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, consent 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.
Saturday, August 20
Mark 15:16-32: Although we know on the authority of Plutarch that every criminal condemned to crucifixion by a Roman court was obliged to carry his own cross to the place of execution, those soldiers charged with crucifying Jesus evidently believed that His weakened state would not permit him to do so. Consequently, they obliged a “certain man . . . passing by” to carry Jesus’ cross to the place of crucifixion. That man was returning to the city “from the country,” perhaps for his midday repast. His name was Simon of Cyrene.
A descendant of certain Jews who had settled on the north coast of Africa (in modern Libya) about 300 BC, Simon doubtless belonged to that synagogue in Jerusalem particularly frequented by Cyrenian Jews who had moved back to the Holy Land (Acts 6:9). These were among the Jews responsible for the stoning of Stephen.
Bearing the cross of Jesus was not Simon’s idea. He was “compelled.” We are surely right, however, in thinking that the event proved to be a moment of providential grace for Simon, because he certainly became a Christian. Indeed, about forty years after the event, Mark mentioned him as the father of two Christians well known to the Roman church for whom he was writing: “Then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear His cross.”
Simon’s family was cherished by the Apostle Paul, who evidently had known them a generation earlier at Jerusalem. Some of them were living in Rome when Mark and Paul wrote. Very early in 58, about seven years before Mark’s Gospel was written, Paul sent Rufus and his mother greetings in Rome: “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine” (Romans 16:13).
Joshua 8: Although the Lord had delivered Jericho to Israel’s armies in a miraculous fashion, this seems not to have been the case with the city of Ai. The present chapter describes the fall of Ai, rather, in terms of regular military tactics. That is to say, it is sometimes the case that the Lord—to demonstrate the sovereignty of His grace—uses extraordinary and unexpected means to accomplish His purposes. At other times, He acts through means that are more obviously human. The present chapter illustrates such an instance.
Sunday, August 21
Mark 15:33-41: The anguished cry of the Savior on the Cross has been variously interpreted. In particular, there has arisen, in recent times, the notion that God the Father actually did forsake His Son hanging on the Cross. Jesus’ abandonment by his Father—his experience of damnation—is sometimes understood, indeed, to be the very price of salvation.
This theory is to be interpreted with a certain measure of caution, I believe. I suggest that the following points should be considered with respect to this caution:
First, the Christian faith firmly holds—as a doctrine not subject to contradiction—that the true God never abandons those who call upon Him in faith.
Second, whatever Jesus’ experience was—as expressed in this cry—it was still an experience. That is to say, it was existential; it pertained to Jesus’ existence, not his being, or essence. In being, or essence, Jesus remained God’s eternal and beloved Son. Consequently, it was not possible that his cry of dereliction declared, as a fact, that God had abandoned him.
For those who follow the doctrinal guidance of Ephesus and Chalcedon, it was not possible for God the Father to forsake His Son in any real—factual—sense, because the Father and the Son are of “one being” (homoousios). The godhead is indivisible.
Therefore, Jesus’ cry conveyed, not an objective, reified condition of his, but, rather, his human experience of distance from God. The abandonment was psychological, not ontological.
God does not abandon His friends and loyal servants—much less His Son. Nonetheless, it often happens that God’s friends and servants feel abandoned, and they feel it very keenly. And when they do, they often enough have recourse to the Book of Psalms . . . . as Jesus does in the present case.
When the Savior expressed this painful experience in prayer, the opening line of Psalm 22 arose to his lips—in Hebrew, ’Eli, ’Eli, lamah ‘azavtani—“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” He could hardly have prayed this line of the Psalter unless he knew the Father was still “my God.”
In making this prayer his own, Jesus was hardly expressing a sentiment unique to himself. He was, rather, identifying himself with every human being who has ever felt alienated from God, abandoned by God, estranged from God. Perhaps this prayer best expresses what we mean when we speak of “the days of his flesh” (Hebrews 5:7). It was in this deep sense of dereliction that we perceive, most truly, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:14).
Monday, August 22
Joshua 10: This chapter, in which attention is directed to the southern campaign of Joshua’s invasion, begins with an alliance formed to resist that invasion. This alliance, alarmed at the capitulation of the Gibeonites, recorded in the previous chapter, determines to attack Gibeon itself rather than Joshua’s invading force (verse 4). This procedure made military sense. If the alliance could punish the Gibeonites for their treaty with Joshua, it was reasoned, other Canaanite cities would think twice about following suit. If the attack on Gibeon proved successful, other cities would be disposed, rather, to join the coalition against Joshua.
This alliance of five Canaanite city-states, under the leadership of Jerusalem, had another reason for conquering Gibeon as a way of resisting Joshua’s advance. In fact, this second reason rendered the control of Gibeon imperative to the resistance—namely, Gibeon’s strategic position guarding the route through the Ajalon Valley—a route that would enable Joshua to divide and isolate the southern cities. After Joshua’s defeat of the alliance, his campaign pursued its remnant forces southward through that valley (verses 10-13).
Understanding the political situation throughout Canaan, Joshua resolves to make an example of the five kings involved in the alliance (verses 16-27). His ruthless tactics were extended to the citizens of Makkedah (verse 28), Libnah (verse 30), Lachish (verse 32), and elsewhere (verse 39). We may want to bear in mind that these descriptions are common in the language of battle, where they bear what we may call a “poetic sense.” That is to say, if ALL the citizens of all of these cities really did perish under Joshua’s sword, we readers of Holy Scripture will be hard pressed to explain why they continued to pose problems for Israel in the very near future.
Mark 15:42-47: This elaborate burial arrangement suggests that Joseph of Arimathea was a man of some means. Indeed, Matthew explicitly records that he was rich. This detail is, furthermore, of theological significance, because God’s Suffering Servant, according to prophecy, was to be buried “with the rich” (Isaiah 53:9).
Tuesday, August 23
Mark 16:1-8: Among the figures with whom Christians gather round the empty Tomb, there is a special prominence pertaining to the Myrrhbearers, those women disciples who shouldered their newly purchased spices and came to anoint the body of Jesus. They formed the first “women’s guild” of the Church, one might say, and they had just done duty a couple of days earlier at the foot of the Cross.
Excluded from the public “official list” of the Resurrection eyewitnesses (preserved in 1 Corinthians 15:5–8), these women are, nonetheless, featured with distinction in the narratives of Pascha morning in all four canonical Gospels. Only a few of them we know by name: Mary Magdalene, “the other Mary” (manifestly a kinswoman of the Mother of Jesus, because she is “the mother of James and Joses”—Matthew 27:56; 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10), Salome (Zebedee’s wife), Joanna.
Prominent in the midst of the Church, then, are those Myrrhbearers who came that morning loaded down with their spices and without the foggiest idea how they were going to enter a sealed tomb guarded by a massive stone. What an exercise in inefficiency, lack of cost analysis, and failure in planning. As it turned out, they could not even find a body to anoint. All that myrrh, just going to waste.
Joshua 11: This is the sort of story that causes many modern people to wince and squirm—so much violence!
Well, this is true, but let me mention why such texts do not bother me. I liken these darker parts of the Hebrew Scriptures to shadows cast on the earth by the earliest appearance of the light. The Latin Psalter says to the Lord, "Thou hast crafted the dawning and the sun"—Tu fabricatus es auroram et solem (Psalm 73:16). We observe the order: Dawn-then-sun. Strictly speaking there could be no dawn unless the sun already existed. The Psalmist's sequence of dawn-then-sun describes how things appear, not how they exist. The early light comes to us on a curve and then an angle. The daylight is presented to us in stages, the full sun itself being the final stage.
The angularity of the early morning light seems to hurl long lines of darkness on the earth. This is only an impression, nonetheless. What sort of logic would blame the light for the shadows? Who among us does not recognize that the shadows were already there, long before the light appeared? Indeed, it is the gradually emerging light that reveals the dark places. These shadows, they shorten, bit-by-bit, and they will vanish in the fullness of time, when the sun increases to full strength.
I am no more offended, then, by the darker parts of the Bible than by the shades thrown forward by the slanting daylight. To me, the dark recesses of the Book of Joshua resemble the somber drama of the Grand Canyon, as myriad silhouettes take shape down its walls, just before the sunrise.
Wednesday, August 24
Mark 16:9-20: Today we finish our annual reading of the Gospel according to Mark.
Because these final verses of the canonical text of Mark are found neither in the more reliable manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) nor in other ancient versions (Armenian, Georgian, etc.), it is reasonably conjectured that we have received them from someone later than Mark himself. It would appear that they were added by a copyist who felt that Mark 16:8 was too abrupt an ending, so he added these post-Resurrection appearances in order to make the ending of Mark more closely resemble the endings of the other gospels.
In fact, the components of this material are largely drawn from those sources: The story of Mary Magdalene (verses 9-11) is drawn from John and Luke; the account of the two journeying disciples (verses 12-13) is taken from Luke; the Great Commission (verses 14-18) is adapted from Matthew, Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles; and the Lord’s Ascension comes from Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.
These considerations, however, have to do solely with literary history, not theology. They impugn neither the divine inspiration nor the canonical authority of Mark 16:9-20, inasmuch as the Church has received this text as Holy Scripture.
Joshua 12: This chapter interrupts the biblical narrative in order to summarize Israel’s military achievements up to the present point. This summary, which begins with scenes from the Pentateuch, links the victories of Joshua with those of an earlier period. If we recall the importance of Joshua in Moses’ own army, we understand why that earlier material is included in the present summary.
Thursday, August 25
Luke 3:1-6: According to the chronology suggested in the earliest apostolic preaching (Acts 1:22), the most ancient accounts of Jesus’ public life began with the story of his baptism, perhaps two months or so before the miraculous sign at Cana.
Unlike the accounts of his childhood in Matthew and Luke, the story of Jesus’ baptism was part of the earliest apostolic preaching. We are certain of this, because that preaching was based on a defined narrative structure, which invariably began with John the Baptist.
We discern that established structure and sequence in the preaching patterns in the Acts of the Apostles. Thus, when the Apostle Peter began to evangelize Cornelius and his friends at Caesarea, he commenced his story by speaking of the ministry of John the Baptist:
That word you know, which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power (Acts 10:36-37).
The same starting point of Jesus’ ministry is discerned in the Apostle Paul's evangelization of Pisidian Antioch. To tell his audience of Jesus, Paul began by linking Him directly to the ministry of John:
God raised up for Israel a Savior—Jesus—after John had first preached, before his coming, the baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel (Acts 13:23-24).
In short, the "evangelical narrative"—the narrative form in which the apostles first proclaimed the Gospel—embraced the events of Jesus’ life, beginning with the baptism by John the Baptist. Now this is exactly what we should expect, from the earlier directive Peter gave to the assembled Apostles prior to the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit. When they determined, at that time, to choose some person to take the place of Judas Iscariot to fill up the number of the Twelve Witnesses, Peter specified the time period concerning which the chosen person would have to bear witness. He must be selected, said Peter, from among
these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism by John to the day that he was taken up from us (Acts 1:21-22 emphasis added).
That period of time, beginning with John's ministry, defined the specified limits of the original apostolic narrative, the primitive story structure of the Gospel. As we see in today’s text, the significance of John’s ministry with respect to the Gospel prompted Luke to introduce the Baptist’s appearance with considerable solemnity, fixing its setting within general history.
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).
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.