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 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.”

Saturday, September 3

Joshua 22: After wandering in the Sinai and Negev deserts for most of a generation, the people of Israel had now arrived at a place called Shittim, just east of the Jordan River and only about ten miles from Jericho. Then came a new crisis.

It was a moral crisis, involving some Israelite men of slack discipline with certain Moabite women of relaxed virtue. Fornication was the problem, that term understood both literally and in the figurative sense of their falling prey to the idolatrous worship of the Moabite god, Baal of Peor (Numbers 25:1-3).

The seduction of these Israelites, moreover, was not a mere boy-meets-girl happenstance. It resulted, rather, from a deliberate machination on the part of the Moabites, plotting to weaken the military resolve and moral will of the Israelites. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the scheme had been concocted in the mind of the religious philosopher Balaam, who was at that time in the service of the Moabite king (cf. Revelation 2:14).

Seeing it happen, the young priest Phineas discerned the peril of the hour, for an earlier experience had taught him the hazards of moral compromise. If he was sure of anything at all, Phineas was certain that God’s punishment of sin was invariably decisive and might very well be swift.

Phineas had been hardly more than a child when he saw the divine retribution visited on two of his priestly uncles, Nadab and Abihu, for a single offense in the service of God. Nor had those been insignificant men who were thus punished. On the contrary, Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron and his heirs in the priesthood, were men of stature and respect among the people. They had accompanied Moses, their very uncle, as he began his climb of Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:1), and had partly shared in his vision of the divine glory (24:9-10). Nonetheless, Nadab and Abihu had been instantly struck dead, devoured by a fire from the divine presence for just one moral lapse (Leviticus 10:1-3). The memory of that swift retribution had seared itself into the memory of young Phineas. He knew by experience that Israel’s Lord was a morally serious God, not some feather of a deity to be brushed away at one’s convenience.

At the time of the Moabite crisis, then, the reaction of Phineas was utterly decisive and equally swift. Responding to the Lord’s decree to punish the offenders (Numbers 25:4-6), he resolutely took the matter in hand and thus put an end to the divine wrath already plaguing the people (25:7-15). For his part in averting the evil, Phineas came to enjoy great respect in Israel. Not long afterwards, for instance, he was the priest chosen to accompany the army advancing against the Midianites (Numbers 31:6). After the Conquest, Phineas inherited land among the Ephraemites (cf. Joshua 24:33) and continued to be consulted by Israel, especially in times of crisis (cf. Judges 20:28). He would be remembered throughout the rest of biblical history, furthermore, as the very model of zeal in God’s service (cf. Psalms 105 [106]:30; 1 Chronicles 9:20; Sirach 45:23).

If we knew only of Phineas's decisive action at the time of the Moabite trouble, it might be easy to think of him solely as an energetic, resolute, executive sort of man, but this would be an incomplete perspective. Phineas was also a thoughtful person, able to consider a delicate question in its fully nuanced complexities.

This latter trait of his character was revealed in the crisis later created by the construction of an altar to the east of the Jordan River by the Israelites who lived in that region (Joshua 22:10). Regarded as a rival altar outside of the strict confines of the Holy Land, this construction proved so provocative to the rest of Israel that there arose the real danger of civil war (22:12). Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and the decision was made to establish an eleven-member committee of inquiry to investigate the matter. Phineas was the head of that committee (22:13-14).

Probing into the construction of that altar, Phineas’s committee concluded that it was not intended to be used as such, but would serve merely as a monument to remind all the Israelites of their solidarity in the worship of their one God. Civil war was thus averted, and Phineas, once so swift unto bloodshed, was thus in large measure responsible for preventing it (22:21-34).

Sunday, September 4

Luke 5:17-26: In all three Synoptic Gospels, the healing of the paralytic (Matthew 9:1–8; Mark 2:1–12; Luke 5:17–26) is followed immediately by the calling of the tax collector and the Lord’s eating with sinners (Matthew 9:9–13; Mark 2:13–17; Luke 5:27–32).

This common sequence of the two narratives probably reflects an early preaching pattern, explained by the fact that both stories deal with the same theme: Jesus’ relationship to sin and sinners. The paralytic was healed, after all, “that you may know that the Son of Man has power [authority] on earth to forgive sins,” and the point of the second story is that “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Thus, the most significant thing about the paralytic is not his paralysis, but his “sins,” so this is what Jesus addresses first. Indeed, even when He heals the paralysis, Jesus does so in order to demonstrate His authority over the man’s sins. In what He does in this scene, then, Jesus inserts Himself between God and the man, speaking to the man with God’s authority. It is not without significance that all three versions of the story also include the detail that Jesus could, like God, read His accusers’ inner thoughts.

In each of the three Synoptic Gospels, moreover, the Lord’s claim to authority over sin here becomes the first occasion on which His enemies accuse Him of blasphemy. This is significant, too, because at His judicial process before the Sanhedrin, blasphemy will be the crime of which He is accused. In a sense, then, Jesus’ trial begins with His healing of the paralytic, because even His enemies recognize this scene as the occasion on which He forcefully claims divine authority.

This more dramatic aspect of the account is perhaps clearest in the versions of Mark and Luke, where it is the first of five conflict stories that cast an ominous cloud over Jesus’ activity through the rest of those Gospels (Mark 2:1—3:5; Luke 5:17—6:11).

In all three Synoptic Gospels, the paralytic becomes the “type” of the sinner. He is helpless, carried by others because he cannot carry himself. He is utterly in need of mercy above all things. Indeed, even his forgiveness and his cure are not credited to his own faith. All three accounts mention that the Lord sees the faith, not of the paralytic, but of the men who support him.

Monday, September 5

Luke 5:17-32: It is much more significant, however, that all three Synoptic Gospels treat the call of the tax collector as a centerpiece bracketed between two stories about sinners: the paralytic being forgiven his sins and Jesus having dinner with notorious sinners. Thus set between these two events, the call of the tax collector represents above all the evangelical summons to repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

The dialogue connected with the meal at his house illustrates this meaning of the tax collector’s call. Jesus, criticized for his association with sinners on this occasion, explains that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” In thus addressing sin through the metaphor of sickness, the Lord strikes again the note recently sounded by His healing the paralytic as proof of His authority to forgive the man’s sins.

Furthermore, summoning sinners to repentance and salvation is not just one of the things Jesus happens to do. There is a sense in which this is the defining thing that Jesus does, the very reason He came into this world. This truth is affirmed at the meal at the tax collector’s house, where He proclaims, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Luke 5:32; cf. Matthew 9:13; Mark 2:17). Again, it is in the context of the call of yet another tax collector, Zacchaeus, that Jesus says, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Christ can call sinners, only because He can really do something about their sins. And He can forgive their sins precisely because He has paid the price of those sins. Therefore, Jesus’ forgiveness of sins is theologically inseparable from His dying for sinners. Correct repentance, then, brings the sinner to the foot of the Cross.

As the initial effect of grace, repentance is not of an order different from holiness. This needs emphatically to be said, because a fallacious theory that God’s act by which we are justified remains external to us. This theory effectively separates repentance from holiness—as though God would declare a man righteous without actually making him righteous, pronounce him to be just without causing him to be a “saint,” and convert him but without giving him a new heart. Against this theory, the Bible indicates that the conversion of repentance is not just an act of God; it is also an act of man’s free will under the accepted influence of God’s grace. Man’s heart, his interior, is altered by repentance.

Tuesday, September 6

Luke 5:33-39: Whereas the Lord’s enemies had earlier complained of His eating with sinners, in this story they are bothered by the fact that His disciples are failing to keep the Jewish weekly fast days.

In response, Jesus does not denigrate the importance of fasting but directs the structure of the fasting observance to His own person, explaining that His presence with the disciples is sufficient warrant for their not observing the fast. Then, aware what His enemies are even now plotting against Him, He foretells His coming death, “when the Bridegroom will be taken away.” Then, says Jesus, fasting will be appropriate. “They will fast in those days.” The absolution of the apostles from the duty of fasting pertained only to the period prior to the Lord's Passion.

Christians are given no discretion on whether or not to fast. It is when you fast, not if you fast, and the early Christian would have been astounded at any notion that fasting was not required of him. Indeed, the Christian was certain he was expected to fast no less frequently than did the devout Jew.

The Jew at that time, as we know, fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. These two days, equally distant from the Sabbath, marked the first and last days of the forty-days fast of Moses on Mount Sinai. The twice weekly fast, therefore, served to honor the Torah, on which all of Jewish piety was based.

The early Christians, on the other hand, not to be mistaken for Jews, but certainly determined to fast no less often, the changed those days to Wednesday, the day the Lord was sold for thirty pieces of silver, and Friday, the day that the Bridegroom was taken away. This discipline was common and in place well before the year 100 and possibly several decades earlier. Unlike the weekly fast days of the Jews, therefore, the two Christian fast days were concentrated on the Passion and Death of Christ. Their observance was a way of honoring the mystery of the Cross.

Psalm 45 (Greek and Latin 44): In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus refers to himself as the Bridegroom. This image of the Messiah comes from several places in the Hebrew Scriptures, among which Psalm 5 (assigned for Morning Prayer today) is notable.

This psalm anticipates and descriptively foretells that future royal wedding. Its lines describe the “bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 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.

Wednesday, September 7

Luke 6:1-11: Walking with Jesus through a field of standing grain on a Sabbath day, the disciples reach out and pick ripe kernels from the stalks that have grown up to about the level of their hands. They rub the kernels between their fingers to remove the residual chaff and begin eating them. Most of us would probably not think of such activity as “harvesting a crop,” but to the scrupulous, supercilious minds of Jesus’ enemies it amounts to nothing less than a violation of the Sabbath by “laboring.” As in the previous story Jesus assessed the value of fasting solely in terms of His own identity (“Bridegroom”), in the present account He does the same with respect to the Sabbath (“Lord of the Sabbath”). In both cases He is once again teaching “as one having authority.”

Each of these recent conflict stories is reducible to a Christological content; each serves to illustrate some property or aspect of Jesus’ identity. Through them all the animosity of the Lord’s enemies is mounting, as the self-assured claims of Jesus progressively challenge the religious hold of His opponents. They feel threatened for much the same reasons that the demons feel threatened. Furthermore, it may even appear that the Lord is “rubbing it in”; a distinct measure of sarcasm attends His question to the scribal authorities, “Have you never read . . .?”

In all His dealings with these men, we never find Jesus conciliatory or even subtle; He is invariably blunt and uncompromising. After all, He reads their hearts.

The second story in today’s reading from Luke 6 records the incident most exasperating to Jesus’ enemies. Now that He already declared Himself “Lord of the Sabbath,” they are watching Him closely as He enters the synagogue. In the earlier narrative of Jesus in the synagogue on the Sabbath, there had been a very dramatic expulsion of demonic forces from a possessed man. On that occasion, however, no one had thought to raise an objection to any alleged violation of the Sabbath. Perhaps everyone had simply been too astounded even to consider the question.

All is different now. Jesus has already asserted His supreme authority, not only in regard to the Jewish calendar (fast days and the Sabbath), but even to sin itself. In this story everything has to do with Jesus’ authority. His enemies have come to accuse Him. But in the end it is Jesus who does the accusing, and with manifest anger. He heals the man with the withered hand, but without any outward word or gesture. That is to say, He cannot be accused of violating the Sabbath! The crippled man simply extends his hand and is instantly healed. Although Jesus gives them no evidence by which they can accuse Him, the critics are not deterred. They promptly conspire to kill Him.

Thursday, September 8

Judges 3: This chapter recounts the exploits of Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar. That of Ehud is arguably the most unforgettable among them. The present story is certainly one of the most violent, dramatic, and memorable narratives in all of Holy Scripture. Ehud was the Benjaminite leader charged to carry Israel’s tribute to Moab’s big, fat king, Eglon, under whom Israel was oppressed for eighteen years.

Raised up by God, Ehud resolved to set the Israelites free, and Judges 3 tells how he did it. His first step was to procure what the King James Bible calls a “dagger.” This blade, however, specifically identified as double-edged, was longer than most daggers; its length was a cubit, the distance between a man’s elbow and the tip of his little finger. Ehud concealed this cumbersome weapon under his clothing, attached along his right thigh, for he was, you see, a left-handed man. (This detail is ironic, because Ehud belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, a name meaning “son of my right hand.”) Why, then, a weapon so large and therefore easier to detect? Ehud had a plan.

After dismissing his delegation, which had delivered the annual tribute to the Moabites, Ehud asked to speak to Eglon in private, mentioning that he had a message from God for the king. The private message from God is, of course, “die, fool!”

Eglon suspected nothing amiss; after all, the tribute had just been paid, and Ehud’s retinue had been sent away, nor did the man appear to be armed. The unsuspecting Eglon, therefore, took his visitor to the privacy of a cool apartment on his roof. When they were alone, Ehud’s left hand quickly reached under the garment covering his right leg and drew forth the long twin-edged blade.

Suddenly, as hard as he could, he rammed it into the immense stomach of Eglon. He drove the point so forcefully that the entire length of the blade became buried in Eglon’s copious flesh. Indeed, the king’s flab oozed out around the haft and covered it, so that the weapon could not be extracted.

Then, taking the king’s key and locking the door to the apartment, Ehud went out to rally the troops that he had placed on the road to Moab. Eglon’s astonished courtiers had barely discovered his corpse when Ehud returned with an army and took the Moabites by surprise at the fords of the Jordan. There he “killed about ten thousand men of Moab, all stout men of valor; not a man escaped” (Judges 3:29). Thus did Ehud deliver Israel from the oppressor.

Whom does Ehud represent? Surely, Christ our Savior, from whose mouth issues the sharp, two-edged sword of His holy Word (Revelation 19:15), in whose hand are the keys that lock so that no man may open (20:1; 3:7), whose forces are rallied at the Baptismal fords of the Jordan, and whose Israelites are delivered from their oppressor.

Friday, September 9

Judges 4: The story of Deborah is chiefly preoccupied with two themes: soteriology and the moral life.

First, soteriology. The Deborah story is mainly an account of God’s deliverance of Israel from her oppressing enemies (“And the LORD routed Sisera”—Judges 4:15), and it stands within a lengthy series of such stories united mainly by this common theme. Indeed, if the several traditions within Judges, drawn from quite diverse local settings and tribal traditions, are joined by any element beyond mere chronology, the motif of God’s deliverance is certainly that element. The Book of Judges is essentially a detailed account of God’s repeated deliverance of His people through the agency of charismatic figures prior to the rise of the monarchy. The key to understanding Deborah, surely, is through that general consideration.

With regard to the theme of the moral life, on the other hand, one readily admits that this consideration is of far less importance to the purposes of the Book of Judges. Truly, if the inculcating of moral example ranked very high among those purposes, it would be difficult to explain how some of the juicier stories in Judges ever managed to find their place at all!

In the Deborah account, nonetheless, such a moral interest is certainly present, at least in a minor key, and it is to be discovered chiefly in the accented contrast between Deborah and the timid Barak.

Thus, St. Jerome observed that, if Barak had been a brave and decisive man to begin with, Deborah’s intervention in the battle with Sisera would not have been necessary. Jerome went on to compare her to Mary Magdalene, whom the Gospels likewise show to have been a courageous woman at the time of the Lord’s death and burial, in conspicuous contrast to the intimidated, bewildered, and discouraged Apostles.

Luke 6:20-26: Luke’s list of the dominical Beatitudes is marked by the way they are contrasted to a list of “woes.” This style is very common in Luke, whose message is so often conveyed through contrast: the two thieves on Calvary, the rich man and Lazarus, the Pharisee and the Publican praying in the Temple, the Good Samaritan and Israel’s two priestly leaders, the two servants who await their master’s return, the two sons, and so forth.