Friday, August 12

Numbers 36: The Book of Numbers ends with a final determination about the property of five heiresses, the topic of an earlier discussion (27:1-11). The question raised in this chapter is directed to the inheritance of this property in the event that the inheriting heiress marries outside of her own tribe (verse 3). That is to say, what is needed is a further clarification of the earlier ruling, and Moses perceives the need for this clarification (verse 5).

The solution to the difficulty is a prohibition against these heiresses—if they do claim their inheritance—marrying outside their own tribe, lest the inherited property be lost to that tribe (verse 7). This solution is consistent with the intention of the earlier disposition—namely, to preserve in integrity the inheritance of each tribe and family (verse 8).

These heiresses dutifully conform to the prescribed arrangement (verses 10-13).

The last verse of this book asserts divine sanction for the decisions and judgments made throughout chapters 22-36, raising them to the same level of authority as the commandments received on Mount Sinai.

The legal determination in this chapter was consistent with an overriding preoccupation in the allotment of the Promised Land among Israel’s tribes: A concern to distribute the available real estate evenly, so that no one family or group should gain—at least initially—an undue prominence or advantage over the others.

This concern was the reason why, when the land was apportioned, the task fell to representatives of all the tribes (34:16-29). These men were to guarantee an equitable distribution, based on an elementary principle: “And you shall divide the land by lot as an inheritance among your families; to the larger you shall give a larger inheritance, and to the smaller you shall give a smaller inheritance; everyone’s shall be whatever falls to him by lot. You shall inherit according to the tribes of your fathers” (33:54).

This arrangement, bolstered by Israel’s jubilee rule (cf. Leviticus 25:10-34), encouraged a rough equality of resources in Israel, not only among the tribes, but also among individual households. The inspiration for this system may be described as a benign egalitarianism. It would distinguish Israel from the money-grubbing nations round about.

This egalitarianism, on the whole, lasted for centuries. Even as late as the reign of Solomon (961-922), it could be said, “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25).

Afterwards, this benign egalitarianism was corroded by Israel’s commercial dealings with Israel’s neighbors, chiefly the Phoenicians. We detect an early example of this corrosion in the ninth century, in the case of the seizure of Naboth’s vineyard by Ahab and Jezebel. It is worth observing that the outspoken critic of this seizure was the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 21).

Saturday, August 13

Mark 14:22-31: The early tradition of Jesus’ Church cherished a special narrative of those events that transpired on the night of his betrayal by Judas Iscariot:

I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed . . . (1 Corinthians 11:23).

Paul then goes on to tell the story of the Last Supper, a rite the early Christians—obeying Jesus’ injunction to “do this”—repeated each Sunday as the central service of their worship. The telling of the story of the Last Supper was a common feature of that common weekly service. Local variations in the wording of the service apparently account for the slight differences we find among the New Testament authors, when they describe the historical event (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-25).

The Synoptic Gospels explicitly identify the original supper as the Passover meal, the Seder (Matthew 26:17-20; Mark 14:12-17; Luke 22:7-15).

At that supper, all the evangelists agree, Jesus quietly confronted his betrayer, who then left the supper and went out to make arrangements for the betrayal. John, arguably, described it best: “Having received the piece of bread, he then went out immediately. And it was night” (John 13:30).

All the evangelists, likewise, record Jesus’ prediction of Simon Peter’s denial of him.

Other details of the supper are found among the four gospels: John describes how the Savior washed the feet of the disciples and spoke to them about service to one another (John 13:3-17). Luke also records his exhortation to mutual service in humility (Luke 22:24-27). Only Luke speaks of further instructions about the coming apostolic mission (22:35-38).

Matthew (26:30) and Mark (14:26) both mention the Hallel (Psalms 113—118), customarily chanted near the end of the Seder. One of the most significant lines of the Hallel is Psalm 116:12-13

What shall I render to the Lord / For all His benefits toward me? / I will take up the cup of salvation, / And call upon the name of the Lord (emphasis added).

Jesus’ resolve to drink the “cup of salvation” would be sorely tried during the hours immediately to come (Matthew 26:39, 42; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42).

Sunday, August 14

Mark 14:32-42: Quoting select Bible verses to prove a point of theology is usually, at best, a risky business, because what the Bible may say on a given subject is, as often as not, difficult to reduce to a single proposition. Let me cite the example of petitionary prayer in order to illustrate this risk and also to initiate a reflection on the subject of such prayer.

Times out of mind I have been told by sincere Christians that the promise given by Jesus—the promise of His Father’s granting us whatsoever we ask in His name (John 16:23-24)—is absolute and “allows of no exceptions.” Some folks, citing this text, go on to remark that even the addition of “according to Thy will” bespeaks a want of sufficient faith, inasmuch as it suggests that the person making the prayer is failing in confidence that his prayer will be answered. That is to say, a prayer containing an “if,” because it is ipso facto hypothetical, expresses an inadequate faith. What the believer should do, I have been told, is simply “name it and claim it.”

In fact, what the Bible has to say about petitionary prayer, is contained in many biblical verses, all of them worthy of careful regard. For example, should we say that the Apostle Paul, when he prayed three times that the Lord would remove from him the thorn in his flesh, the angel of Satan sent to buffet him (2 Corinthians 12:8), was wanting in faith because this severe affliction was not taken away?

If this was the case—if the Apostle to the Gentiles really was so deficient in personal faith—it is no wonder that he was obliged to leave Trophimus sick at Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20). Poor ailing Trophimus, languishing there on his sickbed; he should have been prayed over by a person with a sounder, fuller, more unfailing faith, not that slacker Paul, a man apparently deficient in the art of naming it and claiming it.

The truth of the subject, however, is quite different. The addition, “according to thy will,” is neither a limitation imposed on our confidence nor a restriction laid on our prayer. It expresses, rather, a constitutive feature of true prayer and an essential component of faith. The real purpose of prayer, after all, is not to inform God what we want, but to hand ourselves over more completely, in faith, to what God wants. The purpose of prayer, after all—even the prayer of petition—is living communion with God. The man who tells God, then, “Thy will be done,” does not thereby show himself a weaker believer but a stronger one.

After all, was Jesus, “the author and perfecter of our faith,” weak in faith when He added the “Thy will be done” to the petition “Take this cup from Me”? Did He not, rather, give us in this form of His petition the very essence of true prayer?

“According to Thy will,” then, is not a limit on our trust, but an expansion of it. It does not denote a restriction of our confidence but an elevation of it. It is an elevation, because through such a prayer—“Thy will be done”—we grow in personal trust in the One who has deigned, in His love, to become our Father. Indeed, when Jesus makes this prayer in the Garden, the evangelists are careful to note exactly how He addressed God—namely, as “Father.” Indeed, they even preserve the more intimate Semitic form, “Abba.”

The “will of God” in which we place the trust of our petition is not a blind, arbitrary, or predetermined will. It is, rather, the will of a Father whose sole motive (if this word be allowed) in hearing our prayer is to provide loving direction and protection to His children. “According to Thy will” is spoken to a Father who loves us because in Christ we have become His children.

All of this theology was contained in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden, by which His own human will was united with the will of God. Jesus, in praying for the doing of God’s will, modeled for us the petition contained in the prayer that He gave us in the Sermon on the Mount. This prayer, which significantly begins with “Our Father,” goes on to plead that His will may be done.

Monday, August 15

Psalm 45 (Greek and Latin 44): This psalm anticipates and most descriptively foretells that future royal wedding proclaimed in the parables of Jesus. Its lines describe the “bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2): “The royal daughter is all glorious within the palace; her clothing is woven with gold. She shall be brought to the King in robes of many colors; the virgins, her companions who follow her, shall be brought to You. With gladness and rejoicing they shall be brought; they shall enter the King’s palace.”

There is even more description of the King’s Son, however, that Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world: “You are fairer than the sons of men. Grace is poured out upon Your lips. Therefore God has blessed You forever. Gird Your sword upon Your thigh, O Mighty One, with Your glory and Your majesty. And in Your majesty ride victorious because of truth, humility and righteousness.”

This Son’s riding forth in victory is similarly described in the Bible’s final book: “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. . . . And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: King of Kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:11, 12, 16).

We need not guess at the identity of this Bridegroom nor be in doubt of His divine dignity, for the New Testament quotes our psalm when it speaks of the Son’s anointing by His Father: “But to the Son He says: / ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; / A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom. / You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; / Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You / With the oil of gladness more than Your companions’” (Heb. 1:8, 9). This ‘anointed one’ (for such is the meaning of the name Messiah, or Christ) is Jesus, of whom the Apostles preached: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38).

Inasmuch as “the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31), then, a certain measure of detachment is necessary to prepare ourselves for the wedding feast of the King’s Son, a certain using of this world as though not using it, a refusal to take seriously its unwarranted claims on our final loyalty. So our psalm once again warns us: “Listen, O daughter. Consider and incline your ear; forget your own people also, and your father’s house. So the King will greatly desire your beauty. Because He is your Lord, worship Him.”

Tuesday, August 16

Mark 13:43-52: Simon Peter was once again awakened by the voice of Jesus, having fallen asleep three times in as many hours, even as he listened to the prayer of Jesus. Weak in flesh, Simon had utterly failed in the Master’s command to watch and pray with him.

For Simon Peter, what a night! At the Passover Seder, just a few hours before, Jesus had disclosed the presence of a traitor among them and had foretold that the rest of the little group would fail him in his coming hour of trial. Simon himself had been singled out for a special warning, as the Lord predicted his triple denial before that very night should run its course. It was all entirely too much for a man to bear, so Simon had slept there on the ground, under the olive trees.

But now he was awakened by the Lord’s voice: “Rise, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” And here they were, a band of armed men already on the scene. Simon leapt up, holding a sword that he had brought along to make good his promise of loyalty in the face of danger. He recognized Judas Iscariot, who came forward and kissed the hand of his rabbi. Just what was this all about?

The response of Jesus explained it all: “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”

Simon waited no further. In the reflected glare of the torches, Malchus saw the flashing sword coming at him swiftly from the right—apparently a back-hand swing aimed at his throat—and he ducked to his left to avoid decapitation. Even so, the blow glanced along his helmet, so that his right ear was partly severed by the tip of the blade. As for Peter, he reluctantly followed the Jesus’ directive to put away the sword. This was the last time Peter was to show much courage that night.

In Mark’s account, there is yet another witness to the event:

Now a certain young man followed him, having a linen cloth thrown around his naked body. And the young men laid hold of him, and he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked (Mark 14:51–52).

There is considerable merit in the view that that young man was the author of this gospel, Mark himself. Not much older than a boy at the time, Mark was the son of a woman named Mary, in whose home the earliest Christians in Jerusalem were accustomed to meet for their common worship (Acts 12:12).

Wednesday, August 17

Psalm 128 (Greek and Latin 127): There are passages in the Gospels which, were they to be interpreted in isolation, would seem to suggest a relatively unenthusiastic, or at least very qualified, view of marriage and the family. In St. Luke’s Gospel we are warned, for example, that marriage itself may prove to be an impediment to one’s entry into the Kingdom (14:20). Another passage in Luke speaks about leaving one’s father and mother, and even one’s wife, for the sake of the Kingdom of God (18:29), hardly a strong endorsement of the family. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, there is a recommendation about making oneself a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom (19:12). While this expression is to be understood as a metaphor, it still does not reflect especially well on the married state. After all, eunuchs tend not to be solid family types.

Moreover, in St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, the high level of eschatological expectancy among the early Christians was the context in which he argued for the preference of celibacy over the state of marriage (7:25–38). Perhaps more than one reader of the New Testament over the centuries has felt obliged to ask if it really has anything encouraging to say about marriage except for its symbolic, sacramental application (cf. Eph. 5:32).

We should not reach any hasty conclusions on the basis solely of the foregoing evidence, however. On the contrary, the New Testament indicates in a number of places that the experience of the Church is very much joined to the experience of the household. Indeed, entire households adopted the Christian faith of the heads of the household, as in the cases of a centurion at Capernaum (John 4:53), another centurion at Caesarea (Acts 11:14), a businesswoman and a jailer at Philippi (Acts 16:15, 31), and a synagogue leader at Corinth (Acts 18:8).

It was in such “core families,” doubtless, that the great majority of the second, or at least the third, and later generations of Christians were born. That is to say, in spite of the many obvious exceptions, whether because of monastic dedication or the plain circumstance that a person has remained single, for most Christians the Gospel life has meant being a member of a Christian household. In other words, most Christians have been sanctified—made holy—through the varied relationships and obligations established by the sacrament of marriage and the begetting of children.

In this connection, the theme of the believer’s family, so prominent in Psalm 127, is even more dominant in Psalm 128. This psalm, which begins with a beatitude and ends with a blessing, is modest in its hopes. It does not wish for wealth, or power, or prestige. There is nothing here about “getting ahead.” The psalm speaks, rather, of eating the fruits of one’s own labors (in idiom, literally, the labors of one’s fruits). It is not a wish for easy money, but for such resources as come from hard employment. Indeed, the word used here is not the usual one designating work; it is, rather, the plural form of ponos, which means labor in the sense of very arduous tasks, even pain. In fact, in most versions of Revelation 16:10 and 21:4, ponos is translated as “sorrow.” Once again, as in the previous psalm, the image evoked here is that of the fallen Adam, bending over his hoe to deal with the uncooperative soil. Yes, this is the blessing of our psalm, the simple joy of maintaining one’s own life, even at subsistence level.

And also the life of one’s family. A man’s wife and his children are blessings from God, here described with the metaphors of fruitful plants. The blessing of this psalm is the happiness found in the life of work and the circle of the family, all the way to old age and the vision of grandchildren. God, says our psalm, blesses His reverent (“all who fear the Lord”) and obedient (“those who walk in His ways”) servants with these benedictions. Such things pertain to the peace of Jerusalem. Thursday, August 18 Mark 14:66-72: Among the Savior’s deepest disappointments, even during the course of his trial before the Sanhedrin, was Simon Peter’s threefold denial of even knowing him. Peter’s prominence and leadership among the disciples rendered this denial especially painful.

Unlike Peter’s attempt to walk on water—recorded only in Matthew (14:28-32)—his denials of Jesus are chronicled in all four Gospel accounts. Essentially the same in outline, the four versions of the story differ in certain details, some subtle, some indicating perspectives peculiar to an individual evangelist.

Only John, for example, breaks up the sequence of the denials, mixing them into other features of the Passion account instead of telling them all at once. Thus, after Peter’s first denial (John 18:17), the narrator leaves Peter and returns to Jesus’ interrogation by Annas (18:19-23). Then, when Jesus is sent to Caiaphas (18:24), the narrator goes back to Peter and continues with the next two denials.

Mark, for his part, is alone among the evangelists by including the detail that the rooster crowed twice (Mark 14:30, 68, 72). In fact, the first and second cockcrows refer to two different times during the night, hours apart, the second one around dawn. This is Mark’s way of making the same point as John: Peter’s was not a momentary lapse, but a sustained and repeated offense.

Surrounded by a crowd, Peter denies the allegation in a voice loud enough to be heard by everybody. The more Peter protests his unfamiliarity with Jesus, the more occasions he provides for the bystanders to detect the Galilean inflections in his speech: “Surely you also are one of them, for your speech betrays you.” Thus, Peter is driven to greater desperation and begins completely to lose control.

The evidence of this breakdown is found in Peter’s recourse to an oath in the second denial and to a curse in the third: “But again he denied with an oath, ‘I do not know the man!’ . . . Then he began to curse and swear, ‘I do not know the man!’ Immediately after Peter’s third denial, the rooster crows, prompting the Apostle to remember what Jesus predicted. He remembers, leaves the place, and breaks into tears, now aware that he has added his own failure to the tragedy of the night: “So he went out and wept bitterly.”

Friday, August 19

Mark 15:1-15: In handing Jesus over to the authority of the Gentiles, the Jewish leaders were explicitly rejecting Jesus and His messianic claims. In due course, the Jewish people as such, represented in the crowd that gathered before Pilate, consents to that rejection. That action in Pilate’s presence was a decisive turning point in salvation history. It represented what St. Paul described as the cutting off of branches from the ancient tree of Israel (Romans 11:16-24).

Even from a secular view of Jewish history, moreover, that repudiation of Jesus was decisive. From that hour, the history of the Jewish people took a different and profoundly altered direction. Even though theology insists that the Jews have never ceased to be God’s people (Romans 9:11), the historical condition of their calling was changed beyond anything imaginable prior to that time. Within the space of a few years the Jews lost their temple and the worship associated with that temple. That loss, which would have bewildered all the prophets and sages of the Hebrew Bible, has now lasted almost two millennia.

The altered state of the Jewish religion became a major theological problem for the early Christians, who saw in it a fulfillment of the sixth chapter of Isaiah. That problem prompted St. Paul to regard the structure of salvation history as dialectical, as we see in Romans 9—11.

Pilate’s first question to Jesus, according to all four Evangelists, was “Are You the King of the Jews?” According to the three Synoptics, Jesus’ answer is positive but ironical. He does not say “no,” but He avoids saying “yes.” There is a reason for this: Pilate saw in the title, “King of the Jews,” only a political meaning, and this presupposition determined the meaning of the question. This presupposition is clearer in Luke, where Jesus’ Jewish accusers fill in the political meaning of “King of the Jews” (23:2).

Jesus could not answer with a straight “yes,” because the very presupposition of the question was wrong. In fact, the answer of Jesus was something closer to “Prove it,” an answer that preserves His right to remain silent. He knows, after all, that there is no evidence on which he can be charged with leading a political movement. Indeed, all through His ministry the Lord has endeavored to quell the political impulses of His followers.