly does not.
This reading of “rope” for “camel,” first found in a manuscript penned in A.D. 949 and copied into a few other manuscripts, is rather clever, even ingenious, but it is also too late to be taken seriously. One should be very cautious about biblical interpretations, much less biblical readings, that don’t appear in the first thousand years of Christian history!
What, then, about the impossibility implied in the Lord’s saying? The subsequent verse, in fact, confirms it. Yes, says Jesus, the salvation of the rich man is humanly impossible. This does not mean, however, that there is an impossibility on God’s side. God can pass a camel through the eye of the needle (verse 26). Let the rich man take care, however. Let him reflect that he is asking God for a miracle.
This metaphor of the camel and the needle, therefore, is something of a parallel with the moving of mountains. Both parables have to do with the power of faith in the God. Salvation is ever a gift of God, not a human achievement.
Peter’s response to this teaching (verse 27) may seem somewhat to exaggerate the size of his own abnegation. Just how successful was the fishing business that he gave up? After all, every time he catches a fish in the New Testament, the event is regarded as a miracle. “Giving up everything” in Peter’s case may not appear, at first, to involve all that much.
Looks are deceptive, however. Peter’s commitment to our Lord would eventually lead him to witness the martyrdom of his wife (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 7.11.63) and then be crucified upside down on Vatican Hill (cf. Tertullian, Scorpiace 15.3).
Moreover, the Lord Himself honored what Peter had to say, and He promised to reward Peter’s self-sacrifice (verse 28). He extends this promise to all the Twelve.
This is an important text in the ecclesiology of Matthew. The Apostles here—the institutional Twelve—become the new patriarchs, as it were, of the People of God. Their foundational role in the Church was so important that the Church took care to preserve even the exact number after the defection of Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-26).
The Lord’s promise of recompense is then extended to all those who, in imitation of the Twelve, would devote their lives to the closer following of Christ and the ministry of the Gospel along the road of self-abnegation (verse 29). These too will attain eternal life, the quest about which the rich man recently inquired (verse 16).
More than Mark, Matthew emphasizes the rewards of the world to come, omitting Mark’s inclusion of the rewards promised during the present age (cf. Mark 10:30).
The final verse in this chapter (verse 30), which is easily detachable from the present context, is apparently placed here because it prolongs the theme of reversal found in the previous verse—as the poor become rich, so the last become first, and the first last. This theme of reversal, in fact, appears to account for Matthew’s insertion of the next parable at this point. In that parable, as we shall see, the theme of reversal appears again (20:8).
Sunday, March 13
Proverbs 22: The shared humanity of the rich and the poor (verse 2) is the basis of our moral obligation to care for the poor (verses 9,22; cf. 29:13), and the Lord is the avenger of their neglect (verse 16; 23:1-11). This chapter’s subsequent exhortation not to oppress the poor resonates with the voices of the prophets (cf. Isaiah 5:8-9; Jeremiah 22:13-19; Micah 2:1-5; Habakkuk 2:6-17).
At verse 17 a new collection of maxims begins, in which the independent and impersonal couplets are replaced by a return to personal address: “my son.” The section, which continues through 24:22, commences with an exhorting call to wisdom (verses 17-18). A man must begin the quest of wisdom by putting his trust in God (verse 19) and the remembrance that there is no wisdom apart from truth (verses 20-21).
A good reason for not associating with an angry man is that one may start to imitate him (verses 24-25), but one can think of other reasons as well.
The warning against imprudent economic entanglements (verses 26-27) is an echo of several passages in Proverbs (6:1; 11:15; 17:18; 20:16).
Verse 28 is the classic principle of conservative philosophy, which will be repeated in the next chapter (23:10).
Romans 16:1-16: As the rising sun moves up toward the eastern horizon each morning, one by one the myriad stars of heaven start to disappear. They do not depart the sky, of course, but the stars do become invisible by reason of the sun’s larger and more garish light, and we upon the earth may no longer gain our bearings by observing them.
Not so the saints who shine on high. The true Sun of Righteousness does not, at His rising, eclipse those lesser lights by which the Church on earth is guided. On the contrary, He Himself illumines the saints, who have no light apart from Him. The reign of Christ does not dethrone the saints, who have no reign apart from His.
The saints, because they are so many and their serried ranks so closely stand together, are described as a "cloud" (Hebrews 12:1). Yet, on closer inspection, we perceive that not one of the saints loses those personal and particular traits by which each friend of Christ may be distinguished from the others. The Good Shepherd calls them each by name.
The individual and particular names of the saints are inscribed in the Book of Life, and the names of many of them are written likewise in the Bible. It is the singular merit of Romans 16 that it contains the New Testament’s largest collection of names of individual Christians. They belong to the "church," a word that now appears in Romans for the first time (verses 1,4,5,16,23).
In verses 1-16, here under consideration, these are all names of Christians at Rome, with the exception of Phoebe, the "deaconess" of Cenchrea (the eastern port of Corinth), who will carry this epistle to the church at Rome.
Since Paul himself had never been to Rome, how are we to explain the obvious fact that he knows so many of these Christians personally? Indeed, this problem has so vexed commentators over the centuries that they have doubted that chapter 16 belongs at the end of the Epistle to the Romans at all. They have suggested that it originally may have been attached to some other epistle, such as Ephesians.
Since there is no manuscript evidence for such an hypothesis, however, it seems better to regard chapter 16 as an integral part of Romans, seeking some other explanation for Paul’s personal familiarity with so many Christians in a city that he has never visited.
I suggest the following explanation: When the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in A. D. 49 (Acts 18:2), that expulsion also included many Christians. Many of these came east and settled in cities that Paul evangelized. This is how they came to be the friends of Paul and even his coworkers. However, with the death of Claudius in the year 54, about three and a half years before the composition of Romans (January to March of 58), some of these Christians naturally returned to Rome, where they owned homes and other property. Paul’s greetings here, then, are directed to those who had returned to Rome over the previous forty-two months. This suggestion, I believe, reasonably explains how Paul came to know twenty-eight Christians at Rome personally. This suggestion is especially clear in the case of the first two whom Paul greets, Prisca and Aquila (verses 3-4), whom he had first met as exiles from Rome in Greece in the year 49 (Acts 18:2). It is significant that the next one named, Epenaetus, who is also from Greece (verse 5). Moreover, it is reasonable to think that Phoebe herself, who is described as a "patroness" (prostates, or Latin patrona) of Paul (verse 2), is another of these exiled Romans returning home.
The "Rufus" who lived at Rome with his mother (verse 13) was known to Paul from Jerusalem itself. They were the son and wife of Simon of Cyrene. Eight years later, writing in Rome during the persecution that followed Nero’s fire (July of 65), Mark mentioned him and his brother Alexander, who had also arrived in Rome by this time (Mark 15:21).
Since the Epistle to the Romans and the other New Testament epistles were composed to be read at the Christians’ weekly Eucharistic gathering, and because Christians normally greeted one another with a kiss after the prayers that followed such readings (Justin Martyr, First Apology 65.2), the closing remarks of these epistles sometimes refer to that kiss (verse 16; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Peter 5:14).
Monday, March 14
Proverbs 23: The greatest conceit a man can cultivate is a trust in “his own” wisdom (verse 4), because true wisdom is the shared inheritance of human experience. Therefore, it is no proper goal of education that a student should be taught “to think for himself.” Any idiot can learn that on his own. (The Greek word for “his own” is idios.) It is a proper goal of education, rather, that a student should learn to think the thoughts of Plato, of Aristotle, of Amen-em-Opet, of Ahikar, of Confucius, of the other great minds whose ideas have fed and sustained entire civilizations. A true education, an introduction to wisdom, comes from hearing the instruction of those who are truly wise (verse 12). Idiosyncratic isolation is arguably the greatest enemy to the acquisition of wisdom.
Verses 15 to 28 take up again some of the motifs of the first part of Proverbs, encouraging the fear of the Lord (verse 17), custody of the heart (verse 19), sobriety and self-restraint (verses 20-21), respect for tradition (verses 22,24-25), and chastity (verses 27-28). This chapter closes with a colorful and amusing description of drunkenness (verses 29-35).
Romans 16:17-27: Having finished his greetings to friends at Rome, Paul will now send the salutations of those who are with him at Gaius’s house in Corinth (verse 23; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:14; Acts 19:29).
Prior to sending these salutations, however, Paul warns the Romans against schism, heresy, and dissension (verses 17-18). He knows there are troublemakers abroad. Indeed, among the Jewish Christians who were returning to Rome during those years, he may have recognized some of the very individuals who had been sowing dissent among his own congregations in the East.
The tone of Paul’s warnings here differs greatly in style from the rest of the Epistle to the Romans. One would think that Paul, as he thought of the friends in Rome that he had just named, had somewhat forgotten that he was writing to a church that he had not founded. He reverts to his more usual style, so that these few verses more closely resemble the other epistles. For example, one may compare verses 17-20 with Galatians 6:12-17.
Once again Paul commends the good reputation of the Roman Christians (verse 19; 1:8).
The crushing of Satan underfoot (verse 20), of course, fulfills the prophecy in Genesis 3:15.
Greetings are first sent from Timothy, who had recently arrived at Corinth and will soon be leaving to accompany the collection to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4).
In verse 22 we learn that Paul’s scribe, who has written this epistle at his dictation, is named Tertius, a Latin name signifying that he is the third son in his family. Tertius sends along greetings from his younger brother, Quartus (verse 23). Their older brother, Secundus, will be one of those carrying the collection to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4).
Tuesday, March 15
Proverbs 24: Material prosperity and the blessings of a stable life are founded on, and in some measure guaranteed by, the quest of wisdom (verses 3-4). Prudent choices and circumspect behavior, most especially in the time of youth when prudence and circumspection are not yet solid habits, will determine a man’s course for many years, perhaps even for his whole lifetime (verse 27). The failure at such application also brings about its own results (verses 30-34).
A first step toward wisdom is to turn away from evil. It is a matter of elementary experience that the evil-doer seems sometimes to prosper more than the just man. Whereas in the Book of Job the observation of this latter phenomenon spawns a philosophical discussion about its cause, here in Proverbs it represents only a distracting temptation. Instead of wondering how to interpret the prosperity of the wicked, the young man in Proverbs is simply warned against becoming deceived by it through envy (verses 1-2,8-9,19-20; 3:31; 23:17). Also to be eschewed, as a distraction at best, is the pursuit of revenge (verse 29). The wise man must avoid such temptations and get on with life.
True righteousness, however, is not a matter of looking good to men, nor is true prosperity attained simply by being regarded by other men as prosperous. God sees and judges the heart. In particular, God recognizes the difference between brave and cowardly hearts. He knows whether or not a man is inwardly acquiescing in evil and oppression (verse 11-12). God is not impartial. He takes the side of the righteous man (verses 15-16). This is the thesis put to trial in the Book of Job.
God’s reading of the heart also discerns the smug gloating one feels at the failure of an enemy (verse 17-18). God does not respect the self-righteousness contained in such sentiments. Justice on the earth has nothing to do with smug emotions.
James 1:1-11: The first verse of this epistle indicates already that James was an authority recognized outside of the Holy Land. The churches addressed here—“the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad”—were apparently of a Jewish makeup, and they looked to this first Bishop of Jerusalem, the Lord’s own kinsman, as their spiritual father. In this sense, James is not only our first example of a bishop; he is also our earliest model for a patriarch.
In this connection let us recall that the Apostle Paul, when he wrote of those whom he consulted at Jerusalem, named James first, before Peter and John (Galatians 2:9). It is worth observing, likewise, that this same sequence—James, Peter, John—is identical to the order in which the epistles of these same three men appear in the New Testament.
James, in a series of apparently unsystematic exhortations, begins with patience, prompting the careful reader to recall that St. Paul too, when he commenced his description of Christian love, began with the succinct thesis, “Love is patient”–Charitas patiens est in the Vulgate. James’ word for “patience,” hypomone–verses 3,4) will later appear when James speaks of the example of Job (5:11). He begins and ends this work, then, on the need of patience in the time of trial (verses 2,12,13,14).
The theme of rejoicing in times of trial is a common one in the New Testament (Matthew 5:10-12; Acts 5:41; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). This active attitude toward the experience of trial, as distinct from a merely passive endurance, brings about a kind of perfection, an ergon teleion (verse 4), perfection being a quality of great interest to James (verse 17,25; 3:2).
Those who attain unto perfection “lack nothing” (en medeni leipomenoi–verse 4). What a man may “lack” (leipetai–verse 5) first of all, says James, is wisdom, a gift that he may obtain through prayer to the generous God. This sudden mention of prayer and wisdom may not seem at first to fit the context of patience, which James has already introduced. The author is inspired here, however, by the Wisdom Scriptures, where wisdom is attained by prayer (1 Kings 3:5-9; Wisdom 9:10-18) and the patient endurance of trials (Wisdom 9:6; Sirach 4:17).
James’ mention of prayer leads to a consideration of faith and constancy (verse 6), because the prayer of faith is contrasted with wavering and hesitation.
The expression used for wavering and hesitation here is diakrinomai (verses 6,7), the middle voice of a verb meaning to make judgments. The use of this word suggests that the contrast of prayerful faith is some kind of inner debate, perhaps a bewilderment about the efficacy of prayer itself. The same contrast between the inconstancy and the prayer of faith, using the identical words, is also found in the sayings of Jesus (Matthew 21:21; Mark 11:23).
Such hesitancy and inner debate produces a “man of two souls”–aner dipsyhos (verse 8). This metaphor, which appears to be James’ own invention (the fragment in Philo seems not to be authentic), became common in early Christian literature. James’ adjective is found numerous times in Clement of Rome, Pseudo-Clement, Hermas, Origen, and later Christian writers, along with the corresponding noun dipsychia (“double-soul-ness”) and verb dipsychein (“to be double-soul-ed”). Such a person, animated sometimes by fervor toward God and at other times by friendship with the world, did not love God with his “whole” heart. He was certainly “unstable in all his ways.”
James next introduces the contrast of wealth and poverty (verses 9-11), which will become a notable theme in the entire epistle (1:27; 2:1-7,15-17; 4:10,13-16; 5:1-6). As we shall reflect in the next chapter, this sense of poverty and riches is not theoretical in James; it pertains, rather, to the concrete life of the Church, the one place on earth where the poor can expect to be treated with honor. Indeed, as James suggests here, it is also in the Church that the rich man will receive salutary instruction on the transitory nature of wealth, and in this instruction he too will be honored (verse 10).
Wednesday, March 16
Proverbs 25: The eighth century scribes of King Hezekiah, evidently as part of the general spiritual renewal associated with that godly monarch (cf. 2 Kings 18-20; 2 Chronicles 29-32), compiled the collection of maxims that begins here (Chapters 25-29). It has been observed that this collection contains 126 maxims, the very number indicated by the numerical value of the Hebrew letters in Hezekiah’s name. Given the courtly context of this collection, it is scarcely surprising that it begins with certain considerations of kingship (verse 1-7). We recognize that verse 7 is repeated in Luke 14:7-11.
Various maxims indicate the value of good and intelligent speech (verse 11-13,15,25), while others exhort to moderation even in good things (verses 16,27). The counsel for how to deal with one’s enemies (verses 21-22) is taken up by St. Paul in Romans 12:20-21 as an important component of practical Christian ethics.
A very weighty concern in the pursuit of wisdom is the acceptance of limitations. “The sky is the limit” is the philosophy of someone with no sense of personal identity. Identity, after all, is a defining notion, and definition is always a matter of limitation (“this, and not that”). A larger ego is not necessarily more a blessing than a larger nose. To refuse to recognize limitations is a marker along the path to loss of identity. Consequently, this practical chapter ends with the absolute necessity of self-control, which is one of the most practical applications of the acceptance of limitation (verse 28). King Hezekiah himself, who witnessed the downfall of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrians 722 B.C., was well adjusted to this acceptance and was obliged, in his own pursuit of wisdom, to bear it in mind continually. Had he not done so, he would not likely have survived the very taxing geopolitical circumstances in which history placed him.
James 1:12-20: The blessedness of the man who endures trial is related to that man’s love for God (verse 12). Love, that is to say, is really what is on trial; it is the reason for the endurance of the trial. This love for God, the love that is tried, is a gift of the Holy Spirit: “. . . we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
God puts His faithful ones through trial, but He does not “tempt” them in the sense of enticing them to sin (verse 13). God does not “tempt” in that sense. When man is enticed toward sin, it has to do with his own passions, his disposition to sin (verse 14). The source of this sort of temptation is internal to man; even the world and Satan cannot get at a man except through his own inner disposition. (Thus, Jesus was not “tempted” in this sense. Jesus was certainly put to the trial, and Satan used every effort to entice Him, but Jesus had no inner disposition to sin.)
Those who suffer temptation may be plagued by the thought that God has abandoned them, that He has forgotten them, that He no longer holds them in regard. To address this erroneous thought James insists that God is unchanging toward those that love Him. Unlike the lights in the heavens, the Father of these lights, their Creator (Genesis 1:13-18), does not diminish in His gifts to those who love Him. Indeed, James has already mentioned that God “gives to all liberally and without reproach” (verse 5).
This Father of lights has become our Father by begetting us in the Word (verse 18). Peter says the same, when he describes believers as “having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23).
Thursday, March 17
Proverbs 26: A major problem of being a fool is that one does not normally know he is a fool. Indeed, among the conspicuous characteristics of the fool is his inability to reflect on his own intellectual and moral shortcomings, which, left unattended over the years, tend to become progressively shorter. The fool is usually a proud, sullen, independent man, recalcitrant to instruction and correction from the outside, so that he is hardly in a position to help himself very much from the inside (verses 1-12; 28:26).
(Nowhere in Proverbs do we find compassion for a fool, we may note in passing. This is not to say that the fool should not be pitied, and other parts of Holy Scripture, such as the Sermon on the Mount, would surely prompt us to pity him. Proverbs, however, is rather short on compassion, on the whole, restricting that blessing pretty much to those who are poor for reasons besides their own fault. If one wants to be instructed on the ways of compassion, Proverbs is probably not the book to start with.)
Rather early in his career, the fool discouraged those who tried to help him, and such discouragement reinforced the negative aspects of his social relationships.
Not far from being fools are the merely lazy (verses 13-16), the habitually contentious (verses 17-22; 28:25), and the flattering (verses 23-26; 28:23; 29:5; cf. Sirach 27:25-28).
James 1:21-27: James devotes this next section to the proper hearing and doing of this “implanted” Word (verse 21).
First, there are certain moral and ascetical conditions preparatory to receiving this Word. Although the inseminated ground produces fruit of itself (avtomate [see the root of “automatically”?] he ge karpophorei—Mark 4:28), this ground must be prepared to receive it. This is the burden of the Lord’s most famous parable, the story of the sower who sowed the seed on various sorts of soil, with greatly varying results.
Thus, says James, the man that would properly listen to God’s Word must be, first of all, a listener. He must be slow to speak, especially purging his heart of anger (verses 19-20) and foul thought (verse 21; cf. Sirach 5:11-13; 20:5-8). In chapters 3 and 4 James will return to this theme of tongue control.
Second, the proper moral climate for attending to God’s Word is “meekness” (praütes—verse 21), the notable quality of Jesus’ own heart (Matthew 11:29).
Third, the Word must be received in active obedience, whereby the listeners become “doers of the Word”—literally “poets of the Word” (poietai Logou—verse 22; cf. Romans 2:13). If this is not the case, they “deceive” themselves (paralogizomenoi), especially with a deception of the heart (apaton kardian—verse 26).
We appreciate James’ warning that hearing the Word of God may be an occasion of spiritual danger, particularly the peril of self-deception. The major danger faced by the Bible-reader is that of imagining himself to be a religious person (verse 26). Such a one must learn to bridle his tongue, for he may not be who he thinks he is.
It is not unlikely that James has in mind here the newly converted Bible-reader who is too anxious to display his recently discovered wisdom by proclaiming it to others. What such a man must first learn to do is carry out the most basic, simplest, humblest mandates of the Gospel—working charity toward the misfortunate and purging of worldliness from his heart (verse 27).
Fourth, the study of God’s Word is the school of self-knowledge, because it serves as a mirror to the soul itself (verses 23-24). Thus, the man who studies God’s Word assiduously looks into a mirror, in which he learns his own blemishes reflected there. This will be the case, however, only if the hearer of the Word comes to it in the active obedience of faith (verse 25). He must not take leave of the Word too soon but “continue” (parameinas) in it.
Fifth, the “doer of the Word” must also be the “doer of the work” (poietes ergou—verse 25). As we shall see in the next chapter, James rejects any theory of justification that is not emphatic about the necessity of works. These works are what constitutes a man’s religion (threskia—verses 26,27).
Friday, March 18
Proverbs 27: Nothings is more burdensome than anger (verse 3). As the human soul (according to Aristotle) possesses no passion that is directly contrary to the passion of anger, we have nothing emotional in our constitution that directly counterbalances anger. We can only control it rationally, with no help from the other passions. Hence, anger is the passion most likely to get out of hand; it is also the passion that tends most to become unbalanced. Fortunately, unless deliberately cultivated, anger also tends to diminish over time. Otherwise, it would crush our spirits.
But suppose a state of constant anger, an eternal wrath, an ire without end. Suppose an anger that will not dissipate with time, for the simple reason that time is no more. Such would seem to be the quality of eternal damnation, the state in which a man is perpetually and without end crushed by his anger. He teeth will forever continue to grind and gnash in the endless darkness (cf. Matthew 8:12; 13:42,50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). The anger of the fool, described in verse 3, is a sort of calisthenics preparatory for his coming state.
Verse 19 uses the metaphor of a visual reflection to describe the sensation of the heart finding itself mirrored in another heart. This experience accompanies certain intense friendships, such as that in which “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1).
The chapter ends with maxims respecting the industrious and sustained stewardship of one’s resources (verses 23-27). The possession of family property, guaranteed by the provisions of the Mosaic Law, is regarded in Holy Scripture as a medium of tradition, binding each generation to those both before and after it. Property is supposed to be handed down in the family along with sound counsel for how to preserve and enhance it.
James 2:1-13: The message of this section is straightforward and unsubtle. James points to a common trait of fallen man, the disposition to cultivate favor with the powerful over the weak, to prefer the approval of the rich to that of the poor. James begins by noting the easiest, most immediate way of distinguishing between the two—their clothing. Because the wealthier man can afford better clothes, he is better able to honor his own body, prompting others to comply with that honor. As modern men sometimes say, “Clothing makes a statement.”
For James, however, who has just mentioned that true religion consists in care for the poor and keeping oneself unspotted from the world (1:27), such deference towards the wealthy is only another form of worldliness. The New King James Version calls this vice “partiality.” The King James’ rendering “respect of persons” comes closer to the sense of the Greek prosopolempsia, literally translated in the Vulgate as personarum acceptatio, “acceptance of persons.” This word means that distinctions are made, according to which some people are treated with greater honor and respect than others.
The thing chiefly to be noted about this prosopolempsia is that God doesn’t have any (Romans 2:11), and neither should the Church. A preference for the wealthy, even with the excuse that the wealthy are in a better position to aid the work of the Church, would seem to be the very antithesis of visiting orphans and widows in their affliction and keeping oneself unsullied by the world. As such it has no legitimate place in the social life of the Church (verses 2-3).
Indeed, in many places in Holy Scripture it appears that God, if He can be said to have a preference, prefers the poor. He is called the protector of the orphan and the defense of the widow, and even the most casual Bible-reader will observe, from time to time, that God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. In fact, God “chooses the poor” (exselexsato tous ptochous—verse 5) and makes them heirs of the Kingdom (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20).
If his readers need any further incentive to be freed from such worldliness, James reminds them that their own oppressors come from the ranks of the rich rather than the poor (verses 6-7; Amos 8:4; Wisdom 2:10). The Christian Church, in short, must side with the poor, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed, not with the wealthy, the powerful, and the oppressors.