Friday, August 26
Joshua 14: This chapter begins the section in which the land of Canaan is divided by allotment, in accordance with the command that Joshua received in the previous chapter (13:1,7).
We already know from Numbers 36:16-29 that Eleazar, Aaron’s son and heir in the priesthood (Numbers 3:32; Deuteronomy 10:6), is to assist Joshua in this allotment.
Prior to this allotment, however, the reader is again reminded that territory has already been set aside, east of the Jordan, for two and a half of these tribes (verse 3). The writer likewise mentions once again that special provision is to be made for the tribe of Levi (verse 4).
In addition, before any allotment to the remaining tribes can be made, provision must be made for Caleb, the other of the only two spies who had remained loyal, decades earlier, when Moses had dispatched them for an initial inventory of the Promised Land (Numbers 13—14; Deuteronomy 1:35-36). Caleb officially belonged to the tribe of Judah (Numbers 13:6; 34:19), and his inheritance will fall within that tribe.
Forty-five years have elapsed since Caleb, a mere lad of forty at the time, had received Moses’ promise that he would inherit property in the land of Canaan (verses 6-10). Except for Joshua, he was the only surviving adult of the multitude that had marched out of Egypt, so it was entirely fitting he should be the first to inherit real estate in the land that he had inspected nearly half a century earlier. Caleb stands forever in the Bible as the model of such perseverance as leads to a great reward.
Luke 3:7-20: “The kingdom of heaven,” asserted Jesus, “suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come” (11:12–14).
The “violence” associated with John was readily discerned in his asceticism, which prompted his enemies to say, “He has a demon” (11:18). Violence was also evident in his apocalyptic preaching, all about “the wrath to come,” with axes laid to the roots of trees and the burning of chaff with unquenchable fire (3:7–12). John’s hearers could never tell God that they had not been warned!
One of these was Herod Antipas, whom Herodias manipulated into beheading the violent John. Resenting the Baptist’s condemnation of her “meaningful and fulfilling,” albeit adulterous, relationship with Antipas, Herodias had longed for that day of vengeance. Indeed, in the New Testament triangle of the anemic Antipas, the hateful Herodias, and the relentless John, we have a striking parallel to the Old Testament triangle of the anemic Ahab, the hateful Jezebel, and, of course, the unrelenting Elijah.
Saturday, August 27
Luke 3:21-38: There are six comments to be made about Luke’s account of the Baptism of Jesus:
First, John the Baptist is not mentioned in the scene at all; Luke, having already spoken of John’s arrest (Luke 3:20), leaves him out of the baptismal story completely.
Second, the baptism itself is not Luke’s central concern. Indeed, it has already happened and is mentioned only in a subordinate expression: “having been baptized.” Luke’s focus is directed, not to the baptism, but to Jesus’ experience of the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Third, Jesus’ baptism is not isolated from that of the other people: “. . . when all the people were baptized . . .” The evangelist’s stress on this point indicates Jesus’ solidarity with the rest of humanity.
This emphasis is important to Luke’s theology of the Incarnation. In the immediate context, Jesus’ organic solidarity with the human race is addressed by Luke’s inclusion—immediately after the baptism—of the Savior’s genealogy, in which his ancestry is traced all the way back to Adam (Luke 3:23-38). In other words, the mention of “the people,” in this baptismal scene, pertains to Luke’s larger interest in the humanity of Jesus: He is at one with the whole human race, descended from the fallen Adam.
Fourth, only Luke speaks of the Savior at prayer in the baptismal story: “. . . Jesus—having been baptized—was praying . . .” This is the first of many times Luke describes Jesus communing with God as other human beings commune with God—namely, by prayer.
Fifth, Luke emphasizes the visible way the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus: “. . . the Holy Spirit, in bodily form [somatiko eidei] like a dove, came down upon him . . .”
Although Luke has already made the activity of the Holy Spirit thematic in his version of the Gospel, a particular theological note attends the Spirit’s appearance here in the baptismal scene—namely, the baptism is portrayed as Jesus’ public anointing by the Holy Spirit. Jesus will soon speak of this “anointing,” when, in the first words of his public ministry—and quoting the Book of Isaiah—he announces, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, / Because He has anointed me” (4:16; Isaiah 61:1).
The Spirit’s baptismal anointing of Jesus is theologically decisive for Luke. It is, in fact, the chronological starting point of the apostolic message (cf. Acts 1:21-22). In respect to Jesus’ baptismal anointing, moreover, Luke will later quote St. Peter’s assertion that the Gospel itself
began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him (Acts 10:37-38 emphasis added).
Sixth, in Luke’s version of the baptism—as in Mark’s—the voice of the Father addresses Jesus directly. It does so twice: “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased.” We take note of the vigorously repeated I/you structure.
The proclamation of Jesus’ sonship hardly comes as “news” to Luke’s readers, of course, who recall the announcement of Gabriel to Mary:
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35).
Let us insist that this experience of identification did not come to Jesus as “fresh information.” The Father’s word here should not be understood as Jesus’ “calling,” in the sense familiar to the Hebrew prophets. Jesus already knew he was called, and he already knew the identity of His Father. Eighteen years earlier, he had asked his parents, "Why did you seek me? Did you not know that I must be about the things of my Father?" (Luke 2:49)
In the baptism, the Father’s voice expresses, rather, a heightened reassurance to Jesus, the sign that his ministry should now begin. As the Apostle Peter remarked of this scene, “God was with him” (Acts 10:38). The Father’s word is the encouraging answer to Jesus’ prayer at the baptism. It conveys the Father’s presence and loving approval. In short, Luke’s version of the baptism lays the accent on Jesus’ personal experience of communion with his Father, a communion sustained right up to the death scene, where Jesus twice invokes God as “Father” (Luke 23:43, 46).
Sunday, August 28
Luke 4:1-15: When the New Testament speaks of the eternal Son’s assumption of our humanity, the event is described in terms of a lessening, the embracing of limitation, even a self-emptying. In witness to this conviction, a primitive Christian hymn, partly preserved the Epistle to the Philippians, declared that Jesus Christ
being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be seized, but emptied himself [heavton ekenosen], assuming the form of a bondservant (Philippians 2:6-7).
From the beginning, Christians believed that God’s Son “lessened” himself by becoming human. He “was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death” (Hebrews 2:9). The act of becoming a human being necessarily imposed limits on his condition and experience. Paul described this “limitation”—consequent to the Word’s enfleshing—with a metaphor of wealth and poverty. Thus, he told the Corinthians:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Servanthood and poverty are metaphors of limitation. They assert that God’s Son really did become “one of us.” When we inquire what sorts of limitation God’s Son assumed in the Incarnation, it is clear to nearly all readers of the New Testament that certain physical limitations were included. That is to say, if Jesus did not grow tired, how was it he fell sound asleep in the boat? If he did not become thirsty and exhausted, what prompted him to sit down at a well and ask a Samaritan woman for a drink?
These limitations included a range of psychological discomforts. At the death of a beloved friend, for example, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Faced with the sustained and repeated infidelities of Jerusalem, “he saw the city and wept over it” (Luke 19:41). Some experiences left him with the feelings of utter exasperation: “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” (Mark 9:19). At the worst experience of all, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
If the eternal Word’s taking of our humanity made him vulnerable to emotional pain, it also rendered him susceptible to temptation. When, after fasting for forty days, he grew hungry, it is hardly surprising that an early first temptation was related to food (Matthew 4:3; Luke 4:3). Adequate attention to Jesus in the flesh can hardly omit those temptations to which the flesh is heir. Holy Scripture, at least, does not omit them.
This aspect of the Incarnation was nowhere more emphatically asserted than in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which says of Jesus:
Therefore, in all things he had to be made like his brothers, that he might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in the things of God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. For in that he himself has suffered, being tempted, he is able to aid those who are tempted (Hebrews 2:17-18 emphasis added).
For the earliest Christians, the temptations of Jesus were at once the expression of his full humanity and the encouraging evidence of his ability to sympathize with the trials faced by those who put their trust in him:
For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in everything tempted as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15 emphasis added).
Monday, August 29
Mark 6:14-29: It is remarkable that the Gospel of St. Mark provides the most complete detailed account of the martyrdom of John the Baptist.
If one seeks a reason for this, I suggest that the explanation lies in the central theme of Mark’s Gospel—namely, the mystery of the Cross. This theme is introduced very early in Mark, when Jesus is put on trial almost right away. At the beginning of the second chapter He is accused of blasphemy (2:7), and at the beginning of chapter three His enemies already plot to kill Him (3:6).
The Evangelist Mark inserts the murder of John the Baptist at a point where his literary structure requires him to suggest a passage of time between two events. Thus, right before the story of John, Jesus sends out evangelizing disciples (6:7-13). To indicate the passage of time during which these disciples were preaching, casting out demons, and anointing the sick, Mark tells the fairly lengthy story of the death of John the Baptist. Immediately after this account, Mark speaks of the return of the disciples from their preaching and healing mission (6:30).
This story of John’s death stands in Mark’s account as a foreshadowing, of sorts, of the trial and death of Jesus.
Indeed, in both stories the tragedy comes about through evil forces working on the weakness of certain political figures.
Thus, Herod orders the beheading of John the Baptist, much against his preference, when his hand is forced by the thoroughly corrupt Herodias. And Pilate, also against his preference, orders the crucifixion of Jesus, when the corrupt Jewish leaders force his hand.
In both stories, that is to say, we witness the inability of cowardly political leadership to guarantee the most fundamental political rights: to life and a fair trial. Both stories are indictments of moral weakness; both Herod and Pilate are cowards, unable to resist injustice, even though they bear the responsibility of maintaining justice. Each case—the beheading of John the Baptist and the crucifixion of Jesus—demonstrates the inability of human power to render even the most basic justice.
This lesson was particularly significant for Mark’s original readers: the Christians suffering persecution and death at the hands of the weak political leader Nero, who diverted to them the wrath of the Roman people for the burning of Rome.
This lesson is essential to believers in ever age, who might otherwise be disposed to put their trust in princes and to seek their security from a political order no stronger than the weak men appointed to maintain it.
This lesson is, finally, the lesson of the Cross.
Tuesday, August 30
Psalms 28: This is a psalm about the Resurrection: “My helper and protector is the Lord; in Him my heart hoped, and I was helped. And my flesh took life again, so I shall praise Him with ready will.”
This revival of the very flesh of Christ was not a simple return to a life in the flesh, for the risen body of our Lord is saturated with the transforming energies of the Holy Spirit. It is a spiritual and heavenly body—not in the sense of being immaterial, but in the sense that its material composition is itself completely filled with, and inwardly transformed by, God’s definitive outpouring of the divine life. The risen flesh of Christ is thus the first fruits of the new creation, the root and initial installment of that universal transformation by which God will make things new.
The Apostle Paul wrote of this sacred mystery of the Resurrection during the paschal season of the year 55. He was addressing the church at Corinth some time during the fifty-day interval between Pascha and Pentecost, and, even as he wrote, he referred to the extended paschal season that the Christians were observing: “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast” (1 Corinthians 5:7, 8). He wrote these words from Ephesus, where he was planning to stay until Pentecost, which would come presently (16:8).
Writing during that paschal season, St. Paul used the occasion to expound on the meaning of the Resurrection of Jesus, particularly with respect to the new quality of the risen body. The resurrection of the dead, he insisted, is not a simple return to the corruptible life of the body that all men know. It is something marvelously different, analogous to the transformation that takes place when the sown seed rises to new life in the growing plant:
So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body (soma physikon), and there is a spiritual body (pneumatikon) (15:42–44).
The spiritual body of the Resurrection is not some kind of “shade.” Jesus is no ghost. “Handle Me and see,” says the risen Christ, “for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 24:39). The risen body is still a body, which is to say that it is still composed of matter. To say that the risen body is spiritual does not mean that it is immaterial, but that it is incorruptible. Indeed, in order to emphasize the point that His risen body is still a reality composed of matter, the Lord insisted on actually eating a honeycomb and a piece of fish in the presence of the Church (24:42, 43).
Therefore, the contrast involved here is not one of matter and immateriality, but of two different states of matter: matter subject to corruption, or matter suffused with the Spirit-given dynamism of immortality—matter that is subject to death and corruption, or matter that can never again die.
Our corruptible bodies were descended from Adam; our new bodies are derived from Christ:
And so it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being.’ The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. . . . The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man” (1 Corinthians 15:45–49).
Such is the divine mystery celebrated in our psalm. The resurrection of the Lord (“my flesh took life again”) is contrasted with the lot who simply go down unto death: “O my God, be not silent to me, for if you are silent to me, I shall be like unto those that descend unto Hades.”
Our psalm also teaches that the life of the Resurrection is a life of divine praise. Indeed, the Church’s praise of God is rooted in the Resurrection of Christ: “The Lord is the strength of His people, and the protector of His anointed one’s salvation.”
Wednesday, August 31
Luke 4:31-37: In their unsuccessful efforts to tempt Jesus, the demons learned something. Through those temptations, the premise of the hypothesis “If you are God’s Son” has now been established. Although the dark agencies are not really sure what this predication means, at least they do know it to be true.
Thus, when Jesus begins, very soon, to exorcize them from human souls, the demons have a clearer sense of what they are up against. They are the first to “confess” it:
Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!
Psalm 38 (Greek and Latin 37): With its heavy emphasis on sin and suffering, this psalm is one of the rougher parts of the Psalter, and its thematic conjunction of sin and suffering is also the manifest key to its meaning.
Suffering and death enter the world with sin. To humanity’s first sinners the Lord said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow,” and “Cursed is the ground for your sake” (Genesis 3:16, 17). So close is the Bible’s joining of suffering to sin that some biblical characters (such as Job’s friends and the questioning disciples in John 9:2) entertained the erroneous notion that each instance of suffering was brought about by certain specific sins.
Like Psalm 6, the present psalm commences with a prayer for deliverance from divine anger: “O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your wrath, nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure.” Already the poet feels overwhelming pain which he describes, whether literally or by way of metaphor, in the most physical terms: “Your arrows [thunder bolts?] pierce me deeply, and Your hand presses me down.” What he suffers comes from sin and the response of the divine wrath, from which he begs to be delivered: “There is no soundness in my flesh, because of Your anger, nor any health in my bones because of my sin.”
Whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual—or all of them together—what we suffer in this life are the incursions of death, and death is simply sin becoming incarnate and dwelling among us, for “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).
Such is the essential conviction of our prayer in this psalm: “For my iniquities are gone over my head; like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me. My wounds are foul and festering because of my folly.”
The proper response to sin and suffering? Confession of sins and the sustained cultivation of repentance, for “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Thus we pray in this psalm: “For I am ready to fall, and my sorrow is continually (tamid ) before me. For I will declare my iniquity; I will be in anguish over my sin.” Notwithstanding a widespread heresy that says otherwise, repentance (metanoia) is not something done once, and all finished; according to one of the last petitions of the litany, it is something to be perfected (ektelesai) until the end of our lives. This sorrow for sin, says our psalm, is continual, ongoing (tamid ). Every suffering we are given in this life is a renewed call to repentance. Every pain is, as it were, the accusing finger of Nathan: “You are the man” (2 Samuel 12:7).
Sin is also the great solvent of our relationships to one another. As is clear in the accounts of the first sins (Genesis 3:11–13; 4:12), sin means isolation and alienation. Sin separates us, not only from God, but also from one another. Our psalm speaks of this isolation: “My loved ones and my friends stand aloof from my plague. And my relatives stand afar off.”
We are not talking about morbidity here. Contrition and sorrow in this psalm are accompanied by repeated sentiments of longing:
I groan because of the turmoil of my heart. Lord, all my desire is before You; and my sighing is not hidden from You. My heart pants, my strength fails me. . . . For in You, O Lord, I hope; You will hear, O Lord my God.
Thursday, September 1
Psalms 37 (Greek and Latin 36): If we think of prayer as speaking to God, the present psalm appears at first to challenge the very notion of the psalms as prayers, inasmuch as not a single word of it is explicitly addressed to God. It speaks about God, of course, but never to Him, at least not overtly.
Psalm 37 is also strangely constructed, even if the construction is rather simple. It is one of those twelve psalms built on what is known as an alphabetic acrostic pattern—that is to say: starting with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, each new line (in this case, every other line) of the psalm begins with the next successive letter of the alphabet. Thus, if one looks for some sort of logical or thematic progression in the course of the psalm, he may be mightily disappointed. The arrangement of the psalm’s ideas is determined only by something so artificial and arbitrary as the sequence of the alphabet, so the meditation does not really progress. It is, on the other hand, insistent and repetitive.
It is obvious at once that this psalm has close ties to the Bible’s Wisdom tradition. If it were not part of the Psalter, we would expect to find it in Proverbs or one of the other Wisdom books. It appears to be a kind of discourse given by a parent to a child, or a wise man to a disciple. It is full of sound and godly counsel: “Fret not thyself because of evildoers . . . Trust in the Lord and do good . . . Cease from anger and forsake wrath . . . Wait on the Lord and keep His way,” and so forth. Such admonitions, along with the psalm’s allied warnings and promises, are stock material of the Wisdom literature.
So how does one pray such a psalm? To begin with, by respecting its tone, which is one of admonition, warning, and promise. Surely prayer is talking to God, but it also involves listening to God, and this is a psalm in which one will do more listening than talking. It is a psalm in which the believer prays by placing his heart open and receptive to God’s word of admonition, warning, and promise.
One may likewise think of Psalm 37 as the soul speaking to itself: “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him . . . But the meek shall inherit the earth . . . The little that the righteous has is better than the riches of many wicked . . . The Lord knows the days of the upright . . . The Law of his God is in his heart,” and so on.
The human soul, after all, is not of simple construction. The great thinkers who have examined the soul over many centuries seem all to agree that it is composed of parts, and sometimes these parts are at odds one with another. This mixture of conflicting experiences in the soul leads one to utter such petitions as, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” It is one part of the soul praying for the other.
In this psalm, one part of the soul admonishes the other, reminds the other, cautions the other, encourages the other. And this inner conversation of the human spirit all takes place in the sight of God, the Giver of wisdom.
This inner discussion is rendered necessary because of frequent temptations to discouragement. As far as empirical evidence bears witness, the wicked do seem, on many occasions, to be better off than the just. By the standards of this world, they prosper.
Our psalm is at pains to insist, however, that this prosperity is only apparent, in the sense that it will certainly be short-lived. As regards the workers of iniquity
they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb . . . For evildoers shall be cut off . . . For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be . . . For the arms of the wicked shall be broken . . . The transgressors shall be cut off together.
The suffering lot of the just man is likewise temporary and of brief duration. He need only wait on the Lord in patience and trust:
Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He will give thee the desires of thy heart. Commit your way unto the Lord, and trust in Him, and He shall bring it to pass . . . But the salvation of the righteous is of the Lord; He is their strength in the time of trouble. And the Lord will help them and deliver them; He will deliver them from the wicked and save them, because they trust in Him.
This, then, is a psalm of faith and confidence in God, without which there is no Christian prayer. It is also faith and hope under fire, exposed to struggle and the endurance that calls for patience. After all, “faith is the substance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1), and “We were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope . . . But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance” (Rom. 8:24, 25). Our psalm is a meditative lesson on not being deceived by appearances, and a summons to wait patiently for God’s deliverance.
Friday, September 2
Luke 5:1-11: Luke’s account of the calling of the Apostles is followed immediately by the story of the miraculous catch of fish. Christians have long seen in this juxtaposition a hint of the large crowds who would come to Christ through the preaching of the Apostles. This image ties the story to the large crowds of converts Luke records in the Acts of the Apostles.
There is a reference to this scene in an ancient hymn of Pentecost: “Blessed art Thou, Christ our God, Who didst make the fishermen wise by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit, and through them didst draw the world into Thy net.”
A similar story is found in John 21:1-6, evidently conveying the same symbolism. In the final arrangement of the New Testament books, John’s story of the miraculous catch immediately precedes the mission of the Apostles in the book of Acts.
Psalms 35 (Greek and Latin 34): This psalm, a prayer descriptive of this spiritual struggle, is much concerned that the ignorance and hatred of God not ultimately prevail. In line after line it is a prayer for vindication: “Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life! Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me!” In all such lines it is important to remember that it is the voice of Christ. It is Christ who prays, “Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them on! Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them!” The prayer of Christ here is a battle prayer, for He wages war on the forces of sin, darkness, and destruction: “Let ruin come upon them unawares.”
The vindication sought by this psalm is not some sort of petty revenge. This is the prayer of Christ doing battle with the forces of sin and death, looking forward to the hour of His victory, when His very body, brought down to the grave, will rise again in the paschal victory: “And my soul shall be joyful in the Lord; it shall rejoice in His salvation. All my bones shall say, ‘Lord, who is like You, delivering the poor from him who is too strong for him.’”
Salvation, as understood by Christians, is attained by God’s vindication of His own righteousness in the Resurrection of Christ, “who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25).
This truth is the key to our psalm. It is the prayer of those, in Christ, still struggling as they fill up in their flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ (Colossians 1:24). In Christ theirs is this prayer for victory over sinful ignorance, hatred, and death: “Do not keep silence. O Lord, do not be far from me. Stir up Yourself, and awake to my vindication, to my cause, my God and my Lord. . . . And my tongue shall speak of Your righteousness and of Your praise all the day long.”